17 June 2011

Balgyeong and Gi/Chi/Ki/Qi in ITF Taekwon-Do

In my previous post I established that ITF Taekwon-Do also apply the principle of balgyeong 발경, known in the Chinese internal martial arts as fajin 發勁. This has not always been the case; in its early history Taekwon-Do resembled Shotokan Karate and had little kungfu-like qualities. This changed as ITF Taekwon-Do became much more relaxed in its motions with an emphasis on kinetic chaining and dropping the body weight. And while I believe balgyeong is part of ITF Taekwon-Do, it is not used across the board; some techniques do not lend themselves to the mechanics of balgyeong. There therefore seems to be two types of techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do: those that employ balgyeong; and those that do not. (I'm yet to build up an effective vocabulary to describe the two adequately.)

My discussion of balgyeong has so far been a very mechanistic one and it is possible that I'm neglecting an important part of it. Inherent to balgyeong / fajin, according to the internal martial arts, is the concept of Gi¹—also referred to as Ki, Qi or Chi. Because it is pronounced “ghee” /기/ in Korean, I will adopt the term Gi henceforth even though the ITF Encyclopaedia has rendered it “Ki.” Some traditional stylist say that one need not concern oneself with such esoteric abstractions as Gi to understand balgyeong / fajin. Dan Djurdjevic, for instance, feels that the idea of Gi was developed as part of a “pre-scientific paradigm,” which have become void now that we have a better paradigm (Newtonian physics) to explain the transfer of energy with. So for some internal martial art practitioners it is possible to understand balgyeong / fajin without going into abstruse discussions of ethereal energies. One gets an almost similar sentiment from the ITF Encyclopeadia, which has very little to say about the topic. The actual term Gi (“Ki”) receives no mention in the Theory of Power or Training Secrets. While it may be implied, as we will see later, the emphasis in the Theory of Power is almost exclusively on an application of Newtonian physics.

Nonetheless, the quote Master Kim Hoon gave me regarding balgyeong does refer to Gi and if we are to understand balgyeong and its possible relevance to ITF Taekwon-Do, we have to look at this element too. Here is the definition for balgyeong Master Kim Hoon passed on to me:

발경(發勁-힘을 발휘함) 육합(六合:三盤(다리,허리,어깨),心,意,氣)을 하나로 뭉쳐 온 몸의 힘을 폭탄처럼 터뜨리는 것. (Source)

It basically says that there are six things, two pairs of three elements, which when applied harmoniously creates explosive power. The first group focus on the mechanics of balgyeong and includes the legs, hips and shoulders (다리, 허리, 어깨). It is this mechanistic part of balgyeong that I discussed in previous posts (see here and here). The second group includes the more esoteric elements: the heart or mind 心; one's thoughts, intention or will 意; and Gi 氣.

Let's first look at what Gi is and then we can see how it is part of ITF Taekwon-Do and ITF Taekwon-Do's use of balgyeong.

Literally translated Gi 氣 means air, gas, steam, or vapour. By implication it could also refer to one's breath and connotatively to one's spirit.² It is often interpreted to mean life-energy.

In the Orient it is believed that Gi energy permeates all living things. It can also be found in high abundance in fresh air, especially early in the morning around trees and flowing water, such as rivers and waterfalls.³ Martial artists, especially those concerned with Gi, can frequently be found training in such Gi encouraging conditions. In China elderly people can often be seen practising Tai Chi Quan early in the morning in parks in order to improve their health. In Korea elderly people often go hiking in the mountains for similar reasons. The ITF Encyclopaedia describes Gi as “spirit” or “a form of active energy which fills every physical cell and organ.”

What is interesting is that General Choi Hong-Hi in the ITF Encyclopaedia explained the concept of Gi using two terms; firstly Gi 氣 / 기, which we discussed above, and secondly “Chi” or “Ji” 志 / 지 (Vol. 1, p. 58, 59).

The hanja character for Ji is 志 and is made up of two root forms 士and 心. The first means scholar and the second means heart or mind: together the meaning denotes one's will; purposeful thought; determination. The ITF Encyclopaedia explains it as “will” or the “motivating force.” According to General Choi Ji 志 leads and Gi 氣 follows (Vol. 1, p. 59). In other words, Gi is directed by our will. The application of Gi, life-energy, is achieved through purposeful thought, determination, motivation or will-power.

There is also another, more practical way, in which Gi could be considered part of Taekwon-Do training. If we translate Gi to mean breath, then Gi is a significant part of ITF Taekwon-Do power generation and training. “Breath Control” is one of the six elements that constitutes the Theory of Power and is therefore part of how we perform every technique.

Let's return to the three elements that's part of balgyeong, which we mentioned earlier: First, Shim / 심/ 心—the heart or mind 心; second, Eui / 의 / 意—one's thoughts, intention or will; and third, Gi / 기 / 氣—life energy, breath or spirit.

