18 October 2011

Why Taekwon-Do is Not Good for Self-Defence -- Some Clarifications

To my surprise a recent post in which I argue that Taekwon-Do is not a good system for civilian defence opened up a can of worms on a martial art forum. Actually it is not really surprising as the post was intended to be somewhat controversial. I am after all saying that the “Korean Art of Self-Defence” is not good for self-defence. What was surprising is not that people are talking about it, but rather who is talking about it. I would have thought that primarily Taekwon-Do people would take offence, but it seems like it is some people in the traditional martial art community in general, rather than the Taekwon-Do community in particular, who is taking offence. And coming to my defence are Taekwon-Do practitioners, but also practitioners of other traditional martial arts; including in part Dan Djurdjevic, a fellow blogger and martial artist to whom I have referred to on a number of occasions here on the Soo Shim Kwan blog.

You can see the thread where the discussion is happening here.

I decided that I'm not going to engage in the conversation on the thread. Not because I don't like such discussions, but rather because of the lack of time at present to devote to it on a forum. (Forum discussion usually span days and I'm in the middle of Midterm exams requiring me to grade a multitude of papers for at least two weeks.) Also, the post I wrote is part of a larger series of posts (at least in my mind) that started with “What's the Difference Between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido?” and continued with “Techniques: when serious harm is not intended”. Since I'm still in the process of building my argument through these posts I don't want to argue my case just yet as I'm still exploring it for myself.

Back to the thread I mentioned: What I have garnered from the discussion there is that I might be misunderstood to say that Taekwon-Do (and by implication all traditional martial arts) are too dangerous for self-defence because every traditional technique is so potentially lethal. To this I have to reply both yes and no. I will not speak for other traditional arts like for instance Karate, because I'm not a Karateka. I'm speaking solely now for (ITF) Taekwon-Do. Yes, I think that original Taekwon-Do, which I called “authentic”[1] Taekwon-Do in the mentioned post, is not appropriate for civilian defence, because, yes, it is/was too lethal.

The Taekwon-Do pagoda (monument) at
the military base on Jeju Island where
"original" Taekwon-Do was developed as
part of the 29th Infantry Division in the 1950s.
Taekwon-Do—contrary to what the South Korean marketers would have you believe—is not 2000 years old. It did not start as a traditional martial art. While original Taekwon-Do does have roots in primarily Shotokan Karate and some Taekkyeon, as well as some other styles, it's primary development occurred in the 29th Infantry Division of the South Korean Army. At that time it's purpose was as a military combat system. The immediate context was World War II and the Korean War—this is what it was developed for: as a system of hand-to-hand combat to be used in the types of wars of the time. Those involved in developing it were war veterans and some of them, for example Major Nam Tae-Hi, had actual hand-to-hand combat experience on the battlefield. It was later applied and battle tested during the Vietnam War. This is the context of Taekwon-Do's development—actual real war. There are different sources you can read up on this. The one I like the most is A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. (I'm looking forward to read Master George Vitale's recent doctoral thesis on the history of Taekwon-Do.)

Centre: Major Nam Tae Hi, teaching Taekwon-Do
to the Vietnamese Military in the 1960s.
Image Source
In its original form, Taekwon-Do was excessively hard and not appropriate for civilian defence. The type of training involved is also not something that most normal civilians would wish to endure. Practically all of those original masters are suffering from serious arthritis, terrible knee and / or hip joint problems and other ailments that can be directly linked to the harsh type of training they partook in. Original Taekwon-Do, as practised in the early South Korean military, was not meant for civilian use. Taekwon-Do only later became a traditional martial art taught to civilians; the moment it started being taught to civilians it started to change.

The other point I made in my post was that Taekwon-Do as it is mostly taught today is nothing like original Taekwon-Do. It is something that is terribly watered down and it too is not appropriate for civilian self-defence, not because it is necessarily too dangerous; rather the opposite. In this watered down state, what is taught as “self-defence” is usually unrealistic. (See: “Why I Don't Like Your Self-Defence”.) It is furthermore not good as a civilian defence system because unlike many other traditional martial arts it does not have a fully developed arsenal of “control” techniques. While control techniques are not the only valuable techniques for civilian defence, they definitely are one important set of techniques for civilian defence.

The reason Taekwon-Do does not have a proper arsenal of control techniques is because it was not originally meant as a civilian defence system—it was meant as a military combat system. The original control techniques that Taekwon-Do could have inherited from the styles (e.g. Karate and Taekkyeon) it developed out of were mostly dropped because such techniques were not considered effective for military combat. Remember that a military combat system is an infantryman's last resort. It is used when your artillery failed. You don't use it to control the enemy, like a policeman might do with a petty-criminal, you use it in a desperate act of defence in which it is quite likely that you will die, lest you eliminate the enemy soldier directly in front of you as swiftly as possible.

