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Tracing the Evolution: The Fascinating History of the Nunchaku

Updated: Mar 16

Fumio Demura

When explaining the origin of the nunchaku, we need to follow different historical paths which lead us to ancient history and direct us towards research of various old stories and tales. With their help, we are able to follow the facts which take us to the history of the development of the nunchaku.

Although it was an agricultural tool which was made out of two connected sticks shaped like a wheat, rice or soy flail, it was used in different parts of the world, such as Gallia, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, India etc.

Today we can, with upmost certainty, say that China is the country where a specific kind of flail (two connected sticks) has originated from. It was used as a tool, but also as a weapon which is today used in martial arts under a well- known name- nunchaku (双截棍). A number of facts dating from different historical periods go in favor of that thesis. Exploring various old legends, we are bound to come across and find out about this one.

Legend says that the first emperor of the Chinese Sung dynasty, Jiu Hong Jun, lost a battle to a Mongolian conqueror in mid- 10th century. In order to recuperate from such a big defeat, the emperor had to retrieve and leave with his army towards the Chinese inland. He situated in the vicinity of a nearby village. Since the villagers fed them and cared for them, emperor Jiu thought that it was the duty of his soldiers to help the peasants in various everyday agricultural work. Among these duties were growing wheat, rice, soy and other crops. The emperor was very regular in visiting his soldiers and making sure they were helping in doing the work they were assigned. In the meantime, he watched the villagers use a tools for threshing wheat and rice which was made out of two sticks of different length tied together with a rope made out of rice hay and intertwined with horse hair.

Since he was a great warrior, emperor Jiu came to the conclusion that this tool could help him fight the Mongolians and that its usage would help him train his infantry. After borrowing the flail (the nunchaku) from a villager, emperor Jiu settled in his tent and, in the next couple of days, came up with and developed specific techniques which his infantry later practiced during combat, using it as a weapon against cavalry. Emperor Jiu developed 18 techniques of usage and called the tool (now, a weapon) dai- so- dji (great cleaners- 伟大的清洁工).He also included certain techniques of punching and breaking horses' front legs as well as various high jumps with punches directed towards the horseman. According to a legend, emperor Jiu trained his army in handling these weapons for a few months together with his generals. They were used for the first time as a weapon in combat. After that, emperor Jiu took his army in a decisive battle near the town of Buk Sung and used his knowledge in the usage of dai- so- dji for the first time.

The Mongolian army was defeated in that battle and banished from the Chinese territory. During the battle the flail's sticks were broken and so they became of the nearly same length. It was noted by a general of Jiu's army and, based on that, later invented a new combination of movements handling a shorter flail. The technique was called stuso- dji ( 小清洁工 –little cleaners). According to this legend, that martial art was identical with today's skill of handling connected sticks (the nunchaku). Today's nunchaku (雙節棍) are derived from the stuso- dji skill.

In some parts of China the nunchaku are also called shuang chin kun(双節棍), which, in free translation, means "a two- part flail". However, in some regions, for example, in Fujian, the nunchaku are called nng-chat-kun (兩節棍), which can be translated as "a pair of connected sticks". In the southern regions of China as well as in some parts of Japan, the nunchaku are also called shuang jie gun (兩節棍), or iang jie gun (二節棍,).According to some discoveries and certain legends, the defensive skills of using the nunchaku were transmitted from China to other neighboring countries such as Japan, Korea, India, Mongolia, The Philippines and others. According to those legends, handling the flail (the nunchaku) as a means of self- defense was brought to Japan by various Chinese masters and priests upon their arrival in the 14th and 15th century.

Some historians think that the spread of the knowledge of handling the nunchaku can be attributed to the Chinese general Chan (Chan Yuan Bin) who was excellent in the practice of martial arts. He ran away from China around the year 1640 because of the prosecution of the Manchu dynasty and took shelter on Okinawa (and after in Bushio Edo– today's Tokyo). General Chan also spread the skill of fighting without tools or weapons which is today known as jiu- jitsu. According to a legend, general Chan developed and perfected the skill of handling the nunchaku on Okinawa. Some stories say that fighting with the nunchaku became a common tool- weapon, first among some noblemen and later among peasants. They even used it as a means of self- defense against various attackers and Japanese invaders who arrived to their areas (the Ryukyu archipelago). In 1507 king Sho Hashi also signed a proclamation that prohibited citizens from carrying weapons and allowed its requisition. The proclamation prohibited owning weapons to everyone who wasn't in the king's service and the weapon was kept in the castle's storages. Also, the Japanese invasion led by Bushi Satsume in the 17th century brought forward the usage of the nunchaku in that area.

