A History Of The Nunchaku
An Agricultural Implement - Or Deadly Weapon!
I made my first pair of nunchaku more than forty years ago, as nunchaku were difficult to obtain, and when a pair could be found they were, invariably, of the Japanese adaptation.
It has been assumed by many that the Nunchaku were weapons of Japanese origin, or that they were farming implements employed by the peasants of Okinawa to flail (thresh) rice to separate the grain from the stalk, and were adopted as weapons by the Japanese. However neither supposition is necessarily accurate.
Manual threshing of grain is more often carried out by simple methods such as mortar & pestle; stomping and kneading bundles of stalks with the feet; beating piles of stalks with long poles while standing, or perhaps short sticks while sitting on the ground.
While it is true that tools can be used as weapons, it is just as likely that a weapon can be innocently hidden in plain sight by claiming it is merely a tool. Hidden in plain sight - a "ghost" weapon. However the point I wish to make is that nunchaku were first and foremost a weapon, not a tool necessary for the harvesting of rice although similar tools are and have been used for that purpose.
Shuang Jie Gun - 2 Sticks Joined Together
The SHUANG JIE GUN (Nunchaku) is a Chinese martial weapon which has its origins some twelve hundred years ago during the Song Dynasty. Legend has it that General Zhao Hongyin (趙弘殷) a famous martial artist, had his staff broken in 2 places while he was defending a valuable cargo from a gang of murdering bandits. After defeating them he lashed the broken pole together (possibly using horsehair, wood fiber and silk) until he could get it joined with chain by a blacksmith, thus developing the weapon which became known as San Jie Gun or "3 section staff". General Zhao Hongyin founded the Song Dynasty in 960, becoming known as Emperor Xuanzu (宣祖) of Song.
The 3 section staff can be awkward for some to wield and difficult to conceal, however it became the fore-runner to the Shuang Jie Gun or 2 sectional staffs of which there are numerous combinations of stick length, the most popular of which is the type with wooden shafts of equal length similar to those you see being demonstrated here (see the video below) and made popular by Bruce Lee's use of them in "Enter The Dragon". The shafts are usually round and fastened with a chain.
Known today as Okinawa, the Ryukyu Archipelago is a chain of several hundred islands that stretch for more than 1000 km down the eastern perimeter of the East China Sea. Bordered by China to the west, Taiwan to the southwest, and Japan at it's northern-most tip, in it's heyday the island Kingdom of Ryukyu was a prosperous trading nation. For more than 1000 years Ryukyu Kingdom had close trade ties with China, and it is most likely that this Chinese weapon, the nunchaku, was introduced there by Chinese immigrants, merchants, and bodyguards, as was the 3 sectional staff.
It has been claimed by some that following the annexing of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) by Japan in 1879 that the citizens were not allowed to own weapons, so concealed them from the Japanese military by saying that the nunchaku were simple farming implements. A second theory held that because their weapons were confiscated the Okinawans developed combat methods of using the farming implement.
Later Japanese versions of the nunchaku were hexagonal in shape, and fastened with cord. The hexagonal shape added to impact damage if struck with the sharp corners. The cord rendered the weapon more silent however the cord could be severed with a blade rendering it useless while those joined by chain or iron rings could be used to trap or even break a bladed weapon.
For myself I am in no doubt that nunchaku originated as a weapon in China, but for some the questions may remain; were nunchaku firstly farming implements that became weapons, or were they weapons concealed as farming implements? Or did they perhaps develop separately? Regardless, it cannot be disputed that in the right hands the weapon known as "2 sticks joined" is a powerful and versatile weapon.
(Filmed in Christchurch NZ in 1980 using a Ricoh 8 mm silent movie camera - well before the advent of domestic video. The practitioner is Kevin Earle, of Earle's Academy Ving Chun Kuen. He made the nunchaku using Australian hardwood, and they are joined with a chain. White tape was wrapped near the end of the sticks so they could be seen easily on film.).
Above: 2-sectional staffs are still in use in parts of South East Asia today,
yet they are quite different to the weapon known as nunchaku