Shotokan is certainly harder and less circular compared to its Wado-ryu and Goju-ryu cousins but I find it hard to believe that it has no roots in China.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
FWIW, the "Shorin" in Shorinryu is written with exactly the same two characters as the Chinese "Shaolin."
I was reading the paperback edition of Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith's book "Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts" (Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1969, 1980) on Okinawan Karate and I have three reactions.
Their information is fairly general, they carefully qualify their statements (something the authors of the Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia should have done) and there is some interesting information in their book on weapons and the older physical training methods. (see especially page 62 for something called a "lever bar" which I had never seen before but which looks pretty practical)
Here is some of the better quotes from this now dated book. I don't agree with everything they say but its interesting to read.
"Okinawa, a word that means 'rope in the offing,' is a fitting name for this rough and beautiful island, which is thin, knotted, and looks like a rope that has been carelessly tossed into the sea." (p. 57)
"As a result of this  prohibition on weapons, Chinese combat methods were studied and practiced clandestinely. Gradually empty hand styles took on distinct Okinawan influences. These styles became known as Okinawan te or simply te meaning 'hand'--an important weapon in this combat form. This innocuous name helped maintain the secrecy of the instruction, which, according to the differences in regions and teachers, developed into three main styles. The te developed at Shuuri received the strongest influence from the External System, and that developed at Naha derived from the Internal System of China. The te developed at Tomari was a mixture of both external and internal influences. Accordingly, the Shuri te was primarily offensive; while the Naha te tended to be somewhat defensive. Naha te included grappling and throwing--tactics excluded in other original styles. [ed note. Naha, Shuri, and Tomari were geographically not more then several miles from each other so describing their differences as regional is an exageration, given their geographic closeness they may have not been the quite distinct styles that are typically described.]
Although the government prohibited the production and use of weapons, the developers of te ingeniously managed to apply five basic weapons to their system, to be used in the postures characteristic of empty-hand styles: the bo, a nearly six-foot staff; the sai, a short-forked metal instrument; the kama, a sickle; the tui-fa, also an agricultural device used primarily as a handle for a millstone; and the nunchaku, a universal-hinged wooden flail [ed note: and present day dork tool and wanna be magnet, I mean have you seen all the idiots who buy them with no real training in order to learn how to spin chucks?] All of these instruments have southeast Asian origins and are not indigenous to Okinawa, though with time the methods of employment by Okinawans took on distinctively Okinawan characteristics.
Two primitive weapons are worthy of mention, though they did not become highly systematized due to the fact that they are not used in the manner of empty-hand te style. The first of these is the suruchin, a composite weapon consisting of a short length of rope weighted at both ends; the weights could be whirled in various arc patterns and stuck against an enemy, to be retrieved for continuation of action if necessary. A style od combat known as timbei made use of two weapons. One, the to-hai, was a small circular shield of wood or of leather stretched on a wooden frame; it contained a small peephole through which the operator watched his enemy. Used with the shield was the heram a short wooden daggerlike instrument, which was also used in harvesting rice." (pp. 58-59)
"Rokushakubo is the name of an innocuous--looking weapon as well as a system of fighting. in Japanese roku means 'six' shaku is a measurement unit of about one foot in length, and bo means 'staff'. Thus as its name implies it is a kardwood polelike weapon about six feet in length. As an art it grew within te, adapting from Chinese prototypes basic principles and then developing its own native characteristics. The first of these is a matter of design. Continental Chinese staffs usually are of an equal diameter the full length of their body. Okinawan rokushakubo, however, generally have tapered ends: diameters range from between one inch and two inches. This was done to provide a more centralized focus in striking the opponent's body. Roksushakubo use depends entirely upon a knowledge of te." (p. 64)
"The nunchaku, a harmless looking object, appearing more like a toy then a weapon, originated as a southeast Asian agricultural flail... . As a combat system subordinate to te, the art of the nunchaku owes its technical excellence almost entirely to Okinawan endeavors." (p. 64)
"The sai is a vicious-looking, short metal weapon with a long history. Found in India, China, Indo-China, [ed note: Vietnam etc] Malaya, and Indonesia, its presence on Okinawa probably derives from migrations from any one or more of these sources. Evidence exists which favors Indonesia as a place of origin. Its design prototype may be seen in the trisula or trident-shaped weapon of ancient times. Ancient Indonesian civilizations on Sumatra and Java, which had contact with Okinawa, used the weapon in their combat systems." (p. 65)
"Kama (Sickle) The agricultural sickle haas been used as long as man has grown rice. Seen in a number of different forms all over southeastern Asia, it has from earliest times undoubtedly served as an efficient weapon in emergencies. On Okinawa the sickle is called a kama and was probably brought there during the numerous migrations from the Asian continent. It was not long before it was used as a weapon. [eds note: notice this unsupported assumption, how would they know?] Kama tactics are primarily Okinawan, following along the lines of te postures and movements. Some modifications had to be instituted in order that the operator would not wound himself during manipulation of the weapon." (p. 67)
"Tui-Fa (Handle) Early Okinawans, at work grinding grain by the millstone, were nonetheless determined to continue their clandestine practice of te. The wooden handle normally wedged into a hole in the side of the millstone served their combat purpose well" (p. 67)
I believe that Shotokan would have chinese roots. If I remember correctly, One of Funakoshi's masters was Itosu who taught Shuri-te. This system has ties to chuan'fa. I will have to dig deeper to see which system of chinese to be certain.
