10 April 2012

The Value of the ITF Patterns (Part 1): Korean Philosophy, History and Culture, and Aesthetics

In a previous post I argued that the ITF patterns should not be considered, like in Karate for example, as purely a template for fighting. While the patterns may provide us with some fighting strategies and self-defence applications, they ought not be viewed purely, or even chiefly, as “combatives manuals.”

Dr. Bruce D. Clayton argues in his book Shotokan's Secret that: “Karate kata are combatives manuals, which contain no poetry” and that the kata are without “symbolism” (p. 197). This is definitely not the case for the ITF patterns. While I am convinced that there is much we can learn about ways of moving (kinaesthetics) and even some fighting strategies and self-defence application, the ITF patterns offer another, albeit less tangible, contribution. The patterns are used as a vehicle for the transmittal of Oriental philosophical principles, and Korean history and culture. They are also to be understood as mediums for artistic expression.

Let's first look at Dr. Clayton's statement that “Karate kata . . . contains no poetry.” I do not believe that he means—or if he does, it will be contested by many a karateka—that the kata are not aesthetically pleasing. In other words, I don't think Dr. Clayton means that when Karate kata are performed well, that they are not things of beauty. Anyone that has seen a masterful execution of a kata will agree that it can indeed be a thing of great beauty. Even so, the beauty of the Karate kata lies in the masterful execution, not in the thing itself. In their original creation, the purpose of the martial art forms, including the Karate forms, were not to be beautiful, but to be practical; not “poetry” but tools of training.

The Hanja character "Sa" [ 사 ], which
translates as "scholar" and "gentleman".
In Japanese Kanji this character is also
associated with samurai. 
The ITF patterns share with Karate kata the idea that they are training tools. However, Gen. Choi (the chief composer of the 24 ITF patterns) also set out to make poetry. He was an accomplished calligrapher and we know that this influenced some of the floor plans of the patterns. We are told, for instance, that the diagrams of the patterns Yul-Gok and Toi-Gye represents the Chinese (Hanja) character for “scholar”, that the diagram of the pattern Juche is based on the Chinese character for “mountain”—which has symbolic meaning—and so on. The layout of the ITF patterns do therefore not purely have practical consideration, but also symbolic and aesthetic consideration. Like a Chinese character drawn by a calligrapher, they purposefully convey both meaning and beauty—not unlike poetry.

In a previous post and subsequent article in Totally Tae Kwon Do, I proposed that the first pattern, Chon-Ji, is in fact placing ITF Taekwon-Do within a particular philosophical world view, a particularly Korean interpretation of Daoist thought. I doubt that the Karata kata sets out to deliberately convey a philosophical world view. Of course, maybe my understanding of the Karate kata is too limited, and I have missed this, but using the kata to purposefully disseminate a philosophy is not the idea I get from such Karate scholars as Dr. Clayton. Yet, using a form to communicate a particular world view is not unique to ITF Taekwon-Do. We find it in the Chinese internal martial arts: The Tai Chi Chuan and Baqua Zhang forms are based on the Tai Chi (Yin-Yang) and the I-Ching, which are derivatives of the Dao. I don't know if these two martial arts actually set out to “teach” this world view. ITF Taekwon-Do, however, does use the pattern Chon-Ji to teach the practitioner a particular world view, albeit simplistically. The ITF Taekwon-Do beginner is forced to learn the meaning of Chon-Ji; “heaven and earth,” which is the Korean interpretation of the two opposing elements of the Dao, and then practise this elementary form, so that it becomes an object-lesson.

The first pattern, Chon-Ji, sets Taekwon-Do within a specific world view, the next pattern, Dan-Gun, contextualises Taekwon-Do within the historic lineage of the Korean people. The pattern Dan-Gun is named after the mythological “legendary founder of Korea in the year 2333 B.C.” The following pattern, Do-San, introduces one of the most important values of the Korean people—education—and one of the greatest Korean concerns—freedom from oppression. “Do-San” was the pseudonym of Ahn Chang-Ho, a freedom activist who “devoted [his entire life] to furthering the education of Korea and its independence movement.” Just a cursory look at the meanings of these first three patterns already makes it clear that they are intended to teach the performer about Korean philosophy, history and culture. (ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 8., p. 15.)

