18 April 2019

Knee-Bending Movement 오금질 in Korean Body Culture

A very important part of Korean body culture is the bending of the knees, known in Korean as "ogeum-jil" 오금질. In the video below, a Korean folk dance instructor discusses this feature of Korean movement. It is only in Korean, so it won't be of much value for most readers of my blog who do not speak Korean; however, even browsing through the video will highlight some of the similarities between the stepping in Korean folk dance and some of the ways we move in ITF Taekwon-Do.

The following video shows some Taekkyeon 택견 training. Taekkyeon is a Korean folk martial art that employs a three-beat triangular stepping known as "pumbalbgi" 품밟기 which also involves the Korean "ogeum-jil" or knee-bending.

It is likely that the term "ogeum-jil" is what became known as "knee-spring" in Taekwon-Do.

This motion of knee-bending is part of a larger aspect of Korean body culture known as "gulshin" 굴신, which refers to the contraction and expansion of the body through different means; for example, the bending and flexing of the knees, the expansion of the torso through breathing, and the lengthening of the spine, even the mental attitudes of lightness and heaviness. All of this may create a vertical lengthening or shortening of a persons frame, hence it has been translated into English by one dance scholar as "verticality".

In the following video about breathing in Korean traditional dance, one can see the different aspects of "gulshin" in action.

To understand ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion, one has to take into consideration these aspects of Korean body culture. The sine wave motion is not merely a "scientific" attempt to increase the amount of body mass employed in techniques by first raising the body to create potential energy, and then dropping the body to convert the potential energy into kinetic energy. While this is part of how sine wave is understood, it should be understood within this larger, cultural framework. The sine wave movement is part of Korean body culture.

05 April 2019

"Martial Arts" in Korean

On a Facebook group that I belong, the following questions were recently posted:

1. When did the term "Art" get applied to martial studies? 
2. Do Koreans call TKD an "Art"?

The term “art” in “martial art” doesn’t mean “aesthetics,” as it is often suggested. The word comes from the old French “ars,” which means craftsmanship and was adopted into English to mean skill, particularly of something that needs to be practiced, hence the related term “artisan.” Thus, martial arts simply mean ‘war skills’ (“martial” from Mars, god of war; “arts” from ‘ars’ [old French], meaning craftsmanship, skill).

(As a side note, Dr John Johnson and Dr Peter Ha wrote a paper in which they argue that the English term “martial art” should be understood as a system for self-cultivation. They also propose that the terms “combat system” and “combat sport” be used for other types of martial arts that do not have the self-cultivation goal, but rather combative or sportive goals, respectively. I don’t agree with how they define the term “martial art” based on the etymology of “art” that means skill, as I explained above, but I agree with their assessment that there are different categories of martial arts and that using more precise language is probably better.)

In Korean there are three terms that is usually translated into English as martial arts: “musul 무술”, “muye 무예”, and “mudo 무도”. The base term “mu 무” (from the hanja: 武) translates to roughly “martial” (“martiality”). The suffixes “-sul 술”, “-ye 예”, and “-do 도” translate as “skill”, “art”, and “way” respectively. Since “art” in the English term “martial art” means “skill,” the closest Korean equivalent is “musul”. Interestingly, the “art” in “muye” actually does have a stronger aesthetic connotation in Korean; while “martial art” in English is actually more about a practiced skill, the Korean term “muye” is more about a creative skill.

The preferred term in Chinese for martial arts is “wushu” 武術, which is the same as “musul” in Korean and “bujitsu” in Japanese; i.e. martial skill. In Japanese, the term “budo” has become preferred for their (modern training of) martial arts and corresponds with the Korean “mudo”; i.e. martial way 武道.

Which is the Korean preference? Korean traditionalists typically use the term “muye 무예” (hanja: 武藝 ) in their writing. This point was brought up specifically by the professors at Kyunghee University (Korea) where I did my PhD. The ancient Korean martial art texts have “muye 무예” in their titles: Muyejebo (1598), Muyejebobeonyeoksokjip (1610), Muyesinbo (1759), Muyedobotongji (1790). A modern example is Taekkyeon practitioners who refer to their style as “our [Korean] martial art” (uri-ui muye 우리의 무예) in their writings. Even General Choi, when he described Taekwon-Do as the “Korean art of self-defense” literally called it “hoshin yesul 호신예술” (i.e. the art [creative act] of self-defense).

There are two things that need to be pointed out:

First, although the term “muye” is typically used to refer to traditional martial arts in Korean, that doesn’t mean that there is a very strong emphasis on creative expression. Having lived in Korea for over a decade and having trained in several Korean martial arts (ITF TKD, Hapkido, Taekkyeon, and other cross-training), hardly any Korean instructors I’ve trained under stressed creativity (creative self-expression) as a primary part of their discipline. That's one reason why I disagree with the notion that the ITF patterns is a dance where the practitioner can creatively express themselves. (I have not trained much with Kukki/WT instructors, so I don’t know if creative self-expression is something that is emphasized in Kukki/WT Taekwondo.)

Second, the terms “musul,” “muye,” and “mudo” are sometimes used to suggest a practitioner’s growth on the martial arts journey, starting with a basic acquisition of techniques (“musul”), to a creative improvisation of techniques (“muye”), to a spiritual discipline where lessons learned in the dojang is intuited to life wisdom (“mudo”) beyond fighting. I’ve written about this here on my blog, and Dr Johnson has also written academically about it.

