Article by Emanuel Giordano and Manuel Vignola

Given the recent increase in interest in this kata, and also given the various requests received regarding some clarification on the use of the Sanchin kata in Shuri-te, as well as the incompleteness and some errors in the information recently released on the Italian pages of the social networks (facebook, Youtube, etc.), we thought it's appropriate to write this short and concise article. We remind you to click on the words written in blue, in order to view articles and / or videos connected to them.

Sostieni il progetto / support the project: https://ko-fi.com/shorinryuitalia

The Sanchin 三戦 kata (literally: three battles / three conflicts) is considered the basis of various styles of Karate, especially those most influenced, or directly arrived, from southern China such as Chojun Miyagi's Goju-ryu, the Kojo-ryu of the Kojo family (of which only a few secondary derived schools exist, being the main lineage now extinct. Source: Kojo family), the Ryuei-ryu of the Nakaima family, the Isshin-ryu of Tatsuo Shimabukuro and the Uechi-ryu of Kanbun Uechi. It is the first kata to be learned, since the main purpose is to build a strong and robust physique, learn grounding and abdominal breathing, the use of hara (tanden), together with creating a greater union between mind and body. This form cannot be traced back to a precise historical period, however it came and is still practiced in many styles of southern China, especially in He Quan 鹤拳 (Crane Fist), in Wuzu Quan 五祖拳 (Five ancestors Fist) and in the Taizu Quan 太祖拳 (Great ancestor Fist).
As already said this kata is a Chinese form, whose name is written with the same ideograms (三戦) used in Okinawa and Japan, but whose pronunciation is different depending on the Chinese geographical area in which it is practiced. Recall that in China, in addition to the official Chinese language, there are hundreds of linguistic variants and dialects. San Zhan is the pronunciation in Chinese, but the pronunciations San Zheng, Sam Chien, Sam Cian (in Fujian) and San Tsien (in Fuzhou) are not uncommon. Not only is this taolu (Chinese form) performed differently depending on the style or school (while still remaining recognizable), but there are different variations of this form, sometimes practiced even within the same style. In fact, San Zhan / Sanchin is part of a group of fundamental forms (which in Japanese we could define Kihon kata) defined in some styles as "battle forms", whose purposes are the same as those described in the introduction above. If we take Taizu Quan for example, we find among these forms San Zhan 三戦, Zhima Zhan 直马戦, Tian zi Zhan 天字戦, Pingma Zhan 平马戦, Shizi Zhan 十字戦, Wuhu Zhan 五虎戦, the Tiandiren Zhan 天地人戦, the Fengwei Zhan 凤尾戦, the Ruihua Zhan 瑞华戦, and the Longtou Zhan 龙头戦. Changing style, sometimes, the kata / taolu is called differently. For example, in Wuzu Quan the Shizi Zhan 十字戦 is called San Zhan Shizi 三戰十字 (three battles cross pattern), noting the fact that the majority of these forms are actually variations of the basic San Zhan. In Okinawa, as shown by the various studies conducted so far, there are only different versions of two of these taolu, San Zhan (Sanchin) and San Zhan Shizi (Seisan. For info click here for the related article), although according to the authors, other katas could derive from Chinese battle forms, in particular some "Naha-te kata".
Below we will talk about some of the forms of Sanchin practiced in Karate:
  • Kanryo Higaonna used Sanchin as a basic kata, performing it originally with a natural breath and using open hands, as well as taking three steps forward, followed by a rotation (mawatte) and another three steps towards the starting point. His studies began in Okinawa and then continued in southern China, but surely it was not he who imported this kata to Okinawa. Around 1905, with the introduction of Karate in schools, Kanryo Higaonna also adapted to the prevailing line of modifying some katas for school teaching. Some open hand techniques, more dangerous, have been changed in closed hand techniques, reason for which the hands were also closed in Sanchin (source: interview with Morio Higaonna). Other changes were made by his pupil Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-ryu. Believing that it was more natural to step back rather than turning 180° and going back, at some point in his teaching he modified the kata by removing the rotation and introducing three steps backwards (some Chinese San Zhan are also performed in this way. One of them is Pingma Zhan.) This version was named Sanchin dai ichi. Miyagi also modified the breathing technique inspired by some Chinese martial arts and making it more intense, certainly influenced also by his friendship with Go Kenki, Master of White Crane and his great friend. It should be noted that in kata the concept of closed hands or open hands, even if it seems relevant, is not that much, since fists can easily be transformed into open hand techniques, as long as they are conditioned and that the necessary applications have been studied. In addition, some Chinese schools use a clenched fist instead of an open hand, making the comparison "open hand = original / ancient" false. All styles and schools that include the Sanchin of Higaonna perform it by closed hands, as among others did Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu) and Shinpan Gusukuma, students mainly of Itosu but also of Higaonna. In the Sanchin handed down by the latter two the execution of the kata is different from that introduced by their friend Miyagi, since the breath is much less accentuated, the posture is different, and the 180° rotation of the Sanchin of Higaonna has been maintained (maintained also in Gogen Yamaguchi's Japanese Goju-ryu). This version of the Sanchin is adapted to the use of the body in use in the main style practiced by the two, namely the Shorin-ryu of Itosu. The same applies to Kensei Kinjo and his Kushin-ryu, as Kinjo imported several Naha-te kata from his technical exchanges with Kenwa Mabuni, when the two were in Osaka.