The "Heaven Hand" posture.
Symbolism and meaning are not merely build into the floor plan or attached to the name of the pattern, even some specific movements carry symbolic meaning. The pattern Choong-Moo “ends with a left hand attack . . . to symbolize [Admiral Yi Soon-Sin's] regrettable death, having no chance to show his unrestrained potentiality . . .” (Ibid., p. 16). While some techniques such as this left hand attack have symbolic and combative value, some techniques are arguably without any combative value, and are most probably only symbolic, for instance the “Heaven Hand.” It would not be impossible to find possible applications for such symbolic movements, but that would very much be a subjective interpretation. (Seeing as the patterns are “poetry”, there is, of course, nothing wrong with such subjective interpretations.)

The ITF patterns are clearly not merely, or even primarily, “combatives manuals”. They have an additional purpose in ITF Taekwon-Do. Instead of “combatives manuals” they are used as textbooks on Korean philosophy, history and culture.

To return to the aesthetic quality of the patterns: I already mentioned that General Choi was a calligrapher with an acute sense of aesthetics, and I believe that this seeped into his aspiration for the patterns. He did not consider the patterns to be merely practical training tools, but also as works of kinetic art. He mentioned, for instance, that a part of a pattern is its “characteristic beauty” (Ibid., p. 13). Aesthetic considerations had been part of Taekwon-Do since its beginning. In the preamble to the ITF Taekwon-Do Charter, General Choi lists “beauty” as one of the things he hoped Taekwon-Do would bring about (Volume 1, p. 12), and in his discussion on the principles he used in designing the style, Principle #11 is that “Each movement should be harmonious and rhythmical so that Taekwon-Do is aesthetically pleasing” (Ibid., p. 41). Aesthetic considerations get the back seat in real fighting and I'm certain that even the General would not insist that you concern yourself with aesthetics while fighting for your life. But there is a place in Taekwon-Do where aesthetics can get primacy, and that is in the patterns. The patterns, while they do teach us skills that may be valuable for fighting, are nonetheless “poetry”. And I must say that having understood them as such have actually helped me to gain from them technical / strategic understanding that I probably would not have learned otherwise; see, for example, my essay “Poetry in Motion”.

The aesthetic factor of the patterns need not be feared as an ultimately useless, non-practical pursuit. Beauty in the martial arts are often linked with efficacy. In his book Herding the Ox: The Martial Arts as Moral Metaphor, Dr. John J. Donohue mentions a Japanese national Kenpo champion whom was asked by admirers what his training secret is, to which he replied: “There is no secret . . . You just need to remember to strive always to make your kendo beautiful. Not fast. Not flashy. Only beauty matters. Everything else will follow” (p. 105). I see a similar sentiment in Tai Chi Chuan. The Tai Chi form, although rich with practical elements, is practised in such slow motion that all practicality—all semblance to real fighting—is lost. The Tai Chi Chuan form is not primarily meant to teach you how to fight. Yes, fighting skill can be extrapolated from the movements, but that is hardly it's chief purpose. Instead, the form is used to teach principles of movement and to quiet the mind in a type of meditation in motion. Neither would it be wrong to infer that the Tai Chi Chuan form also have an aesthetic aim; and an ascetic one as well. Similarly, the ITF patterns do have a practical function as a combative training tool, but that is only one of the factors, and arguably not the principle one. To read the ITF patterns in exactly the same way as the Karate kata would be to impose on them an erroneously narrowed function. It would, I believe, be somewhat better to interpret the ITF patterns similarly to the way one is to interpret the Tai Chi Chuan forms.

In sum, the ITF Taekwon-Do patterns are not to be understood from a Karatesque paradigm as merely “combatives manuals,” but are also vehicles for actively teaching Korean philosophy, history, and culture. They are furthermore driven by an aesthetic purpose. A point I did not address, but which is well worth considering, is that the patterns could possibly also be used as an ascetic tool, as platforms for meditation in motion, as is the case with the Tai Chi forms.

In a future post I will look at the more tangible value of the ITF patterns.


  • Choi, Hong-Hi. ITF Encyclopaedia. Volumes 1 & 8.
  • Clayton, Bruce D. 2010. Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origin. Expanded Edition. Black Belt Books. 
  • Donohue, John J. 1998. Herding the Ox: The Martial Arts as Moral Metaphor. Turtle Press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is the most beautiful interpretation of pattern I’ve ever read. Thanks