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ELEMENTS OF FAJIN IN UECHI-RYU KARATE
By David Elkins, L.C.S.W
This article will examine two movements from the hojo undo (preparatory exercises) sequence of Uechi-Ryu Karate and explore elements of fajin (expressed energy) contained therein. Each hojo undo sequence will be described, andfajin implications will be presented.
The material of the kata from which hojo undo derives is profound yet its depths are only revealed to those who earnestly seek. Without such research the movements of kata, and hence a designated style, are at best limited in application. The importance of physically using the movements of kata–individually and in combination–to obtain understanding and ownership cannot be overemphasized.
The process of ingraining the movements of kata into the neuromuscular memory of the body is something akin to target shooting. Knowledge of ballistics without practice on the firing range produces no success. Therefore, it is the utilization of both mental and physical energies that allows one to master the movements of kata.
Only then can the practitioner begin to see kata not as a catalog of so many techniques but rather as an encyclopedia of energy vectors which are governed by concepts of structure and movement, thus having unlimited potential for bunkai.
It is unusual to associate concepts such as fajin with systems of karate. Understanding the history of Uechi-Ryu karate will make meaningful discussion of material usually associated with the study of Chinese gung-fu.
Uechi-Ryu Karate is a system of civil combative concepts, techniques, and strategies initially taught by Kanbun Uechi Sensei (1877-1948), and later elaborated by his eldest son and successor, Kanei Uechi Sensei (1910-1991.) The nucleus of the Uechi-Ryu system was learned by Kanbun Uechi Sensei during the period of thirteen years that he lived, studied, and taught in China (1897-1910.)
Although scholars believe that Master Uechi studied at several kenpo (way of use of the fist) academies during that period, the majority of his instruction was from Nan Chuan (southern fist) Sifu, Chou Tzu-Ho. Chou Sifu was reputed to have expertise in several fighting styles notably, Tiger Boxing. The Uechi style was initially known as Pangainoon Ryu Karate-Jutsu and represented an amalgam of fighting concepts, techniques, and strategies of the Tiger, Dragon, and Crane Boxing systems.
There are various interpretations of the term Pangainoon–literally “half hard soft.” Assigning specific meaning to this term is difficult in the absence of a context. A conceptual link is necessary to determine what is half hard and what is half soft[i]. The interpretation most favored by the author is “soft outside, hard inside.” This interpretation is akin to a popular idea in Chinese martial arts rou zhong han gong (hard within soft) and has robust implications for analysis of movement within the Uechi style.
The favored interpretation denotes a holistic synthesis of yin (soft, receiving, or passive) and yang (hard, aggressive, or active) energies much as that advocated by the so-called internal styles taught today.
It suggests relaxed elastic movement necessary for the successful delivery of projectile energy. This is the type of movement necessary to powerfully throw a baseball, or to crush the bones of an opponent.
This contention is further reinforced by the overwhelming presence of yang (hard/pointed) striking waza in the Uechi curriculum, i.e., shoken (one knuckle), hiraken (flat fist), hiji (elbow), nukite (spear hand), kakushiken (crane beak), and sokosen (big toe.)
Even the ubiquitous palm heel strike (yin) is performed in a yang manner in the Uechi style as a bushiken (coiled thumb.) It is generally accepted that yang (hard) forms are used to strike yin (soft) anatomical points of vulnerability. [For an elaboration of types of strikes and hand actions in the internal Chinese arts the reader is referred to Frantzis', The Power of the Internal Martial Arts.][ii]
As the sands of time have all but obliterated objective evidence regarding the origins of the Uechi style, it is difficult to make statements regarding its antecedents with certainty. Much as Master Chojun Miyagi named his inherited style Goju, based upon an extemporaneous interpretation of the Bubishi[iii], the designation Pangainoon may have been as much the product of Master Uechi’s efforts to describe an important concept of the style as the existence of a formal heraldry. We should remember that in the historic period under consideration, style names, and other significatum such as symbols and uniforms, played a decisively less important role in martial arts than is presently the case. What we do know with certainty, however, is that Uechi-Ryu Karate is largely the product of one man’s intense and prolonged study of Southern Chinese gung-fu.
In delineating the four main karate schools in Okinawa, Master Morio Higaonna traces the lineage of Uechi-Ryu not from an indigenous form of Te (Okinawan unarmed fighting tradition) or an admixture of Te and arts of Chinese origin, but directly from Chinese Kempo[iv]. We know also that Uechi-Ryu has historically given little concession to change, and is considered by many knowledgeable practitioners and scholars as one of the last “real” karate systems[v]. “Real” in this sense refers to a close quarter combat system that acknowledges the realities of hand to hand fighting by emphasizing body conditioning and use of the makiwara. Moreover, Uechi- Ryu is still largely taught in the old tradition of individual and small group instruction.
