Bō Staff Styles from Around the World

As historic as the bō is, since there is a severe lack of reliable and well-grounded sources detailing its early existence, it is difficult to determine accurately where it first arose. In prehistoric times, we can surmise that man’s first weapon was a rock, and his second weapon was a stick. Over time, especially when warfare between humans broke out, more advanced and sophisticated forms of fighting were developed. Not simply for sport or as an art form, but out of the necessity to preserve one’s life and protect the tribe.

The Bō (Staff) in Prehistoric Asia

Photo by paazio. (Flickr)

Prehistoric Asia primarily revolved around primitive hunter-gatherer aspects of life and was therefore a largely combat-based society. Whether fighting with the bō staff was popularized in Eastern mainland China, Japan, or the long stretch of Pacific islands with its capital based in the appropriately-termed “Okinawa” – meaning “the rope of the wide sea” – is highly debatable. Likely the best and most probable conclusion to make is that it originated in each of these places at similar yet indeterminable times.

Why make this assumption? Put simply, the tribes of each region had a similar need and understanding in the affairs of small-scale war, and the “rokushakubō” (Japanese for “six-foot staff”) was already commonplace as a basic, and easy-to-produce weapon; it was, of course, only a matter of time before a specific technique was created on behalf of the usage of the bō, and ultimately, its future journey around the world. So, the art of “stick wielding” appeared all over mainland and islandic Asia in around the prehistoric period. Many modern teachers of bōjutsu seem to believe that the martial art was primarily a technical combat-based sport, but it is safe to say that this assumption is down to poor understanding of its importance in Neolithic and Bronze Age society.

An alternative, much more probable conclusion is that it gradually became much like a training weapon for the use of spears, especially as genuine, ancient bō staffs were made of stone – a weapon of this sort would be too heavy and unreliable for combat. If there was a man-to-man combat use of the bō, it must have been solely used as an “arresting” weapon. That is, not a tool designed for casualties, but rather a weapon for either a) knocking the opponent to the ground or b) striking the opponent in order to inflict an injury substantial enough so that he is unable to continue fighting.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the journey of the bō staff and how it travelled from the mountains and rivers of Asia to Europe and America.

The Bō in Medieval Okinawa

Photo by paazio. (Flickr)

During the “ancient” period of Okinawa there existed strong and frequently-used trade links between China, Japan and the sea islands. Tens of ships from Seto and Kyushu landed at the main island of the kingdom and offered their goods in trade to the small population living there. If the details of the merchants travelling from the mainland were omitted from this story, then it would be hard to explain how staff fighting even made its way off the island. It was in the Second Sho Dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom that a certain Emperor Shin took the helm of Okinawa and instituted a new set of laws which governed the way a non-military individual could bear arms. Essentially, Sho Shin placed a ban on any weapons which posed a serious threat to the power of the authorities; out of sheer necessity, the residents, who wished to have some way of defending themselves, created the art of fighting with the wooden stick. After all, it was the only power in their hands.

“Meanwhile, police and others developed techniques to use common articles such as weapons, such as sickles, boat oars, farming tools, wooden staffs, and so on. The development of these weapons are referred to as ‘kobudo”. The unarmed martial arts of Okinawa, which are now known as karate, also received more emphasis.” (1)

Apart from an off-topic mention of karate, the previous passage adds some insight into the changes Shin ordered in his long, fifty-year rule. The author refers to the aji as “police”, but this is a twisted interpretation of a group of nobles who were among those who insisted on continuing to hold their weapons. Several forms of staff combat were carried into modern times – a martial arts master specialising in bōjutsu known as Sakugawa Sensei catalysed a growth in popularity for the sport in his lifetime (1733-1815).

It was in this dawn of a dynasty that bō rose, and it was with the start of the year 1609 that the peace was shattered as the Satsuma clan invaded the Okinawan homeland. There was an uproar, violence, and, yet again, another ban on weapons. And finally, this is where bō fighting rose its maximum on the island, boarded those sailing vessels and arrived in mainland Asia. Bōjutsu’s popularity had just started to soar.

The Staff in Medieval China

Photo by Benjamin Claverie. (Flickr)

Medieval China called the wooden stick used in bōjutsu a bang or gun. It may be that the idea of the bō being an “extension of one’s limbs” originated in the agricultural community of China where wooden staffs were used for bearing the weight of water buckets and were therefore just tools of carrying – much like arms. The bō was considered the most important of weapons and was well respected for its religiously acceptable usage. In particular, the Shaolin Monks used staffs as self-defense weapons as it was “wrong” to brutally hurt or kill someone. These monks were trained with long mental and physical training, and it is not hard to see why the art of bōjutsu became so popular among them.

It is also in the monasteries and towns of China that the martial art of Kung Fu rose up, with the wooden stick becoming a central part of combat. Kung Fu used four main weapons: the staff, great for attacking at a distance; the spear, also good for distance; the broadsword, a more dangerous weapon and the straight sword. Unlike swords, where there were a few standardized sizes, the staff could come at many different lengths and designs, making it great for developing different styles of bōjutsu.

