Who was RYU RYU KO?

By: David Lambert – IOGKF International Editor

Our International Editors research into the history of Okinawan Goju-ryu has lead him to write the below paper on the life of Chinese Crane Master and teacher of Kanryo Higaonna Sensei, Ryu Ryu Ko. Clearing up facts along the way, he paints a picture of what the life of Ryu Ryu Ko was actually like...

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Ryu Ryu Ko is NOT the person in the above picture as many believe.

Through my research into the history of Goju-ryu over the last few years, I have become more and more interested in Ryu Ryu Ko – the instructor of Kanryo Higaonna Sensei. There are countless texts and stories about Miyagi Chojun Sensei and his teacher, most of which key historians seem to agree on as fact. However when it comes to Ryu Ryu Ko I am noticing more and more variety in details between sources. I wanted to take the time to study Ryu Ryu Ko more up close and try to determine what was indeed fact and find just who Ryu Ryu Ko was, to try and paint a picture of his life.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge that I believe Higaonna Morio Sensei to be the person who has conducted the most superior research on the early roots, as well as the most complete study on the history, of our style. He has been on countless trips to Fuzhou in Southern China, starting in 1987 and travelling there most recently as July this year (2010). I utilise Higaonna Morio Sensei’s research as the most primary source on this subject.

To add to this, the person in the above picture is not Ryu Ryu Ko. Higaonna Sensei and the Fuzhou Karate association have agreed on this fact and Higaonna Sensei is working very hard to make people understand this. I hope this article may help this cause.

So who was Ryu Ryu Ko? The basic fact we are all tested on in Dan gradings: the teacher of Kanryo Higaonna Sensei. But there is much, much more to this man than just producing a high quality student.

Many sources (especially on the internet!) quote Ryu Ryu Ko to have been born in July 1852. According to Higaonna Morio Sensei, Kanryo Sensei travelled to China at the age of 15 and at this time Ryu Ryu Ko was said to be about 40 years of age.

Unfortunately this mean 1852 cannot be his correct year of birth; According the text ‘The history of Karate’, Kanryo Higaonna Sensei was born in 1853, which would make Ryu Ryu Ko only one year older than his student. We know from Kanryo Sensei’s accounts to Chojun Sensei, that he was in fact much older. To follow Higaonna Morio Sensei’s quote that Ryu Ryu Ko was 40 years of age when Kanryo Sensei arrived in China, means that Ryu Ryu Ko’s real year of birth would be around 1828.

Ryu Ryu Ko was born into a noble or aristocratic family in Fukien (Fujian) province, in Southern China. In this region during that time, only members of such a family were permitted to study the martial arts. Ryu Ryu Ko began his martial arts study in the mountains of the province where a Shaolin temple was based.

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A Shaolin Temple in Southern China

A few sources I researched labelled a person named Kwan Pang Yuiba as Ryu Ryu Ko’s teacher. However, through all my research I was not able to find many facts about this person or any link to Ryu Ryu Ko. His teachers name is also not listed in the ‘History of Karate’, most probably because there is not enough evidence to prove this is fact. I am unsure as to who Ryu Ryu Ko’s teacher was, but chances are they were a practitioner of the white or whooping crane style.

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Crane style movements

Ryu Ryu Ko’s skill must have grown to become quite superior as he became a personal security guard to the Fukien King.

In the 1800’s a civil war broke out and it was a time of fear for many in the province. The Fukien Kingdom was basically destroyed & all the Kings personal security guards were forced to make a hard decision. Living with the threat of not only being killed, but having their entire family murdered as well, the guards either had to flee to neighbouring countries or go underground to hide.

Higaonna Morio Sensei explained that Ryu Ryu Ko chose to hide underground. Whilst in hiding, Ryu Ryu Ko let his hair grow quite long to change his appearance from a security guard to avoid being discovered as a noble man. He was also living separate from his family during this time to help protect them from the risks of violence brought on by the civil war.

Still needing to make a living, Ryu Ryu Ko had to change his job. He took work in a Brick factory and as a brick layer. Along with this, he also took some work as a carpenter or farmer. We know that by around 1868 Ryu Ryu Ko was making a living producing everyday goods like baskets and furniture, as this was the work he was doing when Kanryo Sensei first started training with him.

We also know that wherever the civil war, its troubles and his work took Ryu Ryu Ko, he spent the later years of his life in Fuzhou City.

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Ryu Ryu Ko as depicted in the Goju-ryu Masters comic book series

He was a very tall man for his nationality, he was approximately 6 feet tall. Kanryo Higaonna Sensei often told Chojun Sensei that he was always looking up at his teacher. He also commented that Ryu Ryu Ko’s size was so great, that when he had Shime performed on him that it felt like the slaps were coming from the second floor!

