Is mawashi uke goju's rising block?

Like most other karateka, practitioners of goju ryu faithfully practise the standard age uke (rising block) during basics training. They will apply it in ippon kumite (one-step sparring), "find" it in kata bunkai (application analysis) and desperately try to apply it in sparring.

But is it really a goju technique?

What karateka call "age uke" is really a basic shorin technique. The only kata in which it is found are the 2 gekisai forms, developed and introduced by Miyagi in the early 1940s as basic kata for school children. Prior to that one wonders whether it was even practised in goju dojos...

This question has lately led me on a journey to discover whether goju ryu has its "own" rising block. What did goju/naha te practitioners use for defences to head height attacks before age uke was incorporated into the syllabus? As summarised in the video below, I feel that the answer is to be found in goju's famous "mawashi uke" or roundhouse block.

I discuss mawashi uke and its relationship to age uke

There are 2 forearm deflections found in goju ryu kata that might be candidates for ancestry of the modern age uke; both are found in the internal arts of China of which xingyi in particular is thought to be a distant relative of goju ryu.

The first is a deflection commonly known in karate as "haiwan nagashi uke" (top of forearm sweeping block). This is an internal arts deflection that relies on redirecting an attack both over the head and simultaneously to the side. It occurs in xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. In the photograph to the right you will see my shifu Chen Yun-Ching, his brother Chen Yun-Chow and James Sumarac demonstrating a variant from xingyi.

In goju ryu the haiwan nagashi uke occurs in only one kata - seiyunchin. This is significant because it means that the haiwan nagashi uke cannot really qualify as "goju's answer to age uke". One would expect it to occur far more frequently if it were goju's standard rising deflection. [Note that by contrast, haiwan nagashi uke occurs often in shorin ryu kata, including naifunchin/naihanchi (from which some argue seiyunchin might be derived - see my article "The origins of goju-ryu kata: Part 4".)]

Importantly, haiwan nagashi uke, as manifested in seiyunchin kata, is performed turned fully side-on - not at all like the age uke (or even the xingyi version demonstrated by my shifu above). In this respect it is not dissimilar to another version of this block (shown to the right) used in Hong Yi Xiang's Taipei-based Tang Shou Dao.

The second possible ancestor of age uke is a deflection colloquially referred to as the "steeple block". Unlike haiwan nagashi uke, this deflection is applied "front on" as one would an age uke. In fact the only real feature that distinguishes it from the standard age uke is that the elbow is not raised. Why? Raising the elbow means that the shoulder girdle will also rise at the end of the movement. This not only takes more time, it also creates an inherent weakness; for a movement to transfer momentum efficiently it must effect a staged activation of larger to smaller body parts - not the reverse (see my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy").

Raising the elbow also creates a huge opening for further attacks: the higher you raise your elbow, the more you expose the delicate underarm area and the further you have to return your arm in order to cover that area.

It is for these reasons that the internal arts eschew the standard age uke in place of either the haiwan nagashi uke discussed previously (where the above issues are mitigated by a small or large body turn) or by using the steeple block which does not raise the elbow. In respect of the latter most instructors will tell you that while the steeple block is more efficient and leaves less of an opening, it is correspondingly harder for beginners to apply because the margin for error is so small.

I demonstrate the steeple block

As you will note from the above video, the steeple block occurs most obviously in the goju kata seisan and kururnufa. Accordingly I think of it as "truly goju" because it is found in both "cluster H" and "cluster M" - the 2 principal technical (and arguably historical) groupings of goju kata (see my article "The origins of goju-ryu kata: Part 1").

It has long been my belief that it also occurs in sanseiru and shisochin as the first part of what I call "sokumen awase uke". Importantly, in the case of sanseiru and kururunfa the block is followed immediately by an "ura te osae uke" (a depressing block with the back of the hand. This, combined with a forward movement of the body, not allows increases the effectiveness of the deflection, it feeds directly into a friction hold/control or grab while the other hand effects a strike. Finally, it mitigates against the fact that the steeple block usually has "little room for error"; the back of the wrist can still curl around and "save" you if you haven't quite got the deflection right.

But herein lies the problem: for the steeple block to be "goju's age uke" it must not only be present in a few kata; it must be ubiquitous. Steeple block does not fit that model. Or does it?

I was wondering the other day (for the umpteenth time) about the true meaning of goju's "mawashi uke" or roundhouse block. I have lost count of the number of times that I've been told it is "the most advanced block of goju" containing "the secret" of that system. I have myself made much of this over the years. And in truth mawashi uke does have many potent/impressive applications. Only one aspect has ever troubled me and that is this:

There is a movement half-way through the mawashi sequence where one arm inscribes a vertical circle in what some call "the window-wiper" movement. Try as I might I've never been able to make sense of this. I've tried to think of it as a standard hiki/kake uke (grabbing or hooking block) but this is not correct; if you apply it as such the whole dynamic of the mawashi uke changes. This is because hiki/kake uke is preformed at an angle of 45 degrees to your body not 90 degrees like the basic mawashi uke. Even a brief attempt to perform mawashi uke with a hiki/kake emphasis will show you that it is completely at odds with the general movement/principle of a "roundhouse" block.

