Interview: George Alexander, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu (Part 2)
Continuing from Part 1 of the George Alexander interview:
MA: One of the things you are best known for is your experience in Hakutsuru White Crane Kenpo. Could you discuss a little bit about what this is, and why you’ve dug so hard to uncover and preserve the principles of hakutsuru?
GA: Well it actually became a sort of quest! You may recall the karate kid movie with the crane kick and all that – those techniques were perpetuated by Hohan Soken and Yuichi Kuda, which is ultimately where I came to do a lot of my training. Due to those instructors and the movies, my interest was peaked as to what the hakutsuru techniques were all about, especially after I had studied Nai Hanchi, Pinan, Passai, Kusanku, etc. for so long.
Ultimately I came to ask myself…hmm – what else is there? Well the Matsumura lineage has its own hakutsuru…but you go past that and start to wonder where THAT came from. Eventually it leads to the fact that there were certain instructors who were teaching this white crane stuff in Okinawa…and historical curiousity develops about who was teaching who what. and I started pursuing that. I’ve been doing that for probably 25 years, trying to get to the bottom of white crane.
The paths of all this study continously led me back to China. The evidence was so powerful, in fact, that I decided to visit China myself two years ago and pursue the study even further, experiencing the area myself.
MA: Wow that must have been an amazing trip. What did you unearth there?
GA: Through that trip I was better able to trace the white crane lineage, even as it jumped from China to Okinawa. What it amounts to is that the white crane style (or southern white crane style more specifically) is what influenced Okinawan karate the most. Southern white crane mythology suggests that a woman started it about 350 years ago in Yong Chun village in the Fujian Province. I happened to go there and had the chance to talk and train with the masters still practicing the style in one form or another.
I actually did a documentary to help record these findings called Yong Chun White Crane, and another called In Search of Shaolin.
MA: What an experience!
GA: Yea it was pretty cool, haha. It was all part of a larger search. So as I began putting these connections together I noticed a strong influence of white crane on naha-te, more so than shuri-te and tomari-te, the other two major styles of the time.
OF course, there were exceptions. Hohan Soken, of my own lineage (Matsumura Shorin Ryu, which is strongly connected to Shuri-te), was known to have studied with a Chinese man named Gokenki. Gokenki was known as an herbalist and tea merchant, but was also a traveler who visited Okinawa around 1910. He influenced many Okinawans with white crane including Matayoshi, Chojun Miyagi, Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-Ryu), and perhaps Uechi as well.
Kanryo Higashionna, one of Miyagi’s sensei, traveled to china in the late 1800s and studied under two masters named Ryu Ru Ko and Waishinzan. He was rumored to have acquired great skill under these men and even acquaint himself with other chinese styles during his days there.
There are a few other lineages of this nature, but you can see how the connections started to develop and how white crane could have assimilated and mixed with Okinawan technique as these experts continued to train and seek out new approaches to their art.
One important thing to note is that hakutsuru karate doesn’t exist as a separate style on Okinawa. It was always integrated into the arts. But as I saw it fading out more and more, I decided to put extra effort into preserving it. That is why you see me offering it separately from karate like Shorin Ryu in the form of Hakutsuru Kenpo. It helps the preservation efforts, and really, anybody can benefit as the old masters did.
Recently, the Okinawan government took note of what I was doing and actually sent me a Menkyo (teacher’s license) in recognition of their approval.
MA: That’s significant. Did you have to apply for something like that?
GA: Actually no I didn’t. They just sort of heard about me. It wasn’t my original intention to develop anything official. I’m just like a green belt running around out there trying to learn more stuff and I think I’m always going to have that mentality. But over the years it just kinda happened.
MA: I’d like to switch gears and ask you a couple of concept questions. During my time teaching and writing online there seem to be some recurring themes that people like to discuss or try to learn more about. I think it would great if we could get your take on some of these topics.
GA: Sure, fire away.
MA: How important do you think Hojo Undo (body hardening and strengething) is in traditional training? Some people swear by it, while others find it a bit antiquated for modern society.
GA: There are a few ways you can look at it. What hojo undo originally did was make you stronger. If you were stronger you could be a better fighter and would therefore be better at self defense.
There’s a counter argument from the modern perspective – when was the last time you actually defended yourself? Sure if you hang out in dark alleys and shady bars you may have to, but in normal day to day life, is it applicable? Why are we doing all this?
The whole point of hojo undo, I think, is preserving tradition and enhancing other aspects of your martial arts. Two prime examples: the first is developing a stronger martial spirit, which helps you with every day trials and tribulations. The other is improving your health. Kata and sparring help with cardio, but hojo undo fills in the gap with resistance training (which develops muscle tissue and bone density).
For more with Alexander Sensei check out the project “Tales From the Western Generation”! This is a collection of extensive interviews with senior karate practitioners.