Some Thoughts On Gokenki and the Transmission of His Crane on Okinawa

I will assume most of the folks reading this are familiar with Go Kenki (Wu Xianghui/呉貴賢). I have been thinking about him, his impact on today’s karate, and his possible training background lately.

Wu’s history is somewhat unclear, though his impact on the early 20th century karate world seems to have been quite extensive. Through personal relationships and especially through the Tode Kenkyukai he trained with just about all the most well known karate men of his day- Miyagi, Kyoda, Hanashiro, Yabu, Motobu, and Mabuni among others. He supposedly knew Uechi Kanbun from his time in Fuchow and it is said Uechi sent students to him in Okinawa. He knew two generations of the Matayoshi family, and Matayoshi Shinko also knew Wu’s father in Fuchow. Kata of his, or influenced by him, are officially part of To’on Ryu (Nepai), Shito Ryu (Nipaipo), Ryuei Ryu (Paiho), and less officially are a part of a variety of other systems in Okinawa. The Matayoshi family passed down an at least partial system of his, including at least 6 extant forms and 2 others that may or may not still be known. Itoman Shojo, one of Wu’s students, said he also taught a form not on the Matayoshi list, Zhongkuang, or Chukon in Japanese. Miyagi and he traveled to China together and supposedly he influenced Goju Ryu a great deal even though none of his forms were included in it. So all told a lot of contact and influence on the karate of his day.

But what did he bring to the table, as it were? It is impossible to know for sure, as no one has any clear documentation on his teachers or his system. Everyone agrees it is “White Crane”, but what white crane? It is a very good bet that he taught Ming He, 鳴鶴拳, Singing or Crying Crane, at least based on the forms he taught. Baibulien/八歩連 (Happoren), Ershiba/二十八(Nepai), and Zhongkuang/中框(Chukon) are all Ming He forms, and not to my knowledge taught together in any other system. The patterns of his Ershiba and Baibulien bear a great deal of resemblance to the extant Ming He versions, which is additional back-up for this idea. But other than that? There is very little information available, so it is hard to know.

I can’t help but wonder why? Lineages are important on Okianawa. He lived at a time when people were documenting their arts and formalizing and writing down all sorts of things. Yet we have next to nothing on Wu even though he was considered to be such an important influence on so many. I know I talk about my teachers around the dojo, on both personal and training levels. I take some pride in my lineage and have strong attachments to my teachers. So does every other martial artist I know. But there is no record from anyone he trained with of exactly who Wu’s teachers were, or even what the name of his art was. He had a few direct students, people like Anya Seisho and Itoman Shojo, but it is surprising that they never learned (or passed on) any background of the system they were practicing- what it was or who it came from. Not even the Matayoshi family, who may have learnt and kept more of his system than anyone, seem to have any idea who Wu’s teachers were besides his father, or if his art is called anything other than “Shaolin Crane Fist”.

His actual training and teaching show a similar pattern. Wu knew all the important karate people of his day. He is given credit for influencing many of them, in particular Miyagi, Kyoda, and Mabuni. But even though people talk about him a great deal, outside various versions of a form with the “crane wings” posture, a posture not really even that emblematic of Singing Crane, his actual concrete impact seems pretty limited. He had no students that continued to teach and train, with the exception of Matayoshi Shinpo who certainly didn’t work to develop Wu’s art on Okinawa. A few other people kept a form or two of his, like To’on Ryu’s Nepai (often quite modified like Shito Ryu’s Nipaipo) but they are not core parts of any extant art. There just isn’t much of his actual legacy around.

Looking at what he taught, Wu also seems to have focused on the lowest level Ming He forms. Happoren/Baibulien is the first form, their sanchin, as it were. Nepai is also a junior form. While Zhongkuang, an intermediate form, is mentioned it seems no one really learned it (at least no one who passed it down), though looking at the Ming He version some of its techniques seem possibly visible in the various Hakakku/Kakuho/ Paiho/etc, forms around the island that stem from Wu. But that is it. So if he knew higher level material he either didn’t teach it or didn’t succeed in passing it on.

