28 January 2013

Traditional Korean Music and Korean Kinesthetics

One of my closest friends is genetically Korean but while he was still a toddler he was adopted by a Dutch family and so he grew up in the Netherlands. Although my friend looks Korean, when he walks or moves in a crowd of Koreans I can easily recognize him because his motions, his “rhythm,” is different from the other Koreans around him. Similarly, when I walk the streets in Korea it is surprisingly easy to spot non-Koreans, even from behind, merely by the way they carry themselves.

People from different cultures move differently. Allow me momentary stereotyping as I expand on this idea. An African American from the Bronx has a completely different stride than a Texan cowboy. I'm confident that if one were to look at the music from these two cultures (hip-hop in the case of the African-American from the Bronx, and country music in the case of the Texan cowboy) one would notice similarities between the way they move, and the qualities of the music that represent their respective sub-cultures.

In this post I will give a short overview of traditional Korean music and highlight points of overlap with some Korean martial arts, particularly the folk art Taekkyeon and ITF Taekwon-Do.

I recently attended a lecture hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society (Korean Branch), presented by Professor Sheen Dae-Cheol 신대철 of the Academy of Korean Studies, on the topic “Calm and Dynamic: Two Differing Aesthetic Aspects of Korean Traditional Music.”

Traditional Korean music can be divided into two groups: upperclass music known as Jeongak 전각 (music for royalty and noblemen) and Minsogak 민소각 (folk music). Jeongak can further be grouped into Court Ritual Music, such as Royal Shrine Music and Confucian Shrine Music; Court party music for royal birthdays, weddings, etc.; Royal Procession Music; and Literati Music, which is music listened to by the upperclass, but which is not court music. Although different types of traditional music exist, they all share certain recognizable characteristics.

Professor Sheen lists the following characteristics for traditional Korean music:

1. Monophony (instead of polyphony)
2. Pentatonic and tri-tonic scales
3. Breath tempo (Heterophony)
4. Triple rhythm
5. Downbeat start and upbeat cadence
6. Short consonants and extra long vowels in vocal music
7. Rhythmic pattern
8. Curved melodic line with typical vibrato known as nonghyeon or nongeum

Not everything in this list is directly relevant, but there are certain points that definitely stands out for me. First, points #4 and #5 I think are significant. Traditional Korean music follows a "triple rhythm", or a three beat rhythm. The three beat rhythm is also quite popular in Western music in the form of the Waltz: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. The Korean triple rhythm works the opposite way however, starting with a downbeat. Instead of ONE-two-three, the Korean three beat is more likely to be a one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE. The Korean triple rhythm is noticeable in different forms of traditional dance. It is also very easily recognized in the Korean folk martial art Taekkyeon where it is the foundation for the basic stepping known as pumbalbki 품밟기. Similarly ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners will also recognize this, as they are often coached by their instructors to do their patterns "one-and-TWO, one-and-TWO" or "one-two-THREE, one-two-THREE"; in other words, three beats, starting with a downbeat—or starting relaxed. The full sine wave motion manifested as down-up-DOWN or relax-rise-FALL adheres to this three beat rhythm.

Another point from Professor Sheen's list I wish to highlight is #8. In traditional Korean music, when a melody moves from one note to another that is some distance away, it would often not abruptly jump to the next note. Instead there would often be a smooth transition through all the notes in between until it reaches the desired note; i.e. it moves in a "curved melodic line". Furthermore, upon reaching a note, it is not merely kept at that pitch, but rather the voice or instrument would oscillate around that note as a very noticeable vibrato. (In court music the vibrato is narrow, but in folk music the amplitude is greater.) Such vibrato, or moving in a wave up and down the music scale, translates as up and down movements in traditional Korean dance, as a form of bounciness in the movements of Taekkyeon, as a type of bobbing in the sparring stance in WTF Taekwondo, and possibly as the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Different cultures move differently, which is often a reflection of the music and the innate rhythm of the culture. It is quite possible that such cultural rhythms may also influence the rhythms of the martial arts practiced in those cultures. The triple rhythm of the Korean folk martial art Taekkyeon resembles that of traditional Korean dances, which in turn is based on the triple rhythm of traditional Korean music. ITF Taekwon-Do has a root in Taekkyeon, and therefore is influenced by similar cultural movements. Although the sine wave motion has clear technical considerations, it is also in harmony with traditional Korean kinesthetics.

