A brief history of Karate:
Prior to 1879 Okinawa was the capital island of the country of Ryukyu which was a tributary state of both China and Japan. Being a tributary state of China allowed the residents of Okinawa to engage in trade with people in mainland China. The nearest point of entry into China from the island of Okinawa is China’s Fujian province. Okinawa is almost exactly the same distance from China as it is from Japan. Although China and Japan have had numerous wars with each other Okinawa was seen as a middle ground between China and Japan. Because of this the Japanese were able to do trade with China by trading with the country of Ryukyu through their capital island of Okinawa.
In the late 1700’s an Okinawan man named Sakugawa Kanga (佐久川寛賀) went to China’s Fujian province for trade and studied a martial art known as Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) from Master Xiāng Jūn (相君 Sō Kun). He brought back to Okinawa his Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) and began teaching in 1805. His nickname was Chinese Hand Sakugawa (唐手佐久川 Karate Sakugawa). His nickname “Chinese Hand (唐手)” is pronounced as Karate in the Okinawan language. Because of this the Okinawan martial arts which trace their lineage back to him are known as Karate out of respect for Sakugawa Kanga (佐久川寛賀). Over the years and through successive generations his Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) began to change and undergo new development.
In the 1870’s Japan and China attempted to divide the islands of the Country of Ryukyu between each other and leave the central island of Okinawa as the independent country of Ryukyu. This failed and Japan seized control of all of Ryukyu’s islands by 1879 which greatly angered the Qing government of China.
Karate was often taught in secret and because of this and Japan’s new control over Okinawa it almost came to extinction. In an effort to save these teachings a grand-student of Sakugawa Kanga (佐久川寛賀) named Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒) began teaching the art in the Okinawan school system in 1901.
In 1905 Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒) created what is now known as modern day Karate which he taught in Okinawa’s Prefectural first junior high school (now Okinawa Prefectural Shuri High School). Because of the efforts of Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒) spreading modern Karate in the school systems the style became widespread throughout the rest of Japan and flourished. While Itosu Ankō’s (糸洲安恒) new martial art has its roots in China’s Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) he developed it into something uniquely his own. In order for his martial art to flourish after Japan’s World War 2 invasion of China in 1931 (followed by Japan’s subsequent massacres and raping of Chinese people totaling nearly 20 million deaths) the characters for the name of his style needed to change as not only had Japan conquered Ryukyu and Okinawa about 50 years prior to this time but now China itself was under Japanese invasion. On October 25 1936 in Naha City of Okinawa the name was officially changed from Chinese Hand (唐手) to Empty Hand (空手) both of which in Japanese are pronounced as Karate. Understanding the political situation at the time is important in understanding why some Japanese people did not want the political stigma of practicing and teaching Chinese martial arts (Chinese Hand (唐手)) while Japan was simultaneously invading China and murdering and raping their people.
While Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒) created his martial art in 1905 there became new branches of his art which developed their own unique systems of martial arts. To differentiate his martial arts from the other newer branches that were being developed his student Chibana Chōshin (知花朝信) began calling the style Shōrin-ryū (少林流) (Shaolin in Chinese) in 1928. The full name of the style in English is Shaolin Style Chinese Hand (少林流唐手) and is known as Shōrin-ryū Karate in the Japanese language.
Note: The usage of the name “Shaolin” in this instance was used by some people to claim a heritage of Fujian province White Crane Boxing to the extremely famous Shaolin temple in Henan province China. This false claim of a Shaolin temple heritage was partially made as an attempt to hide rebellious anti-Qing-government sentiment and was partially made because of the fame of Shaolin temple. The martial art was actually created in Fujian province and not in Shaolin temple in Henan province. It was common for rebellious members of anti-Qing government societies to say they are going to Shaolin to practice their martial art which was used as a secret code to refer to wherever their headquarters or practice area was located. The aforementioned anti-Qing sentiment was known as “Overthrow the Qing Dynasty and restore the Ming Dynasty” (反清复明 fǎn Qīng fù Míng) and was highly prominent among martial arts in Southern China as they viewed the overthrow and replacement of the Ming government by the Manchurian (满族) foreigners from the far north-east as illegitimate and infuriating.
What is known as modern day Karate was created in 1905 by Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒).
The full name of his style is known as:
Shaolin Style Chinese Hand (少林流唐手 Shōrin-ryū Karate)
Later it became known as:
Shaolin Style Empty Hand (少林流空手 Shōrin-ryū Karate)
His lineage is:
Xiāng Jūn (相君 Sō Kun)
Sakugawa Kanga (佐久川寛賀): Chinese Hand Sakugawa (唐手佐久川 Karate Sakugawa)
Matsumura Sōkon (松村宗棍)
Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒)
Because the style became known as Shaolin Style Chinese Hand (少林流唐手 Shōrin-ryū Karate) and its roots come from China’s Fujian province White Crane system sometimes people may mistake Okinawan Karate as Chinese Kung Fu. In reality the White Crane system is just one of hundreds of different systems of Chinese martial arts which are colloquially grouped together and known as Chinese Martial Arts / Chinese Kung Fu.
It is also important to mention out of respect another style of Karate that was created in 1929 that was developed from a newer branch of Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) independent of the lineage of:
Xiāng Jūn (相君 Sō Kun), Sakugawa Kanga (佐久川寛賀), Matsumura Sōkon (松村宗棍), Itosu Ankō (糸洲安恒).
This other style is known as Hard-soft style Chinese Hand (剛柔流唐手 Gōjū ryū Karate). However, the newer Whooping Crane Boxing (鸣鹤拳 míng hè quán) branch of Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳), which serves as the basis of this style, was brought to Okinawa nearly a hundred years after the older Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) was first brought to Okinawa.
The Hard-soft style Chinese Hand (剛柔流唐手 Gōjū ryū Karate) was founded by Miyagi Chōjun (宮城長順). His lineage is:
Xiè Rúrú, courtesy-name Chóngxiáng (謝如如，字崇祥) [Xiè Chóngxiáng]: (Founder of Whooping Crane Boxing 鸣鹤拳 míng hè quán)
Higaon’na Kanryō (東恩納寛量)
Miyagi Chōjun (宮城長順)
A great number of new systems of Chinese Hand (唐手 Karate) / Empty Hand (空手 Karate) were developed in Okinawa and Japan by later generations of people. However, virtually all of the newer styles of Karate can trace their lineage back to at least one of these two aforementioned lineages. Additionally, both the older Fujian White Crane Boxing (福建白鹤拳) and the newer Fujian Whooping Crane Boxing (鸣鹤拳 míng hè quán) branch still trace their lineage back to the same common ancestry.
This highly oversimplified brief summary could never do justice to the vastly complex history of Okinawan and Japanese Karate. This summary mainly serves to highlight the misunderstandings and confusion of common people about these systems of martial arts and why some people mistake Karate as Kung Fu and vice versa.