  • Kanbun Uechi studied Sanchin kata (together with Seisan and Sanseryu) in China and used it as the basis for his style, later called Uechi-ryu by his son. This version uses open hands, and has a slightly different enbusen than Miyagi's, also including some techniques aimed at the sides.
  • Originally Hohan Soken, founder of Matsumura Seito Shorin-ryu, taught Sanchin kata. However, he would have stopped teaching it because one of his pupils, due to an incorrect practice of this form, would have had very serious health problems. Research is still ongoing with some of his former students, who are still passing it on. Tetsuhiro Hokama himself claims to have seen Soken perform it in his youth. However, being a popular topic, one must pay attention to the numerous fake kata (sometimes on sale on the internet) that can be easily found in circulation precisely because of the curiosity that arouses this rare form.
  • Yuchoku Higa, founder of the Kyudokan Shorin-ryu school, recalled in one of his interviews that he saw Seiei Miyahira, one of his Masters and a pupil of Kyuna Tanmei, perform this kata, but he never transmitted it.
  • In the Shubukan Shorin-ryu school of the Uema family, Shuri Sanchin is still being performed by closed hands. It is possible that Joky Uema learned it from one of his Masters, Taro Shimabukuro, a pupil in turn of Kyuna Tanmei (like Seiei Miyahira). At the moment we are awaiting clarification directly from the Uema family, already asked about the matter.
  • In the Ishimine-ryu school, Kuma te Sanchin was practiced, which was a Sanchin that uses a characteristic "bear hand", therefore obviously performed with an open hand.
  • Although many consider the Moto Te ichi and the Moto Te ni (respectively performed one with the closed hands and the other with open hands) as two forms of Sanchin handed down by the Bugeikan school and Motobu Udundi, this is not fully true, since these two forms were created as preparatory exercises by Seikichi Uehara (or according to some sources directly from Choyu Motobu), and imported into the Bugeikan school by Seitoku Higa, one of the first students of Uehara. However, in the Bugeikan it is kept only by the Kancho (currently Kiyohiko Higa) an open-hand form of Sanchin called Sho Sanchin / Matsu Sanchin, taught by Seikichi Uehara and deriving from Choyu Motobu, who would have learned it from his Master Sokon Matsumura (source: Seikichi Uehara). At the Bugeikan there is also the so-called Shuri Sanchin, performed by closed hand. This kata is used as warm-up, and it has been transmitted by Choyu Motobu. It is probably the same kata preserved by the Uema family.
Seitoku Higa performs Matsu Sanchin
Naihanchi (Tekki in some Japanese styles) is the fundamental kata of Shorin-ryu, and is also present in the styles derived from it (eg Shotokan, Shotokai, Shito-ryu, etc.), although in these latest styles it has lost its role. Just like Sanchin, Naihanchi is also a formative kata, although like some versions of San Zhan it is also useful for studying practical combat techniques, suitable for short-range combat. The origins of Naihanchi are unknown, but  there are many theories about its "roots".  This topic will be addressed and deepened in future volumes of the Encyclopedia of Shorin-ryu Karate. Although according to prof. Xinhui Wen the origins of this form are to be found in the Dazun Quan 达尊拳 (one of the styles that are part of the Wuzu Quan), it is also possible that it was part of the Chinese "battle forms" set and, therefore, of the San Zhan family (although later modified in Okinawa). One version of "San Zhan" in particular has similarities with Naihanchi: Pingma Zhan. Some movements of this taolu, including some techniques crossed in front of the body and the horse stance, are very reminiscent of the Naihanchi kata (which was originally performed in shiko-dachi). His name also refers to the horse stance that characterizes it. 
To date, there are three Naihanchi (shodan, nidan and sandan. The last two created by Anko Itosu), which form a mini-set of "battle kata", thus mirroring the set of battle forms found in some Chinese styles. It is also curious that, just like the battle taolu of the Taizu Quan, the three Naihanchi are not taught one after the other, but inserted at certain moments of the practitioner's training, interposing other forms of different nature among them (eg Pinan, Passai, Chinto, etc). This modus operandi causes these battle forms prepare the practitioner for what he will learn from the forms (okinawan kata or Chinese taolu) that he will study later.

For more information you can read:

"Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)

"Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)

"Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)

"The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)