In short, to answer the original question:

The English term “martial art” is better understood as “war skills”.

Koreans have three terms for martial arts: “musul,” “muye”, and “mudo.” All three terms can be used and often are used interchangeably by Korean speakers. Although lay people often use “musul,” “muye”, and “mudo” as synonymous, the term “muye” is typically employed by Koreans to refer to traditional Korean martial arts, differentiating it from the Chinese “wushu” (“musul”) and the Japanese “budo” (“mudo”). The terms are also sometimes applied to indicate a person’s progression along the martial arts journey, with “musul” referring to the foundation level or technical training and “mudo” implying ascetic self-development. Koreans who practice martial arts as a way of life refer to themselves as “mudo-in 무도인” (literally: martial-way-person).

Finally, as for “Taekwon-Do,” since the term includes the “-do” suffix, we can assume that the pioneers hoped that it would be a system of self-development and not simply a “musul” or “muye.”

29 March 2019

Korean Dance, Sine-Wave Movement, and Breathing

I recently took up Korean traditional dancing again. I'm taking classes offered by the National Theater of Korea, which also offers classes in Korean traditional drumming (that I also learned before), and Korean panseori (traditional singing). The reason for taking traditional dance (and why I previously took Korean drumming) is to continue my understanding of traditional Korean body culture.

Attending the recent dancing classes affirmed again the strong similarities with the way we move in ITF Taekwon-Do. Something that is particularly standing out for me this time is breathing in dancing, and how it correlates with the breathing we do in ITF Taekwon-Do. My friend Dr John Johnson also sent me some academic articles about breathing in Korean dancing which I'm slowly working through (as they are in Korean). The following quotation is from another article that I downloaded from somewhere else long ago, which illustrates the similarities between breathing in ITF Taekwon-Do and traditional Korean dance:

"When inhaling the body expands, rising, moving out or up, with arms and legs being lifted and stretched. When exhaling the body contracts, sinking, moving in or down, with arms and legs being lowered or bent." -- Dr. Young-Ae Park, "The Two Characteristics of Korean Dance".
Korean dance movements start from a lowered position with the limbs relaxed and the knees bent. This is the same for ITF Taekwon-Do techniques that start in a neutral position (sometimes known as the intermediate position), as I explained in a different post long ago.  In Korean dance, the dancer will start a movement by "rising, moving out or up" which corresponds with an inhalation. This is the same with most ITF Taekwon-Do techniques: the legs are extended, the body raised and the technique is "loaded" for execution. Next, the technique is "released" corresponding to a "sinking, moving in or down . . . and the legs being lowered or bent" while exhaling.

In Korean dance, such up and down movements, with associated breathing, includes more layers of detail, including mental states, postural nuances, particular points of relaxation and tension. The same can be said for the different techniques in Taekwon-Do, of course. I hope to write an article about this sometime, and will probably write about my experience in traditional Korean dance here on this blog in the future.

03 March 2019

The Teleology of Sparring in ITF Taekwon-Do

The following video recording is of my presentation at Stanford University, at the 2019 International Academic Conference for Taekwondo. The video quality is a bit low as I captured it with my mobile phone from the video stream that was made during the conference. When I find a better quality recording, I will post it later. Below is also the abstract for my presentation.

Abstract: The Teleology of Free Sparring in ITF Style Taekwondo

The Korean term for sparring in ITF style taekwondo is matseogi which denotes opposing or standing up against an adversary. This is different from the term gyeorugi (i.e. from gyeoruda, “to compete”) that is used in WT / Kukki taekwondo or the older term daeryeon (“fighting”) that was used in the early development of taekwondo. Matseogi in ITF style taekwondo ought to be understood teleologically as a “Korean martial art of self-defense.” Towards that goal, the ITF pedagogy guides the practitioner through various types of matseogi (from “pre-arranged” to “unrestricted”), which is supposed to sequentially prepare the practitioner for the telos (i.e. ultimate goal) of real-life self-defense. It is very difficult to prepare for a real-life self-defense situation because reality is often chaotic, with many unpredictable variables. Consequently, the ITF pedagogy offers yaksok matseogi (“pre-arranged sparring”) with much reduces variables, so that the practitioner can focus on and hone appropriate skills for specific variables. Progressively more variables are introduced until the practitioner finally practices jayu matseogi (i.e. “free sparring” or “unrestricted sparring”), which is supposed to allow for the inclusion of as many variables as possible to mimic the chaos of a real-life self-defense encounter. This type of training is often referred to as “reality based” training. However, the term jayu matseogi (“free sparring”) has been appropriated for competition sparring at ITF tournaments. Because competition sparring is bound by numerous sparring rules, this type of sparring still has too many reduced variables to reflect the very high variable situation of a real self-defense encounter. Since for many ITF schools competition sparring is considered jayu matseogi, their pedagogic telos is never achieved, as there is no ultimate “reality based” training that mimics the unpredictability of a real self-defense encounter. It is my proposal that ITF competition sparring should be renamed because the current misapplied use of the term jayu matseogi effectively erases the true definition and purpose of jayu matseogi in the ITF pedagogy. Instead of jayu matseogi the term gyeorugi is an appropriate designation for competition sparring. Furthermore, actual “reality based” jayu matseogi needs to be reintroduced in schools where it is not trained, in order for ITF style taekwondo to achieve its pedagogic telos as a “Korean martial art of self-defense.”

