This kata has been described by many writers as the original exercise that
Bodhidharma taught to the monks at the Shaolin Temple. However, this
theory has no substantive proof either way, so this actually remains
nothing more than speculation.
At any rate, the Okinawan versions of Sanchin have their origins in the
Quanfa originating from Fujian Province, where many, if not most, Quanfa
styles have a form of this name. In fact, the term Sanchin (written as
"three battles" in kanji) seems to be found only in Fujian-based Quanfa
systems, as forms of this name are not found in the martial arts of other
areas (Kinjo, 1999).
Many researchers, especially from the Gojuryu tradition, credit
Higashionna Kanryo with bringing back Sanchin from his studies in China (Higaonna,
1981; Kai, 1987). However, there is evidence that Sanchin had existed in
Okinawa since before Higashionna's voyage to Fujian and was passed on by
Aragaki Seisho, who was Higashionna's first teacher(Iwai, 1992; Okinawa
Prefectural Board of Education, 1995)).
Higashionna's teacher in Fujian is believed by many to be Xie Zhong Xiang,
founder of Whooping Crane boxing (McCarthy, 1995; Okinawa Prefectural
Board of Education, 1995; Otsuka, 1998; Tokashiki, 1995), although there
is opposition to this theory (Kinjo, 1999). Higashionna is believed to
have learned the Happoren form from Xie, which is said to be the basis for
the modern Gojuryu version of Sanchin (Otsuka, 1998). Higashionna probably
integrated concepts from Happoren to the Sanchin he learned under Aragaki.
When practicing Happoren alone, however, the breathing is silent (Otsuka,
In either case, Higashionna had his students spend several years on
Sanchin alone before allowing them to move on to the other kata he taught.
Higashionna apparently taught Sanchin as an open hand kata at first, with
fast breathing, but later changed it to a slower, closed fist version (Higaonna,
1981; Murakami, 1991). Others give Miyagi Chojun credit for closing the
fists and slowing down the breathing (Kinjo, 1999).
One provocative account survives about the importance of Sanchin in
Higashionna Kanryo's teachings:
"When I was still a child, I wanted to see the karate of the famous
Higashionna Sensei, even if only once. So I went to the place he was
teaching. However, no matter when I went, I never saw Higashionna Sensei
perform karate. His students were practicing only Sanchin with all their
might, and Higashionna Sensei was instructing them." (sic, Murakami, 1991,
The three of Sanchin is often described in English as the battles between
mind, body and breath. Other descriptions refer to attack and defense on
the three levels, i.e. the upper, middle and lower levels (Kinjo, 1999;
Otsuka, 1998; Tokashiki, 1995). The three important points of Sanchin have
been described as the stance, the breathing method and the spirit, and if
any one of these three are lacking, one will not be able to master Sanchin
Higashionna Kanryo's Sanchin features two turns, and only one step back.
In order to remedy the lack of backward stepping, Miyagi Chojun created a
shorter version of the kata, featuring no turns, and two steps backwards (Higaonna,
1981). It is this version that Shimabuku Tatsuo utilized in his Isshinryu
The Kata of Okinawa Isshinryu Karate-do: An Informal Discussion on their
Possible Origins by Joe Swift