General Choi mentions Gi and Ji. At first glance it would seem that only Gi corresponds with the three elements above. However, the other two (heart or mind 心, and one's thoughts, intention or will 意) are both implied in Ji. The character 心, meaning heart or mind, is embedded in Ji 志. The remaining character 意 can be translated as heart, soul, conscience, thought, opinion and mind. These are all related to Sim 心 and Ji 志.

Since Ji and Gi are both considered part of ITF Taekwon-Do, then one can assume that all six the elements that make up part of the definition of balgyeong is also part of ITF Taekwon-Do.

Whether all six these elements are in fact practiced in applicable techniques by all ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners is, of course, questionable. Nonetheless, a practitioner wishing to perform ITF Taekwon-Do in a way that actively uses balgyeong / fajin in his or her techniques is in my opinion, from a theoretical basis, at liberty to do so.


1. The ITF Encyclopaedia uses the McCune–Reischauer system of romanization for Korean into English which renders /g/ as “k”.

2. There exists a close semantic relationship between the Oriental concept of Gi and some Biblical terms; for instance the Hebrew word neshamah נשׁמה, which also means wind or air, as well as vital breath. It is used in the Creation account when God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of Adam (Genesis 2:7). A synonym is ruach רוּח, which also means wind, breath, strong exhalation, life-energy, or spirit. This term is used already in the second verse of the Bible (Genesis 1:2), referring to the Spirit of God. From the context we understand that the “Spirit” of God is not merely the breath of God, but indeed some intelligent agency. The Greek translation is pneuma πνεῦμα and can also be translated as a current of air, breath, wind, or by implication a spirit and sometimes one's mind. All three variations, while meaning wind or breath, has the connotative meaning of spirit, or some type of intelligence; i.e. one's reasoning ability or will.

3. Interestingly, the air around trees and flowing water has a high content of negatively charged ions. Negative ions are known to alleviate stress, decrease depression and other physiological benefits.


The Accidental Aikidoist said...

That's cool, I didn't know that Tae Kwon Do had elements of Chi/Ki in the training.

SooShimKwan said...

Yes, but it is not emphasized. When Taekwon-Do was composed, deliberate emphasis was put on Newtonian physics in its description of power generation in order to package it as a modern, scientific martial art (rather than an ancient esoteric art).

Gi training occurs somewhat accidentally as part of the emphasis on "breath control" in training.

The section in the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia that mentions Gi highlights its value in personal growth and the value of Gi during times of emotional stress by assisting in perseverance.

Ymar Sakar said...

bones are piezoelectric. They generate electricity when pressure is applied to them. Meaning, chi often results in an electromagnetic field setup by the human body and nerves. Because breath control and oxygen can control a human body's heart and other organs, as well as nerves and muscles, things can get very complicated, very fast. Thus the reason why in the Aristotelian "elements" or "essence" metaphysics, they normally just had one thing to ascribe a whole bunch of somethings to. Chi thus came to take upon both the original cause, neural impulses along nerves and glucose combined with oxygen synthesized for energy by the human body, to mean all sorts of "consequences" that happened after this "first cause".

Negative ions, a potential difference in electrical charge in an environment, can very well affect a person's mood. Storms, clouds, and sun light itself does the same. All can be attributed to chi or the harmonies of life essence, but in detail they can be very many different things operating together.

Newton has many specific terms and equations to verify whether those specific terms have correct units and magnitude. But a martial artist doesn't calibrate and detect differences based upon numbers, but based upon feeling, neural impulses. Before a martial artist can learn to apply Newton's physics to MA, first they must learn to detect feeling.

SooShimKwan said...

Didn't know that about bones!

Ymar Sakar said...

It's not a very popular scientific research result, because modern medicine haven't found a way to make much use of it. Other than that running and exercising the legs makes it grow faster for those in the adolescent period.

But the Eastern medicine record going back 2000-4000 years made plenty use of this. They just don't explain it in the scientific mode because they didn't have devices that could measure electricity or magnetism.

The study on piezoelectric bones was conducted in the last century, co authored by a Japanese scientist.

The secret to health is also proper hormonal levels. What the Taoists often tried to find, the immortality tonic. It wasn't something outside the body, with the exception of anti-oxidants in tea and juice. It was produced by the body. Without proper hormone levels, women lacking in estrogen suffer brittle bones and other health problems. Now with modern medicine, humans live a lot longer. There's nothing strange about that, if one knows how the human body functions.

It's just that Westerners prefer external methods, while Easterners prefer internal methods. Both in martial arts as well as in medicine and other fields. It's how their entire culture was raised upon in the end. To a Westerner, seeing is believing. To an Easterner, only feeling is truly worthy of belief.