06 December 2018

UNESCO ICM's 2018 International Martial Arts Seminar

Grandmasters and dignitaries
This past Friday I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 International Martial Arts Seminar organised by UNESCO’s International Center for Martial Arts in Chungju, Korea. The seminar focussed on the “Meaning and Role of Martial Arts in Modern Society.” I was happy to catch up with old acquintances and make some new connections, including seeing some of Korea’s martial arts legends, such as Grandmaster Wang "Cassanova" Ho, who was one of the first Koreans to become famous in the Hong Kong kung-fu film scene.

The seminar was divided into four parts, starting with an welcoming address by the UNESCO ICM Secretary General, Kim Sihyun who emphasized the role martial arts have played in modern times towards mediating conflicts. This was followed by the keynote speaker, Finn Berggren of the Gerleve Sports Academy in Denmark. The Gerlev Sports Academy functions as a center for researching and teaching traditional sports and games. Principle Berggren spoke about the importance of rediscovering and saving traditional games and the possible correlations between traditional sports and games and traditional martial arts. He highlighted the importance of rough-and-tumble play and children’s fighting games in childhood development and recommended that martial arts ought to be included as educational subjects in schools.

After a lunch break, Professor Andreas Niehaus from Ghent University, Belgium, spoke about the challenges and complications Karate is experiencing as it is aiming for inclusion in the Olympics. He started of with a historic overview of the development of Karate (first as Tedol) in Okinawa, with influences from China and South-East Asia. With the move to mainland Japan, Karate became a tool for building Japan’s nationalism. As an Olympic sport, one can expect simplification, while back on Okinawa there is still disagreement among the different styles of Karate; nevertheless, Okinawa prefecture wants (Okinawan) Karate to be registered on the UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural assets.

Professor Na Young-Il from Seoul National University spoke about “War, Peace and the Role of the ICM.” He pointed out the correlations between war and sports. He also gave an overview of the use of martial arts used in times of war in Japan and in Korea. It was noteworthy that he specifically mentioned General Choi Hong-Hi as the person who created the name “Taekwondo” and discussed the involvement of Taekwondo in the Vietnam War. Then Prof. Na looked at the use of sport for building peace. One example he mentioned was the “Fight for Peace” initiative that was started by Luke Dowdney in 2002 in Rio de Janeiro, which focusses on teaching personal development through martial arts in communities affected by crime and violence. Fight for Peace has representation in over 25 countries. He concluded his presentation with a look at the role of the ICM, which was started as part of UNESCO’s drive to safeguard traditional sports and games. Dr Na suggested that Asian countries should start a similar initiative as the Europrean Traditional Sports and Games Platform project that was started by the EU in 2017.

Dr. Alex Channon from the Department of Sport Studies and Physical Education at the University of Brighton introduced the Love Fighting Hate Violence initiative that is aimed at dispelling the notion that martial arts training is a celebration of violence. L.F.H.V. claims that combat sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts should not be considered “violent sports” as the fighting in these activities are consensual. “When a person does not consent to be being punched or kicked but is hit anyway,” then such an incident may be considered violent. The difference between violence and consensual fighting is an important one because it helps us understand the boundaries of violence. “By learning about and reflecting on what makes up the difference between ‘fighting’ and ‘violence’, we can help people to think about how they can avoid or challenge violence within martial arts and combat sports, as well as elsewhere in their lives.”


The seminar also included two panel discussions. The first focused on the MARIE (Martial Arts Research Initiative for Experts) program that was hosted by the ICM in 2017, and the second was a recapitulation of the seminar followed by a Q&A session.

An unexpected photo of me taken by the event photographer

21 November 2018

"100th Anniversary of Choi Honghi: Taekwon-Do and Life; How to View Choi Honghi"

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend a symposium about General Choi 최홍희.

The symposium was in honour of the 100th Anniversary of the birth of General Choi, the “principle founder of original Taekwon-Do” (as Taekwon-Do historian Dr George Vitale likes to put it). General Choi’s claim to the title of “founder” of Taekwon-Do is not without controversy and while his great contribution to Taekwon-Do is undeniable (even so far as coining the term “TaeKwon-Do”), in South Korea his legacy has been nearly eradicated because of the conflict he had with the then dictator-president Park Chonghee. Gen. Choi’s later visit to the North further estranged him from South Korea.

The purpose of this symposium, organised by Taekwondo Box Media and hosted at the Korea National Sports University, was to re-asses General Choi’s contribution. The university president gave an opening remark, which was followed by the reading of a handwritten letter by General Choi’s wife.

A handwritten letter of appreciation from Mrs Choi,
the widow of Gen. Choi

There were two speakers. The first speaker was Dr. Heo Keon-sik (허건식), General Director of the Chungju World Martial Arts Masterships Organizing Committee. He discussed “The Martial Artist, Choi Hong-hee”. Dr Heo had an interesting approach. He looked at the founders of Judo (Kano), modern Karate (Funakushi), and Kyukushin Karate (Mas Oyama, aka 최영의) and noted how each of them studied a previous martial art and then changed it into something new. By comparison, he argued, that General Choi did the same within the Oh Do Kwan (which was the name of Gen. Choi’s karate school in the ROK military from which Taekwon-Do evolved). Dr Heo also differentiated between the “core” of ITF Taekwon-Do (i.e. Gen. Choi’s Taekwon-Do) and WT / Olympic Taekwondo. For him, the core of Olympic Taekwondo is sport competition, whereas in ITF it is traditional martial arts (if I understood him correctly). A point Dr Heo frequently brought up was “Red Complex”, which is a term used in Korea to refer to the overreaction of anything remotely related to North Korea or Communism. Because of General Choi and the ITF’s connection with North Korea, General Choi became a taboo topic and anything to do with him enticed “Red Complex”. Unfortunately, my understanding of the presentation was limited, so this is all I could derive from Dr. Heo’s presentation.