Black Belt Mag Store

Another argument that supports the thesis that the nunchaku were transmitted to Japan from China is visible in the Japanese name, the word "the nunchaku" (ヌンチャク), which, in free translation from Chinese, can be divided into three words: "nun" which means "a pair" (一对) or, even better, "twins" and the words "cha ku" (節棍) which can be translated as "connected sticks". However, the nunchaku are today in various parts of the world called differently, for example, nuchiku(ヌウチク), nunchuks(雙節棍), chain sticks( 二節棍), chako, chuka sticks, karate sticks as well as in many other less known terms.

Some legends connect the origin of the nunchaku to Japanese cavalry equipment, more specifically, to horses' ribbons as well as some other part of equestrian equipment. However, apart from connecting the nunchaku to horses' hair, that information cannot be scientifically proven.

Also, there is a story which tells that the nunchaku were developed from Japanese percussions (hyoshiki) which were used by Japanese children as a toy. They were also used at night time by different people in order to signalize danger and pass on certain messages. However, this theory wasn't backed with any clear evidence. Even the theory which describes the nunchaku as a tool for knocking down apples from trees is not trustworthy.

The first Japanese nunchaku were octagonal and later the locals would make nunchaku in different shapes, such as round, three- part or out of odd parts. Some of the oldest copies of nunchaku sticks were made out of exotic hard wood connected with a rope manufactured out of rice hay and horse hair. Some of them had edges shackled with tin or iron. Different martial arts experts agree with the thesis that the art of handling the nunchaku was especially cherished and trained in Japan, in the town of Shuri (today known as Shurijo Castle) on Okinawa. Also, the art of nunchaku is connected with the basic style of karate, shuri- te, that was also founded there.

Gichin Funakoshi

Further on, the knowledge about the nunchaku was dispersed across Japan thanks to the master of karate, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), who created the shotokan style and who was born in the town of Shuri. This is how he came into contact with the nunchaku when he was a child.

In comparison to the Japanese nunchaku, the Chinese are round, shorter and are approximately 30 cm long. Although both Chinese and Japanese nunchaku exist in various lengths, the Japanese are usually octagonal and approximately 40 cm long. Various martial arts masters would often accommodate the length of the sticks (the nunchaku) to their needs and affinities. The nunchaku (sticks) were connected with a rope or a thin chain. More recently, the nunchaku (sticks) are connected with a nylon rope or a thin, but strong chain which is around 20 cm long in China or around 10 cm long in Japan. However, since different masters would adapt the length of the rope or the chain to their own needs according to their figure or technique, that rule is not strict. The upper part of the nunchaku (stick) is called kontoh, the middle part is the chukon- bu, the lower part is named the kontei and the chain which connects them is known as the kusari. Shorter or a bit longer octagonal nunchaku are called hakaku kei, the round nunchaku are called maru gata, the three- part are known as san- setsu- kon, while the four- part are named yon –setsu- kon.

The basic technique of handling nunchaku is based on a centrifugal force which is made by swinging one handle. By swinging one handle, the speed by which the other arm is moving can mount up to 160 km/h. Moving by such speed, the hit of the stick is exceptionally great. The force by which the sticks hits can be equal to the amount of 800 kg, depending on the material of the nunchaku sticks as well as the speed by which the stick is moving. Besides hitting the opponent, different techniques of grasping the nunchaku or specific ways of choking in which they are used are also often applied.

different types of nunchaku

Today's nunchaku are usually made out of harder wood such as oak or ebony and are linked with a nylon rope or a thin, but strong chain. The nunchaku can be made out of other different materials such as metal, hard rubber, plastic or fiberglass. There are also so- called soft nunchaku which are very pliant because they are made out of rubber combined with a harder sponge and are used in training.

Although the nunchaku have been long known as a weapon, the karate master and the creator of the kobudo skill, Shinken Taira (1897- 1970), is especially acknowledged for the preservation of the traditional skill. He was a longtime president of the International Karate Kobudo Federation. In 1960 master Taira designed one of the first known nunchaku katas called maezato no nunchaku kata or, more commonly, Taira no nunchaku.

Still, the nunchaku used as a weapon haven't gained a huge popularity across the world until the end of the 60's and 70's years of the last century. Its credit goes to two great martial arts masters, Dan Inosanto and Bruce Lee (1940- 1973). Master Inosanto knew the technique of the tabak- toyok (chako) skill which is similar to the technique of the Chinese nunchaku. The skill of tabak- toyok (chako) uses a kind of nunchaku stick which are a bit shorter than the Chinese type, approximately 20 to 24 cm long. However, their rope is a bit longer, from approximately 26 to 30 cm long. Master Inosanto acquainted his friend (the creator of the Jeet kune do skill), the famous martial arts master and actor, Bruce Lee with the tabak- toyok skill. Master Lee was the first person who demonstrated the art of handling the nunchaku to the public. He started demonstrating it at the end of 1966 which was later shown in his movies. They were widely distributed and popular in the 70's. The popularity of the nunchaku reached massive proportions.