It is difficult to imagine another effective means of teaching the subtle energy work required in Sanchin, the first and most important kata in the Uechi system.
Shotokan Master Roland Habersetzer, in Karate Fur Meister Mit Korper Und Geist, attributes Uechi Ryu as giving “Mehr als nur ein Hauch von Tradition[vi]” meaning that Uechi Ryu gives more than a ‘small breath’ or lip service to tradition.
Compared to other Nan Chuan traditions, a relaxed flow of energy has usually not been taught explicitly in the initial and middle aspects of the Uechi-Ryu curriculum.
Until recently, a beginner in Uechi-Ryu would neither have been exposed to the concept of economy of motion nor to that of simultaneous attack and defense although the roots of those principles are latent in the kata[vii] and as we shall see, in the hojo undo series.
The Uechi system, unlike Wing Chun or Southern Mantis, for example, traditionally exposed the beginning student to an exploration of tension via the Sanchin kata so that he/she may later discover relaxation. The end result is the same: acquisition of total control of one’s self.
The Bubishi states “Understanding the physical and metaphysical precepts of hard and soft one must learn that it is the even balance between the two that enables one to overcome the greatest adversary of all, oneself.”[viii]
This teaching reflects the Taoist doctrine of the ultimate convergence of all extremes. The strategy of teaching manipulation of complimentary feelings is used frequently in other venues such as psychotherapy and other western healing arts.
In the management of chronic pain for example, a patient might be taught initially to “make it hurt more” so that they may ultimately realize that they have the power to “make it hurt less.”[ix]
Having made the above generalizations regarding the teaching of Uechi- Ryu karate, it would be well to note that there are important changes presently occurring in the evolution of the style, particularly in North America.
Senior level practitioners such as George Mattson Sensei–frequently referred to as the Father of Uechi-Ryu in the U.S.– have encouraged all Uechi-ka to explore the “softer” aspects of their art. This trend can only be seen as positive if one agrees with noted authors/practitioners such as Stanley Henning and Adam Hsu in their assertion that it is artificial to attempt to describe Chinese boxing styles in terms of being either internal or external.
These are qualities that pertain more specifically to the nature and refinement of individual practice rather than terms that can be applied with any validity to entire art forms. To ignore or minimize either yin or yang in an object is to deny the dynamic symmetry of the universe. History tells us that efforts to do so are doomed.
A Wing Chun practitioner focused only upon the blade of the bot jom doh (eight slash broadswords) foolishly overlooks the offensive and defensive potential of the hilt and hand guard of the knives.
Similarly, a Uechi practitioner who focuses only upon hardness (tension) will soon burn out (yang = heat) or accommodate to his/her resultant limitations with a robotic, ineffectual expression of the art.
Although other southern Chinese boxing styles and Uechi-Ryu may differ with regard to the methods with which power is generated (particularly at the beginning and intermediate levels of expertise) there are many surprising similarities in the ways they express energy in combative application.
The sophistication and elegance of the similarities may be “discovered” at dan level or possibly earlier if one is fortunate enough to have an enlightened instructor and be sufficiently mature to receive what is presented.
Unfortunately, such teachings may never be comprehended. If grasped, such understanding may be largely on a visceral level that defies or confounds attempts to teach others.
Appreciating similarities in methods of generating and expressing power between different martial art styles are subtle and elusive processes that usually take much long and intensive research.
Despite superficial differences, Uechi-Ryu shares many commonalities with other southern Chinese boxing styles. It shares with its sister styles of coastal southern China a concern for protection and attack of the centerline; an immovable elbow line mechanism for generating upper body power; a stable, relatively high fighting stance; the use of narrow stepping and short arm bridges; a predilection for striking with the hands; use of low and middle gate kicks; and perhaps most significantly, a devotion to its first and most important kata, Sanchin.
If there is one unifying thread that characterizes Fukien boxing styles it is reliance upon a form of the Sanchin kata to teach the salient precepts of the system. Patrick McCarthy Sensei recognizes Sanchin (alternately Saam Chien) as common to five Fuzhou Crane Boxing styles: Dragon boxing, Tiger Boxing, Dog Boxing, Arhat (Lohan or Monk Fist) Boxing,
The concept of fajin although multidimensional is neither impenetrable nor unrealizable. Fajin refers to the quality of a movement which is elastic, pulsed or wave-like, and performed with explosively. If you think of a snake coiling (energy compression) and striking (energy release) you will be well on your way to understanding fajin.