The second speaker was Dr. Mikhail Han (한병철), a martial arts movement researcher at the 88 Exercise Science Institute. Dr. Han also looked at the Oh Do Kwan as the root of (ITF) Taekwon-Do, noting that it started with Karate training but evolved. He suggested, if I understood him correctly (i.e. if I interpreted his Powerpoint slides correctly), that ITF Taekwon-Do concepts of power generation were derived from various other martial arts influences that were part of the collective knowledge of the early ITF Taekwon-Do pioneers, which included karate, Western boxing, some Chinese martial arts, Taekkyeon, wrestling (I’m guessing he refers to Judo), fencing, Muay Thai, and weightlifting. I’m not sure what his sources for fencing and Muay Thai are, but the other activities mentioned were definitely part of early (ITF) Taekwon-Do. He then spoke about ITF’s sinewave movement and pointed out that ITF Taekwon-Do’s conception of force shares concepts with the knee-bending principle 오금질 in Taekkyeon, and certain concepts of movement within the Chinese internal styles: Hsing-I Chuan, Taichi Chuan and Baqua. This was a pleasant surprise because this is the first time I heard someone formally make this claim—which is something I’ve written about for years on my Taekwon-Do blog. (The only other person I know who has made similar statements is Manuel Androgue.)

Dr Han stated that Choi Hong-hee should get credit for being the "major shareholder” in the foundation of Taekwon-Do, for his attempt to break away from Japanese-karate, for introducing Taekwon-Do to North Korea, for preserving Taekwon-Do as a “Martial Do” 무도태권도, and for being a Korean patriot.

He concluded his talk by addressing the tasks ahead. He suggested that an objective reappraisal of General Choi’s contribution is required, that it should be “beyond ideology”, that General Choi should receive amnesty (he was declared a traitor by the Park Chong-hee regime), that there should be an independent meritor of Gen Choi’s work, that a Choi Hong-hi memorial should be established, and that Inter-Korean Taekwon-Do exchanges should (continue to) occur.

Symposium Q&A Panel

The second part of the symposium involved a discussion (Q&A) with six specialists, including Sean Yu, who is the Secretary General for one of the ITF groups in South Korea. Because this part of the symposium did not include presentation slides, I wasn’t able to follow along as well. One of the questions from a university student was why General Choi’s contribution to Taekwon-Do were not taught to them in university. The uncomfortable answer was because of “Red Complex”.

Dignitaries, presenters, panelists and PhDs in attendance

I don’t know what the long term implication of this symposium will be because as far as I could tell it was not sanctioned by the World Taekwondo, the Kukkiwon or Taekwondowon. It was a rather low-key event. Nevertheless, it is of great significance. When I came to Korea over a decade ago, General Choi was a taboo topic. I was even warned to avoid talking and writing about him because I might get investigated by the NIS (National Intelligence Service), which could result in having my visa revoked. Since then, the political climate has made a 180-degree turn. The legacy of General Choi is slowly re-emerging and hopefully he will get the credit as the “major shareholder” of Taekwon-Do in the homeland of Taekwon-Do.

09 November 2018

An Interpretation of the Korean Foundation Myth of the Tiger and the Bear

The essay below was published in this month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, Issue #116. For Taekwon-Do enthusiasts, it is well worth subscribing, I think.

An Interpretation of the Korean Foundation Myth of the Tiger and the Bear
By Sanko Lewis

“The tiger’s nature is wild and violent, and it causes calamities. Do not act with violence and impatience, for these bring harm to yourself and to others. Always abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.” — Dangun Wanggeom* 

The quotation above is from the Eight Codes of Conduct, said to have been established by Dangun Wanggeom 단군왕검, the legendary founder of Korea. Dan-Gun Tul, the second pattern in the Chang Hon pattern set, was named after the mythical Dangun Wanggeom.

As a moral code, the quotation starts with a curious allusion to the wild and violent tiger. This must be seen within the greater context of the Korean foundation myth. For the sake of brevity, the focus of this essay will be on the part of the foundation myth related to the “Tiger and the Bear” and the Bear-Woman, Ungnyeo, who was the mythical mother of Dangun Wanggeom.

A bear and a tiger pleaded in prayer to Hwanung 환웅, the son of the King of Heaven, to make them human. Hwangung gave them sacred food to eat—twenty cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort—and told them to stay in a cave for 100 days. The tiger was too impatient and left the cave early; whereas the bear remained in the cave and finally emerged a human. She was Ungnyeo 웅녀, the “Bear-woman.” She made thank offerings to Hwanung, but soon Hwangung noticed her crying under a sacred birch tree 신단수 for she could not find a husband and was lonely. Hwanung had pity on her and took her as his wife. They had a son whom Ungnyeo named Dangun, which translates as “Altar Prince” or “Birchwood.” Dangun Wanggeom established Gojoseon, the first Kingdom of Korea in the year 2333 B.C. 

