A Karate Pioneer: The Roots of Ed Parker’s Kenpo
By Ron Chapél, Ph.D.
Published in CFW magazine

It has been arguably stated, “Ed Parker is the father of American Karate.” Although there are some who may take issue with such a claim, there are particulars that are undeniable and those who subscribe to Ed Parker’s lofty status in martial arts history are probably much closer to the truth than they know. It is a given that Parker was the first to bring and create an American concept of the Asian fighting arts to mainland America. Although pre-dated by others who essentially transplanted Asian arts with cultural accoutrements intact, it is clear Parker was the first to approach the arts from an American point of view. From an American historical perspective, this makes him a pioneer of quite significant proportions.

Historically, the arts as they existed in China, were an immense body of knowledge encompassing a wide variety of physical sciences. All-inclusive in concept, they included weapons warfare, self-defense, exercise therapy, entertainment, religion, herbal therapy and other forms of medicinal healing.
In actuality, they were more of a broad range of various disciplines and sciences interconnected by, and related to the human body. This is extremely important. Because these sciences cross so many diverse academic concepts and scientific boundaries, it makes the study — even by the educated and scholarly — difficult. Also, for this reason, as well as its destructive component, the sciences were and still are in the hands of, relatively speaking, a small group of people. Clearly the art of China is the “mother” of all arts. (The “father” is perhaps for another article).
As the sciences migrated from within the borders of China to other nations, the name was translated from the original Chinese, to simply those meaning kempo or kenpo. However, with this interpretation and the inability or unwillingness to take on such a vast body of work, kenpo slipped away from its “martial science” heritage and took on a significantly different meaning. Once transplanted, it became an interpretive, culture based, nationalized “martial art.” No longer a science but now a subjective art form, each country instead chose to focus on and interpret specific slices of the very large “Chinese pie.” This is very evident in the Korean, Okinawan and Japanese national arts. Other countries like India and Pakistan as well, although staying closer to the science roots, chose to also infuse a very heavy cultural and religious aspect to their interpretations. After portions of the Chinese sciences were adapted to the individual cultures and became a “martial art,” then the second stage of development was not far behind. Remember, when the sciences left China, they became an art form.

The second stage and more migration brought another significant transformation as well. Now they began to gradually evolve from a “martial art,” to a “martial discipline.” The next evolutionary step would eventually take it to the lowest common denominator. This is “martial sport.”
As an example, Korean cultural developments spawned tang soo do. This is the only Korean art that pays homage to its Chinese roots through its name. This art was distilled ultimately into the national sport/discipline taekwondo. The Okinawans moved from the art they called “te” (hand), to exporting the heavily “culturized” creation the Japanese called karate-do. Here, it was designed to be a companion sport/discipline to judo.
Other singular elements of the Chinese science influenced the creation of jujutsu prior to karate-do in Japan. Then of course, jujutsu was distilled down to the sport of judo. In some instances, like with the Japanese, the idea of actual fighting was only used as a base for the “art form” with self-enlightenment and personal discipline being the primary goal. This process caused the creation of arts like aikido. The cultural mindset felt this could be best accomplished through a nationalistic physical activity. So you see, the historical groundwork for the many different Ed Parker creations were clearly in place.

My point here is a simple one. Learning the collective Chinese sciences is not only difficult, but also very time consuming. It was purposely structured so you had to learn from someone else who would bring all of these sciences together for you in layers of educational lessons.
Even the very well educated would have great difficulty because of its diverse nature. That is why the tradition of passing it from one to another is so important. Because of this, extremely abbreviated focused versions were created for larger national consumption. From there they ultimately evolved into sports. The Ed Parker creation, kenpo karate is a product of that process as well.