Jeremy M. Talbott
Yes, Funakoshi was a student of Itosu(1830-1915). He[Funakoshi] was only one of two students that Itosu appointed to the title of "Shihanshi" or "Protege." The other student was Kanken Toyama, who was assistant to Itosu at Okinawa Teacher's College (1907-1915) and later founded the Shudokan in Japan. Unlike Funakoshi(founded Shotokan), Toyama never claimed to create a new style. Rather, he sought to preserve the tecniques and lineage of Itosu.
Itosu's teacher was Sokon Matsumura(1797-1889), who studied under Tode Sakugawa. Around 1830, Matsumura also studied Shaolin Chuna-fa for several years in China before returning to Okinawa. He is recognized for organizing Shuri-te and was given the title of "Bushi" by the King of Okinawa.
Yeah..yeah...something like that RM. :) Actually I wasn't sure if the Chinese influence was White Crane or not. GM Robert Trias, who was also a Shuri-ryu stylist, talked about White Crane in his art, but I didn't know if it was Hsing-i influenced or something that was taught through the Shuri-te school.
Jeremy M. Talbott
That's a good question.
I really don't know anything about white crane.
I study from Itosu's line and we have some forms (Go Pei, Ahm Hak(jinto), Jutte, etc.) and techniques that include crane stances. I don't know if the crane stances were native to Okinawa or from Crane Chuan-fa arts. This is just my observation to add to this discussion.
I will input my thoughts on Shorin-ryu as it is the style that I study most actively and have devoted a good deal of my time to researching.
First of all there are four different major lines of Shorin-ryu karate.
Matsubayashi-ryu: This style is founded my Shoshin Nagamine who was a student of Chotoku Kyan (reportedly only very briefly) of Shuri-te, Ankichi Arakaki and Taro Shimabuku (both seniors students of Kyan), Chokki Motobu of Tomari-te but if you know anything about Motobu he really made up his own system more than adapting anyone elses, Kodatsu Iha (again very breifly) of Tomari-te, and Chojin Kuba (a close friend of his family who trained him for about a year before sending him to Chotoku Kyan and his students to train) of Tomari-te. He also is said to have met Chojun Miyagi on several occasions and there are aspects of Goju-ryu in some of his katas. Matsubayashi-ryu has changed significantly from it's Tomari and Shorin roots and is from my experience a very hard style that focuses on many gross muscle movements and has very powerful and angular blocking techniques and strikes.
Kobayashi-ryu: Kobayashi-ryu is descended from the lineage of Yasutsune "Anko" Itosu who was a disciple of Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura and possibly other chinese influences since many of the kata he designed are very similar to some of the movements I have seen in Hung Gar and White Crane kata. He is designed the five Pinan (or Heian in Japanese) kata and the katas Passai Sho and Kusanku Sho. He also trained Gichin Funakoshi along with another of Matsumura's students Yasutsune Azato. The style was then passed on to Chosin Chibana who's only teacher was Itosu and retained the style in it's entirety and taught it unfailingly for most of his life. Chibana was considered one of the greatest Okinawan karateka of his time and though there are no records of him actually taking part in many kakidameshi (challenge matches, these were usually not to the death as was previously stated but merely friendly bouts to test the skill of one against the other and hardly ever ended in someone getting seriously injured). These were very popular at the time and though there is no record the fame of Chibana would have made it very hard for him to escape kakidameshi. It has also been stated by some souces that Itosu taught two versions of his karate. One he taught to his school students and one to his actual karate students and it has also been surmized that Chibana though Chibana probably learned both forms he only taught the watered down school boy version. I seriously doubt this however. The current master of this style is Shugoro Nakazato who has changed many of the more smooth flowing motions that emphasize the circle (especially the blocks) into more straight hard and angular motions it is however, despite these recent changes and a continued emphasis on sport competition, mostly unchanged from what Itosu taught.
