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Friends to Foes: The Surprising Origin and Evolution of Karate

Karate’s origins date back to 14th century Okinawa. It began life as a martial art called te, practiced by the Pechin class (middle-class scholars) of Ryukyuans (natives of the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa).

In 1372, King Sattoo of Chuzan (one of Okinawa’s three kingdoms) opened up trade relationships with the Chinese Ming Dynasty. As trade increased, cultural exchange was heavily encouraged by both kingdoms. In 1392, a large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa and founded Kumemura, a society of scholars, diplomats, and bureaucrats. They brought with them a wide breadth of knowledge of Chinese art, science, and martial arts.

As well as the Chinese families coming to Okinawa, many members of the Okinawan upper class visited China regularly. Although te had existed before this cultural exchange, it was heavily influenced by the incorporation of Chinese empty-handed kung-fu after the exchange.

Originally te had very few formal styles. Instead, it had many practitioners who all did things slightly differently. These early forms of karate are now often generalized as Shuir-te, Nah-te , and Tomari-te. Each is named after its originating city. It was a point of pride that each area had its own individual form of te.

Te continued to evolve into what we would recognize as karate today. Over the next several hundred years, three major events would help increase the popularity and development of the martial art. ...continue reading

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