Originally, when Ed Parker came to the mainland, he taught what he called “Chinese kenpo” to emphasize its true origin. Some like Steve Herring in Pasadena, California, still teach from this original perspective. In fact, Ed Parker even had a tai chi master teaching with, and for him in his school. Having himself studied with the notable Chinese Grandmaster, Ark Wong, as well as other masters from Northern California, Parker began expanding on the martial education he received in Hawaii from his only kempo (kenpo) instructor, “William” Kwai Sun Chow. Nicknamed “Thunderbolt” for his speed and hard-hitting approach, this is the man that planted the seed of practicality in what was to become the very large Ed Parker garden.
Wanting to spread his creation, Parker was faced with the same dilemma as those before him. Not only was he learning the sciences himself, but this also necessitated a constant expanding and evolving of his art.
Additionally, its complexity was such that teaching also required a definite “hands-on” approach. This, coupled with the extreme destructive potential of the information entrusted to him by the Chinese, forced him to make a conscious decision to do what had been done so many times before. He stripped away much of the real Chinese science in favor of a physically conceptual vehicle. Borrowing from history, he created what could be called an “American karate.” Sort of a “kenpo-do or “way” art. The emphasis, however, was not on the “way” you performed its movements, but the “way” you approach your training. He also, unlike Japanese karate-do, shifted the emphasis from the “way” you do it, to a “results” driven perspective. This, he felt, the American public demanded.
He also realized the American culture — in general — would not be conducive for a student to spend many years training without results they could see very quickly. Thus, he needed a way to “sell” kenpo on a large scale with quick results. He soon decided kenpo-karate was going to be that vehicle.
So, it is important that we realize that “kenpo karate” is a component of, and only a small part of, Ed Parker’s American kenpo. This is just like the way other “arts and sports” are only a small part of the Chinese science. The “Old Man,” as some of his senior students affectionately called him, had a lot more up his sleeves than kenpo karate.
The process took a different turn when he discovered something he termed “reverse motion.” While viewing himself on film running in reverse, he discovered many aspects of useable motion he had never considered before. This not only expanded his physical vocabulary, but gave him the perfect vehicle to teach a “motion based interpretive art.”
This was a component art that emphasizes continued movement to overwhelm an opponent while focusing on soft tissue strikes. This is why he often privately referred to it as “motion kenpo.” He also had a private joke he used to describe other disciplines. He called them “partial arts.” He also acknowledged his own “kenpo karate” was a “partial art” but he added, “It works!”
Practitioners who are honest will find it difficult to give an articulate explanation of this component of the much larger American kenpo without using the word “motion.” Further reflection will also cause the intelligent to acknowledge kenpo karate, although effective, is missing a great deal. Now attaching the Japanese word “karate” once again for public familiarity, he was then ready to sell his “kenpo karate” to the world. Later on, he regretted using the term “karate,” but he felt he was “stuck” with it for a variety of reasons.
This method enabled him to spread kenpo karate all over the world and teach concepts and interpretive “motion” as opposed to hard specific information. It was not necessary for him to see a student regularly. The material “worked,” and the extreme mayhem from its execution would have to be the responsibility of the individual. He never said “put your fingers in someone’s eyes.” He only said it was possible if you feel the necessity. This is also why you can’t find a consensus on technique execution in kenpo karate. By design, it is interpretive and in that sense, a true martial art. However, the only thing that matters in self-defense is that it works for the individual when they need it.

This method of spreading his art was made possible for one simple reason: The majority of Parker’s black belts at the time were already advanced students in other arts, and they brought basic skills from their disciplines with them. They became Parker converts to his logic and reasoning approach. Even though many of their basics were different from what he wanted, they all had some measure of functional skill as a base.
For the most part, these guys were old school “street fighters,” anyway. This meant they could take care of themselves on the street, and that is what kenpo karate was supposed to be about. This diversity in basics has been played out in students ever since. Parker never really taught strict basics to the majority of his students. He taught “basic concepts.” He taught what a particular maneuver was supposed to accomplish, and he gave you ideas of how to make it functional, much like the rest of his teaching. This is something that didn’t exist in the traditional arts. Add to the mix students were given flexibility in thought and action, and students from all styles and disciplines signed on for a ride on the fast moving “Ed Parker Express.”

About the author: Ron Chapél, who was a close personal and family friend of Ed Parker from 1963 until his passing in 1990, studied with Parker privately and continuously during that period. He has been teaching kenpo since 1964. Chapél is a 30-year law enforcement officer.



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©2001 Ron Chapél.