Popular martial arts instructor and author, Erle Montaigue, highlights an distinguishing feature of fajin when he states “fajin is not a fast movement, it is not a very fast movement, it is an explosive movement.”[xiv] Montaigue likens fajin to the unconscious, explosive, total body “shaking” that occurs during a sneeze.
Kumar Frantzis defines fa as “to discharge, release, throw out, or project” and jin as “power.”[xv] Liu Xing-Han and John Bracy define fajin as issuing force based upon increasingly refined timing, angulation, and sensing an opponent’s intention.[xvi] Michael Babin describes fajin as “the energy of a whip which travels in a wave along its length, to be discharged with explosive force at the tip.”[xvii]
Finally, Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming defines fajin as “using the Yi (mind or intent) to transport the Qi (intrinsic bioelectrical energy.) He states “Use the Qi to urge on the Li” (muscular power.)[xviii
From these definitions it becomes clear that fajin is not simply a display of brute force. A simple empty hand percussive strike while potentially efficacious does not begin to approach the destructive potential of the fajin strike.
One explanation for the difference is that the effects of the percussive strike are limited to superficial disruption of the bodies tissues. This is especially relevant to the striking of body cavities in which the more deeply penetrating fajin strike produces a greater degree of hydrostatic shock and hence greater disruption to the bodies organ systems.
An example of the difference would be to imagine being struck by a the thrust of a log which is suspended from a fulcrum and swung by the force of gravity alone (an iron body training practice.)
This represents a superficial percussive strike which might be considered the equivalent of an arm punch in boxing.
Contrast that example with being struck by the projectile of a Chinese rope dart or the weight of a manrikigusari (weighted chain)– both far lighter than the log but infinitely more potentially destructive as a consequence of the energy generated by the whipping delivery system.
Fajin is considered by many to be the most sophisticated physical expression of energy in the martial arts and Uechi kata are replete with movements ideally performed with fajin.
To fully understand the concept of fajin, it is necessary to examine the theory of jin, that which is projected in the process of issuing fajin. Although there are several definitions of the word jin (alternatively spelled jing, ging, or gin,) the one with which we will be concerned is that of a neuromuscular process involving a unity of body and mind.
There are three inseparable elements involved in jin: yi – the mind, li – muscular energy, and qi – bioenergitic life force.
An understanding of these elements can best be understood via a simple analogy. Imagine that you awoke one morning miraculously possessing the muscular strength (li) of a champion Olympic weightlifter.
Let’s carry the fantasy a step further and also imagine that you were given the lifter’s indomitable will, powers of concentration, and intellectual understanding of the biomechanics of the competitive lifts (yi). Surprise!
Your best efforts on the lifting platform would fall far short of our imaginary superman. The explanation for this irony is that you simply had not paid your dues in hard training to repetitively command (yi) the flow of bioelectrical energy (qi) to activate musculoskeletal patterns (li) necessary for the superior performance of the lifts.
Each component is necessary for the process to occur and as martial artists we constantly strive to perfect the three elements singularly and in concert.
As mentioned previously, there are many kinds of jin. The fascinating study of jin exists along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum lie the soft/internal qi practices known as qigong.
At the other end is found the hard/external discipline of dynamic tension–classical Uechi-Ryu Sanchin training. The type of jin used primarily in Uechi-Ryu combative application may best be thought of as soft/hard. [To further their research in this area the reader is referred to the excellent typology of jin provided by Dr. Yang Jwing Ming in The Essense of Shaolin White Crane.][xix]
The hallmark of soft/hard jin is the bodies transformation from initially soft (sung or relaxed) to hard at the moment of impact.
This type of movement is characterized by an initial and middle phase in which tension is conspicuously absent.
At the terminal phase of movement, the muscles are briefly tensed to prevent exceeding the capacity of the tendons and ligaments. The degree of tension employed in this type of movement is neither of the magnitude nor the duration of that involved in kime (focus) – at least not kime expressed at a beginning or intermediate level.
This difference reflects the dictum of form following function. Uechi-Ryu is a close combat system that while Okinawan is also Chinese in origin. Thus, the degree of tension employed in the terminal aspect of movement in Uechi-Ryu lies somewhere between that found in typical southern Chinese and Okinawan styles, e.g., Southern Mantis and Shorin-Ryu.
Understanding the system’s historical antecedents allows one to reconcile the apparent incongruity of its very appropriate affiliation with both the Okinawan concept of ikken hisatsu (one punch, one kill) and a Chinese model of a relaxed continuous flow of energy–unrelenting until the enemy is red (threat is no more).
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