Kanbun Uechi studied a style of Southern Chinese kung fu Pangai-noon (traditional Chinese characters: 半硬軟) meaning "half-hard, half-soft" in the Fujian province of China, in the late 19th century and early 20th century under a teacher and Chinese medicine hawker known in Japanese as Shū Shiwa (Chinese: Zhou Zihe 周子和 1874-1926). Shū Shiwa/Zhou Zihe's life is not well documented. Some have suspected without conclusive evidence that he had connection with the secret societies which worked for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the restoration of Ming dynasty. Research by the Fuzhou Wushu Association reported in 1984 revealed that he was born in the Zhitian Village (直田村) in 1874 to family wealthy enough to have him educated in letters and fighting arts which included weapons and Tiger Fist Kung Fu.
The exact provenance of the romanization "Pangai-noon" is not clear, and it may be from the lesser-known Min Chinese language. It is not a Japanese, Okinawan nor Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of the original characters. The standard Japanese pronunciation of the three characters is han kō nan (はんこうなん), while the standard Mandarin pronunciation is bàn yìng ruǎn. The Cantonese language pronunciation is bun ngaang yun. In modern times, the katakana version of pangainoon (パンガイヌーン) has been used in Japanese writing rather than the kanji (半硬軟). While the Fuzhou Wushu Association confirmed the meaning of "half-hard, half-soft" in interviews in 2012, in 1934, Kanbun Uechi explained to Kenwa Mabuni when he asked about the meaning of "Pangai-noon" that it referred to the rapid speed of the kata.
After studying about 10 years under Shū Shiwa/Zhou Zihe, Kanbun Uechi opened his own school in Nanjing in 1906, and he continued periodic training under Zhou Zihe for a total of 13 years. Three years later, Kanbun Uechi returned to Okinawa, determined never to teach again because reportedly one of his Chinese students had killed a neighbor with an open-hand technique in a dispute over land irrigation.
While in Okinawa, Kanbun Uechi did not teach his martial art. In 1912, a tea merchant and White Crane Kung Fu master Go Kenki (Wú Xiánguì) who knew him settled in Okinawa. As word spread from Go Kenki that Kanbun Uechi was a skilled martial arts teacher, he received requests to teach but refused.
Due to the economic situation in Okinawa, in 1924, at the age of 47, Kanbun Uechi left for Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan to find employment. While he was working as a security guard for a local cotton spinning mill,  he was persuaded by a co-worker, Ryuyu Tomoyose, to teach him privately. After two years of private lessons, Ryuyu Tomoyose and about 30 other men interested in learning convinced Kanbun Uechi agreed to resume teaching. He taught in small rooms in the company dormitory before work, during lunchtime, and after work until 1932 when he opened a general store and the "Pangai-noon Karate Academy" to the general public. In 1940, he and his students, including his son Kanei, renamed the system "Uechi-Ryū Karate-Jutsu" (上地流空手術) in his honor.
Kanbun Uechi's son, Kanei Uechi, taught the style at the Futenma City Dojo, Okinawa, and was considered the first Okinawan to sanction teaching foreigners. One of Kanbun's students, Ryuko Tomoyose, taught a young American serviceman named George Mattson who authored several books on the subject and is largely responsible for popularizing the style in America. Uechi-Ryū emphasizes toughness of body with quick blows and kicks. Some of the more distinctive weapons of Uechi practitioners are the one-knuckle punch shōken zuki (小拳突き shōken zuki), spearhand nukite (貫手突き nukite), and the front kick shōmen geri (正面蹴り shōmen geri) delivered with the first toe (sokusen geri). On account of this emphasis on simplicity, stability, and a combination of linear and circular movements, proponents claim the style is more practical for self-defense than most other martial arts.
In contrast to the more linear styles of karate based on Okinawan Shuri te or Tomari-te, Uechi-Ryū's connection with Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken means the former shares a similar foundation with Naha-te (and thus with Gōjū-Ryū) despite their separate development. Thus, Uechi-Ryū is also heavily influenced by the circular motions which belong to the kung fu from Fujian province. Uechi-Ryū is principally based on the movements of three animals: the Tiger, the Dragon, and the Crane.