Ryu Ryu Ko’s house in Fuzhou was a two story dwelling. Ryu Ryu Ko slept upstairs and Kanryo Sensei slept on the bottom floor where the Masters workshop was based. I have been told many times that Kanryo Sensei would often wake up in a pool of water when the lower floor flooded.

At the time Kanryo Sensei became a pupil of Ryu Ryu Ko there was only about 4 or 5 students training. This was probably due to the fact that Ryu Ryu Ko was an extremely strict teacher. If he noticed a student, in particular Kanryo Sensei, not trying their best, he would kick them quite hard so they wouldn’t slack off again.

However at the same time there was another school teaching the same style as Ryu Ryu Ko in Fuzhou and had a large number of students. The instructor for this school was a man named Wan Shin Za and he taught many Okinawan residents who were living in Fuzhou.

If a student came to be a pupil of Ryu Ryu Ko, they usually only attended a few days then quit to become a student of Wan Shin Za. Apparently the two instructors were often confused for one another by locals. However as I mentioned Ryu Ryu Ko was a quite large man, where Wan Shin Za was not. Their techniques were said to have subtle differences because of their physical dimensions. I think Ryu Ryu Ko must have had exceptional technique, as a result of demanding training in the Shaolin temple, to be chosen as a personal guard for the King.

As with most teachers of the time and still today, we can assume (to a degree) that Ryu Ryu Ko taught his martial arts the way he had learned them in the Shaolin temple from his own instructor. If there is any truth this, we can also assume that the training he put Kanryo Sensei through was close to what he himself had gone through.

Kanryo Sensei spent much of his time practicing Sanchin (or Sanchen as pronounced in Fuzhou), along with lots of Hojo Undo & conditioning training. There was also a large emphasis on standing, ground and joint techniques.

It is interesting to note that the Hojo Undo equipment we have today is only about half of what they had at the time Ryu Ryu Ko was training. When Higaonna Morio Sensei first travelled to China in 1987, the local Masters demonstrated their Hojo Undo for him. Even then, they did not have many more than we do now, so the equipment and their usage must have died out around the time when Ryu Ryu Ko became an instructor – most probably due to the turmoil of the civil war or due to the fact martial arts were still practiced in secret.

We know from many historical accounts and in particular from ‘The history of Karate’ that Ryu Ryu Ko possessed great strength and speed, and that he was more than capable of handling himself if confrontation or a challenge arose. He had a ferocious grip according to many historians.

The exact grave site of Ryu Ryu Ko is unknown and I believe this something Higaonna Morio Sensei has been working hard to locate for some time. Problems come into play when it appears Ryu Ryu Ko was know by many names, that can be written and pronounced many different ways in many different dialects. Perhaps this was a way of protecting his true identity during the civil war, as it is unlikely that he was born as Ryu RyuKo. Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence support claims of other birth names.


Photograph of one of Higaonna Sensei’s most recent research trips to China.

So who was Ryu Ryu Ko? We may never fully know. However he was obviously a man who survived brutal training to achieve his level of skill and mastery. However it is also obvious he was a man who had to endure much hardship as the result of his position in society at the hand of a ruthless civil, to the extent where he had to change his appearance and identity and live separate from his own family to ensure general safety. I’m not sure whether he was the kind of person who felt he had to be constantly looking over his shoulder or always running from his past, but either way the turmoil brought on by the war must have haunted him for some years.

Perhaps it is fate that a personal security guard to a King is driven to change his identity and fade from his high class life to become a humble bamboo tradesman, who took a young emotional strained boy as his pupil and created one of the greatest Karate Masters of all history.

I hope this article helps to paint a bit of a clearer picture of Ryu Ryu Ko and the origins of the Goju-ryu style. The research and recordings Higaonna Morio Sensei has compiled in his quest to document every aspect of our style is in my opinion the greatest resource we have to where Goju-ryu originiated.

Ryu Ryu Ko endured a unique life with many difficult circumstances and I am sure that the indomitable spirit he would have developed from his hard martial arts training would have helped him conquer whatever life threw at him. We can all learn from Ryu Ryu Ko’s determination and from the lessons he taught Kanryo Sensei, which were passed onto Chojun Sensei, down to Anichi Sensei and to Higaonna Morio Sensei.

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Primary Resources:

History of Karate                By: Sensei Morio Higaonna, 2001 edition, Chapter: Kanryo Higaonna.

MCF 2006 DVD                    History lecture – early history of Goju-ryu. Lecture given by Sensei Morio Higaonna, translated by Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura – 2006 DVD set, Disc 2