There is much one can extrapolate from the Korean foundation myth, but before doing so, it is useful to understand what the purpose and value of such myths were within the cultures these ancient stories developed and were passed on in.

Older generations, much more than modern generations, had an inherent understanding of the powerful truths that are often embedded in stories. The ancient Greeks used two words to denote ‘truth’: logos and mythos. The former is where we get our modern word “logic” from and refers to logical truths, i.e. truths derived from reason. In our modern age we can understand logos as those truths often associated with the natural sciences. While the ancient Greeks definitely valued logos they also valued mythos, which are those types of truths embedded in mythology—in epic poems and drama.

The ancient people understood that there are certain truths that science cannot adequately deliver. If one were to ask, ‘what is love?’ or ‘what is bravery?’, science has little to say. Of course, science can explain that love is basically a neurochemical cocktail of the endorphins dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, as the American psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz did in his 1983 book The Chemistry of Love. However, anyone that has experienced love knows that it is far more than just fizzing juices having a party in your brain. A better way to learn what love is, is to intuit it from the lyrical language and metaphors in poem and song, or to see it enacted in stories. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides a far better exposition on love than reading a biochemistry textbook. Similarly, the classic Old English epic of Beowulf facing monsters or Homer’s telling of the Greek hero Odysseus’ struggles to return home sheds far better light on the meaning of ‘bravery’ than a scientific analysis of testosterone levels in mammals.

Ancient myths tend to have particular functions. Creation myths gives a cosmological explanation for where the world comes from. Myths, like fables, sometimes provide other ‘origin’ explanations such as psychological answers to the nature of man, for instance the reasons for our innate desires. Another function of myth is to provide an origin narrative for a community. This is known as an ethnogenesis or foundation myth. Furthermore, myths offer a mythomoteur¸ which is a goal or sense of purpose for a community. Additionally, myths provide exempla (singular: exemplum), which are anecdotes that illustrate moral codes of conduct. As such, myths often function as religious narratives.

Following I will provide an analytical interpretation of the Korean foundation myth of the “Tiger and the Bear.” My analysis is based on typical interpretations of archetypal symbols and my knowledge of Korean culture, having lived in Korea for over a decade.


The tiger and the bear are at the top of the food chain. As animals, they are at the hierarchical pinnacle. Yet they are not satisfied with their current state. Firstly, their discontent in this story may suggest that desire—to want something—is natural. Secondly, the tiger and bear want to be human. This may suggest that there is an innate desire within us to be better; to be more than what we currently are. Or rather, the myth suggests that we ought to have such a desire for self-improvement, and that if we are sincere, the Heavens will assist us. This virtue of self-improvement fits within the Confucian ethic that was to become particularly valued by the Korean people. Confucius taught that all people should strive to by a junzi 君子 (comparable to the Korean seonbi 선비), which were a type of ideal or superior person. Famous seonbi were Yul-Gok and Toi-Gye, both of whom also have Taekwon-Do patterns named after them.

Natural Order

The myth suggests a natural order. The animals realise that humans are of a higher order than themselves; hence, their desire to be human. The myth makes it clear, however, that both humans and animals are of a lower order than the gods, so a natural cosmological order is suggested with the gods at the zenith, followed by humans, and then animals. Such a cosmological order fits well with the emphasis placed on hierarchical order that was later suggested by Confucius.

Humility / Prayer

The thing that the tiger and the bear in this myth strive for is impossible for them to achieve by themselves, therefore they petition to a power greater than themselves—they pray to the Divine. This may suggest the importance of humility, which is a virtue much prized in the Orient.

Heaven Help Those Who Help Themselves

The gods will help us in our striving towards betterment, in our pursuit of our goals and dreams. However, according to this myth the Divine won’t simply give us what we want. We must do something. We must go into the cave and endure the trial.

Controlling Our Wild-Nature: Perseverance and Self-Control

In this myth, the god Hwanung is benevolent and willing to grant their wish, but being human comes with responsibility, and so he gives them a test (of perseverance). Will they simply carry their wild (impulsive) natures into their new human state, or do they have what it takes to be human? In other words, can they control their wild, impulsive natures? Inversely, it may suggest that if we can’t control our emotions, that we are less than human—we are behaving according to our animalistic natures. (This, too, correspond with the Confucian ethic of having one’s emotions under control.)

Need of the Divine

Hwanung doesn’t simply expect them to have this ability in and of themselves. He provides assistance in the form of herbal medicine. This may suggest that to overcome our animalistic natures and strive towards becoming fully human we need the assistance of a Wise Helper. In many myths the main character is assisted by a divine or sage archetype that presents them with wisdom and or gifts which will be invaluable for the successful completion of their journey or pursuit. In this myth, Hwanung fulfil this archetype and presents them with the gift of special herbs. Consuming of the herbs provided by the god and entering the cave may also suggest a type of religious ritual—the beginning of a rite of passage.

Heavenly Medicine

Medicinal plants are a gift from the gods; medicinal plants are sacred. This confirms part of the extended Korean creation myth that Hwanung established laws, moral codes, and taught humans about medicine and agriculture. In many ancient cultures the healers—those with knowledge of the medicinal plants—were also the shamans and priests that were connected with the Divine.

The Cave as a Trial 

The cave is symbolic of a trial, a test, a challenge. In other myths it is the dark, scary and dangerous place that the hero must enter and pass through: the valley-of-death, the dark forest, the depths of the ocean, the belly of the beast, the ‘dark night of the soul’, the abyss.

