Okinawan Samurai — The Painting of Guan Yu, God of the Martial Arts

While working on “Okinawan Samurai,” Motobu sensei and me discovered a painting with a specific significance to martial arts. The painting was originally in the possession of Aka/Ōta Pēchin and is described in his ‘Instructions’ to his only son and heir. Later it got into the possession of a Satsuma samurai, a descendant of whom presented it to Baron Ie Chōjo (1881–1957). From there, directly or indirectly, the painting reached the collection of Higaonna Kanjun, who in turn presented it to a museum in Okinawa.

With the help of Kubura Yoshiko, staff member of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, we were able to track this piece of art and also received permission to use it in “Okinawan Samurai” – see the full two-page depiction on pages 26-27. In this way, we were extremely lucky to be able to reunite portions of Aka/Ōta Pēchin’s heirloom.

Well, the painting shows two persons: Guan Yu standing on the right with a sword, and a person sitting with a scroll in his left hand. It is unknown who the seated person is.

Guan Yu (–219) was a military commander of the State of Shu Han and blood-brother of Liu Bei in the historical novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms.’ Perceived as a fearsome warrior famous for virtue and loyalty and regarded as a god of war and martial arts, he is so popular even today that he can be found anywhere from souvenir shops to Chinese take aways to computer games. Most of the time he is depicted holding a long-handled sword known as a guandao.

Guan Yu, as shown in a Google picture search.

Guan Yu, as shown in a Google picture search.

The Tensonbyō shrine complex for the Heavenly Cannons and Statues in Kume village, Okinawa, is dedicated to the supreme deity of Chinese popular Taoism, which is said to have been introduced to Okinawa by the so-called 36 families of Kume. This supreme deity refers to Guan Yu. His alias, Kantei Ō 關帝王, literally ‘Monarch of the Frontier Post,’ points to his role as a protective patron who secured the country’s borders. On the name plaques still found today in the Tensonbyō shrine complex in Kume village he is revered as Tenson Kantei 天尊關帝, from which the shrine derived its name.

Guan Yu shrine in the Tensonbyo, Kume village, Okinawa. Photo by the author.

Guan Yu shrine in the Tensonbyo, Kume village, Okinawa. Photo by the author.

BTW, albeit a Chinese deity, Guan Yu was also worshiped as the guardian deity of the king of Ryūkyū. It may therefore be considered no coincidence that the Tensonbyō was situated right beside the Gokokuji 護国寺, the ‘Temple for the Protection of the Motherland’.

Finally, Guan Yu is also known as the ‘Saint of War’ (wu sheng 武聖), which is complementary to Confucius, who was known as the ‘Saint of Culture’ (wen sheng 文聖). At this point we can actually see that an original concept of bunbu 文武 (the civil and the military realms, civil and military affairs, scholarship and art of war) existed in Ryūkyū since olden times.

So, maybe the unidentified person in the painting is meant to represent Confucian scholarship, while Guan Yu represents the martial arts. If so, the painting shows an original concept of bunbu 文武. See the painting in “Okinawan Samurai” on pages 26-27.

© 2018, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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