29 January, 2013

Theory on Suparinpei Origins

Having recently learned a version of suparinpei, and having done some research into this form for my grading, there was one thing that always bothered me about it.  It wasn't about the kata, or its history - both seem to be fairly well understood.  For those who do not know much about Goju Ryu kata, I encourage you to read some better sources than me, but for the sake of this discussion I will list the basic history as I understand it.

Orthodox history of Goju attributes all of the core kata (gekisai ichi & ni, saifa, sanchin, tensho, seiunchin, sanseiryu, shisochin, seisan, seipai, kururunfa and suparinpei) as being taught to Miyagi Chojun from his primary teacher Higaonna Kanryu.  This is the usual story told to most karateka.  But if you dig a little, you find that it is far more likely that Higaonna only taught four kata (sanchin, seisan, sanseiryu and suparinpei) and that these forms are from white crane, which Higaonna studied during his time in China.  While it is known and admitted that Miyagi invented gekisai ichi and ni, as well as tensho, this raises the question as to the origins of the others.  There is a lot of speculation in this regard, but it becomes obvious that they are likely interpretations or derivations of other Chinese forms which Miyagi added to the originals he learned from Higaonna.

Now, what my Sensei told me is that Suparinpei is linked to General Yue Fei.  I found this a very hard claim to understand for a number of reasons.

  1. General Yue Fei lived from 1103 to 1142 BC.
  2. General Yue Fei was in Northern China.
  3. General Yue Fei is linked to Eagle Claw and Xing Yi Quan.
  4. Some of the proposed systems from which the additional kata come from are: Tiger, Crane, Dragon, Five Ancestors, Mantis/Cricket, Hawk, Lohan and Lion (these come from other researchers, not myself).
The main issues I have with the above facts should be obvious - time, distance and unrelated arts.  While I haven't been able to find much information on some of these styles (Lohan, Lion, Hawk, Cricket) I have read a bit on some of the others, particularly Crane, Dragon and Five Ancestors.  While I find it likely that Tiger, Crane and Five Ancestors are the primary source for modern karate, this still didn't answer my questions about Yue Fei.

Recently I have done some reading about Eagle Claw, and I was surprised to see a couple of coincidences that might explain the connection my teacher told me about.  First of all, the idea of a connection between Eagle Claw and Karate is moot - Eagle Claw didn't come to Southern China until the early 1900's, well after the development of what is considered modern Karate.  But this doesn't limit out the possibility that Yue Fei's contributions are without possibility.

Among the core forms of Eagle Claw is something called Yue Shi San Shou, or General Yue's Fighting Style.  This also goes by another name, Yi Bai Ling Ba Qin Na, or 108 Seizing and Grabbing.  It should be noted that Suparinpei means 108 Hands, and while this is likely coincidental it still gave me hope to dig further.

Yue Shi San Shou (aka Yī Bǎi Ling Bā Qín Ná 一百零八擒拿 – “108 Seize Grab" techniques) is considered the "heart" of the Eagle Claw system. It is believed to be the original material passed down by the style's legendary founder Yue Fei. This material has 108 different categories of skills/techniques that are trained to a level of perfection with partners. One thing to remember is that each sequence is only an example of that category which contains numerous variations and off shoots.

Further digging about Eagle Claw led me to find additional articles which reinforced my ideas.  But in particular they noted that Yue Fei's techniques were popular amongst the fighting arts in contact with it, and his soldiers spread the art after his death.  This leaves the possibility that some concepts did migrate south and influence the Southern Chinese quan fa that did influence Karate. 

 Legend states that general Yue Fei (1103 - 1142 b.C.) of the Song dynasty, developed a a series of very effective fighting techniques to teach his soldiers, thus creating the "108 hands" and a system that was named Yue Shi San Shou, meaning "Yue Fei fighting techniques". After his sudden death, his faithful soldiers went all over China and taught his system. There isn't any reliable information about the historical continuity of the system, but years later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1664), in general's Qi Ji Guang book about war strategy and martial art, there mentioned the "Grab of the Eagle King". This mention in a way proves that the system was preserved and well known at that period of time. In this same book, Qi Ji Guang mentions Ba Shan Fan (another name for Fan Zi) as one of the most effective fighting systems of the Ming Dynasty.

I believe it is very likely that General Yue Fei's system, along with his legend and hero status among the residents in China, created a more keen interest in his methods and helped to spread the style in some form.  Not only this, but since this was first implemented in a military setting, it is also possible that many of the soliders who became monks would teach these skills as well.  Now match this with the multiple temple burnings and the flight of monks from those temples, and it becomes a little more likely.

Not to mention the fact that the ideals of Eagle Claw and Karate seem to be similar (grappling for the purpose of striking, not in an of itself).  In all, I think this was best summed up in the below excerpt from another article.

Early 20th century Okinawan masters, such as Gichen Funakoshi, spoke of developing the hands and grip so as to be able to seize an opponent tightly. In his early works he also demonstrated joint locks and take downs. Others, such as Goju Ryu's founder Miyagi developed his hands to the point that he could rip off chunks of bark from trees or be used to penetrate soft areas of the body. Within most karate systems today, however, this training is not longer emphasized. Only within older karate kata are the ancient skills of grasping and piercing techniques still retained.

Now, all of this isn't to say that it makes sense and there is a connection.  After all, Suparinpei is just the modern name of the form, said to originally be called Pechurin (百步連).  This is likely a homophone for another phrase in Chinese, but using Google I translated this as '100 Steps in Succession' and so perhaps all of the above is a coincidence.  But I was glad to be able to find some connection and give my mind something further to ponder upon.


  1. I think you have done a lot of research here to try and piece together the puzzle. I know from my own experience how difficult it is to research the origin of kata - you are often just left guessing and speculating, but it is interesting to try as you start to discover all the links between various (often disparate) systems of martial arts. Very interesting article.

    1. Thanks Sue. You are absolutely correct - a lot of guesswork on my part, and coincidences. But it was fun to look and try and figure it out. In the end, I imagine that these same things were done 100 years ago by the masters, so I hope I am not copying them but rather trying to find the path they were seeking.

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Awesome! This article really inspires me so much. Thanks for sharing this very informative post!