But most importantly he appears to have failed to pass down the core movement principles of Ming He. None of the kata he did pass down show any sign of whipping/shaking, the base energy of Ming He. (With the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, something for a different post.) Instead, they pretty much all are done with the power generation of whichever Okinawan karate they are a part of. This doesn’t mean that Wu didn’t use this method, but it seems that no one learned it from him, they instead took what they took from Wu and applied their karate methodology to it.

Looking at this together I am led to three possible conclusions:

One, that regardless of his skill he was simply not that great a teacher and was unable to pass on much of his system, inspire anyone to become his actual student, or pass on the core mechanics of his practice.

Two, that he wasn’t that great a martial artist so that while people liked him and his ideas he didn’t have much of meat to pass on or inspire, just some ideas and information that were interesting to the community.

Or Three, that the Okinawans looked at what he had to offer and said something along the lines of “pretty cool. I like bits of that. But otherwise, meh. I’ll stick with karate thank you very much.”

These are not mutually exclusive, and of course there is no way to really know, but they all speak to me of a different relationship than we usually hear about. Instead of a “Chinese Master bringing secret crane technique to Okinawa” we have a friend. A kindred spirit perhaps. A fellow student to share with. For a couple, Uechi and Matayoshi Shinko, a training partner or associate from Fuchow. For the rest, someone with experience they did not have, and insights into “Chinese” knowledge, with all that carries in the way of cultural baggage in Okinawa. But not a teacher, a master, or a bastion of White Crane the Okinawans would value enough to adopt over what they already knew. In short, his white crane was not good enough to inspire the Okinawans to do it instead of their karate. Whether that was due to the art, his ability, or some other reason is immaterial. Simply put, regardless of how important the “White Crane” looms in Okinawan karate legend, when faced with an opportunity to simply learn and practice White Crane, the Okinawans instead stuck with their karate.

Who knows, right? Wu didn’t come to Okinawa to teach martial arts, or even as a martial artist. He came looking to work as a merchant, at around 25 years old. Maybe he wasn’t a master, or a master teacher, just a young merchant interested in the fighting arts. He had some training, and was happy to share it with an active and changing martial arts community in Okinawa, a community of highly trained people who found his ideas and experience interesting but didn’t see enough there to leave their practice to take up his. Influence, interest, exchange. Friends sharing their art, masters or not. Real people interacting and learning. Not what the story is, but seems to be backed up by what actually happened.

9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Gokenki and the Transmission of His Crane on Okinawa

  1. Excellent perspective. One could summarize that at 25 he was probably just a practitioner and did not really have the time or experience to be a good teacher. More probable that he was simply a training partner and to the majority of the Okinawan’s at the time he may have been more valuable as a translator or for Miyagi as an introduction to other teachers in China on his visits.

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      • Why, none other than Go Kenki’s happoren, nepai, and chukon. The happoren demo I saw was a spitting image of what you can find from certain Chinese YouKu videos. As for the school, it does require some detective work, but it’s not that far off the beaten track.

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      • Interesting. i would love to see and compare their Chukon to the Ming He Zhongkuang. Again, if I may ask, whose dojo are you referring to?

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      • After some 1980s-era kata collectors and future karate sales empire businessmen came calling for photo ops, the school has been rather reticent to share and compare. It will take some legwork for those who are now interested in such historical connections.

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      • Hi David, sorry to hear that. Unfortunate circumstance. Can’t say I am a huge fan of the “secret dojo” trope but if people don’t want to be contacted that is that.

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    • Hello David. Indeed, very few dojo in Okinawa are completely private, but based on a list of kata alone determining what teacher this is could be difficult, though as you note not impossible. Unfortunately, with no way to verify I am afraid it doesn’t add much to the conversation about what Wu knew, or passed on. What would? An understanding of what the lineage from Wu to this dojo was, what other sources are involved, how they teach this material, etc.. I happen to feel strongly that with the ease of confirming connections and training history that the internet and increased travel to Okinawa gives the community (I know that I can make a call or send an email to my teachers and find out someone’s history in their dojo, or that of any of their friends or associates.) the past indiscretions of some are easily prevented now and secrecy in general is, again in my opinion, unhelpful to the art and community as a whole. In any case, be well and thank you for your comments.

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