Depending on some research it may also be the oldest kata in Okinawa, and even old by the standards of Japanese and Chinese martial arts.
The oldest date I have seen for the introduction of Wansu/Empi (I will refer to it as Empi from herein for simplicity) is 1683.
If this date is true it raises a scenario.
1) Empi means “flying swallow.” It is said to be named after the Chinese soldier Wang-Ji.
2) It is likely therefore that the “swallow” related to the style of Wang-Ji.
3) The most common Chinese style that uses the swallow is Hsing-I
4) If Wang Ji studied Hsing-I, he did so in the lifetime of Hsing-I founder Ji Ji Ke.
5) Wang Ji may therefore have been a relative of Ji Ji Ke.
If this scenario is the case, we can consider Hsing-I Quan to be the ancestor of Empi.
The potential candidates for who Wang-Ji taught his style to can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the 1680s, there were not a multitude of Karateka. The ones we know the names of are very few. They may include:
1) Hama Higa (not to be confused with the later Matsu Higa) a Kobudo specialist
2) Members of the Motobu family
3) Members of the Kojo family or others living in the Chinese community of Kume
A generation later we meet Takahara Peichin, a map-maker, astrologer and fighter of Shuri Castle.
Takahara seems to have taught the first generation of Shuri and Tomari based Karateka, including Tode Sakugawa and Chatan Yara who were studying in the early to mid 1700s.
Remember at this point in Okinawa there were none of the Fujian forms that were introduced in 1828 (Sanchin, Seishan, Jutte, Gojushiho), none of the ‘Aragaki’ forms (Nijushiho, Unsu, Sochin), none of the Tomari forms (Chinte, Gankaku, Meikyo), none of the Shuri Te forms (Kushanku, Bassai, Pinan) and definitely none of the Goju Ryu forms.
Simply put, kata were not a big deal in Okinawa in 1700. So apart from the solitary kata, Empi, what did the Okinawans practice that related to today’s Karate?
1) Jigen Ryu. The Japanese sword art of Satsuma was practiced by various Okinawans, later including Matsumura and Azato. Interestingly one of its kata is called Empi.
2) Kobudo or Emono Jutsu. Not just the Sai, Tonfa and Bo. Okinawan weapons included the katana, Surujin (bolas), eku (boat oar) and the Tinbei and Rochin (a short sword/spear similar to a Roman Gladius and a shield sometimes made from a tortoise shell).
3) Tegumi wrestling, Okinawan Sumo and tug-of-war. There also seems to have been a form of arm wrestling done in mid-air.
4) Okinawan folk dances
5) Motobu Udun-di. The palace art of the privileged Motobu clan which resembled Aikido.
The point I am making is that we do not know what Empi looked like in 1700. Its present embusen may have been changed to reflect the later trend in kata. For all we know, the original Empi may have been done on the spot.
Funakoshi’s Empi differs from the Wansu practised in styles like Matsubayashi Ryu. Although it is possible that Funakoshi made arbitrary changes, it is more likely the differences are because Funakoshi was primarily taught by Azato. And what do we know about Azato? He was a master of Jigen Ryu. And what have we already cited about Jigen Ryu? It includes a kata called Empi.
Therefore in Empi we will look at both influences, Hsing-I and Jigen Ryu.
The characteristic move of Empi resembles the principle behind the Hsing-I swallow form – float high and then swoop low.
Empi also includes the Shuto, shuffling into a Gyaku Tzuki. A “splitting” strike and reverse punch are fundamental “fists” of Hsing-I.
Hsing-I also includes a stance very similar to Kokutsu Dachi (San Ti) and uses a technique very similar to Jodan Age Uke.
The opening move of Empi is textbook “swordsmanship” as it uses a diagonal sweep with the right hand from a kneeling position. By looking at forms such as the Chinese Jian form Wutang Jian (a precurser to the Yang style Taiji sword form) I have demonstrated how Empi can be performed using a sword.
Jigen Ryu is a very unusual sword style in that it uses a makiwara. Jigen Ryu practitioners literally strike a hard wooden post with their bokkens. Did this practice come to Karate via Jigen Ryu?
History of Jigen Ryu
1540 Higashi Shinnoji is born in Satsuma Japan, he will become a master of Taisha Ryu
1561 Togo Hizen no Kami Shigetada is born in Satsuma
1569 Shigetada studies under Higashi
1578 Shigetada fights his first battle
1581 Shigetada is awarded Menkyo Kaiden certificate of mastery
1588 Shigetada studies in Kyoto in the art of Tenshinsho Jigen Ryu with Zenkitsu
1604 Shigetada defeats his former teacher Higashi. The same year his son Togo Shigemasa is born.
1604 Shigetada becomes founder of Jigen Ryu.
1609 The Japanese Satsuma clan invade Okinawa and become overlords
1620 Shigemasa implements a syllabus of “makeshift weapons” in Jigen Ryu including the staff, oar, flute, sickle, spade and axe
1623 Shigetada’s grandson (Shigemasa’s son) Togo Shigetoshi is born
1624 Shigetada writes Enpi no Shidai (using the same characters for Enpi/Empi that Funakoshi used when renaming Wansu)
1632 Ijuin Mondo Hisaaki is born.
1645 Hisaaki studies Jigen Ryu under Shigemasa and Shigetoshi.
1650 Hisaaki introduces the art to the Ijuin clan. The branch is called Ko-Jigen Ryu.
1672 Shigetoshi’s son Shigeharu is born.
1680 Shigetoshi suffers a fit, so Hisaaki becomes caretaker head0aster
1680 Haebaru Ueikata is born in around 1680 in Onaka, Okinawa.
1695 Haebaru Ueikata begins to study Jigen Ryu and later takes it to Okinawans. He is thought to be the first recorded Okinawan practitioner of Ko-Jigen Ryu.