20 November 2010

Some Principles for Interpreting Patterns

There are a few sources that are essential reads for anyone interested in interpreting patterns. One such a book is Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins by Dr. Bruce D. Clayton. Since one of the roots from which Taekwon-Do developed is Shotokan Karate those familiar with the Chang Hon pattern set, i.e. the patterns practised in ITF Taekwon-Do, will recognise in them snippets from Shotokan kata. In order to understand the patterns it is therefore necessary to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the Shotokan kata. The book Shotokan's Secret will not teach you the kata, but it will give you a methodology for interpreting Karate kata.

I don't want to focus on this book specifically in this post. Instead I want to focus on a part of the book – fourteen principles for analysing kata. In this post I will quickly go through these points. You may find them helpful while analysing the Chang Hon patterns. The principles are discussed in Chapter 6 (p183-202) of the book. I've renamed some of the principles below just because I find his attempt at giving them witty names (like “Dinglehopper” and “Hand Genades”), rather than functional names, distracting.

Keeping It Real: The historical applications were techniques that were taught in historical martial arts.

Basically this principle says that in trying to understand a technique from a pattern, one has to try and find out what the original, actual purpose for that technique was.

Other Mountains: We must climb other mountains in order to see our own.

Studying other martial arts will help you see applications in your own martial art that you may not be aware of. I definitely support this principle because my own understanding and appreciation of ITF Taekwon-Do has increased tremendously from my study of other styles such as Hapkido and Taekkyeon.

Lesson Plan: A kata is a lesson plan, with a specific goal. When you discover that goal, you can explain the kata.

This principle also seems to be relevant in Taekwon-Do. General Choi said that he took military strategies into account while putting together Taekwon-Do; the obvious place to embed such strategies would be in the patterns.

Occam's Razor: The simple explanation is usually the right one.

I have heard some outrageous interpretations through the years. The better interpretation is probably the most straight forward one.

The Macarena: People can concoct explanations for anything.

Clayton tells the story of having his students “find” applications for the moves in the Macarena dance, which they actually did. His suggestion is that there is only one probable application and that we should not try and find additional applications.

I differ from Clayton with regard to the Chang Hon patterns as I believe them to be practical, yes, but also to be forms of art -- like poetry in motion. As such, multiple interpretations are possible in my opinion. I may write more about this in the future.

Terribly Wrong: An embarrassingly poor kata application.

Some applications just do not make logical sense. Don't settle for bad interpretations; find sensible ones.

One Application Principle: A kata applications that blows away competing interpretations.

According to this principle, there is just one application for a certain kata sequence. Once you find this one application you will know that this is the only “true” application and all other applications are merely peripheral.

Again, this principle I do not believe apply strictly to the ITF patterns. Yes, for some pattern sequences there do seem to be only a single interpretation; however, I believe that multiple interpretations are also possible on occasion.

The Waldow Principle: The applications are never benign.

Named after Shihan Beth Waldow who came up with this principle, this rule-of-thumb suggest that the applications are always serious, even vicious in their purpose. Techniques are usually intended to seriously injure or even kill.

Shadow Principle: An application is a good fit to the kata if the kata and the application has the same shadow.

“The kata is only the shadow of the application. It hints at the real thing the way a shadow hints at the object that casts it,” explains Clayton (196). Understanding this we are at liberty to adapt our interpretation to fit the “shadow.” You could possibly change the side of the technique, for instance having the left foot forward instead of the right, to make the technique “fit.”

The Symbolism Rule: It isn't symbolic just because we can't explain it. We just need to dig a little deeper for the explanation.

This is a good principle; however, we know that in the Chan Hong patterns some things are indeed symbolic because General Choi explicitly identified some techniques as symbolic. Nonetheless, even these “symbolic” techniques may have practical applications.

Last Move Rule: The last move of the kata may have no combative explanation. If we can't find a good application for that move, we may ignore it.

Clayton argues that one or two extra moves have sometimes been added over time to the Shotokan katas and was not part of the original kata; these last moves are therefore sometimes negligible. I don't think this is the case for the Chang Hon patterns. They are too recent and well documented to have “new” moves added to the end.

Anachronism Rule: Recent changes don't have historical explanations.

According to Clayton, with time some masters have included new techniques into the katas. These anachronistic techniques, therefore, need not be taken into account when searching for historic applications. I'm not sure if this apply to ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners. Other non-ITF groups that also use the Chang Hon patterns, but where changes have been made to the originals, may have this problem. ITF practitioners follow the Chang Hon patterns as they have been recorded in the ITF Encyclopaedia and elsewhere. (I, for instance, own a Korean Taekwon-Do manual dating from the early 70s and the patterns have not changed much in any significant way.)

Dunning-Kruger Effect: Incompetent people have great confidence in their own opinions.

Basically Clayton is suggesting that one ought to be weary of the interpretations of those people that think they know it all, and “let the quiet people teach” because one will often be “surprised at what they know” (200).

Well I hope you find some of these principles useful in your investigation of the patterns.


Jay said...

As promised, here is a link to another great Kata analyst, Iain Abernethy:

SooShimKwan said...

Thanks Jay!