Author’s Note: I am of the opinion that the Chinese language term ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) or ‘Tang Hand’ refers to the totality of the perfected cultural production that was the Tang Dynasty of ancient China! As such, the term ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) does not – and was never intended – to refer to a school (or system) of Chinese martial arts! In other words, the product being received (Chinese martial arts) - became confused (and conflated) with the culturally defined transmission process (Chinese treasure fleets)! The fact that this confusion has entered into Western discourse as such, represents an error in historical interpretation that must be ironed-out if the genuine history of Karate-Do is to be ascertained. The Karate-Do of Okinawa (and Japan) possesses ‘many histories’ and this article intends to clarify and rectify a problem with historical interpretation relating to perhaps the ‘first transmission’ of Chinese martial arts to the Ryukyu Islands. This process was probably enhanced by the fact the Japanese government sent at least fifteen cultural missions of its own to Tang Dynasty China between 630-894 CE! Until evidence suggests otherwise, I am of the opinion that the earliest martial transmission occurred between the 7th and 10th centuries CE, and comprised of Chinese envoys travelling to Ryukyu and teaching the inhabitants, and various Japanese citizens visiting China, learning whatever martial arts were available and bringing this body of knowledge back to Japan! . Whether any of this initial transmission survives in the diverse modern-day Karate-Do (or Okinawan ‘Te’) techniques (or ‘Kata’) is a matter of interesting conjecture. My personal belief is that it does. As for the meaning of the Chinese ideogram ‘唐’ (tang2) - it is comprised of the following components:
Upper Particle = 广 (guang3) - broad, wide, extensive and vast.
Middle Particle = 肀 (yu4) - to write with a brush.
Lower Particle = 口 (kou3) - to speak, announce and to order.
This would suggest that the Tang (唐) Dynasty defined itself through its intention (and ability) to develop, maintain, preserve, spread and share what its exponents believed to be its vastly superior culture! The Tang Dynasty possessed the ability to grow vast forests, harvest the wood in a sustainable manner, build vast armadas of ships, staff those ships with hundreds of suitably trained and qualified people and then fill the holds of these ships with all kinds of cultural treasures intended to enrich and inspire the people living in all the discoverable areas outside of the geographical China! I think this interpretation supports my idea that ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) does not represent the name of a particular style of Chinese martial arts, but rather is a collective term encompassing all the cultural crafts, artifacts and abilities that the skilled people of the Tang Dynasty could produce! ACW (28.8.2022)
Chinese language historical encyclopaedias record a number of diplomatic missions between Tang Dynasty China and the Ryukyu Islands – with the Ryukyu Kingdom being a considered as a tributary State of China (alongside ‘Kyushu’ and other places). As part of these missions, Chinese Envoys conveyed various types of armed and unarmed martial arts to the people of the Ryukyu and Kyushu Islands as a ‘gift’ from the emperor of China (records also discuss similar missions to ‘Honshu’ or the Japanese Mainland as in those days the Japanese Authorities encouraged interaction between its own citizens and Chinese people – encouraging as much learning of Chinese culture as was possible). The Chinese martial arts conveyed were part of the general Chinese missions which were known as ‘Chinese Hand’ (唐手 - Tang Shou) - a term used to refer to the spread of a broad array of Chinese culture. Overtime, the term ‘Chinese Hand’ (唐手 - Tang Shou) lost the meaning pertaining to the act of spreading a general body of Chinese cultural information – and came instead to be associated only with the one element of that transmission – namely the ‘martial’. In other words, in and of itself, ‘Chinese Hand’ (唐手 - Tang Shou) should not (and does not) refer to the practice of Chinese martial arts – even though it has become synonymous with the historical analysis of the Okinawan and Japanese martial art now known today as ‘Karate-Do’.
