16 April 2017

ITF's Sine Wave Motion and Korean Body Culture

Every so often I stumble upon (or am pulled into) an online conversation about ITF Taekwon-Do’s sine wave motion. This happened again recently. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to discuss all the points addressed on these online discourses. Many of the concerns I have addressed here on my blog, over the years. This blog post is in response to one recent comment on a sine wave motion related discussion:

“[The sine wave motion] was only ‘created’ [by General Choi] to discredit the pioneer instructors who left the ITF, saying they were not teaching real Tae Kwon-Do.”

The writer of this comment may have gotten this view from Alex Gillis’ book A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, Updated and Revised (2nd ed. p. 149). Unfortunately, that would be a wrong reading of the text, and a wrong understanding of the evolution of ITF Taekwon-Do under General Choi. I concede that Gillis does suggest that the sine wave motion was used politically to discredit other instructors for not doing his version of Taekwon-Do; however, the text doesn’t explicitly state that that was the reason the sine wave motion was “created”. (Footnote 1)

It is my opinion that the “creation” (for lack of a better term) of the sine wave motion was to make Taekwon-Do more authentically Korean. From early on, General Choi was on a mission to make a Korean art. It is well known that Taekwon-Do was originally, primarily based on Japanese (Shotokan) Karate. It is also a known fact that General Choi purposefully set out to make a “Korean” martial art, and started making significant changes to the karate he studied in Japan. His development of Taekwon-Do away from Japanese Karate towards a more Korean martial art was a continual process. Scholars like myself and Dr. He-Young Kimm agree that the thing that changed Taekwon-Do from being a Japanese style to a Korean style was not the superficial alteration of where the arms cross for blocks or such technicalities, or even the development of new patterns, which are based on very similar templates than Japanese Karate. Instead, the thing that changed the art from being Japanese is the exchange for Korean “traditional body movement” (Taekwondo History, p. 40). Kimm correctly states that the sine wave motion’s “up-and-down motion ... is in harmony with Korean traditional body culture” and that it has its origin in “traditional Korean body culture” (p. 81). In fact, Kimm goes so far as to say that Taekwon-Do only became a “true Korean martial art through the use of the ‘sine wave’ motion in the early 1980s” (27). It is the sine wave motion which forever changed the DNA, so to speak, of Taekwon-Do, because the sine wave motion is based on the DNA of Korean body culture, as opposed to Japanese body culture. (For what it is worth, martial arts historian Dr. He-Young Kimm is not an ITF Taekwon-Do practitioner, so his comments come with a degree of objectivity that I as an ITF practitioner might be perceived to lack.)

I have lived in Korea now for nearly a decade, and researching Korean body culture has been an ongoing interest of mine. I cannot count how many Korean traditional dance performances I have seen (as I attend dance performance sometimes several times a month); I’ve spoken to quite a few traditional Korean dancers and choreographers (including traditional dance scholars); I’ve studied Taekkyeon (Korea’s “folk” martial art) and discussed the movements with highly acclaimed Taekkyeon masters; I’m currently studying Korean drumming, at the National Theater of Korea, to better understand traditional Korean rhythm; I’ve even looked into Korean shamanism in order to get a better understanding of Korean body culture. While my researched is still ongoing, here are two significant elements that I think essential to Korean body culture:

First, Korean body culture has an intentional “verticality.” I came across the term the first time in the book Korean Dance: Pure Emotion and Energy (Korea Essentials Book 15), which describes it as follows:

The theme of up-and-down movements persists in Korean dance. In slower forms like court dances and those influenced by Buddhism, dancers regularly rotate between bending and extending their knees. In faster dances such as mask dances and certain folk dances, the bent knees are released in a burst of kinetic energy into a jump.” (p. 15.)

Simply put, “verticality” refers to up-and-down movements, usually achieved through the bending and straightening of the knees. However, this “verticality” doesn’t always have to involve the knees; for instance, apart from using the knees, in Korean traditional dance, the “verticality” is often emphasized by the lifting and dropping of the shoulders. “Verticality” is also noticeable with Korean drummers while seated, so as a concept it can be any type of up-and-down movement of the body.

The Korean term used for how this “verticality” is accomplished is gulshin dongjak 굴신 동작, which can roughly be translated into English as “springiness” or “elasticity”, although more often as “bending and stretching” or “extension and contraction”.