Shobayashi-ryu: This is the style I study so I will try to be as unbiased as possible but I apologize in advance if anyone percieves a bias in my writting. The current grandmaster of this style is Eizo Shimabukuro who was taught karate by Chotoku Kyan his primary teacher who he studied with from 1937 until 1943, he also trained simultaneously from 1938 on with Chojun Miyagi of Goju-ryu whom he trained with until 1943. In 1943 O'sensei Shomabukuro traveled to Osaka to live. Here he was taught by Chokki Motobu where he probably learned the Naihanchi kata and learned Yakusoku (or two man) Kumite training).In 1948 he returned to Okinawa and opened his first dojo and has since taught karate for 53 years. In 1955 O'sensei Shimabukuro recieved instruction from Zenryo Shimabukuro (no relation) who was Chotoku Kyan's best student. In 1961 when he began be become concerned with changes he was percieving in the kata he went to Chosin Chibana for instruction where he may also have learned Naihanchi kata and definately did learn the Pinan kata. It has been stated that O'sensei Shimabukuro already knew Passai Sho and Kusanku Sho but as kyan only knew and taught Kusanku Dai and Passai Dai I have no idea where he would have previously learned these kata. O'sensei Shimabukuro also learned Kobudo from Shinken Taira but it is indefinate when this was but it was probably after he returned to okinawa in 1948. He also learned karate from his older brother Tatsuo Shimbuku who was the founder of Isshin-ryu and 20 years his senior it was most likely Tatsuo who introduced O'sensei to Kyan and Miyagi. Our style is characterized by it's unique use of a very circular middle block that is identicle to that used in the Goju-ryu Sanchin and it's generally more circular and higher stances (for mobility) than other Shorin-ryu styles. Makiwara training is also HEAVILY emphsazied and outside conditioning (i.e. weight lifting) is required.
The last style is Matsumura Seito Karate: This style was created by Hohan Soken who was reputedly taught by his uncle Nabe Matsumura who was taught by Sokon Matsumura. However due to the kata that this style teaches there are very obviously other influences than these. Hohan Soken also became somewhat senile in his old age and there has been a ridiculous amount of in-fighting and politics in the years after Soken's death. The style has changed significantly in recent years and some of the kata are almost completely different from what was originally taught by Soken. The style heavily emphasizes high natural stances and is very rough and modernized in it's current form. However before the aforementioned in-fighting it was a very natural and easy style with many powerful and circular movements. They also teach a kata called Hakutsuru meaning white crane and it their version (the original and unaltered one that is) was almost identicle to a white crane kung-fu demonstration I saw once. It is obvious from this kata and several others that Sokon Matsumura did indeed study White Crane kung-fu either in china or from someone on Okinawa but since Matsumura predates many of the recorded teachers of white crane on okinawa it is likely he learned it in one of his many travels to China.
Hope this has been interesting for everyone sorry for being a little long winded but it's a very deep topic. I have also recently come across references to an art on okinawa called Gengkosu which predates te and is said to be almost 900 years old. I do not have any historical or scholarly information to back this up though so I don't know if there is any truth about it.
Concerning Matsubayashi-ryu, I'll try to be as unbiased as possible as well.
Motobu's influence is most strongly seen in the yakosuko kumite. Compairing the sets against Motobu's Okinawan Kempo and you'll see some of his combinations used almost unaltered. The relationship between Nagamine and Miyagi, wheather an exchange of ideas, on an intellectual basis, or one more of older brother to younger, older being Miyagi is not quite clear. But they were on good terms, good enough that fyukyukata ni is taken from Goju Ryu, by all acounts, with formal premission. The version of Chinto used is also supposed to be based on Matsumura Seito's older rendition, running on a single diaginal line. The blocking is generally very angular and strong, along with the strikes. There are smaller movements that come into play in use with larger body mechanics, but they are a more advanced skill and often over looked. Stances are upright, being one of the few styles I've seen make a formal use of a "natural stance" as Nagamine believed you should be ready to fight from a normal, non-prepaired position. Strength training is not required, but it is heavily encouraged in both Nagamine's text and by the instructors I've worked with.
A question I have to ask is how you think its changed from the Tomari and Shori based roots?
Thank's Kail for enlightening me on several points. I say it has changed based mostly on what my instructor's have told me and I will have to admit that Matsubayashi-ryu is the style I know the least about. I have recently ordered several books about Matsubayashi including The essence of Okinawan karate-do by Nagamine himself hopefully this will help my understanding. The other reason I say it has changed is because I once met and compared versions of Ananku and Wanshu with a matsubayashi-ryu practitioner and they were some significant differences in stance and some blocking form differences as well. This is most likely easily attributed to differences of style philosophy and bunkai (application) of the movements though.