The Cave as Grave and Womb / Death and Resurrection 

The cave is both a symbol for the grave (death) and for the womb (birth). The bear, who stays in the cave for the whole duration of the test, symbolically dies in the cave. Bears hibernate in the winter—their hibernation is a type of death from which they re-emerge (symbolically re-born) in the spring. The cave acts as a womb in which the foetus develops—emerging from the cave is analogous to being born. In this myth, the bear goes into the cave, dies from being a bear—it’s wild impulsive nature dies—and is reborn into a human.

Spiritual (Re-)Awakening / Enlightenment 

Emerging from the cave suggests a type of enlightenment—literally moving from darkness into the light. She transcends from animal-being to human-being, and the first thing Ungnyeo does when she emerges from the cave is a spiritual practise: a religious offering to Hwangung.


Immediately after emerging from the cave, Ungnyeo gives offers of thanks to Hwangung. This relates back to the earlier point of humility. The importance of traditional thanksgiving practises such as at Korea’s most important annual festivals, Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and Seollal (Korean New Year), are already foreshadowed in this ancient myth.

Sacred Tree

The sacred tree 신단수 where Ungnyeo cries and prays is clearly very important. It is at the tree where Hwangung finds Ungnyeo crying, and it is supposedly also at the tree where their union is consummated. Ungnyeo even names her son after the tree. The tree clearly has religious symbology. As the tree reaches towards the sky, it connects the earth with heaven; hence, it is a place (an “altar”) for connecting with the Divine. In naming Dangun after the tree, Ungnyeo clearly associates the tree somehow with the new life of her son. Therefore, we should interpret the tree as a fertility symbol—a symbol of life, possibly even eternal life because of its connection with the Divine. Even in modern Korea, one can still find sacred trees in old villages. ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners may make the link to the pine tree which served as the inspiration for the logo on the back of the ITF Taekwon-Do uniform. The pine tree was chosen as symbol for Taekwon-Do because it is an evergreen tree which ‘never changes its colours’. Unlike other trees that “die” in winter, the pine tree has a seemingly immortal quality to it. General Choi interpreted this unchanging quality as a symbol of integrity.

Social Connection

Ungnyeo is lonely. She wants a husband. She longs for connection with another. The importance of social connection established.

Divine Connection 

Hwangung takes Ungnyeo as his wife. Instead of giving her a human husband, he elevates her, by humbling himself. Here, again we see the importance of connection with the Divine. The purpose of the Divine is to elevate humanity: elevation in state (animal state to human state); elevation in station (nobody / commoner to somebody / queen). This idea of ‘elevation’ also resonates with the previous points related to (self-) improvement.


The filial triad is established: parents and child. Traditionally, in Korean culture the family is of utmost importance. Often the reason for this value placed on filial piety is attributed to the influence of Confucianism on Korean society, but maybe the roots of Korean filial piety reaches as far back as the Dangun myth.

We also notice here the prototypical notion of Sam-Taegeuk; namely, the three essential elements: Heaven (represented by Hwangung), Earth (represented by the Bear), and Human (represented by Dangun).

True Human, Divine Child

Dangun represents the true human. Ungnyeo became a human, but she was not born human. On the other hand, Dangun was born human. Within Korean cosmology, Dangun represents the prototypical human, similar to Adam in the Judeo-Christian creation myth. From an archetypal perspective, Dangun is the Divine Child that will grow up to become the King archetype.

The King as Connection Between Heaven and Earth

As Dangun is the offspring of Heaven (Hwangung) and the Earth (Bear), in him Heaven and Earth is united. Since Dangun is the prototypical human, he is the example for all humans. Every person should bring in themselves a harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. To be truly human, we should represent the characteristics of the King-archetype: a wise and benevolent ruler. (The Chinese character for “king” 王 depicts a vertical line that connects three horizontal lines representing heaven, humanity, and earth.)


In ancient cultures, mythologies were not simply stories for entertainment, but provided important “truths,” that the ancient Greeks called mythos. In our modern times of scientific discovery and technological advancement we are quick to dismiss such stories as mere superstitious fictions. It is certainly the case that modern science can and often does provide better general explanations so that we need not hold onto unnecessary superstitious beliefs. However, some truths fall outside the scope of rational science.

I started this essay with a quote from Dangun’s moral code, that admonishes the hearer not to be like the impatient, violent tiger, but that one should instead “abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.” With a better understanding of the myth that the code alludes to, the admonition carries a richer layer of meaning. The opposite of the wild (impulsive) and violent tiger is not a weak prey, but the bear. Not any bear, but the persevering mother-bear. As mother-bear, she protects her young: those who are in danger, the weak, the miserable, the poor.

For the Taekwon-Do practitioner who practise the pattern Dan-Gun and learned the story of the tiger and the bear, there are valuable truths to be gleamed. Foremost, is the importance of the virtues of perseverance and self-control. The tiger’s inability to control his wild nature prevented him from gaining the prize of humanity. So too, the Taekwon-Do practitioner that wishes to transform into a better version of him or herself needs to have perseverance and self-control. But towards what end? Dangun’s moral code suggests it is towards the betterment of humanity: to “love all beings” and to protect those in danger and the weak. The thoughtful Taekwon-Do practitioner will be quick to see how this resonates with the Taekwon-Do Oath: not to misuse Taekwon-Do, but to be champions of freedom and justice, and to build a more peaceful world.