The second element of traditional Korean body culture is a three-beat rhythm. Basic Korean traditional dances, as well as traditional Korean music, usually follow a ¾ meter. We see a three-beat rhythm used in the basic stepping (pumbalbki 품밟기) of the Korean folk martial art Taekkyeon 택견, and we notice a three beat rhythm in the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do. (The origin of the three beat may by the philosophical concept of sam-yoso 삼요소, as the idea of yin-yang and Korea’s three-lobed yin-yang known as sam-taegeuk 삼태극 is part of Korean traditional dance.)

The sine wave motion has brought to ITF Taekwon-Do these two elements: a clear sense of verticality and a three beat rhythm. Thus, I disagree that the sine wave motion was simply “created” to discredit non-ITF practitioners. No, the sine wave was “created” to make Taekwon-Do a truly Korean martial art, rather than just a rebranding of Karate. The sine wave is one of many deliberate changes made by General Choi in his pursuit of creating an authentically Korean martial art.

A part of me want to be so rash as to say that if you practice Taekwon-Do as a Korean martial art, then gulshin dongjak should be part of your system, whether it is the “ITF sine-wave Tul motion” or the “WTF free-sparring stepping/hopping motions”, which according to Dr Kimm both “come from the same type of traditional Korean body culture” (p. 80). If you do not want to do gulshin dongjak, maybe you should rather do Karate, which follows Japanese body culture based on Shintoism.

A final thought on the idea that the sine wave motion was “created” by General Choi: I think the aforementioned discussion on traditional Korean body culture makes it clear that what we refer to as the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do was not “created” by General Choi at all, but instead is part and partial of traditional Korean body movement, and that General Choi only appropriated this into Taekwon-Do; he didn't invent it.

The big critique people have against vertical motion in Taekwon-Do is a practical one:

So-what if ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion is an embodiment of traditional Korean movement as seen in other Korean activities such as traditional Korean dance—does the sine wave motion have any practical combative value? 

That is the real critique and my answer to that is, yes, it does have combative value. First, the discerning martial artist will note that the same principles are used in many other martial arts (Footnote 2). Furthermore, the sine wave principle is immensely useful for joint locks and throwing techniques. Also, if you understand how to use it as a way for generating vertical (either upwards or downwards) power, then it compliments the other power generation methods such as the hip rotation a lot. It is also useful in instances where hip rotation is not possible; for example, think of a wedging block or twin punch. Just don’t be one of those daft people that say that the sine wave doesn’t contribute power to techniques moving at a horizontal trajectory. Of course, it doesn’t. If I was a teenager I would have facepalmed myself and exclaimed “duh!”

To conclude, the sine wave motion was used to differentiate between General Choi's Taekwon-Do and other Taekwon-Do; however, that was not the reason for its inclusion in ITF Taekwon-Do. The purpose of the sine wave motion, I am convinced, was to make Taekwon-Do authentically Korean by including two elements that are essential to traditional Korean body culture: verticality and a three beat rhythm. Furthermore, when correctly understood and appropriately applied, the sine wave motion does have practical, combative benefits.


Footnote 1: While Alex Gillis doesn’t say that the sine wave motion was created specifically for discrediting other Taekwon-Do practitioners, such a reading is easy to come to, because the preceding paragraph states that the pattern Ju-Che was designed as a gift to communist North Korea, and that the sine wave motion which was used to discredit other Taekwon-Do instructors was also a gift to the North. My opinion is that although the sine wave motion may have been used as a political tool to discredit certain people, that was not the reason for its creation.

Footnote 2: The same principles found in the sine wave motion can also be found in other martial arts. For example:

  • Aikido [12]
  • Hsing-I / Xingi [12]

Sources Cited:

Gilles, A. 2016. A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. Updated and Revised Edition.
Kimm, H. Y. 2013. Taekwondo History.
Seoul Selection. Korean Dance: Pure Emotion and Energy.

23 March 2017

Do you matseogi, gyeorugi, or daeryeon?

It was Dr George Vitale (ITF VIII Dan) who first pointed it out to me that the Korean term General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle founder of original Taekwon-Do, designated for sparring is different from the general term used for sparring in most other forms of Korean martial arts—including in Kukki (WTF) style of Taekwondo. In General Choi’s ITF Taekwon-Do we use the term matseogi 맞서기, whereas in most other forms of Taekwon-Do the term gyeorugi 겨루기 is used.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. I just assumed it was one of those general differences in terminology that are typical across styles. It was only after considering the systematic progress of “sparring” in ITF Taekwon-Do that I realized that the use of the term matseogi rather than gyeorugi was very deliberate. Of course, I should have known better. The more I study General Choi’s use of (Korean) terms, the more I realize how pedantic he was about his choice of terminology. Unfortunately, much of this is lost in translation, and often official translations into English are far from ideal. But I digress. In this essay, I want to explore the meanings of gyeorugi and matseogi, and point out why the distinction is important. I will also address another related term, daeryeon.

