21 March 2011

A Principle Based (Martial) Art

A friend and I was speaking yesterday about Taekwon-Do when he pointed out to me that we had one point on which our understanding of Taekwon-Do differed fundamentally. To him Taekwon-Do is an exact science; there are precise ways to do something. Techniques, based on clear scientific principles, are therefore to be done precisely the same by everyone. To me, on the other hand, Taekwon-Do is an art and therefore there is room for interpretation of the principles which would allow for some deviation in technique. As different people (instructors) interpret the principles a little differently one notices deviation in technique from dojang to dojang. So which is it? An exact science or a principle based art? In this essay I will try and explain my point of view, that Taekwon-Do is a principle based art.

"Unique Forms of Continuity in Space"
by Umberto Boccioni

I describe my understanding of Taekwon-Do as a “principle based art.” Notice that I'm not calling it merely an art; rather, it is an art directed by certain principles. In the fine arts one often find certain art styles that are based on an art manifesto. Such a manifesto would describe the way they would approach their art, techniques the artist would use, the themes they would devote themselves to, etc. For example, in 1909 the Italian poet F. T. Marinetti wrote the “Manifesto of Futurism” that contained a charter of eleven points, describing what he considered are the futurist ideals. Points of import for the futurists were energy, dynamism, rage, speed, man's taming of nature with science, the glorification of war, and so on. Looking at the photo of the bronze sculpture entitled “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” (1913) by the futurist artist Umberto Boccioni one can get a sense of the futurist ideals. The sculpture evokes feelings of energy, dynamism and even rage. There is something aggressive about the bold lines and thick spikes. This sculpture successfully reflects the manifesto it is based upon.

"Funeral of the Anarchist Galli"
by Carlo Carrà.
Now compare the sculpture with the accompanying painting “Funeral of the Anarchist Galli” by Carlo Carrà. Notice the dynamic lines, the bold aggressive colours, the obvious tension and general aggressive tone. Here we see two different pieces of art, in different media, but both clearly embody the same manifesto. Although these two artworks are obviously different there is still an evident similarity – an underlying current based on the shared manifesto. The same, I believe, can be true for (ITF) Taekwon-Do. ITF Taekwon-Do is a principle based art because it is founded on a “manifesto” that outlines how we approach, perform and apply our techniques. Taekwon-Do's “manifesto” – the principles it's based on – is simply the Training Secrets and Theory of Power. (It just so happens that much of these principles are rooted in science: Newtonian physics and bio-mechanics.)

In case you are not familiar with the Training Secrets and Theory of Power allow me to quickly review them.

Theory of Power Summary:

The Theory of Power is basically a list of six principles (mass, speed, concentration, reaction force, equilibrium and breath control) that we employ for power generation and transference in our techniques. For example, when punching I don't merely want to hit with the weight of my arm, but rather put my whole body's weight behind the punch (Mass). A faster punch will, of course, increase the force (Speed). Further more, if my opponent was moving towards me as I punched, the impact would be greater because it will be a combination of his forward momentum plus the forward momentum of my technique (Reaction Force). Also, by focusing the surface area of my punch onto a smaller area (the first two knuckles, rather than the whole fist) I can increase the concentration of the force into my opponent's vital area – rather than displacing the energy over a larger area (Concentration). Additionally, to ensure proper transference of force I need to be in a stable, i.e. balanced, position (Equilibrium). Finally, the proper use of breathing will help my body to tense up at the exact moment of impact which will also contributed to the power of the technique (Breath Control).

This is a somewhat simplistic summary – be sure to study the Theory of Power in its entirety.

Training Secrets:

1) To study the theory of power thoroughly.
2) To understand the purpose and method of each movement clearly.
3) To bring the action of eyes, hands, feet and breath into one single coordinated action.
4) To choose the appropriate attacking tool for each vital spot.
5) To become familiar with the correct angle and distance for attack and defence.
6) Keep both the arms and legs bent slightly while movement is in motion.
7) All movements must begin with a backward motion with very few exceptions. However, once the movement is in motion it should not be stopped before reaching the target.
8) To create a sine wave during the movement by utilizing the knee spring properly.
9) To exhale briefly at the moment of each blow except during a connecting motion.

It is my opinion that two people doing Taekwon-Do can, to the observer, look both different and similar. This dichotomy is explained by the fact that they are individuals, creating different pieces of art and therefore look different, but because they are basing their technique on the same fundamental principles, they also look the same. If they are both applying the principles, I would not call the one “wrong” and the other “right,” for they are both “right” although they may look slightly different. It is here where my friend and I disagree because I would suggest that there are slightly different ways one could interpret the principles, while he would say that the principles can only be interpreted in a single way.

