Numeric names of kata

I was asked on a forum why the suffix “te” is added to numeric kata names (such as “sanseru te”, “seisan te”, etc.). Furthermore why not the non-numeric kata names (eg. kururunfa)?

The Chinese martial arts often add "step" (“pu” or “bu”) to the name of a technique or a form in order to give it some sense. Hence "mabu" is their term for shiko/kiba dachi and it means literally "horse step" . The same goes for zenkutsu dachi (gong bu - forward step). This is to avoid the absurd labels "horse" or "forward" without any qualification. In this case "bu" or step has the same function as stance or "dachi".

They sometimes use the suffix "ji" meaning technique, but if the particular technique involves a stance or moving, "bu" or step is preferred.

In Okinawa it is traditional to add the character "te" after kata instead of "pu/bu/ji". This is a cultural tradition that distinguishes Okinawa from Fujian. The use of "te" reflects their native influence of Okinawa te/ti and is comparable to the Chinese (lesser) use of "ji".

(Note that sometimes "zhang" (palm - in bagua) or "shou" (hand - see Yong Chun's "ba shou") is used as a suffix for Chinese forms, however this is less common.)

Because the external southern arts (as distinct from the northern arts) are very stance/rooting focused (mabu/shiko and sanzhan/sanchin being the principle stances) , inevitably their forms would follow the same naming convention by adding the suffix "bu" or "steps" where a qualification is needed to an otherwise meaningless label such as "36".

As an aside, stances are so central to the southern Chinese external arts that sometimes the forms take the name of the principle stance used or vice versa. Examples might be sanchin and naihanchi/naifuanchi/naifunchin kata – where both the stance and kata have the same name (I’ll deal with the naming of these kata in separate articles).

Sometimes a number is qualified by something more elaborate (eg. Yong Chun's "san shr tai bau" meaning 13 "treasures" ) however this is an exception to early numeric naming conventions and might suggest more a modern influence.

My friend Martin Watts performs san shr tai bau - note his sanzhan stance (to download the form see

It seems to me that in the 1800s and early 1900s the Fujian people were generally quite pragmatic with their kata names (where today, forms can have quite outlandish names - eg. I can show you a Taiwanese form called "5 tigers come down from the mountain").

In my view the Chinese versions of the goju numeric kata were almost certainly named after the number of steps taken in the kata. So sanseiru had, at some point, exactly 36 steps.

The designer, being mindful of cultural superstitions, would not have settled with 35 or 37 steps, but would have modified it until it was a "lucky" or auspicious number. Buddhism certainly influenced numerological superstitious conventions, particularly in the context of Shaolin martial tradition (founded on Chan or Zen Buddhism), even in predominantly Shinto Japan/Okinawa.

Having said all this, it is not just the numeric kata names that might have attracted a term such as "bu" as a qualification. A suggested example is seipai:

The standard kanji of seipai mean “18”. The pronunciation is an Okinawan rendering of the Fujian (Hokkien or Amoy) dialect. "Sei" means 10, and "pai" means 8. It is thought that this name was given because the kata has (or originally had) 18 steps or techniques.

However given the similarity in technical emphasis and tempo to seiyunchin, it is possible that seipai might have originally shared seiyunchin's kanji "sei" (meaning "to control" ), while "pai" might have been the character "pu" or "bu" meaning steps. Accordingly seipai might have originally meant "controlling steps". This would seem to be quite an appropriate name given the bunkai of the kata which effectively control an opponent during consecutive steps forward and back.

This leads me to the naming of sanchin kata... [read more].

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic