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