Karate’s origins trace back to a common fighting system known as “te” (Okinawan: ti) among the Pechin class of the Ryukyuans. The introduction of some Chinese martial arts to the Ryukyu Islands occurred after trade relations were established with the Ming dynasty of China in 1372, thanks to King Satto of Chūzan. The island’s connection with China led to a significant cultural exchange.
Around 1392, a substantial influx of Chinese families moved to Okinawa, forming the Kumemura community. These immigrants brought with them a wealth of Chinese arts and sciences. It is assumed that they also included martial arts. This infusion of knowledge played a pivotal role in the development of martial arts in Okinawa.
The centralization of Okinawa by King Shō Hashi in 1429 and the subsequent weapon ban enforced by King Shō Shin in 1477 may have further contributed to the evolution of unarmed combat techniques on the island.
Early ‘te’ had various practitioners with individual methods, like the Motobu-ryū school passed down from the Motobu family by Seikichi Uehara. These early styles are often categorized as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, named after the cities where they originated. Each region had its distinct kata, techniques, and principles that set their version of ‘te’ apart from the others.
Okinawan elite members frequently traveled to China to study various political and practical disciplines. The incorporation of Chinese Kung Fu into Okinawan martial arts was influenced by these exchanges and the increasing legal restrictions on weaponry. Traditional Karate kata share a striking resemblance to forms found in Fujian martial arts, such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced “Gōjūken” in Japanese). Moreover, many Okinawan weapons, like the sai, tonfa, and nunchaku, may have originated in or around Southeast Asia.