Katas are an indispensable part of karate.
They refer to solo routines that present a set number of techniques or seqences of techniques. Templates if you will.
Nepai kata is such a routine. Its origin is undoubtedly Chinese. Probably from Fuzhou.
Fuzhou is the port capital city of the southern Chinese province of Fujian. Fujian lies geographically speaking at close proximity to Okinawa. Okinawa being the birth place of Karate.
In Chinese-Fuzhou dialect nepai literally means two-eight, a quick way of saying twenty-eight. What this refers to is that Nepai kata consists of 28 sequences of techniques, or templates.
Early Karate styles developed on Okinawa during the start of the 20th century.
We assume some of these Karate styles directly descended from Fuzhou-based Chinese boxing systems.
However an alternative theory is that the kata that make up modern Karate styles were not transmitted from China in their entirety. Rather they were developed on Okinawa based on classical Chinese boxing routines such as Nepai.
Several early Okinawan Karate pioneers made the pilgrimage to Fuzhou to study martial arts there. Amongst them was Higashionna Kanryo (1853 – 1915). Upon Higashionna's return from Fuzhou he passed on what he learnt to his student Chojun Miyagi. Miyagi later became the founder of Goju Ryu karate.
Who exactly Higashionna studied under in Fuzhou remains a matter of much debate.
Hanshi Patrick McCarthy's research, and the official position of the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society (IRKRS), is that Higashionna studied under Xie Zhongxiang (1852 – 1930).
Xie's White Crane system however does not share any of the routines of Miyagi's Goju Ryu karate.
It seems then that, if Higashionna’s teacher was in fact Xie, the kata that make up Miyagi's Goju Ryu system did not come from Higashionna.
The alternative hypothesis then becomes more imminent. That is, that certain Goju Ryu kata, formerly believed to have descended from an unidentified Fuzhou-based Chinese boxing system, are in fact more recently created kata based on older classical routines from China.
Nepai Kata and The Bubishi
The Bubishi is a classic manual written in Fuzhou dialect somewhere towards the end of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912).
One of the theories as to how the Bubishi ended up on Okinawa is that Higashionna brought it back from Fuzhou upon his return. He then passed it on to his student, Goju Ryu karate founder Bushi Chojun Miyagi.
Miyagi referred to the Bubishi as the bible of karate, and used a poem from the Bubishi to derive the name goju ryu.
When we cross-reference the routines listed and mentioned in the Bubishi however, with the kata we find in Goju Ryu, again we find none are one and the same.
Interestingly, and particularly to those who find it hard to believe Higashionna studied under Xie, Happoren, Xie’s first classical routine, is mentioned in the Bubishi.
The Bubishi furthermore features Nepai kata, Xie's second routine, in it's entirety, i.e. step-by-step.
In 1912 a Fuzhou-born Crane boxer, Go Kenki, migrated to Okinawa. He settled in Okinawa's port capital city of Naha.
A number of prominent Karate enthusiasts studied under Go, amongst whom Miyagi.
Juhatsu Kyoda (another student of Higashionna) and Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito Ryu) also studied under Go.
Juhatsu Kyoda passed on Go's Nepai in To'on ryu.
Kenwa Mabuni used it to develop Nipaipo.
Miyagi No Sanchin
Unlike Kyoda and Mabuni, Miyagi never openly taught Happoren or Nepai.
However, in terms of its dynamics, Miyagi's Sanchin kata clearly came to express the same unique hard-style dynamics that we also find in Xie’s Happoren (see video at the top of the page).
One of Happoren's signature moves furthermore, the closed-fists-double-inside-middle-blocks (i.e. morote chudan no kamae), forms the single most important posture within Miyagi's Sanchin.
This is in contrast with Higashionna’s Sanchin that originally used open hands.
Higashionna’s dynamics have furthemore been described as lighning fast, quite the opposite of the hard-style dynamic tension employed in Miyagi’s Sanchin.
It seems quite possible then, especially knowing Miyagi had the opportunity to learn Happoren, that Miyagi developed Sanchin kata with the principle dynamics and mechanics of Happoren in mind.
The alternative theory then seems to hold ground in this case.
Saifa, Nepai and Sepai
Saifa kata is the second classical routine taught in Miyagi's Goju Ryu system.
It contains a substantial number of techniques and sequences that we find back in Xie’s Whooping Crane version of Nepai kata.
We know Miyagi must have learned Nepai from Go Kenki. We also know Miyagi possessed a copy of the Bubishi, which, as mentioned, lists Nepai in its entirety.
No historical proof furthermore seems to exist that that some of the remaining kata within the Goju Ryu system, such as Saifa, Seipai etc., existed on Okinawa before 1934.
In other words Saifa could have theoretically been created based on Nepai Kata.
In that respect the following is interesting to note.
For beginners Nepai kata is a long routine, even to Chinese standards.
In Fuzhou, for this reason, Nepai is commonly taught, especially to children, in two halves. The first half forms a separate routine with the cut off point set just after Nepai’s signature moves, the windmill palms (mawashi uke).
Nepai Kata features these at about halfway through the routine.
When we look at Saifa kata we find the kata starts with the same opening move as Nepai (the back knuckle strike), and finishes with Nepai’s windmill palms (mawashi uke).
In between the opening and finishing moves we find furthermore several signature moves that are virtually identical.
It thus seems possible, probable even perhaps, that Saifa is in fact Miyagi’s personal and unique creative expression exemplifying Nepai. The first half of Nepai that is, starting with the back knuckle strike and finishing with the windmill palms (mawashi uke).
Miyagi fascination for ancient Chinese philosophy and particularly the numerology associated with Chinese cosmology is well known.
As such the following thought experiment is interesting.
When we subtract the number ten (i.e. for the ten sequences of techniques that Saifa contains) from the number twenty-eight (i.e. Nepai), eighteen sequences of techniques, or templates, remain.
This is interesting because another unaccounted Goju Ryu kata in Miyagi’s system, Sepai, translates as eighteen, and contains a 'remaining' eighteen sequences of techniques.
Within Nepai we find Sepai’s opening move. This indicates Sepai could in fact, if only symbolically, have been created to exemplify Nepai kata’s second half.
It would certainly clear up the similarity between the given names of both forms, Nepai and Sepai.
If we are looking for proof that kata like Saifa and Sepai are unique expressions that carry the principles of Xie's boxing system on within Miyagi’s unique expressions, this author certainly believes we have to look no furhter.
One of the most exciting consequences of such a discovery should be obvious.
That is that an important style leading to the development of Miyagi’s Goju Ryu system is still very much in existence today in China.
Hanshi McCarthy's meticulous research concerning the translation of the Bubishi brought him in contact with many authorities. One of whom being Xie Wenliang, the great grand son of Whooping Crane founder Xie Zhong Xiang.
It was Xie Wenliang who passed on Nepai as we practice it today in KU.
Xie Wenliang's Nepai presents the 28 sequences of techniques as described in the Bubishi.
These form the core of the KU version alongside with their prescribed 28 defensive themes.
Hanshi McCarthy's research in addition brought him into contact with the late master Jin Jin Fu, a 4th generation Fuzhou Crane boxer with a direct lineage to Xie Zhongxiang.
Jin’s version of Nepai, although not a 100% identical, served as a valuable corroboration of the original Bubishi-based Nepai.
The functional approach of the KU Nepai furthermore leaves little room for ambiguity. Free from any superfluous movements which in more recent history has become to define a more performance-based version of Nepai in Fuzhou, China.
As such, and for its obvious historical relevance, the KU Nepai holds a special position within the KU Mokuroku.
1. Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, Matsuyama Koen (Park) Theory