At the time of Okinawan bōjutsu appearing in China, almost all regions had used the staff before. However, these Okinawan travelers helped lay down the principles of an exclusive staff martial art. In fact, because the staff was very famous in China, bōjutsu did become adopted frequently over different styles of combat. Chinese teachers, notably during the 19th and 20th centuries, began developing their own techniques. At one point, bōjutsu combatants were drafted into the military. One of the favorite staffs used by the Chinese was the “rattan”, which was made of hard, durable wood, but was very flexible. Although the core of all fighting in China rested heavily upon the staff, bōjutsu did not manage to become the primary martial art, but rather coexisted with others. However, this is not to say that Chinese bōjutsu was not important. Without the “blend” of already existed combat styles and the staff, as well as the new maneuvers invented by teachers, bōjutsu would be much less developed.

The English Quarterstaff

Photo by Wally Hartshorn. (Flickr)

Meanwhile, the face of Europe and its major medieval countries, such as England and Wales, France, Spain and Germany were developing their own fighting styles – not because they were undeveloped as warriors, but because the ratio of poor to rich in the Middle Ages was staggeringly high. In fact, more than 90% of the population in most nations were peasants, living off land that did not even belong to them and making next to no monetary income. Swords, axes and other weapons were extremely expensive and required experienced weapon-smiths to produce. Not only was there a considerable lack of these such craftsmen – they were fairly widely spaced out – but their labor was difficult and time consuming. Therefore, the prices charged by weapon-smiths were extortionately high for the average person living in Europe from 500-1500 AD.

And so, the peasants had to innovate and find something they could use to defend themselves; weapons made of metal or difficult-to-craft parts would be no good. Quarterstaffs, the medieval equivalents of bōs, were usually up to eight feet long and were cut from the quarters of trees. Often stubbed with metal points and occasionally leather hand-grips, these proved to be fairly lethal against a lightly-armed foe as they were easy to swing and stab with. It could be said that the quarterstaff was more aggressive than the bō; metal blades and the techniques of gripping one hand of the stick to smash the opponent to death suggest that it was a weapon for killing, rather than the modest “arresting” of the bō. After all, thieves and surprise ambushers were frequent in the Middle Ages, and the only way to fend them off was to kill them on the spot. Public attacks on escaping thieves were often initiated when one cried out against one:

“Before the advent of professional police, citizens helped catch the crooks. Everyone knew what to do. If you were the witness or victim of a crime, you cried out. Anyone hearing the hue and cry had to dash out- onto the streets to chase and catch the culprit. Townsfolk made a citizen’s arrest and waited for a sheriff to arrive and haul away the suspect.” (2)

However, in the ordinary situation, a captured thief could be treated indecently just by the average town dwellers. All too often authorities would not arrive on the scene soon enough (or there simply wasn’t a recognized police force) and the robber would either sustain major injuries or be beaten to death. Shortly, the quarterstaff was mainly a device of spontaneous violence, because it had to be.

Comparatively, there was less need for a weapon like this in China, Japan and Okinawa. Most nobles abided in “castles” and had their own trained men at hand. Clearly, Asia did not feel like it was necessary for the average person to yield a pole weapon like this for everyday to-the-death fights like in Medieval Europe, and, consequently, the bō remained a device for merely stopping the enemy. Because fighting with the bō staff was not so blatantly aggressive and strength-dependent, the foundations for bōjutsu lay mainly in technical depth, which involved stick-spinning, blocks and moving about to tackle an oppressor who possessed similar skills.

Bō Comes to America

Photo by Courtney Smith. (GMAU)

Fast forward to the 20th century. The world is becoming more globalized. American occupation of Okinawa led to servicemen studying under Okinawan masters, as well as on mainland Japan. Karate and its inextricably linked twin kobudo begin to spread to the West. Even though the wooden pole has been used since the earliest times in history, there is barely any evidence for its use among Native American tribes.

Nowadays, despite its lack of a singular world-wide audience, bō staff combat is a loved martial art with a lot of space for newly emerging, unique styles, such as “Ultimate Bō” or “American Style Bōjutsu”, founded by Michael Hodge in 2007. American Style Bojutsu is rooted in the Okinawan tradition, teaching basic techniques, kata (prearranged forms), combat applications, and sparring. This style includes some modernistic aesthetic techniques that add to the art form, as well as a more inclusive use of staff styles from around the world. The style is also the first in the world to have an official ranking system from white to black belt. Typically, the bō is marginalized as a portion of a student’s curriculum, and might be one aspect of earning belts in kobudo. Ultimate Bō is becoming a more popular style in this modern age, looming together ancient staff styles into a contemporary practice that offers benefits to the practitioner’s mind, body, and spirit.

Sources

  1. http://rca.open.ed.jp/web_e/history/index.html, History of Okinawa
  2. To Catch A Medieval Thief, The Hue and Cry [https://www.annmarieackermann.com/catch-medieval-thief-hue-and-cry/]
Written by Michael Hodge
I am a Lead Instructor at the Global Martial Arts University. I live with my three energetic kids and wonderful wife on a prairie in Texas. I also lead The Abundance Projects.