The History of Wanshu
There are three main scholastic theories on the origins of the kata Empi (Flight of the Swallow, also frequently transliterated as Enpi). The first is that it was brought to Okinawa in 1683 by a Chinese envoy named Wang Ji, an expert in Shaolin Fujian White Crane.
The second suggests it was brought to Okinawa in the late 14th century by a group of immigrants from China known as the Thirty-Six Families, who brought with them new systems of martial arts that were taught to a select few on the island that were deemed worthy.
The third popular theory on the origins of Empi suggest it was developed more recently on the island itself as the kata was previously known as Wanshu, a name that could have come as a result of it being dedicated or even created by an Okinawan karate master by the name of Suppashi Wanshu.
Whatever its origins, it is possible though far from universally accepted that one of the main moves in the kata, the rising punch, was based on a sword technique of the samurai warrior Sasaki Kojiro, who had a particular move that was said to resemble the flight of a swallow. Kojiro was considered to be the finest swordsman of his day until he was famously defeated and killed in a duel by the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi in 1612.
What we do know is that by the 19th century, Wanshu was being taught by Kosaku Matsumura of the Tomari-te style who passed it down to Sokon Matsumura and Anko Itosu; the versions they practiced however varied suggesting that they independently developed what they were taught. Itosu taught his version to his student Gichin Funakoshi who went on to introduce it to Japan in the 1920s, changing the name from Wanshu to Empi in the process.
This kata has many names; most commonly thought to be the name of the Chinese ambassador to the Okinawan village of Tomari sometime around 1683-1685. This diplomat of the Qing government, ‘Wang Ji’, is reported to have been a highly educated well rounded scholar for his time. As such he would have held a position of authority in the Chinese governmental courts of that period and been well verse in the arts of kanji (Calligrapher type writing developed in China in the 14th century B.C.) and poetry. He was a well-known teacher of the white crane Shaolin from the Fujian area. For the short time of his visit to Tomari prefecture, historians noted he might have introduced Chu’an fa to some of the marital artist of the area (not enough time for anyone master a system). This would attribute to the variations of this form’s pattern and yet it still has distinctive movements that remain the same in all the systems with this kata. Whatever the explanation Wansu, Anshu, Empi (Japenese) or Wang su (Korean) translate as the “dumping kata”, some styles call it the “big drop” or even the “strong arm”. All these describe the grab and throw technique found in most versions. To say the two main forms came from an influence of Matsumura or Itosu, since they both had the same teacher from Tomari village Gusukuma sensei, does sound possible. If each master added his own interpretation of the kata this could explain the differences. One interesting fact is that when I tested for my Ni-dan this was the kata chosen for me to demonstrate due to its complexity and advancement of techniques. Some years later this kata became the first kata we taught in the Ken Shin Kan dojo.
Wansu (Wanshu) is one of the most popular forms among Okinawan systems and has been used for many years, undergoing many modifications. Even today, there are several variations of this traditional form. Wansu, is said to have been named after a Chinese envoy to Okinawa who happened to be a martial artist. It is believed that Wansu originated in China around 1690, making it one of the oldest Okinawan forms. Wansu was primarily used around the village of Tomari and therefore part of the Tomari-Te system. There is also a Chinese name that the form is translated to mean Flying Swallow.
The kata includes a distinctive upper level attack followed by the defender grasping the opponent and drawing him inward, simultaneously jumping in and attacking again. This movement resembles the up and down and flipping away flight of a swallow.
The form emphasizes speed and contains a throwing technique. Towards the end of the form, there are a series of moves in which the karateka picks up the attacker and dumps him to the ground. For this reason, Wansu kata is known as “the Dumping Form”. Because the form emphasizes very strong vertical punches, it is also know as the “Strong Arm Form”. Tatsuo Shimabuku referred to Wansu as the “Dragon Boy” form due to the strong movement of the downward strike or block from the T-stance, which feels like a sweep of a dragon’s tail.
The primary technique of Wansu is the vertical punch. The “hidden” punch is the second vertical punch of each series which is executed while drawing the opposite hand to the neck. In some systems, this punch is delivered as a fore-knuckle punch.
Perhaps the oldest kata in all karate, Empi came to Okinawa around 1683. No-one knows its actual Chinese name because the Okinawans called it Wansu (or Wanshu), naming it after the Chinese envoy who brought it to the island.
Wansu taught the kata (of the same name) in the city of Tomari and therefore it became part of the Tomari-te system. Being originally Chinese, it is likely the Okinawans were quick to give it a more snappy and direct approach (making it more indigenous to the arts of Okinawa). As with many kata, as the Okinawan Masters passed away, their students went out and taught slightly different versions. The version that Go-Kan-Ryu practises comes from the Shotokan lineage and it is thought that this version was modified from the original by ‘Bushi’ Matsumura, but most likely Yasutune Itosu.
While Okinawan karate-ka still refer to it as Wansu, most styles around the world refer to it as Em-pi which translates to mean ‘The Flying Swallow’ (‘Em’ meaning flying and ‘Pi’ meaning swallow). Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) changed the name from Wansu to Empi when he brought the kata to Japan because he felt the up and down swooping movements were a close resemblance to the swooping flight of a swallow. These movements are seen in its numerous techniques where a distinctive jaw strike is followed by the defender grasping the opponent and drawing him inward, simultaneously jumping in and attacking again.