Kenpo (also written as “Kempo”) has an extensive history as an evolving martial art that draws its roots as far back as approximately 520 BC. This was when Bodhidharma (the founder of Zen Buddhism) traveled to China from India.
Bodhidharma (also known by the names “Tamo” and “Daruma”) was a descendant of the original Buddha and was a pivotal character in the early spread of the martial arts. One of his most well-known quotes was:
“To fall down seven times, to rise eight times, life starts from now.”
When Bodhidharma traveled to China, he found the monks in a state of physical decline and unable to withstand the prolonged periods of meditation. Accordingly, he instituted a series of 18 exercises in an attempt to improve the physical condition of the monks. These exercises (believed to be similar to yoga) became the catalyst for the creation of other physical disciplines used to further the spiritual development of the monks.
In the centuries after Bodhidharma’s time, the exercises increasingly took on a martial attitude. The reason for this new approach was probably due to attacks on monasteries by outlaws. It was during one of these attacks that there appeared a man known only as the “begging monk”, who used a collection of hand and foot techniques to drive away the attackers. The other monks were very impressed by this display, and requested instruction in this method of self-defence.
The next appreciable contribution occurred in the 16th century when a Shaolin monk, Ch’ueh Yuen, expanded the original 18 exercises to 72. This practice took on a combative theme. Later he left the temple and traveled extensively throughout China in search of other martial art masters in order to further his skills.
News of the fabled art of Kenpo resulted in numerous trips to China by the Japanese and Okinawans. Some people would disappear for many years, presumed dead by their families, only to resurface as a master of Kenpo.
The evolution of Kenpo in Japan is not well documented, although it is believed a flurry of attention to the art was brought during attempts to conquer China. It is suggested that many Samurai Warriors returning from China, whether during or after the war, brought with them extensive knowledge of Kenpo and throughout the years modified it to include their own arts of Jujutsu and Aikijutsu. It is at this time when the greatest growth of Kenpo takes place in Japan.
In 1919 a young Hawaiian named James Mitose was sent to Kyushu in Japan to learn his ancestor’s art of Kosho Ryu Kempo. After completing his training in Japan, Mitose returned to Hawaii and in 1937 opened the “Official Self-Defence” club in Honolulu where he called his art Kenpo Jujutsu. It was here that one of his students, William Chow, studied the art.
William Chow’s had previously trained with his Chinese father and therefore, Chow’s previous martial arts knowledge had contained many circular and flowing motions [Note: As a generalisation, it can be said that most Japanese and Okinawan martial arts contain mainly linear motion, whereas most Chinese martial arts are characterised by circular motion]. While training with Mitose, Chow saw the value of incorporating both systems and began to modify and further develop the art.
William “Thunderbolt” Chow was not the average martial artist in that he was also a street fighter who liked to test the effectiveness of his skills by making regular visits to Honolulu Chinatown to challenge the Chinese instructors as well as boisterous US military personnel. He understood that there was no sport in a street fight and trained accordingly. To differentiate his system from that of Mitose, William Chow called his art Chinese Kenpo Karate.
Some suspect that the inclusion of the word “Karate” was simply an advertising scheme, as the term was simply more well-known as a type of martial art. “Karate” simply means “empty hand”, denoting a style that does not use artificial weapons to defend an attack. Therefore, “Kenpo Karate” translates as “ Way of the Fist and Empty Hand ”. To differentiate themselves from the traditional Japanese and Okinawan Karate styles, both Mitose and Chow introduced the wearing of a black uniform (gi). This was to represent that Kenpo was more of a “war art” than the increasingly sports-oriented Karate styles in white uniforms.
One of Chow’s most gifted students was a Hawaiian native named Ed Parker who was one of only six people to be promoted to Black Belt. Chow imparted in Parker the necessity for change in the Kenpo system to meet the modern needs of the American people. Parker made numerous contributions of innovative concepts and principles. He further refined and defined the techniques of Chinese Kenpo into a format that could be broken down into levels for all students. He called this art American Kenpo Karate.
Ed Parker brought Kenpo to the United States mainland from Hawaii with the opening of a school in 1954. From there the art flourished, being heavily practiced in the Americas, and has now spread worldwide.