One of the first references to martial arts in China is of Kuao Yee (200 AD), a commoner who created a style called
Chang-Shou Ch'uan (long arm or long fist). Another reference is to Hua-To (190-265 AD), a physician who studied the
animals of the forest. He created a series of exercises to increase his patient's health through copying the movements of
the animals he saw. However, there were no classical schools and the early exercises of the Buddhist temples were tightly
guarded and kept secret.
Thus, before the 6th century, we can find only legends and hints of martial arts. The root of modern martial arts can be found in 525 AD. Bohidharma (Da Mo) was the son of royalty in South India. He was the 28th patriarch of the Ch'an Buddhist faith.
It is said he was summoned by Emperor Liang Wu Ti to China to spread the Ch'an faith (509-549 AD). When he arrived and was called to the court of the Emperor Wu, his answers to the Emperor's questions were met with extreme displeasure. Because the Emperor felt threatened and chastised by Bodhidharma's answers, Da Mo was dismissed and he began his journey homeward.
His travels lead him to Hunan province in southern China and to the Shaolin temple located there. Upon his arrival, he found the monks incapable of meditation and study due to their poor physical condition. The head abbot (Fang Chang) feared the reformist's knowledge of Ch'an Buddhism: which stated that enlightenment could be found in many forms.
This threatened the strict classical teaching of the Shaolin Temple (created in the late 5th century AD). Because of this fear, Da Mo was turned away once again. Unable to accept this, Da Mo retreated to a nearby cave and searched for a way to reach the monks.
Da Mo watched the animals of the forest and analyzed their movements. He then developed fighting motions based upon his observations. Unable to directly train the monks, he trained in the forest knowing that the Shaolin monks were watching him. Thus, by leading by example, he was able to influence the Shaolin monks.
He also practiced sitting meditation twice daily for two hours at a time. The monks were impressed with his dedication and the strength of his will. After nine years of seclusion, he was welcomed back to the monastery, returning with two Chi Kung classics: (1) Muscle and Tendon Changing Classic and (2) Marrow Washing Classic.
In order to strengthen the monks enough to accept his Chi Kung teachings, he also began to instruct them in a series of military exercises known as the 18 hands of Lo-Han. The goal of these exercises was to allow the monks to obtain mind and body harmony. The system Da Mo developed was designed to promote mind/body/spirit unity. Without the body, the mind cannot learn; without the mind, the body cannot be controlled. Without the spirit, there is no total body connection.
Out of this system evolved the system of Kung Fu (well-rounded man). The principle tenet of Kung Fu is time. It is only through time and practice that one is able to achieve a mind/body/spirit unity. The primary focus of the monks was their enlightenment (or attaining Buddhahood). Self-defense at this stage was only a secondary issue to the monks.
Within the Shaolin lineage of Martial Arts, there are many styles that can trace their roots back into the temples. Most styles are either hard or soft in their emphasis. There are three main internal (soft) styles of the Shaolin temples. These are Tai Qi Ch'uan, Hsing-I Ch'uan, and Pa Kua Chang.
Chang San-Feng (approximately 1200 AD) is believed to have created Tai Qi Ch'uan which means “Grand Ultimate Fist”. He is said to have blended the movements of the snake and the white crane styles with the internal focus of Chi Kung meditations, He was inspired to do so after watching a snake defeat a crane that was trying to eat the snake for a meal.
A military general named Marshal Yeuh Fei (1127-1279 AD) created the style of Hsing-I Ch'uan, which translates to: “Form of Mind”. He also is claimed to be the founder of the Eagle style of the martial arts. In addition, it is said he created the “Eight Pieces of Brocade” Chi Kung to improve his soldiers' health.
Pa Kua Chang, which translates to: “Eight Trigrams” was believed to have been created by Doong Hae-Ch'uan, sometime in the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). It stresses circling movements and linear stances. Many of its motions are named after animals. Of the three internal styles, it is the most concerned with the physical and self-defense aspects of the internal martial arts.
