This is something that has been discussed on my Facebook page before, but I wanted to go into more depth with it. Most traditional martial arts have been dumbed down. Karate applications (Kata bunkai) were dumbed down when the Okinawans decided to introduce it into their school system in the late nineteenth century. This dumbed down version was taught to the Japanese and from there to the Koreans.
Kung Fu too has suffered. The Chinese were at first very reluctant to teach martial arts to anybody who was not full blooded Chinese. Later it was realised that it could be quite financially lucrative to do so! However, in the main they still held back a lot from Westerners. It is known that when the legendary Master Ip Man was teaching Wing Chun to Bruce Lee, he held back some of the more advanced secrets because Bruce Lee was not full blooded Chinese. If Bruce Lee was not taught the full system, what makes any Westerners think that they have been?
So moving on to the point of this post, I want to look at the end sequence of Shorin Ryu’s Kata (form/pattern), Pinan Shodan, as evidence of how Kata has been changed by people who most likely did not understand the meaning of the moves. In particular I draw your attention to the end sequence which finishes with a Downward Block (Gedan Baria) followed by an Upper Raising Block (Age Uke).
You will notice that the performer goes into a fairly a low stance for the Lower Block, but very deliberately rises up when he performs the Raising Block. Now if he was in fact actually “blocking” a punch, then it would make sense to move his head away from the punch.
It makes no sense at all to “block” a punch by pushing it upwards, as you move your head upwards at the same time. If you don’t completely clear the attacking punch, then you are moving your head right into the firing the line. In fact you probably end up with your throat in the position where the original attacking punch was aimed, which is even more dangerous.
If this so called Rising “Block” was actually an upward strike using the forearm to smash up under the chin and into the neck (which many martial artists now accept it as being), then it makes much more sense for the whole body to rise up. One of the principles of linear Karate (such as Shorin Ryu) is that the techniques are powered by the momentum of the body movement. In this case, the body momentum is clearly moving upwards and would be a great way to power an upward strike. If you look at the above video closely again, you’ll note that as the performer executes the Raising Block, he actually steps through in a relatively low stance and only rises up at the end of step as he actually executes the technique.
The other consideration (which has been discussed many times before in very many places) is why would a Kata finish with a “Block”? It means that your attacker is still able to continue attacking you. Viewing this technique as a “strike” makes more sense as you can incapacitate your attacker and the fight/assault is over.
Now fast forward Shorin Ryu as it develops into Shotokan Karate. The Downward Block and Raising Block sequence are performed at the same level without the performer raising up as he performs the Rising Block.
So why did this change?
It changed because the Japanese did not know that this technique was actually supposed to be a “strike” and it is not in their culture to question the master. If you view this technique as a “block”, then there is no advantage in rising up as you execute the technique (in fact it would be a distinct disadvantage as mentioned above). So as with many other movements within Kata, there was a lot of standardisation. The heights of the stances were standardised so that the stances all stayed the same height throughout.
Of course many styles have been derived from Shotokan, so this is very much the norm in the majority of the Karate world today. This is why I always encourage martial artists of any style to look at their Kata/patterns/forms with a questioning mind. Also, don’t get hooked into looking for why your style is superior to others; instead look at other styles (especially your styles predecessors) to find out what has been changed and why.
The Japanese changed a lot of the Okinawan Katas because they did not understand the true meanings. The Koreans changed a lot of their patterns to make them “more Korean” (hide the Japanese influences). I don’t know so much about history of Kung Fu forms, but I do know some associations that train a very large number of forms yet barely scratch the surface of the applications.
Always question and always think for yourself!