To be a hero, you only need to be a hero once. But to be a gentleman, you have to be a gentleman for life. In Okinawa still today there is a designation of high-level regard for a karate person who is also a virtuous person, and that is the word kunshi 君子, a person of virtue. When was this designation first used in the context of karate? I don’t know, but I have here for you the first written mention of it.

When in 1914 the Ryukyu Shimpo published an article about Arakaki-gwa und Higaonna, it reported about riots that broke out between the participants at the tug-of-war 40 years prior, i.e., around 1874. The banners at that time were carried by Arakaki Pechin Seisho and by Higaonna Kanyu (the father Higaonna Kanbun).

At the time of the tug-of-war in Kume Village, Higaonna became famous. When the riot broke out, he stood in the main gate with a tinbe in hand and – according to the report – took on over thousands of enemies on his own. At that time, Higaonna was just 17 years old but already a powerful samurai with a weight of around 78 kg. Tinbe refers to a shield but it is usually accompanied by a short halberd (rochin) in the other hand.

At the time of the riot at the tug-of-war in Naha Wakasa, Arakaki was the general of the Eastern Army. With his six-foot staff he took on the strikes and thrusts of yari, naginata, and six-foot staffs that rained down on him, using his weapon in all directions without limits and at will. The traces of the battle were seen in the dents and notches on his staff, which was stored in the tokonoma (traditional Japanese room niche).

They article says that while both were ferocious and frightening warriors, they wre in fact reticent persons of virtue (kunshi 君子).

The concept of kunshi in karate circles became famous many decades later, when Kenwa Mabuni, who emphasized mental education, advocated “The virtuous person’s martial arts” (kunshi no ken 君子の拳) by which he warned against violence and aimed to guide karate students towards becoming an amicable personality.

It is interesting to note here that this first written note on kunshi in Okinawan martial arts is found in relation to kobudo. Moreover, this specific case of kobudo during the 1870s – with the use of six-foot staffs, yari, naginata, and tinbe – used weapons that were part of a folk festival equipment, and not real weapons. Also, the riot took place between different factions of Okinawan, not against exterior enemies, such as samurai, or Western intruders.

How did the term and concept of kunshi enter Ryukyu? Already in the 12th century, Zhu Xi (1130–1200) defined a kunshi (Chin.: junzi) as follows (Junzi – Wikipedia):

Junzi has many characteristics. A junzi can live with poverty; a junzi does more and speaks less. A junzi is loyal, obedient and knowledgeable. A junzi disciplines himself. Among these, ren is at the core of a junzi.

Ren 仁 here denotes “the good quality of a virtuous human when being altruistic.”

Moreover, the teachings of this Zhu Xi reached Ryukyu and Japan in the 17th century.

Actually, as I wrote in my Karate 1.0 (2013, out of print), in 1632, the Confucian scholar Jōchiku (1570-1656) went from Satsuma to Ryūkyū. He was a follower of the Zen priests Keian and Bunshi, both famous for their study of the philosophy of above-mentioned Zhu Xi. During his three-year stay, Jōchiku acted as tutor of crown prince Shō Ken and was instru-mental in spreading Neo-Confucianism in the country.

Also as noted in my my Karate 1.0, the group of Ryukyuan government-sponsored overseas-students to China of the year 1760 are known to have been taught at the Imperial Academy in Beijing by Pan Xiang, the author of the “Recorded Information on Ryūkyū Students” (1764). Pan Xiang was a scholar of Neo-Confucianism and based his education of the Ryukyan overseas-students on the teaching method of the above-mentioned Zhu Xi.

In other words, kunshi (Chin.: junzi) is an almost ancient concept brought from China to Ryukyu and Japan during the 17th century and onwards. It was then applied to martial arts, as can be seen in the 1914 Ryukyu Shimpo article about Arakaki and Higaonna and was later expanded to become a philosophical guidline of karate under Mabuni Kenwa, with the basically same idea attributed to it as eight centuries earlier by Zhu Xi.

Kunshi and in extension kunshi no ken today has become one of the important aphorisms of karate. At the same time, it is yet another example of how karate deliberately attends to other fields of expertise to cumulatively elevate its own cultural level. Other examples are the “Seven Virtues of Bu” attributed to Matsumura Sokon, which in fact are much older and from elsewhere, or the saying of “A demon’s hand, a saint’s heart,” which had nothing to do with karate but stems from the field of medicine, or more precisely, surgery.

And just like that, and as can be seen in the trends of the last 120 years or so, karate simply becomes what people want it to be.

© 2021, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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