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A Brief History of Karate

There is a great deal of mystery and contradiction surrounding the history of karate prior to the mid to late 1800's, mainly because karate had not been taught publicly for hundreds of years, and written information regarding the art was for the most part non-existent.   As best we know, the origins of karate can be traced to India through China.  The martial arts were brought to China by  Bodhidharma .  He settled at the Shaolin Temple in China.  ("Shaolin" is pronounced "Shorin" in Japanese).  There he began to teach the monks meditation.  Seeing that they could not withstand the strain of intense meditation, Bodhidharma taught them breathing techniques taken from his warrior training in India.  He taught them breathing techniques we now call Sanchin. 
For hundreds of years the Okinawan martial art we now know as karate was referred to as Okinawa-Te, or simply "Te".  The word "Te" (tay) means "hand" in Okinawan.  The word "Tode" (toe-day) was also used during this time.  The word "Tode" means "ancient China hand".  The kanji (character in Japanese writing) for the first half of the word, "To", was used to refer to things of foreign origin, particularly things from ancient China, and indicates a connection to Chinese martial arts.  Probably the simplest and most common term used was simply "Te", therefore, this is the term I will use for further reference. 
From at least the 14th century, maybe earlier, there existed a bare handed fighting art in Okinawa, and until the mid to late 1800's there was no need for a name any more descriptive than the word Te.  This was true because there were not many significantly different types of Te, and it was not taught publicly, nor was it widespread.  In the 1800's, however,  Te began to develop into distinctly different types and the need for more descriptive names arose.  The names that came into use were those towns where certain types of Te were predominant.  There were three such towns in Okinawa; Shuri, Naha, and Tomari.  The Te practiced in each of these towns became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-Te, respectively.  It is uncertain exactly when this began, but it was most likely in the late 1800's.  It is known that a significantly different type of Te was introduced in Okinawa in 1879, in the town of Naha, by Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915), who studied Te briefly in Okinawa and then studied martial arts in China for approximately fifteen years. 

It was at about this same time that the name used today, karate, came into use.  The word karate, at that time, was written with two characters (kanji) that meant the same as the word Tode mentioned earlier, ancient China hand.  It may be that karate was simply another pronunciation of the characters for the word Tode.  Whatever the case, the most widely used general term for the types of Te had become karate sometimes during the late 1800's.  Also, at about this same time, the name Shorei-Ryu emerged to differentiate the two major styles of Te that had come into existence.  The Te predominant in the town of Naha became known as Shorei-Ryu, and the Te predominant in the town of Shuri became commonly referred to as Shorin-