18 June 2019

The Fingertip Hand Technique

Walking stance straight fingertip thrust (걷는서 선손끝 뚤기)

The photo above shows a straight fingertip thrust in walking stance 걷는서 선손끝 뚤기 (geodneunseo seon-son-ggeut ddulgi). The finger tip 손끝 (son-ggeut) hand position in ITF Taekwon-Do requires the tips of the forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger to be aligned. Notice how my three fingers are aligned in the photo. Because the length of fingers differ greatly from person to person, the degree to which one has to bend particular fingers to align with the shortest of the three fingers will be very specific to each individual. Of course, for most people the middle finger is the longest, hence it will be bent the most. The tips of the three fingers should be aligned at the front, but also pressed tightly against each other; in other words, the index finger and ring finger should put pressure against the middle finger. It is important to ensure that all three fingertips point forward. The middle finger which will be bent the most might have a tendency to point down, which is wrong, as shown in the photo below.

This photo shows an incorrect alignment of the fingertips.
In this photo, the tip of the middle finger is point downwards
instead of forwards like the index finger and ring finger.
For a proper technique, all the fingertips should point forward.
You can practice the correct positioning by tapping the three fingers together on a hard surface. This technique is designed to work with short clipped nails. (There are techniques such as the "cross-cut" aimed at the eyes that may benefit from longer nails, but the fingertip thrust works best with short nails.)

For a fingertip thrust, the hand can be turned vertical or with the palm either facing up or down, depending on the target aimed for. The vertical hand orientation is known as the spear hand or straight fingertip 선손끝 (seon-son-ggeut) as seen in the photo, the palm facing down orientation is known as the flat fingertip 어픈손끝 (eopeun-son-ggeut), and the palm facing up orientation is known as the upset fingertip 뒤집은손끝 (dwijib-eun-son-ggeut). There is also a variation where the fingers are at a right angle to the palm, which is known as the angled fingertip 호미손끝 (homi-son-ggeut).

Although a conditioned technique can be tough enough to pierce wooden boards, the technique is ideal for attacking nerve plexuses, such as the solar plexus (diaphragm), the philtrum, the bronchial plexus under the arm or the side of the neck, the nerves between the ribs, the pelvic region, and so on. Other soft targets such as the eyes and throat (windpipe) can also suffer damage from a finger tip thrust.

Fingertip attacks are classified as thrusting techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do. Thrusting techniques #뚤기 usually refer to techniques aimed at nerves and soft targets. Thrusts usually hit these vital spots straight on. Punches #찌르기 also usually attack linearly, but are generally aimed at harder targets; for instance, the sternum and ribs, or jaw (chin and angle of mandible) and skull (temple). A "thrust" should not be confused with a "strike" #대리기, which tends to reach its target with a curved or whipping trajectory.

The straight fingertip thrust as shown in the photos have the opposite palm below the elbow of the straightened arm. The palm-below-the elbow execution of the straight fingertip thrust is the formal way it is performed. This is not meant as a support for the arm. Rather, the palm is employed as a preliminary block. The palm is used to check the opponent's attack, to block down the opponent's attack, or push away the opponent's guard, in order to clear the path for the fingertip thrust. The block is formally taught as a palm downward block 손바닥 내려막기 (sonbadak nae-ryeo makgi) and as such the vector of the technique is downward. However, more advanced and realistic execution is as a type of parry, hence the block doesn't have to pedantically press down per se, but could instead just slap the opponent's attack aside (away from your center line), usually diagonally down rather than exactly downward. This deflection is very much akin to pak sao blocks in Wing Chun. As a strategy, this combination of clearing the obstacles followed by an instantaneous attack is very practical and can be done with other attacking tools. For instance, a palm downward block with simultaneous vertical punch, regular fore fist punch, or middle knuckle punch are obvious variation.