Enter the Dragon Scene

The vast popularity of the nunchaku as well as the desire of young people to copy their favorite actor and action figure, master Bruce Lee, caused many countries to ban wearing, using and selling the nunchaku in 1974. This prohibition was valid in almost all countries in Europe, in Japan, in some states of the United States, in some parts of Australia as well as some other parts of the world. Carrying and using the nunchaku sticks in public places was, according to the law, equal to the usage of firearms. Although that law wasn't abolished in any of those countries, it has been greatly lessened and mitigated from the beginning of the 90's.

Some strange and bizarre facts can also be linked to the history and popularity of the nunchaku. For example, since the mid- 70's and the beginning of the 21st century, the biggest number of nunchaku was sold in Hong Kong. This piece of information wouldn't be so strange unless we knew that wearing, showing, using and selling the nunchaku in public in Hong Kong was strictly prohibited.

Also, another incredible fact is known. Two world- known organizations that promote the training of the nunchaku skill were founded in France. This information also wouldn't be strange unless it wasn't for the fact that France was the strictest country in Europe when it came to the transport and usage of the nunchaku. However, that is not all. The state of California in the United States was the place where the famous American association for the promotion and training of the nunchaku was formed although California was one of five states in America which had a stricter law. Namely, unless you were an instructor of martial arts, a certain prohibition for carrying, using and selling nunchaku was in use. An almost identical situation happened in the Netherlands. Although the manufacturers, i.e. the sellers of nunchaku highlighted that the product wouldn't be sold or delivered to countries where they were prohibited by law, it was often neglected. This is why the nunchaku could be procured across the globe for as little as ten dollars. An interesting fact says that China, which was a country where the usage of various tools and weapons was forbidden and the practice of some martial arts was drastically punished (with a long jail sentence), never banned the usage of the nunchaku.

Parts of a Nunchaku

Today, the skill of practicing with the nunchaku is used in a big number of different styles of martial arts, for example in karate (nunchaku jutsu), kobudo (Okinawa kobudo), kung fu (erjie gun), tae kwon do (ssang jul bong, mouhe bong), hapkido, even in jiu jitsu (nunchaku jutsu) or aikido, as well as some skills such as eskrima (chako), i.e. tabak- toyok. The most surprising compound is that between the savate style (French boxing) and the nunchaku skill. There is also the so- called "freestyle" as well as certain fitness exercises which are done with the help of nunchaku. Alongside the performance of kata and freestyle, competitions in fighting with the nunchaku in which contestants wear helmets and pads are very popular today. Depending on the organization of the competition, the fight lasts for two rounds, lasting for two or two and a half minutes. The winner is the contestant who inflicts more hits or the one whose opponent gives up the match. Some of the most well- known nunchaku organizations in the world are World Amateur Nunchaku Organization (France, 1987), Federation Internationale de Nunchaku de Combat et Artistique (France, 1992), International Techdo Nunchaku Association (Switzerland, 2000), World Nunchaku Association (Netherlands, 1997) and North American Nunchaku Association (California, 2003).

Numerous sportsmen who are not acquainted with the correct technique of handling the nunchaku believe that the skill is manifested in the speed of the spinning of the nunchaku around the body, but are greatly wrong. The real connoisseurs agree with the conclusion of master Ronnie Colwell's (1934- 2015) article - "The nunchaku that is twirled around the body is a complete waste of time and energy".

Among the famous masters which have been noticed as important promotors and gymnasts are, among the previously mentioned, karate masters Fumio Demura (Shito– ryu), Tadashi Yamashita (Shorin- ryu), Hiroshi Akamine (Shorin- ryu), Tetsuhiro Hokama (Goju– ryu), Hirokazu Kanazawa (Shotokan) as well as masters Jiro Shiroma, Ryusho Sakagami (1915- 1993) and kung fu masters Leung Ting, Eric Lee, but also masters such as Dan Ivan (1931- 2007), Ed Parker (1931- 1990), Bob McCormack, Marc Chaland, Andrew S. Linick, Ted Gambordella, Joe (Josep) Hess and Hei Long.

Although today's general opinion is that the golden age of the nunchaku popularity is long gone, that isn't entirely true. Many beginners as well as competitors train with the nunchaku today. This is also true for many different martial arts enthusiasts (and masters) or various acrobats or persons who desire to improve the dynamics and attractiveness of their movements.

The nunchaku were and will remain to be an infallible part of training numerous and various martial arts.

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