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karate kanji

Posted to the Cyberdojo:

"Frank D. Williams, PhD" ( writes:

> The kanji for Karate uses to be written "China Hand" not empty hand
> until the late 1940's or early 1950's.

I just happened to be browsing through my copy of _Karate-do Nyumon_
the other day:

"1. Since there are no written records, it is not known for sure whether
the _kara_ in karate was originally written with the character ...
meaning `China' or the character ... meaning `empty'. During the time
when admiration for China and things Chinese was at its height in the
Ryuk[y]us, it was the custom to use the former character when referring to
things of fine quality, Influenced by this practice, in recent times
karate has begun to to be written with the character [China] to give it
a sense of class or elegance.

"2. However, this usage can cause karate to be confused with Chinese
kenpo. The kata and kumite we are now studying and our method of
practice are independent of and quite different from Chinese kenpo.
(Still, it should be noted that Okinawan karate today contains some kata
apparently unchanged since their original transmission from China).


"Actually, no evidence exists linking the use of the character [China]
with the origins of karate. In olden times, people had no specific
Chinese characters in mind when they spoke of karate."

- Karate-do Nyumon, Gichin Funakoshi, p.24 in the 1988 Kodansha edition

It's a good point: people talk about a "change" in the character
used to write "karate" as if it were a change in a longstanding
tradition, but writing "karate" at all is a fairly new practice. First,
people weren't writing about karate, since it was practiced in secret;
second, it wasn't called karate - Funakoshi notes the use of "to-de" and
"Okinawa-te" as being common in his youth to speak distinctly of the
imported and native arts.

And actually, the "empty" character was used as early as 1905,
according to this article at

It's possible that "karate" as "Chinese hand" is as accurate as
"French fries" (probably Belgian) or "Swedish massage" (systemized by a
Dutch guy who used French names to describe techniques that probably
came from Greece, India, and China).

Not to say that there weren't very important Chinese influences,
just that the question of how "Chinese" karate is can't be answered by
looking at the name.

-- Tom Swiss / tms(at) / /
"What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" - Nick Lowe
"Power to the Peaceful" - Michael Franti

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