The cultures of Kyushu and Ryukyu already possessed their own indigenous martial arts traditions (distinct from those found in China or Mainland Japan) during the time of the Tang Dynasty. These local fighting traditions began the process of ‘integrating’ with (and slowly transforming) the transmitted Chinese martial arts – often developing and changing the original structure and purpose. As these Chinese martial arts arrived as part of a greater cultural gift transmitted by the Tang Dynasty – this explains why these diverse fighting systems became known by the general name of ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) - with ‘Tang’ (唐) being used to denote ‘China’ in general, but also the ‘ruling’ Dynasty during which time the transmission is believed to have occurred! If the martial art referred to was transmitted during the Song (宋), Yuan (元), Ming (明) or even Qing (清) eras – then logic dictates that the fighting systems in question would have been named after those Dynasties! This thinking holds true, even if these Chinese martial arts were part of much broader Chinese cultural exchanges!
Another point to consider is the use of the ideogram ‘手’ (shou3) - literally denoting an ‘open’ hand (with four fingers and thumb being present) - which in and of itself does not represent anything particularly ‘martial’ within Chinese fighting culture! Indeed, when combined with the ideogram ‘高’ (gao1) - as in ‘高手’ (Gao Shou) - the concept of ‘expert master’ is formed! This is someone who possesses a ‘greater perception’ because they have attained a ‘higher point of view’ and are able to ‘act’ in the physical world by using their ‘hands’ (and by logical implication - the rest of their body) to perform a superior type of transformative labour, which progressively alters the human world! Therefore, whereas ‘高手’ (Gao Shou) implies an exceptional (individual) being who possesses the ability to transform the world through the use of their superior action (in whatever form) – when the term ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) is used, I believe it refers to the culture of the ‘Tang Dynasty’ in general, elements of which were exported out of the geographical boundaries of what we would now term ‘China’ - as part of various diplomatic missions to other parts of the world (effectively spreading Confucian spiritual and material culture). Chinese martial arts may well have comprised part of these so-called ‘civilising’ gifts – but the martial arts themselves would not have originally been termed ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) - but held this title only in the sense of being transmitted as a ‘gift’. The Chinese diplomatic mission would have been termed ‘Tang Shou’ (唐手) - comprising of thousands of different aspects of Chinese culture – with martial arts representing just one aspect.
In general, a physical art designed for martial purposes would be designated within Chinese cultural parlance by the term ‘拳’ (quan2). To understand why this ideogram denotes a ‘closed’ or ‘clenched’ fist, its structure must be examined in greater detail. At the start, it is important to understand that the ideogram ‘拳’ does contain the ideogram ‘手’ (shou3) - but only as a modified particle, the reasons for which I shall now explain. The ideogram ‘拳’ (quan2) is comprised of the following constituent parts:
Top Particle (Phonetic) = ‘龹’ which is a contraction of ‘𢍏’ (juan4) - to roll rice into a ball.
Lower Particle (Compound) = ‘手’ (shou3) - an open hand with four fingers and a thumb.
The key to transforming ‘an open-hand to a closed-hand' lies in the inherent meaning of the upper particle ‘𢍏’ (juan4):
Top Particle = 釆 (bian4) - sorting rice, distinguishing and discriminating.
Lower Particle = 廾 (gong3) - two hands pushing outward, bowing in salute and to surround and encircle.
We may then state that ‘拳’ (quan2) a hand is ‘closed’ or ‘clenched’ (although not necessarily with ‘force’), so that rice may be mixed, separated and rolled into balls. A hand maybe ‘closed’ but at the same time it possesses a tremendous skill which differentiates between every action that must be carried-out and performed! At the highest level of martial arts mastery, the ‘closed’ hand remains ‘relaxed’ even when ‘closed’ - as the bone structure is held perfectly aligned without undue effort – so that bodyweight can be effortless transmitted without hindrance through it and into the opponent. The bodyweight of the opponent can also be ‘borrowed’ temporarily by allowing it to enter the aligned bone structure before ‘ejecting’ it out of the fist with tremendous penetrative force! If the Tang Dynasty Authorities intended for the martial arts to be named after themselves (which I doubt), then they would have used a term such as ‘Tang Quan’ (唐拳) - or ‘Tang Fist’. More to the point, when emperors and officials did develop systems of martial arts – they usually gave it their own personal names!
Shifu Adrian Chan-Wyles (b. 1967) - Lineage (Generational) Inheritor of the Ch'an Dao Hakka Gongfu System.