Northern and southern kung fu, karate and the question of range


"Southern fist, northern leg"

It was at the very beginning of my martial arts "career" that I first heard the expression: "southern fist, northern leg". The concept, as I understand it, is that southern Chinese martial arts emphasise hand techniques rather than leg techniques, while northern systems have the reverse emphasis.

This is not to say that southern systems do not use kicks or that the northern systems do not use hands; it is just a matter of degree. And more to the point, it has less to do with the use of actual body parts, and more to do with range.

What I take the saying to mean is this: southern Chinese martial systems are designed for fighting in close quarters, while northern Chinese systems are designed for fighting at a greater range.

It is important to note that by "greater range" I do not mean to imply "distance fighting". Distance fighting is commonly seen in sports combat - where fighters will predominantly launch attacks from outside what I call the "melee range" - ie. the range where you are capable of landing (and being hit by) a punch, strike or kick.

I have previously detailed my view that most, if not all, traditional martial arts systems in China and Japan/Okinawa are designed to operate exclusively within the melee range. This is inherently because these arts are civilian defence systems. Most civilian defence scenarios begin and end in the melee: they don't (or shouldn't) involve sport/prizefighting dynamics where 2 opponents circle each other looking for openings. Nor should they depend on protracted ground grappling. Civilian defence tactics focus on a quick exit strategy and assume attackers might be armed, in company or both.

So while southern and northern Chinese systems might be designed for different ranges, I don't think they are all that different; they still function within the melee. It is just that southern systems function principally in the inner part of the melee range (mid-range punches to elbows, with the occasional foray to short, low kicks) while northern systems function principally in the outer part of the melee range (full extension punches and kicks).

Examples of southern Chinese systems that are designed for close-quarter combat would include wing chun, bak mei (white eyebrow), Yong Chun baihe (white crane from the town of Yong Chun), ngo cho kun / wu zu quan (5 ancestor fist) and southern preying mantis.

Examples of northern Chinese systems designed for fully extended kicks and punches include the many forms of changquan or taizu (long fist), northern preying mantis and the internal arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan.

Karate and its "parallel" divisions

Very early in my training I was also told that Okinawan karate has its own division, akin to the northern/southern paradigm in China: Karate can be classified as either Naha te (from the city of Naha) or Shuri/Tomari te (related systems from the towns of Shuri and Tomari that are often collectively called the "shorin" systems).

Naha te and the southern "Chinese connection"

Naha te comprises karate schools such as goju ryu, tou'on ryu, ryuei ryu and uechi ryu. These are what writer Mark Bishop1 called "Chinese systems" (ie. those that can trace their roots "directly" to China at around the 1870s).2 Whatever their exact origin, Naha te systems are, at least to some extent, related to their southern Chinese counterparts. And there are indeed some startling similarities between the two:

Uechi ryu in particular has a strong resemblance to Yong Chun baihe. The kata tensho from goju ryu is also reminiscent of the Yong Chun form ba fen.

Many goju/ryuei/tou'on forms have strong parallels in ngo cho kun / wu zu quan. And some have argued that goju kata such as shisochin trace their roots to southern preying mantis, while kata such as saifa are said to bear hallmarks of the Fujian lion boxing.3

More importantly, all the Naha te systems have at their core the practice of sanchin kata and the sanchin stance. This is mirrored in Fujian systems that have a similar emphasis on their own versions of sanzhan or saam chien (ie. sanchin).4

Even the Hakka systems that do not have a sanzhan form utlise a stance that is clearly related: their principle fighting stance is clearly a sanzhan variant. To my mind, even wing chun's "A" stance owes its origin to sanzhan - or at least a sanzhan ancestor. Another key indicator of Naha te's southern "Chinese connection" is the frequent use of neko ashi dachi - the cat stance. In fact, many Yong Chun and ngo cho kun / wu zu quan forms finish in neko ashi dachi with a tora guchi (tiger mouth push) - just as goju/ryuei/tou'on ryu forms do.

The shorin tradition and the northern Chinese systems

The shorin systems all trace their roots back to Matsumura Sokon, a legendary Okinawan karateka. The kata (forms) in the shorin tradition are also said to come from (or have been influenced by) Chinese systems, but arguably from a much earlier period than when the Naha te kata evolved.

When I first started training I was told that the shorin systems were derived from the northern Chinese systems and were hence designed for long range fighting (by comparison to the Naha te systems).

So in summary, I used to think that the Naha te systems were designed for close-quarters combat while the shorin systems were designed for the longer-range fighting. It seemed that the "southern fist, northern leg" principle was mirrored exactly in the little island of Okinawa.

Is there really a "north/south" paradigm in Okinawan karate?

Just how accurate is this apparent north/south dichotomy as regards Okinawan karate? We have some evidence that Naha te has links to southern Chinese martial systems, but are the shorin systems really from northern China?

Indeed the standard, full extension, corkscrew punching of shorin forms, the emphasis on zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) and shiko/kiba dachi (horse stance) are reminiscent of changquan/taizu and even taijiquan.

But then again, all these elements also feature to a greater or lesser extend in Naha te.