I demonstrate the traditional mawashi uke

So what is the function of the "window wiper" movement?

As far as I'm concerned, only one answer makes perfect sense of the dillemma. If you cut short the "wiper" movement by making it slightly less circular - in other words if you "cut upwards" instead of making a circular action with your principal deflecting arm - you effect the standard steeple block (as it manifests in, say, kururunfa). As I demonstrate in the video at the start of this article, the mawashi uke requires very little modification in order to achieve this. One might not even realise that any modification had been made - natural variations in individual body movement will often be greater.

I demonstrate the mawashi uke with the steeple variant

Accordingly I would argue that my opening question has been answered: Mawashi uke is goju's age uke. I say this for 2 reasons: First, it contains the steeple bock - a cousin of shorin-ryu's basic age uke. Second, mawashi uke qualifies as an essential goju movement since it is in virtually every kata of that system.

If there is any indigenous "age uke" in goju, mawashi uke must be (or contain) it!

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. Hi Dan,
    Great blog again. Just a thought, if you were to tenshin slightly inside or outside of the center line while executing the block you would end up 'cutting into' the attacking arm. This would change the application from being purely defensive to offensive as well. I believe this is also consistent with Goju's principles too. Thanks again for another informative and thought provoking article. I'm looking forward to your next one.

  2. Funnily enough, I used just this concept in the sanseiru embu (2 person drill). You can see the single person version here (it is a circular form so that both sides do the same thing, rotating through the sequence continously). It occurs at the start of the sokumen awase uke:

    That's why it is almost impossible to work out the 2 person embu from just watching the single person video ; there are too many little things you need to know about bunkai!

    Thanks again!

  3. Dan,

    You have demonstrated that you have good relations, at the least, with some well-known internal arts masters. Do you have the same with some goju-ryu karate masters? I feel as if the heads of IOGKF might be interested in your points. Goju, after all, seems to me as one of the least dilute karate styles, and so, they might see the merit in your posts.

  4. Hi Mohammad.

    I'd love to establish some closer links to my goju heritage. Particularly it has occurred to me to go and train at the at the Jundokan in Okinawa, since I particularly like their brand of goju (and my lineage indirectly stems from that).

    Alternatively, my lineage is more directly via Morio Higaonna, so I could establish closer links to his organisation, the IOGKF.

    That said, I suspect they would see me as very much an outsider and not someone who would carry any weight in discussing the finer points of goju technique, training pedadgogy or history. In other words, they would see me as a Chinese stylist dabbling in karate rather than a primarily a gojuka of many years relevant experience.

    On this basis, any opinion I might express would seem to them, at best, presumptous and, at worst, rude and misinformed.

    Furthermore, I'm not sure whether my articles on goju history might be seen as a tad "heretical" since I have postulated that some of the standard 12 kata were not taught by Kanryo Higaonna and might have been created or adapted by Chojun Miyagi. This might seem insulting to Okinawan masters who adhere to the orthodox view (although I have never intended to insult anyone in this regard, and merely enjoy testing martial theory and history).

    Because of these issues, if I were to establish closer links with the Jundokan or IOGKF etc. I would be inclined to keep my head low and "do as the Romans do". I wouldn't be inclined to express strong views on anything (at least not for a foreseeable future).

    In so doing, I would hope that they would elevate my respect for them, and my sincerity in both wanting to learn and in all my other martial dealings, over any of my personal opinions that find presumptous or disagreeable.

    In short, I would be inclined to "empty my cup" rather than try to fill theirs!

    Thanks for your support though! I really appreciate it Mohammad - it makes writing this blog feel all the more worthwhile!

  5. Dan,

    As a martial artist with his base in karate, it is a great achievement that your Chinese master has accepted you in his inner circle. I wonder if you have expressed your ideas on the Chinese martial arts to them?

    It is surprising to me, then, that a master of internal arts would accept you into his closest circle, while a karate master would see you as an outsider (although I do understand why they would).

  6. Chen Yun Ching is also the kind of teacher who doesn't care if you train elsewhere (and expressly told us so at the bai shi ceremony where we were accepted as "inner circle" or "closed door students").

    He has asked me to demonstrate karate kata (I showed seipai) and afterwards he clapped vigorously and said "Good!".

    I think he is totally secure in what he teaches, doesn't feel threatened by what others do and moreover respects other martial artists. I can see that he sees all martial arts as part of a continuum (which I do) not as all that "different". In other words, he focuses on similarities, not on points of distinction.

    I'm not saying that this attitude doesn't occur in karate - I know of many karateka who have this attitude (just as there are many, many Chinese martial artists who don't credit karate). However I just don't know what to expect from training with people I do not know - hence I would err on the side of caution.

    And just because a particular karate teacher doesn't credit my Chinese learning doesn't mean they would have less to offer me. It is more common than not for martial traditions to be "exclusive", and in that context I can hardly expect an attitude like Chen Shifu's to be common!

  7. Very interesting! I never considered that. I think I will pay closer attention to mawashi uke and its potential applications from now on.


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