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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Chris said...

Great post. I recall having my instructors talk about the timing we should have for fundamental exercises and pattern techniques back in the mid 1980's. They'd often count in class, "One-AND-two!" so people would get the correct timing and rhythm. That actually lines up quite well with a 1, 2, 3 pattern.

I'll have to see if I can get that Dr. Kimm interview. I'd be very interested to hear what he has to say on the subject in toto.

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Chris,

Thank you for your comment. You will notice that my latest post on traditional Korean music was in part inspired by your comment.

The Dr. Kimm interview was in a Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine from two or so months back.

Chris said...

Interesting follow-up post regarding Korean music. The emphasis on the last beat in the sequence definitely lines up with the finnal settling of the body weight in a technique and the final drop in a sine wave.

FWIW, when I mentioned my instructors counting out "one-AND-two" the emphasis on the AND was to make sure people were taking enough time to properlly prepare the technique for execution (i.e. so they performed in a "non-Japanese" way). There was still a greater emphasis on the "two" for the tensing of the body at the end of the technique itself.

I've recently been discussing the influence of Taekkyon on Taekwon-Do with some people. While they acknowledge the influence of Shotokan (and Shudokan to a lesser extent) and disregard the "Taekwon-Do is 2,000 years old" argument it seems that their acceptance of karate now means they won't even consider Taekkyon's influence. My position is that while there are *some* techniques that probably come from Taekkyon (twisting kick, checking kicks, foot tackling, and perhaps a couple others) the main influence is in how Gen. Choi developed the body weight dropping in sine wave. Unfortunately it seems that absent any sort of written documentation they won't even entertain the idea.

SooShimKwan said...

Hi Chris,

About people's disregard of Taekkyeon: Yes, it is difficult to prove without a doubt the connection that ITF Taekwon-Do has with Taekkyeon since there are very little written documentation; however, as you noted, there are quite a number of techniques in ITF that match techniques in Taekkyeon, but which is absent in Shotokan. Also, people that have practised in both ITF and Taekkyeon (like myself and some of my friends) all affirm that the rhythm and body dropping is uncanny. Even people with only moderate cross-training between the two styles come to the same conclusion. On the other hand, this "bouncy" rhythm and emphasis on dropping the body weight is not common to traditional Karate.

(To leave you with a mysterious closing: I believe the pattern Yul-Gok is the key. I plan to write a post on this when I have time to research my hypothesis better.)

Chris said...

Sounds like it will be an interesting post about Yul-Gok. I have a few ideas about what could possibly relate to Taekkyon in that pattern so I look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.