Following are some samples of traditional Korean music. The first is known as Sujecheon 수제천 and is a court piece wishing the king longevity dating back 1300 years. (The title translates roughly to 'a life as long as the heavens'.) During the Joseon period one beat lasted about three seconds, so it is difficult to discern the beats in this piece of music. One can however appreciated the curved melodic line and vibrato.

The following song is probably Korea's most famous folk song, Arirang 아리랑. The leading vocalist in the video is pansori maestro Jang Sa Ik. Try to listen for the Korean three-beat rhythm and also notice his body movements; in other words, notice how he interprets the rhythm kinetically.

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26 January 2013


It has been about a year and a half since I last spoke about concussions, but I think it important to just remind us all of this serious risk that is part of contact sports, combative activities  and yes, even traditional martial arts.

I don't know the exact statistics, but practically all fighting related deaths as seen in Mixed Martial Arts, professional boxing, and the like, died because of head trauma, with autopsy reports usually noting the cause of death to be cerebral hemorrhage. Hemorrhaging and a bruising of the brain (concussion) is not too far apart and the former usually following from a repetition of the latter.

Look again at the list of symptoms I mentioned in my previous post on concussions, and please, never regard any knock to the head lightly. Whenever it occurs, look for concussion symptoms and take time off to rest. Often it is subsequent knocks that causes more serious damage.

22 January 2013

Philosophical Congruence of the Sine Wave Motion

I have taken great pains to put ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion within it's proper context, showing that it is not the be-all-and-end-all of ITF Taekwon-Do—the sine wave motion is definitely not an ever present feature in the sense that we are expected to make every technique conform to an artificial down-up-down template. And while it is a conspicuous part of ITF Taekwon-Do, it the not the most important feature of ITF Taekwon-Do. The technical principles of ITF Taekwon-Do, the Theory of Power and Training Secrets, refer to the sine wave motion peripherally. The sine wave motion is not itself a separate principle listed in the Theory of Power or Training Secrets.

Rather, the sine wave motion is merely one manifestation of a greater principle found in many martial arts—the Wave / Circle Principle, which is extrapolated from the Taoist concept of yin and yang as depicted in the Taijitu 太極圖 (yin-yang symbol, known in Korean as the Taegeukdo 태극도). In this post I want to show how the sine wave motion is in fact consistent with the Taoist philosophy that underscores the Oriental martial arts, and is furthermore in line with the Korean expression thereof. The sine wave motion firstly manifests the Taoist idea of the Taegeukdo, commonly understood as the forces of Yin and Yang (In Korean: Eum 음and Yang 양); and secondly, it corresponds with the Korean concept of Sam-Taegeuk 삼태극.

What ever may be said about the actual practicality of the sine wave motion for combat purposes aside, I believe that the application and inclusion of the sine wave motion in this Korean martial art is philosophically congruent with Korean traditional philosophy.

"Approach it [Tao] and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end." -- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Tao / 도
There are many martial arts that are based on ideas from the Tao 道. Many modern martial arts (martial arts that developed in the early 1900s) have the concept of Tao (aka "Do" 도) embedded in their names, consider for instance Taekwondo, Hapkido, Aikido, Judo, Tang Soo Do, and so on. Even older martial arts, particularly the Wudang styles (Chinese internal martial arts) are known for their Taoist connection. Unlike the Shaolin styles that have clearer Buddhist links (Shoalin kung fu was historically practised by Shaolin Buddhist monks in Buddhist monastaries), Wudang monks trained in Taoist monasteries. It is not surprising that strong elements of Taoism are to be found in the three primary Wudang styles: Taichi Chuan, Baqua Zang, and Xing-yi Chuan. For instance Taichi Chuan bases much of its movements on the oscillating hard and soft flow, the turns and inverted turns, of the Taijitu, similarly Xing-Yi Chuan's techniques are based on an oscillation of hard (Yang) and soft (Yin), albeit in a more linear fashion, while Baqua Zang's circular stepping mimics the Taoist concept of the I-Ching 易經. For the Wudang styles Taoist ideals form the basis of both their philosophy and their techniques.

The more modern martial arts (those with the "Do"-suffix in their names), may not always clearly illustrate Taoism at a technical level, but they do embrace Taoist principles such as the interplay of Ying (Eum) and Yang at a philosophical level.