A photo of Hapkido "founder" Choi Yong Sul with
students in 1951. While Taekwon-Do was developing
in the military, Hapkido was being established outside
the military; i.e. as a civilian martial art.
Image Source
The other thing that prevented Taekwon-Do from building up an arsenal of control techniques is that another martial art entered the civilian scene while Taekwon-Do was still focussing on the military scene—Hapkido; and unlike Taekwon-Do, Hapkido was at the time almost exclusively preoccupied with control techniques. Early Hapkido (known as Hapki-Yoosool) was for all intends and purposes basically Japanese jujitsu—more specifically, Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu. This earliest form of Hapkido had practically no strikes or kicks. These only came later. I'm hypothesizing that while Taekwon-Do filled the military combat niche back then, Hapkido filled the civilian defence niche. No wonder that when Taekwon-Do did become a system taught to civilians in Korea it evolved into something wholly different—a sport, in the form of WTF taekwondo [2]—for that was the obvious remaining niche [3]. Hapkido techniques were assimilated into Taekwon-Do, but this obviously occurred later.

For Taekwon-Do to function as a proper civilian defence system requires a number of things. I mentioned some of those things in the previous post. For one, it must take account of what is currently taught as self-defence and admit that it is not very reflective of reality. Also, it needs more “soft” style techniques. This is what I'm currently researching—the soft techniques in Taekwon-Do and how they can be used for civilian defensive purposes. The specific type of techniques I'm currently preoccupied with is pushing techniques.

I'm not saying that Taekwon-Do cannot be used for (civilian) self-defence. It can. However, the current thing that is most commonly taught as “self-defence” in many Taekwon-dojang is not appropriate for actual real life self-defence. Neither is a complete return to Taekwon-Do's military combat roots. The solution is to be found some place else and will also require the adoption of “foreign” techniques. Many instructors have already done so (as have I), so some people reading this post may actually have no idea what the whole fuss is about.

Finally, I'm speaking of “civilian self-defence” contextualised within a relatively “civil society.”

Footnote 1: I used the term “authentic” Taekwon-Do in the previous post, rather than “original” Taekwon-Do. The reason is because of the many splits in Taekwon-Do many people are claiming to teach “original” Taekwon-Do. What I am actually trying to say when I use “authentic” or “original” Taekwon-Do with in the context of these post is that early form of Taekwon-Do that developed within the 29th Infantry Division of the South Korean Army in the 1950s.

Footnote 2: The taekwondo currently taught to soldiers in general in the South Korean military is not the original actual combat focussed version that it once was. Now it is a version of Kukki/WTF taekwondo and soldiers are actually awarded Kukki/WTF black belts during their military service. Soldiers in special force units, for instance the South Korean navy seals learn a different and much more effective hand-to-hand combat system.

Footnote 3: There is actually another remaining niche, an ascetic one. In Korea the most iconic martial art focussing on asceticism is probably Seon Moo Do (Zen Martial Way), practised at two or three Buddhist monasteries in South Korea. There is, however, no mainstream martial art with a clear ascetic focus in Korea, in the same way as Aikido in Japan. Most all Korean martial arts have some ascetic components, ITF Taekwon-Do slightly more so than most, but it is not so heavily focussed that one could call them true ascetic martial arts, and none really fill the ascetic niche. Unlike Japan that is a mostly secular society and an ascetic martial art like Aikido may actually fill some “spiritual” need, Korea is not as secular. Both Christianity and Buddhism are very active in South Korea, so that an ascetic search is more likely to be catered for by religion than martial arts.


JoRoman said...

Sorry for all the furor, I shared the original blog post link but I felt it resonated with my own experience in TKD (my first MA being ITF TKD in '82). Like many in the forum I do not concur with all your conclusions but I agree with the basic premise that many arts being taught now are confused in what they attempt to teach, making themselves jack-of-all trades master-of-none types. I for one would welcome your input at the forum :-) but understand your intent to follow through in your blog with more articles on the related topics. Thanks for sharing, and lighting up a fire under my friends' feet LOL

Jo Roman

SooShimKwan said...

Dear Jo Roman.

No worries. Actually, I have to thank you for the exposure my blog is receiving. It is nice to have new people visit and read my ponderings.

The post was meant to be somewhat controversial as one can tell from the title, but I thought that it would be TKD practitioners that would be the most angry at me. In any case, I'm not offended by anyone's comments. Those that accused me of BS clearly did not understand my basic premise and are most likely not acquainted with the actual military history of (ITF) TKD.

Please feel free to share links to my blog in the future again. I appreciate the traffic!


Dan Djurdjevic said...

While I wasn't sure I agreed with all your conclusions, I enjoyed the way you argued your case and found it quite enlightening. One does not have to agree with everything one reads in an article to find it stimulating and informative.

We have a few "sharp edges" at the forum, but they mean well and debate is always quite strident (without being personal), so I hope you aren't put off from joining in. I've sparred verbally with my friends there for 3 years now (and a few years before that on other forums) so we know each other quite well, and there are no hard feelings!

I commend you on a well-reasoned and well-written piece and hope you continue with your good work.

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Dan,

Indeed it looks like a great forum. I've visited a couple of times before.