Moreover, many "hallmarks" of Naha te are present in the shorin systems. For example, sanchin dachi and neko ashi dachi, while not as frequently used, do appear in many shorin kata. And it seems that this not simply due to "cross-pollination". I have previously discussed the kata seisan which appears in both the Naha te and shorin traditions and which existed in Okinawa long before the travels of Higaonna Kanryo, Uechi Kanbun and Nakaima Norisato to China in the late 1800s. As Mario McKenna5 points out, there is strong evidence that karate (in all its incarnations) owes more to local innovation than any direct lineage to China.

I think it is unlikely that the northern Chinese martial systems had any impact on the evolution of the shorin schools of karate. Remember that in the 18th and 19th centuries travelling to and from China's north to Okinawa was no easy task. I very much doubt that Okinawans had the chance to meet northern Chinese martial artists - at least in any significant number.

And while is said that Matsumura studied quan fa in China 6 there detail or evidence concerning this. As a servant of the royal court in Okinawa, he might also have been exposed to official visitors from Beijing - some of whom might have been versed in the northern Chinese martial arts. But again, there is little to corroberate this.

I suspect that Matsumura's teachings were more greatly influenced by his Okinawan teacher, Sakugawa "Tode" Kanga (who is also said to have studied in Beijing - where some say he died and was buried).7

In the end, I suspect that if the northern systems had any influence on karate, this influence was, at best, slight. And whatever the impact of northern Chinese influence, this has probably been passed down to karate generally - not just the shorin school.

For example, such generalised influence might explain why Okinawan karate, as a rule, uses the fully extended corkscrew punch and not the vertical fist punch of, say, wing chun. Then again it might not. The corkscrew punch might have had a parallel evolution to that in northern China - especially if (as I have previously argued) it is just a manifestation of natural arm movement / efficient biomechanics).

Are there differences in range between shorin systems and Naha te?

Irrespective of any "northern" influence or lack thereof, it is my view (based on my own experience with various styles of karate) that the shorin systems are designed to operate at a longer range than the Naha te schools. One example of this is the use in shorin forms of the kokutsu dachi (back stance) - an elongated stance often used in Ryukyu kobudo (weapons) and suitable for fighting at a longer range. Another is the relatively greater mobililty required for shorin forms than some of the Naha te kata.

These differences are however quite slight, and vary depending on the kata being examined.

Goju kata such as seiunchin, shisochin and seipai have movement which could quite easily be found in a shorin kata. The goju/tou'on/ryuei ryu versions of sanchin, sanseiru and seisan katas - and any uechi ryu katas - are a different kettle of fish altogether. They appear to be structured for a much closer range of fighting, with little body movement (taisabaki) relative to other karate kata.

Modern karate and "distance fighting"

But to my mind, the biggest differences arising in today's karate "operating range" come not from any such historical design issues, but from modern influences.

Many karateka today are what I would call "distance fighters". Distance stylists typically don't stay within the melee range - they enter only to land a blow then move out. This means their preference is to evade attacks without deflection, not deflect them with evasion. I see this trend in modern off-shoots of the shorin school such as shotokan and taekwondo, and also in some Naha te descendants - eg. goju kai.

It is my view that such "distance karate" has evolved due to the influence of competition kumite and western boxing - disciplines where the competitors spend only a fraction of their time in the melee range - usually for a brief, furious exchange.

I'm not going to say distance fighting doesn't work as a strategy. Far from it. I've faced enough good shotokan and other "distance fighters" to know how potent their approach can be, while fighters like Lyoto Machida have shown that a distance strategy can work well even in the MMA arena.

However it is my contention that karate, as a traditional far eastern martial art, was never intended to function this way. I say this chiefly due to the preponderance of "blocks" (better called "deflections") in both karate and the Chinese martial systems. As I have previously argued, deflections are vital in the melee range - yet they are rarely, if ever, used in distance fighting.

This has resulted in the (to me, incongruous) position that "distance fighting karateka" will often practice standing blocks/deflections, yet never apply them once in sparring.

The above observation does not mean that karateka who train this way are not getting benefit from their deflections etc. I'm fairly certain that they use these basics for developing kinaesthetic awareness, kime etc. But I feel that they can (and should) be so much more. They can be applied in sparring - and in civilian defence.

Conclusion

I very much doubt that the maxim "southern fist, northern leg" has any real application to Okinawan karate. Karate, in all its incarnations, is most closely related to the southern Chinese martial traditions. And even then, there is a scarcity of evidence linking karate forms to anything that ever existed on the mainland. In other words, karate, while subject to the influence of (particularly southern) Chinese martial arts, appears to be principally an Okinawan innovation with no direct "lineage" to any system of Chinese quan fa.

Regardless, Naha te and the shorin tradition do appear to function in slightly different ranges, with the former having a greater number of "close-quarters" techniques and the latter having a greater number of full extension techniques.

However these differences are really quite slight when karate is examined overall. And they do not account for the more recent trend in karate towards "distance fighting".

Footnotes:

1. Bishop, M. (1989). Okinawan Karate - Teachers, styles and secret techniques. London. A & C Black Ltd.
2. See my series of articles commencing with "The origins of goju ryu kata: Part 1".
3. See Joe Swift's article "The Kempo of Kume Village" in Meibukan Magazine No. 6.
4. See my article "Sanchin in Chinese martial arts".
5. See Mario McKenna’s article “So what did you think you were doing”.
6. See Mark Bishop's book at footnote 1 and also the wikipedia entry on Matsumura Sokon.
7. See this site for a history of Sakugawa Kanga.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic