Roots of Karate

Ancient civilizations and the origins of self-defense

All living creatures possess the instinct to protect themselves from their enemies. Even a small child will immediately try to protect itself by lifting its arms if repeatedly hit on the head. This involuntary reaction is an instinctive reflex of self-defense. Consequently, it is quite natural to believe that the elements that make up the art of Karate, come from this primal instinct.


Although there is no clear evidence to indicate the exact dates of when Karate-like techniques started to develope, there are clues as to the birth of the art. For example, paintings of men in Karate-like stances have been found on walls in ancient Egyptian Tombs that date back 5000 years! Another piece of evidence is contained in two small Babylonian works of art dating back to 3000 B.C. Each painting shows the characteristic of fundamental blocking techniques of Karate that are still used today! It is quite obvious to conclude that Karate-like fighting arts were practiced in ancient civilizations. Karate-like fighting arts were introduced from India through Turkey. Evidence suggests that long before the Silk Road was established, there were already cultural exchanges between India and Turkey.


But it should be emphasized that the fighting arts that were introduced to India from the west, were still quite rudimentary, and that it was really in China, where they were developed into sophisticated fighting arts. It is believed that in India, empty-handed techniques were widely used by warriors in tribal warfare way before the birth of buddhism.


In the south of India there emerged the martial art form known as "Kalarippayat". The significance of Kalarippayat is that it resembles the native Okinawan martial art known as "te" (hand).

The art "te", is said to have more than 1000 years of history. There is a theory that Kalaripayat was introduced to the island of Okinawa by sailors who traveled to the south of India in search of trade. It is believed that this Okinawan art of "te", was later united with the chinese art of "Kempo" (empty handed techniques) and gradually developed into the martial art form of "KARATE".

Posture simular to Sanseiru kata

The beginning of the chinese art "Kempo"

Bodhidharma was a well known "Zen" Buddhist monk who spent nine years at a Shaolin Temple in the Songshan mountains of China. According to legend, Bodhidharma was born in India about 1,400 years ago, the third child of King Sugandhain, and a member of the warrior caste. 


He is believed to have arrived at the foot of the Songshan mountains in Hunan Province China around 520 A.D. to lecture on Buddhism. He spent his days in meditation facing a wall of a cave which was located in the vicinity of the Temple.


After nine years of meditation, Bodhidharma set fourth methods of exercise to be practiced by the monks to strengthen both their minds and bodies. He introduced a series of physical exercise's consisting of 18 forms and 2 Sutras. In Japanese they are called"Ekkinkyo" 

(Yi jing jin) and "Senzuikyo" (Xi shui jin).


Bodhidharma expounded specialized breathing techniques to enable the body to withstand the long hours of meditation, and other severe forms of training. He explained "Senzuikyu" how monks should develop their mental and spiritual strength toward the same end.

These instructions are still respected as the most fundamental precepts of true Karate.


Some theories suggest, martial arts did not exist in China before the arrival of Bodhidharma. But it is likely that many different types of martial arts were already being practiced! (Bodhidharma has been credited for introducing the martial arts to China, but that is highly unlikely).


Evidence suggests that sophisticated fighting systems already existed in China long before the arrival Bodhidharma.  According to ancient manuscripts and drawings, about 2896 B.C.  in China during the reign of Emperor Hua'ng, the first fighting art similar to kempo appeared; and by the time of the Chou Dynasty, the principles and techniques of Kempo were already established. Subsequently, by the Sui Dynasty, 581 A.D. they were very well developed.

Emperor Hua'ng

The native art of "te' was practiced secretly among Okinawan people long before Chinese Kempo was introduced into Okinawa. The introduction of Chinese Kempo to the Ryukyu Kingdom was first mentioned on a historical document written in 1372 during the reign of King Satto. This was the time when China and the Ryukyu Kingdom began trade; and most likely the beginning of the introduction of Chinese Kempo.

When Chinese Kempo was introduced in Okinawa it was taken up as a bare handed fighting form by the Okinawans as a means for self defense, and not as an exercise for health. The development of bare handed fighting in Okinawa was directly influenced by the country's turbulent political history.

The banning of weapons by King Sho Shin in the late 15th century spurred a huge necessity for empty handed fighting techniques. Many masters of karate who have studied the history of Asian martial arts, believe that the native art of "te" was combined with the Chinese art of "Kempo" giving rise to the art of Karate.

In Okinawa, Karate is not practised as a sport. It is practised for the lifelong pursuit of conditioning both the mind, and spirit. Karate students in Okinawa spend many hours practicing Kata, as a means to achieve this goal. This type of training and attitude evolved from Okinawa's long history of foreign oppression. Okinawan's learned the importance of developing one's inner strength as a means of coping with both physical and emotional hardships. This principal, and discipline, is still an integral part of Karate training today! Karate has a history of almost 5000 years! Those of us who are committed to this art have a responsibility, both to our forebearers and successors to preserve its true essence.