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Last update: 27/04/2010
The Nunchaku
The Nunchaku is a very simple weapon: It is made of two sticks linked by a rope.
In Japanese: "Nunchaku", which means "same length unit".
In Chinese: "Shuang Jie Gun", which means "pair of wooden pieces".
The Chinese name should not be confused with "San Jie Gun", meaning "3 pieces of wood". The San Jie Gun, or three-section staff, is similar to the Nunchaku, but has three sticks instead of two.
Before being used as a weapon, the Nunchaku was a farming tool. As is the case with many ancient weapons and objects, it is very difficult to determine its exact origin. According to historians, it has four possible origins.
The first possibility is that it was a flail used to thresh wheat (i.e. to separate the ears and isolate the seed from the husk).
In Europe, the flails were much bigger and massive; as a consequence they became weapons for knights.
Steeper landscapes and the fact that women had the job of threshing wheat probably led to the development of the Nunchaku, which is smaller and lighter than the European flail.
Because wheat cultures are widespread in China, most historians believe that Chinese people invented the Nunchaku. It then spread to all Asian countries, especially in Korea, Vietnam and Japan.
The second possibility concerning the origin of the Nunchaku is that it was derived from a much bigger flail that was used both in Asia and in Europe.
This flail was made of a man-sized stick with a smaller stick linked to it. It was named Shao Zi Gun in Chinese and was used as a weapon is some Chinese martial arts. It was mainly used when riding a horse; due to its length, it could sweep enemies onto the ground. Martial artists using this weapon were nevertheless extremely rare in the past, and almost impossible to find nowadays.
The third possible origin was that it was derived from a bit of a domesticated horse - a mouthpiece used by the rider to control the animal. It then had a slightly different shape from the Nunchaku we know nowadays: the branches were curved. It could nevertheless be used in a similar manner. The shape of bits of horse would have therefore evolved to the shape of present Nunchaku.
On this picture, there are several bits of horse used once upon a time in Asian countries. Some ropes were attached to the bit so it could be installed on the horse. Among the used bits, some had very similar features to the Nunchaku we know today.
The last possible origin comes from an old Chinese legend. An old martial arts Grandmaster had given his favorite weapon, a Bo staff, to his student just before he died. Much later, during training, the student broke the Bo staff into three pieces. Since it had a symbolic value to him, he did not want to use any other one and took the decision to repair it. He linked the three pieces together using ropes, forming what would be the first three-section staff ever made. Later, the three-section staff evolved into Nunchaku.
Although ancient in China, this legend has seldom been approved by historians. For them, Nunchaku was a farming tool.
As is the case with many weapons previously used as farming tools, we know neither where nor when a Nunchaku has been used for the first time as a weapon. However, there are good reasons to believe that people from Okinawa had the idea first. Okinawa was an island in the south of Japan which remained prosperous for a long time.
In 1429, the Emperor Sho Hashi invaded and united the three parts of Okinawa to create the kingdom of Ryukyu. To prevent riots, he forbade to the local inhabitants to own any kind of weapon. Except for the Samurai and the Japanese army, nobody was allowed to possess any weapons. This rule was enforced under jail penalty.
The inhabitants were therefore had trouble ensuring their own security when they had to face the swords from soldiers or gangsters. To defend themselves, Okinawan inhabitants practiced martial arts very seriously. During the beginning of the 17th century, the island was occupied by the Japanese empire. The Okinawan army had been defeated and was not able to resist the Japanese Samurais.
Okinawa then became a Japanese land. The Okinawan inhabitants had to pay really high taxes and suffered from severe discrimination. They never started a massive uprising, but sporadically attacked Japanese officers, tax collectors and small Samurai groups. Following those minor uprisings, a new law banning weapons was etablished, inspired from what Sho Hashi has done before. Every person owning a weapon without special authorization has to be killed. The Japanese government established the “Katana-giri”, the swords hunters. Their job was to find and seize unauthorized weapons and shut down all blacksmiths.
During those hard times, only one knife was allowed per village. That unique knife was on the village square, tied to a pillar. The inhabitants were only allowed to use the knife a few hours a day and only after the head of the village had given permission. During this period, Okinawan martial arts were considered as the only way of self-defense, but of course open hand techniques were no match against the regular army. They were mostly helpful against small groups of gangsters. The Okinawan people practiced mostly martial arts named “To-te” and “Okinawa-te”, which became later the modern “Karate”. The villagers trained using everyday objects as potential weapons. Today, this practice is known under the names of Kobudo and Kobujutsu.
In the hands of Kobudo-savvy people, those everyday objects could become formidable weapons. While they were not as deadly as swords or spears, they were capable of seriously hurting even a well-armed opponent. We think it was at this moment that the Nunchaku has been used for the first time as a weapon.
Among the other weapons that appeared during those times were the Bo staff, readily available; the Kama, which were previously used as sickles in the fields; and the Tonfa, which were derived from the handles of haystacks.
Being easily concealed under clothes, the Nunchaku was mainly used to defend oneself in unexpected situations. Only advanced users (and there were quite a few of them in Okinawa) used them at war. Nowadays, with swords and spears belonging to museums, the Nunchaku was reborn and became very popular.
Nunchaku techniques developed fast and were integrated to various martial arts, including Japanese Kobudo and Karate, Korean Taekwondo, and Chinese Kung Fu.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, Nunchaku techniques mostly developed in Asian countries. The weapon was rare and almost unknown to the rest of the world.
It was only with the famous movies of Bruce Lee that the rest of the world began to discover the Nunchaku.
During the twentieth century, the world has seen in martial arts another aspect than combat or self-control: the martial arts show. Indeed, some martial arts techniques are particularly nice to see. Many martial artists begin practicing martial arts more for entertainment than for the martial spirit. As far as the Nunchaku is concerned, it has been shown to be particularly adapted to this aspect of exhibition and new techniques have been invented using that approach, known as “freestyle”. Nunchaku also became very popular with jugglers.