To continue my argument, we need to look at a concrete example. The seventh point of the Training Secrets says that movements should start with a backward motion and that they may not stop before reaching the target. If we apply this to a punch it means that we need to first pull the arm back. Unlike in Karate where the punch is pulled back, stops and then zaps out to the target, this point in the Training Secret tells us that the arm cannot stop. To solve this problem we do a “winding motion,” as it is sometimes called. The arm is pulled back, makes a loop and then flies to the target.

Look at the video clip of Master Mike Morningstar and notice how he pulls his arm back (i.e. “backward motion”), then loops it upwards and then dash his punch forward towards the target. Through the use of the loop, the motion is never stopped and therefore adheres to the point that says “once the movement is in motion it should not be stopped before reaching the target.”

While the seventh point of the Training Secrets implies the necessity of a “winding motion” (or loop) it does not prescribe the characteristics of the loop. The size of the loop may be done slightly different by different people. I may prefer a small diameter while other instructors may teach a more exaggerated loop. In the end, it comes down to a personal interpretation of the principles and other variables such as my body type and musculature – or even personal preference.

Although I am saying that because people may interpret the principles in slightly different ways they may do their techniques in slightly different ways and that both are “right,” there is definitely a way in which somebody's technique could be “wrong.” Your techniques are “wrong” when they fall outside of the parameters prescribed by the “manifesto.” I have to add here that they can also only be considered “wrong” within the confines of ITF Taekwon-Do. Within another martial art using another technical “manifesto” they may be completely acceptable. In Karate it may be acceptable to withdraw your hand, stop it at your hip, and then punch from there; while in ITF Taekwon-Do that would clearly be “wrong.”

In a previous post I mentioned that General Choi described Taekwon-Do as the Korean (Martial) Art of Self-Defence. The Korean expression for “martial art of self-defence” is hoshin-mooye 호신무예. There are two other ways he could have described it – either as the “techniques of self-defence,” hoshin-moosool 호신무술, which would suggest a more pragmatic and scientific approach or the “way of self-defence,” hoshin-moodo 호신무도, that could suggest a more esoteric or philosophical approach. He opted, however, to go with “art,” rather than the more precise “techniques” or the more abstract “way.” Since he was himself an artist (of calligraphy) I believe that his choice of words was deliberate. It was a good choice because a principle based “art” finds itself in between an unbending scientific approach that's too precise to make room for the improvisation required during the chaos of a real fight, and an overly philosophical approach that is equally impractical because it is too abstract and can easily become “so heavenly minded” that it is “of no earthly good.” (You can read more about moosool, mooye and moodo here.)

Taekwon-Do is for me a creative act; the scientific principles it is based on are merely the “art manifesto” I use to lead me in my artistic expression.


Ymar Sakar said...

The thing about martial arts is that it takes science and makes it into an art. Meaning, if an engineer had a set of laws such as Ohm's law that could describe everything seen in a basic electrical circuit, all he would need are the principles to manipulate the circuit. The principles and the various components such as resistors, capacitors, etc made by others. Now these components have "specs", meaning they can handle a certain voltage to turn on or off. An engineer then deals purely in the numbers and using the mechanical specs, creates an electrical circuit and checks it using the laws.

But a martial artist can't do that. A martial artist can learn principles and laws, yes, but to actually make them work, they need to adapt those laws to their own body. So it'd be like an engineer trying to make a circuit work when he doesn't even know what is IN the circuit let alone what the specs are. The only way that engineer can know whether something has a capacitor or a resistor is to physically touch it or test the circuit without touching it (you might be electrocuted if you touch it). That is then the "art". The art is the decisions the user makes when combining knowledge with practical application, that is where the "skill" comes into play, where the individual matters and not the numbers on a sheet of paper.

Now that analogy might only make sense to engineers, but it's a start.

Ymar Sakar said...

This is similar to how in the military orders are absolute. But it's up to the subordinate to come up with a way to carry out those orders. So if the orders are good, the subordinate can still fail due to incompetence or lack of imagination/preparation. If the orders are insane, then the subordinate has to somehow find a way to obey and yet survive.

One of the historical strategists in China had this story about how he was ordered to go collect 100k arrows, while his army was about to cross a river invading another nation. His superior used this as a good way to get rid of an upstart subordinate, thinking that he'll either won't be able to get enough arrows off the battlefield, which he will be executed for insubordination, or he will die trying. The strategist in question decided to build some mock rafts with straw stick men on them and sent them down the river and received them after they passed in front of the enemy archer range. The enemy thought that they were seeing the enemy army cross the river, so they put out a bunch of arrows.

In the process, the strategist survived, collected 100k arrows, and obeyed the order.

That is the "art" in the Art of War. People who place too much import on "science" in human conflicts have forgotten that it is humans they are fighting... not machines or the natural world.

SooShimKwan said...

I like the story.

Ymar Sakar said...

Glad you liked it. The Chinese have some funny moral and military esque stories given their long history of literacy. Mao tried to wipe most of it out, but he didn't succeed as well as he thought. Btw, in Japanese "Maou" is pronounced the same and means Demon Lord. A fitting name sake.