Dr. Sanko Lewis (5th Dan) teaches literature at a university in Seoul, South Korea. His PhD research focus was on oriental philosophy and martial arts. You can find more of his writing on his blog: http://sooshimkwan.blogspot.com 

* The quotation from Dangun’s moral code is from The Practise of Hongik Ingan: “To Live for the Benefit of All Mankind.” (2nd ed.) by Hyang-jin Jung, Ji-seon Lee, Hang-jin Chang, Yoon-sang Han, and Matthew Jackson. (2014.) 

04 October 2018

The Method of the Dao

"What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art."

Image Source

The following story from Zhuangzi (Inner Chapters: "Nourishing the Lord of Life") describes an account that all traditional martial artists who have walked the martial arts path for some time, and all students of the Dao, understand and strive for. You can see different translations of the story of "The Dexterous Butcher" here. The version below is from the Chinese Text Project


His cook was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wen Hui. Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, and employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin, and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of 'the Mulberry Forest' and the blended notes of the King Shou.' 
The ruler said, 'Ah! Admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!' 
Having finished his operation, the cook laid down his knife, and replied to the remark, 'What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but the (entire) carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills. Observing the natural lines, (my knife) slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membranous ligatures, and much more the great bones. A good cook changes his knife every year; (it may have been injured) in cutting - an ordinary cook changes his every month - (it may have been) broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no (appreciable) thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the interstice is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough. Nevertheless, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed anxiously and with caution, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated, and drops like (a clod of) earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand, I look all round, and in a leisurely manner, with an air of satisfaction, wipe it clean, and put it in its sheath.' 
The ruler Wen Hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'


This account is, of course, foremost a lesson about #efficacy, but there are much more to be learned from this Daoist anecdote that may be "nourishment" for our lives.

23 September 2018

Potch Taekwon-Do Club at National Champs

Instructor Philip de Vos, Riana Serfontein, Hilda Schutte, Edrich Louw

I'm happy to share the results of the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club's recent participation at the National Championships of the South Africa Taekwon-Do Institute (SATI), which was held at Cullinan, Gauteng, South Africa.

Three students participated in the national champs, and all of them brought home multiple medals.

Riana Serfontein earned a silver medal for patterns in the adult female intermediate division, as well as a silver medal for sparring in the adult female intermediate division. Riana also went on to tie for first place in the adult female power breaking division.

Edrich Louw earned a gold for both patterns and sparring in the adult male novice divisions.

And, Hilda Schutte got silver medals for patterns and sparring in the adult female novice divisions.

I'd like to congratulate these three Taekwon-Do practitioners on their stellar performances. The Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club has never been a big club and only a few students participate in the annual national championships, but they always do us very proud.

This year the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club is 20 years old (one of the oldest continuously running Taekwon-Do clubs in South Africa), and is still an authentically traditional ITF Taekwon-Do school with a strong technical focus, that I'm very proud of being a part of. A particular congratulations goes to Instructor Philip de Vos of the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club for the fantastic work he is doing and for the achievement of his students.

06 August 2018

An Application of Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic-Real for Martial Arts Practice

In this essay, I’d like to appropriate an idea from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to understand martial arts practice. One of Lacan’s pivotal ideas, which crystallized over many years, is that of the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real. I believe that this idea could function as a good framework to think about the martial arts, similar to previous frameworks I’ve used, such as the Musul-Muye-Mudo paradigm and the low variables to high variables (or abstract to concrete, or low-resolution to high-resolution) sparring drill paradigm. An assumption in this essay is that the ultimate goal of a martial art is preparation for surviving real violence; i.e. self-defence. There are of course many other goals that martial art systems may have, which were not taken into account in this essay. Also keep in mind that my discussion of Lacan’s ideas is cursory and is adapted to my discussion of the martial arts; for a more in-depth explanation of Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic-Real I recommend further reading. (This YouTube-video gives a good introduction.)

(Please note that this essay is in the process of being expanded into an academic article, and may therefore not be copied.)


Imaginary refers to how we imagine ourselves and others to be.

Lacan’s idea of the Imaginary is equated with the mirror stage in child development, when an infant (between about 6 months and 18 months of age) starts to recognize that it is the object it sees in the mirror. This, the psychoanalysts argued, is when the Ego is formed, and resonates with Freud’s concept of Identification. The child looks up at its parents and siblings and identify in them an ideal Ego, a kind of future Ego it hopes to become. The “mirror” can therefore be understood symbolically, so that there need not be an actual mirror; the child may see themselves “reflected” in other children or elders. In his later thought, Lacan did not restrict the mirror-stage only to the infant but extended it into adulthood.

I propose that in the martial arts, the Imaginary is the image we have about what a martial artist is—what someone who is practicing martial arts is like. Note that I’m emphasizing both the act of martial arts (object) and the person engaging in martial arts (subject).

In modern times, this image is highly influenced by popular media. The “image” of a martial artist may be based on the myths of the Zen-like samurai, the Shaolin monk-warriors, and characters in film: Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s depictions of Frank Dux and Kurt Sloane, the many characters played by Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and more recent action stars the likes of Tom Hardy and Jason Statham. Of course, the imagined martial artist need not stay within the realm of Hollywood and Chinese cinema but can also be based on combat sport athletes from WWE to UFC. Finally, for most martial arts initiates, their most immediate image of what a martial artist is, is often their personal martial art instructors (and seniors). It is not for naught that the Korean term for instructor (sabeomnim) literally translates as a teacher to be imitated (literally: “teacher-model”).