All three of these internal styles have disputed roots that trace back into the Shaolin temples. Because of the closed teaching system of the Shaolin and the attitudes of the Chinese culture which emphasize strong family roots and a general lack of trust of outsiders, clear records were not kept on the actual lineage that influenced these three teachers. However, there are references in ancient texts that indicate their basis and origins are in the Shaolin monasteries.
There are five main external styles of the Shaolin temples, which are represented by the five classical animals in Shaolin style Kung Fu. These are the tiger, crane, leopard, dragon and snake. As mentioned previously, the monks of the Shaolin spent many hours watching the animals.
Incorporating the animal movements into the Chi Kung knowledge that existed from Da Mo, other styles of fighting arts began to develop. The bear, deer, mantis, boar and badger are but a few of the other animal styles.
It was observed by the monks that man moves subjectively in his world. His actions and reactions are dictated by his thoughts and interpretations of the world around him. Animals move in an objective response to their environment, without prior thought. It is the goal of the five animal system to train a man to move (without thinking) in proper response to the dangers around him.
The monks practiced the fighting arts not to enhance their egos but rather as tool to aid them in retreating from an egocentric view of the world by learning to move, blend with and to know their opponent. In 1644, the Manchurians invaded China. Many different styles of martial arts had evolved by this time. Some of the more common were the Red Eyebrow Society, the Ming Eternal Society and the White Lotus Society.
The White Lotus Society was one of the largest non-Shaolin styles. Its main branch concerned with fighting was I-Ho Ch'uan, “the Righteous and Harmonious Fists.” Acting as an umbrella for the rebels who resisted the Manchurian invaders, it incorporated all styles and knowledge into a super-style. The elements and beginning basics of such future styles as Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar family style, White Crane and Money styles were blended together within I-Ho Ch'uan. These were the foundation for the unification by the I-Ho Ch'uan into their super-style of martial arts.
As pressure from the Manchurian invaders increased, the I-Ho Ch'uan were welcomed into the Shaolin monastery. Perhaps, this was because the monks saw the value of the I-Ho Ch'uan's martial skills; perhaps it was out of respect for fellow Chi Kung martial artists who were resisting the Manchurians (who at this time were beginning to threaten the area around the monastery). No one can say for certain why the monks would allow the “non-Buddhists” to live and study at the monastery. From the union of the I-Ho Ch'uan and the Shaolin monks, the roots of Kenpo (fist law) began.
In December of 1644, the southern Shaolin temple in Fukien province was destroyed and burnt down by the Manchurian soldiers. There are 3 possible reasons why this happened:
The Manchurians tried to press taxation upon the Shaolin monastery and the monks refused. The first delegation of the Manchurians sent to collect taxes from the monastery were beaten and turned away when they came to demand taxes.
The Manchurian Emperor felt threatened by the great fighting and healing skills of the Shaolin monks and he was frustrated by the inability of his forces to capture or control any of the monks.
The monastery was possibly attacked because of the political refuge the Shaolin monastery had extended to the deposed royal family, their supporters and the I-Ho Ch'uan fighting society.
Which of these three reasons holds the most truth is unknown. Probably, each of these reasons is partially true. The results were that the Shaolin priests were scattered amongst the general population and they began to teach the art as a means of defense. They exchanged knowledge for food and shelter.
It was during this time that the self-defense aspect of the art became the primary focus. The art of Kenpo (fist law) or Ch'uan Fa (fist arts) arose out of the struggle with the Manchurians and was spread throughout the countryside. However, some of the deepen knowledge of the art was kept from the general public. This was reserved only for certain students.
A Japanese family by the name of Mitose (late 18th century) learned this blended art of Kenpo from the Shaolin monks. By using a rotation of family members in a “tour of duty” at a family trading post in south China, they were able to learn from multiple teachers. Each teacher stressed different elements of the old Shaolin knowledge. The Mitose family kept this knowledge as a family secret for six generations.
In the 1880s, the family moved to Hawaii. It was not until the 1930s that James Mitose first began to teach the art to the military personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor Naval Base. He taught a classical form of Shorin Ji Kempo Jujutsu, meaning “Shaolin Style – Kempo Jujutsu”.