Actually, this specific forum has been the cause for a whole series of posts on the sine wave motion. I remember long ago reading a thread on the topic that you started and in an attempt to answer some of the points different people brought up, I started writing about the topic. (Writing is the tool I use to figure things out for myself.)

The problem with forums as I mentioned in this post is that they tend to require lots of time. Discussions can continue for weeks and if it is a topic I'm particularly interested in it will cause me to neglect other parts of my life. So I tend to avoid forums. Not because I don't like the discussions, but because I like them too much. I'm especially careful in engaging in forums during times when I am especially busy, like at present.

Thank you again for coming up for, your nice and encouraging words, and your scholarly posts.


Ymar Sakar said...

I've heard about ITF TKD's formation being a return to military roots once or twice as well. But since I didn't go to the trouble of finding primary sources to research on the subject, I wasn't sure how much of the rumor to take as fact.

Korean martial arts has not been on my priority list of research topics.

I used to heavily visit and argue on forums 10 years ago. But recently I've come to the conclusion that much of what I seek to know and research, is only found in some very strange and hard to find locations. And the individuals with such knowledge that I value, are often times just not on forums. They're doing other things, like Levy's Hollywood stunt career, or Rory Miller's seminar cycle, and so on. I'm always open to special and rare knowledge sources being found in places I'm not expecting, but usually the odds are against me finding what I need to know in forums.

Talking is all great and good, but because I do a lot of talking in my writing, I often find myself in need of the counter balance. I study under or with people who are primarily concerned with the doing, the physical accomplishment of goals, rather than solely talking about doing something. I've often found that when social skill alone is valued and competence is not, competence is easily overridden by an over reliance on social skills.

There are few individuals alive on this planet that can see the truth for what it is, free of Maya, illusion, or self-delusion. My life on this planet is short in the grand scheme of things, I'm not going to focus much of it on people who are unable to pierce social veils obscuring truth and knowledge. I'm not learning anything I don't already know.

SooShimKwan said...

If you ever do get interested to read more about ITF TKD's military roots, read that "A Killing Art: The Untold History of Taekwon-Do" book. It is well researched, but easily accessible.

As for forums, I agree with you, life is short. I'm sometimes tempted to go to them, but I honestly do not have the time -- it is just not enough of a priority for me. Also, as I wrote recently elsewhere, I don't view myself as an ITF TKD apologist. I'm a teacher and see myself in this role; I'm not a defender of the style, for I also practice other styles. I enjoy different martial arts, appreciate their strengths, but am also aware of what they are not.

Truth, now that is another topic. I don't think modern education systems are geared toward Truth. It focuses on facts, maybe, but not Truth. So very few people are equipped to grapple with it.

Ymar Sakar said...

First a student must learn to think for themselves. It, as with all things, is the beginning. Or rather, end of the beginning.

The Japanese have two conceptions of things. The public face truth, which is also called social illusion and "uso". And the true reality, shinjite/shinjitsu/ genjitsu, or the reality based on truth that can be truly believed.

In Western terms, it might be termed public vs private. Some things are known and spread to the public. Other things are kept hidden because they are private matters.

While some people interpret this as "lying", there's a certain amount of necessary white falsehoods in order to keep a society running. It's regretable, but that's how humans are. These days, things have swung way too far towards Maya or illusion, and less on genjitsu. In the semi ancient days, if somebody said something you disagreed with intensely, it was time to demand an apology or else the Code Duello will be put into effect. There's nothing like death to cut through all the BS.

Ymar Sakar said...

I may have forgotten to mention this but in Vietnam, the Communist forces were not very well trained in terms of markmanship and their weapons were poorer in terms of logistics and rof. So they had to get really close to the enemy, in order to prevent artillery and rate of fire from massacring them.

In that kind of jungle warfare CQB environment, hand to hand combat skills start taking on its own niche.

To me, a battlefield system/art is something that was used on the battlefield. I don't particularly care which battlefield it was. A lot of people argue about how it is degraded, what was lost, and what not. I don't argue about those things. Because talking about how they got lost, isn't going to restore em. If I was interested in learning these lethal application battlefield arts, I wouldn't be spending time arguing about how effective or ineffective they are.

I give advice if I am asked, but I just don't think I relate to military arts the way most people do. It's not an "external authority" affirmation thing with me. In fact, I already wrote out some ideas for the US Army to make a real anti-rape self defense program for women on military bases. The word from some of those that worked with US command was that political reasons and certain other things precluded such changes to the weekly avoidance self defense power point slide unit commanders give out. I'm not like, "what is point of arming these individuals if you don't train them how to use handguns in CQB situations against any and all threats, including soldiers in one's own army...". Social cohesiveness is getting in the way of personal self protection there. I don't think I was the first one to make note of this, but for many reasons, mostly bureaucratic and political, such reforms aren't being made. Probably cause it's not in the media, also for political reasons.

As the Marines often say, sitting on a base and going "defensive" sucks. That's what the Army is for. It's better to be "expeditionary" and take the fight to the enemy.