In the ITF Taekwon-Do curriculum, the straight fingertip thrust (with it's near instantaneous preliminary palm downward block) is taught around 8th geup as part of the fundamental movements in the pattern Do-San Teul (movement #6). Such a rapid combination of techniques is also found in another cluster in Do-San Teul, namely the fast motion double punch (movements #15 & #16 and #19 & #20).

Read more: Blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do

06 June 2019

The Unfortunate Cost of Evolving from Martial Art to Combat Sport

I've written long ago why I'm not fond of tournament sparring (1, 2). In short, if self-defence training is the goal, a focus on tournament sparring can hamper that goal because tournament sparring tends to narrow the scope of the training to the sporting arena context, which is far too artificial to reflect the reality of a self-defence encounter. Traditional martial arts, and in particular civilian defensive arts, envision quite a different context to prepare for than that of a competition ring.

However, in this post I want to speak about other "costs" that comes at the expense of a sport focus.

Here I want to focus on the WT style of Taekwon-Do as an Olympic sport. There are some attempts to get ITF Taekwon-Do to also join with WT to become one event alongside WT under the "Taekwondo" umbrella. There is a believe that such a move will secure the ITF Taekwon-Do's longevity, enhance its prestige, and strengthen Taekwon-Do's position at the Olympic Games.

Image Source: https://www.olympic.org/taekwondo

I am somewhat skeptical. I believe an evolution from martial art to combat sport comes at an unfortunate cost.

First, when a martial art changes into a sport there is a dilution of the rich historical arsenal of the original system. When Judo was developed as a streamlined version of Jujutsu, many of the original techniques were purged. Similarly, when the focus in Taekwondo becomes sport competition, a big percentage of techniques are inevitably neglected. Taekwondo enthusiasts are all aware how Olympic Taekwondo has reduced the martial art—that is by its very name supposed to be a foot-and-hand system—into primarily a kicking system. Sadly, an emphasis on kicking in sport Taekwondo has not enriched Taekwondo’s kicking arsenal with more kicks, but rather reduced the arsenal to only a handful of techniques that works well in the limited context of the sports ring.

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Roman_wrestling
Second, not only are there technical losses when a martial art becomes a sport, but there is also an intangible loss in the form of a reduced cultural and philosophical heritage. Of the surviving historic European martial arts (HEMA) that became modern sports such as western boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and fencing, very little of the original cultural and philosophical heritage are practised and celebrated by the athletes training and competing in these sports. Even Judo, which was intended by its founder to be a pedagogic tool to teach certain philosophical values, is in current times usually practised simply as a sport with hardly any philosophical teachings as part of training. Contrary to such combat sports, in martial arts the cultural and philosophical heritages are usually integral to their practise.

Third, when the philosophical and cultural heritage is removed it is often replaced with “[p]ositive sporting values and objectives”*. In the case of Taekwondo as promoted by the WT, an emphasis is given to the sport values of Olympism. This means that the original East Asian philosophy and values that are inherent to the martial arts are replaced with western values (i.e. Grecian inspired Olympism) for the combat sport. The adoption of Olympism may at first seem commendable. However, the East Asian martial arts are not culturally neutral. Quite the opposite: East Asian martial arts, like folk dances, function as containers of cultural heritage. Therefore, when focussing on the sport aspect of the martial art there is an emphasis of the new sport values, which inevitably results in a de-emphasis of the original cultural heritage. In a discussion on the western-centric Olympic sports, Allen Guttmann laments the resultant cultural imperialism. He argues that even when East Asian martial arts spread to the west, they often “[transformed] in accordance with Western assumptions about the nature of sports”*. Ironically, instead of the intended goal of using Taekwondo for soft power diplomacy the result is a form of “soft colonialism,” where the original martial art loses its Oriental identity—to be replaced with a western inspired identity. At the very least this should be considered culturally insensitive and a regrettable loss.

Is the security and prestige of joining the Olympic Games worth the losses? For some people who see the opportunity of winning a medal at the Olympic Games in their chosen sport, it is worth it. For others, those who see the martial arts something other than a sport, for example as containers of cultural heritage, it is not.

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."

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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.