At this time, Grandmaster Mitose accepted a student named William K.S. Chow, who was nicknamed “Thunderbolt” because of his incredible speed and power. Master Chow had already studied martial arts from his grandfather who was a Shaolin priest. He re-introduced a classical Shaolin Kung Fu bloodline into the blended Kenpo style and taught this combination to a Hawaiian by the name of Edmund K. Parker.
Master Tomas Connor began his studies of the martial arts at the age of seven. He learned an art called Jujutsu, possibly from Hoshida Nisami. Jujutsu is the open handed art of the Samurai Warrior. When a Samurai would lose his weapon in battle, he used Jujutsu to continue to do battle with his opponent. Master Connor also trained in other arts. It is believed he studied Wing Chun with James Yim Lee (Bruce Lee's cousin).
It is also rumored that he studied Hung Gar Kung Fu with Y.C. Wong and Choy Li Fut with Lau Ben. Master Connor studied boxing as well and he was a Golden Gloves champion at the age of 16. His other accomplishments include serving as a Ranger in the Army and being involved with the OSS, which later became the CIA. Other arts that he may have studied include Dim-Mak, the art of delayed death touch, which he might have learned from Master Ching. Master Ching was a member of a Chinese Tong family, which allowed Master Connor to study sword and other related Shaolin arts and weapons.
He also studied Tai Chi Ch'uan and was allowed to learn the internal applications of this art. As previously mentioned, Chinese martial arts are shrouded in mystique. Many teachers are closed mouthed about their roots and the men who influenced them. We are unable to definitively state any of Master Connor's specific teachers with the exception of Master Parker.
In the 1950s, Master Connor met Edmund K. Parker, and because of his extensive training, he was immediately promoted to 4th degree black belt. Although Ed Parker was Master Connor's senior in ranking, Master Connor was able to share with Ed Parker a unique perspective and the influence of other martial arts using a different emphasis. Thus, both men learned from each other and shared knowledge. They went into business together and they developed the colored belt system that we still use today, expanding beyond the original white/brown/black belt system. Each man brought different skills to the business partnership.
Diplomas from this partnership listed certification from CO-PAR, as the certifying board. Master Connor was an excellent businessman who could apply the art of Kenpo as a personal self-defense system for the general public. Master Parker held skills as a great communicator and was able to get philosophy and concepts across to the average man off the street.
Master Connor left the Parker organization in the early 1960s due to business differences. Specifically, he didn't agree with the concept of franchising schools in order to expand rapidly. He preferred the concept of maintaining stricter control of the business and of the teachings on the floor. Traco International was founded in 1963 in Phoenix, Arizona. Master Connor further expanded the Kenpo system with the knowledge he had from his studies in other styles. He felt Chinese Kenpo was a good basis for self-defense. He used the Kenpo system that Ed Parker had implemented and blended his knowledge of the other Chinese martial arts he had studied with it.
He also felt that students could benefit from a good, regimented weight training routine. His skills in boxing also attracted students interested in that type of self-defense or art. He began to develop Traco International into a martial arts school that taught many areas for students to learn in a step-by-step manner. He was the first person to introduce the private class (within martial arts training) on a regular basis and was the first to allow women and children to learn the art.
Connor's most senior student in the Traco system was Mr. Bill Packer (deceased)
of Albuquerque, New Mexico who went on to create the American Kenpo Karate
Academies (AKKA). There are numerous high level students of Mr. Packer who have
continued to teach and spread the Kenpo art. Some
other senior TRACO students include Tomas Connor, Jr. (deceased) of Phoenix,
Arizona; Sifu Gary McGhee of Kansas City, Missouri; Paul Hansen of Mesa,
Arizona; Mark Lawrence of Phoenix, Arizona; Mike Shelton of Phoenix, Arizona; Tim Cooper of Scottsdale, Arizona; and Peter Hill of Mesa, Arizona.
It's beyond the intent and scope of this history piece to list every black belt and
their individual ranks but much respect to those who came before me in the arts. My
current Kenpo teacher, Sifu Gary McGhee, continues to preserve Grand Master
Tomas Connor’s legacy and Sifu shares the teachings as he was taught.