Chapter 14 of the “Jixiao Xinshu” (1560-61) described a kata made of 32 “gestures”, all of which had their applications. The work was translated and reprinted in the following centuries, including in Korea and Japan. In the introduction, the author explained that “in the wars of old unarmed combat did not play any role” (which was probably true for most combat all around the world for a long time already), but he says it was meant for combative fitness as a foundation for the acquiring the necessary skills in weaponry.
In terms of anthropology, the concept of kata for unarmed combat in very serious environment appears to be a rather young leaf for obvious reasons. In case of Ryūkyū, the answer might be found in asking “Who were they supposed to fight against unarmed?”
On ships within the China tributary trade, they would never ever have fought hand-to-hand unaremd, except as a very last resort. Instead they were equipped with cannons, rifles of some sort, swords, armor etc. Pirates would also attack with ballistic weapons, and if they entered, they would use spears, knifes, whatever. Skirmishes were decided by this equipment. When a Ryūkyūan China-bound vessel once put to flight a flock of pirate ships, and a Ryūkyūan official with triumphant shouts established himself on deck in full Japanese armor swinging a naginata, he was struck by a bullet that pieced his armor, and he died.
So, as regards the idea of kata having been meant for any kind of serious unarmed combat by Ryūkyūans — i.e. besides teaching the young, rituals, the usual mock combats of males, plus judicial combat was never heard of in Ryūkyū –; this would most probably have been restricted to internal affairs, like feudal police and security duties. Like, standing at a gate all day; or watching out for ships at an outlook; or spying on Westerners as well as their own people and the like.
Seriously, let’s travel back in time to Okinawa in the middle of the 19th century. In 1847, Jurien de La Gravière assumed command of the corvette La Bayonnaise and went to the Far East for three years. In August 1848 he reached Naha harbor and received the usual reception by a representative of the Ryūkyūan government. When he visited Shuri and its outskirts, he observed:
«Nous avions demandé à ne pas être suivis par la police, espérant que notre promenade en deviendrait plus libre et plus intéressante; mais le bambou des kouannins, invisible pour nous, n’en planait pas moins sur les épaules de ces pauvres gens. »
So, obviously, Ryūkyūan security guards were hitting their own people instead of the “intruders.” This is no wonder, since the impression Ryūkyūans got from Western visitors was like the one below, showing the landing of French Admiral Guérin in Tomari seven years later, in 1855, fifty years prior to karate‘s official adoption into the physical education of the Shuri Middle School:
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