ITF Taekwon-Do has, however, evolved towards a more technical embodiment of Taoist ideas in a way that makes the contemporary manifestation of ITF Taekwon-Do much more akin to Wudang styles than to its earlier way of moving that resembled linear Shotokan Karate. The way Taoist movement manifests in ITF Taekwon-Do is in its oscillation between emphasized moments of extreme relaxation, followed by momentary tension. ITF Taekwon-Do seems to be riding a wave of tranquility and explosive movement, of soft and hard, of base and vertex, of continual change. I've written elsewhere similarities I observe between ITF Taekwon-Do and such Chinese styles as Taichi Chuan and Xing-Yi Chuan.

Taijitu / 太極圖
As one would expect, such a Taiji / Taegeuk concept of soft and hard, of yielding and pushing, is hardly unique to Taekwondo. Many martial arts accept this as a foundational premise and some styles such as Judo is completely based on this notion of the interplay between soft (yielding) and hard (pushing or pulling). However, while we do see these concepts of soft and hard at work in Korean styles like ITF Taekwon-Do as well, we also see something else in the Korean art.

In a manner of speaking, the originally Chinese Taijitu 太極圖, which was also adopted into Japan, present a dualistic (two-dimensional) cosmology of two equal, but opposite forces working in harmony. The same is not exactly true for ancient Korean philosophy where the Taijitu was conformed to the Korean cosmology. First the Taiji(tu) became the Taegeuk(do) 태극(도) in the Korean paradigm.

Taegeukdo / 태극도
Superficially the Taijitu and the Taegeukdo may seem the same, but in fact the Taegeukdo is deliberately coloured. One of the forces is presented in red, and the other in blue. These colours have symbolic meanings, referring to "heaven" and "earth" respectively. Furthermore, the Korean Taegeuk generally do not have two dots as present in the Chinese Taiji. In Chinese cosmology the dots show how that the two opposite forces are connected with each other, the one already impregnated with the essence of the other. In Korean cosmology, however, the thing that connects the two forces is a third, different element, not an aspect of the opposite force. Korean philosophy proposes an amended Taegeuk that doesn't merely consist of two forces, but actually of three interacting forces, known as the Sam-Taegeuk 三太極. ("Sam" means three.)

Sam-Taegeuk / 三太極

The Sam-Taegeuk is a uniquely Korean expression of the Taegeuk. Where the normal Taijitu / Taegeuk consists of only two opposite forces / phases that are in continual change, the Sam-Taegeuk embraces three harmonious forces. The third, yellow force symbolizes man ("humanity"). This idea is traditionally known as Sam-Jae 삼재, but is now more commonly referred to as Sam-Yoso 삼요소, which directly translated means “three elements” or “triple essence”. The Sam-Taegeuk symbolizes the harmonious interplay between the forces of heaven (한을 / 천국), earth (토 / 지구), and man (사람 / 인간). In physical terms we might interpret these as a rising force, a lowering force, and a connecting or normalizing force.

What we find in ITF Taekwon-Do is not a pure adherence to the Taiji in the Chinese tradition that functions on a binary paradigm of two opposing forces working in harmony. Instead, ITF Taekwon-Do functions within a traditional Korean philosophical paradigm of the Sam-Taegeuk or Sam-Yoso. In Korean culture we most noticeably recognize the idea of “three” in the typical three-beat rhythm used for much of Korean traditional music. The same rhythm can be recognized in Korean martial arts. ITF Taekwon-Do, like Taekkyeon—Korea's folk martial art—follows Korea's traditional three beat rhythm, explained by Grandmaster Kimm He-Young: “Japanese [martial arts] have a two beat movement, 'block, punch', 'block, punch'. But the Korean body rhythm has 3 beats . . . one two three, one two three.” (I quoted Grandmaster Kimm before in a previous post dealing with a similar topic.) The three phased sine wave motion matches the “Korean body rhythm” and is in congruence with the Korean concept of Sam-Taegeuk. Or to phrase it differently, there is a harmony between ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion and traditional Korean cosmology. Deeper inquiry into the Sam-Taegeuk and how this influence the Korean psyche and Korean kinaesthetics may be an interesting and possibly insightful endeavor.

Note that with this essay I did not attempt to argue in favour of the sine wave motion on technical grounds. I have done that elsewhere on this blog. My aim was merely to show that it is consistent with traditional Korean cosmology symbolized by the Sam-Taegeuk and reflected in the three beat Korean “body rhythm” as is also evident in Taekkyeon, Korea's folk martial art. In other words, it is reasonable to say that ITF Taekown-Do, like Taekkyeon, moves in a certain way because they are Korean martial arts that reflect Korean kinesthetics based on Korean philosophy and cosmology.

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