A screen-grab from the action-fantasy kungfun film
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

In all these cases, we have a type of idealization of the “martial artist.” In other words, a fantasy. Sometimes martial art instructors (“masters” and “grandmasters”) may unfortunately promote the fantasy of themselves, but often it is simply the students who idealize their instructors. This idealization results from perceiving, and correctly so, the big gap between their own skill level compared to the level of their instructors. The “gap,” which at first may seem quite insurmountable, causes the student to put the instructor on a pedestal. The imaginary ideal functions as a goal to strife for, and while it may be a fantasy, it is not wholly bad. Fantasies are inspirational, hence martial arts philosopher Allan Back, at a Taekwon-Do conference, presented a paper in favour of the myths in martial arts. The fantasy of flying martial artists fighting while airborne in Oriental myths and legends, as well as in cinema, may have been the inspiration behind the development of spectacular aerial kicks seen in Taekwon-Do demonstrations and such as competitions as the Red Bull Kick It extravaganzas.

There is, of course, the danger that the fantasy may be mistaken for reality. Many new martial artists are lured into taking up a martial art by Hollywood depictions of a lone hero single-handedly beating up a gang with hardly a bruise, or other impossible feats. Such a false sense of prowess is naively dangerous.


On the other end of the spectrum is Lacan’s Real. It is a bit tricky to give a simple definition of what Lacan meant by the Real, but for our purposes I propose we understand it simply as that which objectively is, before any interpretation. In other words, reality before it is filtered by our senses and worldviews. This means that the Real is never fully knowable, because our subjective interpretation skews objective reality. Furthermore, the Real is too complex to be fully understood.

For our discussion on martial arts, we will refer here to what happens during a real combative encounter: What is a real fight like? How do trained practitioners really act during a violent encounter? How do untrained people act in these situations? How is the human nervous system affected by stress and adrenaline during a violent conflict? How are muscle control and coordination affected during a life-threatening encounter? How is competition fighting different from street fighting strategically and psychologically? How is a dual (street fight, squabble at the pub, brawl on the playground) different from a predatory criminal attack on an unsuspecting civilian?

A victim of a necklacing -- burnt alive
Image Source

Many of these questions can be—to some degree—studied and there are professionals in military, security, and defence occupations who have taken the pains to research such questions. The problem remains, however, that even when we have analyzed the data, the subjective “lived” experience is different from person to person, and from violent encounter to violent encounter. One simply can’t predict all the variables that come into play during a violent encounter. One can’t know when exactly you will be attacked, whether the floor will be hard or slippery, whether it will be dark, whether there will be weapons involved, how many attackers you will face. At best we can hope for an approximation of likely possibilities.


Lacan’s Symbolic refers to all the societal institutions and systems that are in place to fulfil the Imaginary and attempt to bridge the gap towards the Real. For example, in a country that sees itself as a safe democracy, such systems may include the government and judiciary that ensures regular elections. In the Natural Sciences it is the theories and hypotheses used to try and explain natural phenomena.

In the martial arts context, I propose that the Symbolic is the martial arts system. The martial arts system functions as a paradigm for understanding and preparing for the Real. The system ought to help disillusion the martial arts initiate from the Imaginary. As the practitioner is training in the martial arts system, they learn to distinguish between the Imaginary and the possible Real. They learn that the cinematic depictions of martial arts are often simply fantasy. Yet, they also realize that the amazing abilities of their instructors are not supernatural, but the result of hard, persistent, and very long training.


In summary, a good martial art system has several important functions.

First, it dispels the falsehoods of the Imaginary. Whenever a martial art system promotes false ideas of what a real violent encounter is like, or even impractical strategies for fighting, it is failing to dispel falsehoods in the Imaginary.

Second, however, a good martial art system engages the Imaginary in a productive way to inspire the student to grow beyond themselves (their current physical ability) towards an ideal. Mastery in the martial arts may result in a practitioner doing feats that appear fantastical; however, this the result of years of hard work and dedication. When a practitioner sees their instructors do such skills, it can inspire the practitioner to want to achieve the same level as the instructor. Therefore, the Imaginary has an important motivating function.

Third, a good martial art system provides a path for preparing for the Real. There should be a proper pedagogy (syllabus) in place that can guide the practitioner from being completely unprepared for real violence, to be reasonably prepared for the Real. Being absolutely prepared for the Real is impossible, because the Real is impossible to fully predict and comprehend. Even the most experienced combatant does not have a 100% success rate all the time. A real fight is simply too chaotic and unpredictable. Nevertheless, one can prepare to improve your chances as much as humanly possible. A good martial arts system should have a progressive syllabus that aims towards the most likely success. (Consider my essay on a pedagogy that progresses from low variables-high abstraction to high variables-low abstraction.)

Finally, because it is impossible to definitively prepare for the Real, the ultimate training goal is a type of unattainable idealism. This is where the Imaginary plays an important function. The Imaginary provides an idealistic goal—that goal for perfection of technique that is striven for in traditional martial arts. Without this strive towards an ideal, the martial artist could never aim high enough to prepare for the impossibility of the Real. Preparing for the Real is impossible and achieving the perfection projected by the Imaginary is also impossible. Yet it is the strive towards the Imaginary, the strive towards an impossible ideal, that best prepares the martial artist for the Real.