The term gyeorugi is based on the verb gyeoruda 겨루다 which means “to compete, vie for, or content with”. One could also use the term in a political sense, for example when one politician opposes another during an election; i.e. the politicians are contending for the same political office. The inflection gyeorugi, in the context of martial arts, basically means to dual, or to fight as in a competition. There is an obvious sport or competitive connotation to the term. Hence, the English translation of gyeorugi as “sparring” is acceptable, although “competing” is likely the closest translation of gyeorugi. 

On the other hand, the term matseogi does not denote a sport or competitive meaning, although it does suggest a confrontation. The term matseogi as a whole has a particular meaning that we will get to soon, but I’d like to first break the word into parts: mat 맞- and seogi 서기. The former, based on the verb matda 맞다 means to face something, as when you turn your body towards someone to greet them. This example of facing to greet someone is, in fact, one of the ways the word is generally understood. (Not to be confused with the homonyms that mean “correct” and “agreement”.) Seogi, based on the verb seoda 서다 literally means to stand up. If we were to read mat-seogi in this way, within the context of Taekwon-Do, it simply means to take in a position facing your training partner. This interpretation seems very appropriate when we consider the pre-arranged sparring (yagsok matseogi 약속 맞서기) exercises, like three-step sparring (sambo matseogi 삼보맞서기) and two-step sparring (ilbo matseogi 이보맞서기).

However, the term matseogi is generally understood in its entirety, as an inflection of the verb matseoda 맞서다, meaning “to oppose, to confront, to stand up to, or stand against, to face an enemy, or resist a force.” As pointed out earlier, unlike gyeorugi which has a competition association, matseogi implies a completely different type of conflict. Instead of a sport connotation, matseogi has a defensive connotation. The implied meaning is not competitive, but combative. Orthodox ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy (and by this I mean what is in the ITF Encyclopaedia) has basically no training geared towards competition and tournament sparring. The implication, at least for ITF Taekwon-Do, is that all the so-called “sparring” drills, from three-step sparring to free sparring and self-defence exercises, have as their end goal not improving one’s tournament sparring ability, but rather to improve your combative, i.e. self-defence, skill.

It might actually be a good idea for ITF practitioners that participate in tournament sparring to follow Kukki Taekwondo's lead and refer to this activity as gyeorugi too, so not to confuse it with free sparring (jayu matseogi 자유 맞서기) which is a form of sparring without rules or limits on attacking tools or targets; in other words, a reality based fighting exercise, which is part of ITF's systematic pedagogy. As I explained in my essay on the purpose and value of pre-arranged sparring, each type of matseogi is part of “a continuum of training that becomes progressively less abstract and approaches the real combative encounter in a systematic way relative to the practitioner’s skill level,” for the purpose of combat (i.e. self-defence).

Fellow Taekwon-Do blogger Ørjan Nilsen brought my attention to a third term, daeryeon 대련, that was used by the early Kwan, such as Moo Duk Kwan, including General Choi's O Do Kwan. General Choi's early Taekwon-Do writings such as the 1966 Taekwon-Do Manual ("태권도 지침") and the 1972 Taekwon-Do Handbook ("태권도 교서") use the term daeryeon for sparring. It is still the term used for sparring in Tang Soo Do to this day. Daeryeon is actually a very appropriate term to use as it translates into English as “sparring” or “fighting,” without the competitive connotation that gyeorugi has. Why then was it not adopted by General Choi and the Kukki Taekwondoists? My hypothesis is because daeryeon is not a pure Korean word, but based on hanja (Chinese characters), 對鍊. Many people are aware that Taekwon-Do had a strong Karate foundation, hence many early terminology were based on Karate terms. The first Taekwon-Do masters, who at that time still basically practiced Koreanized Karate, often used the same terminology based on hanja, but simply pronounced them in Korean. We still see remnants of that in some Korean martial arts; for instance, the term for “knife-hand” in Tang Soo Do and Hapkido is sudo  수도, based on the hanja 手刀. The Japanese equivalent shuto (notice the similarity with the Korean pronunciation), used in Karate, is based on the same hanja. In Taekwon-Do (both ITF and Kukki) the term seonnal 선칼, which is a purely Korean collocation, is used instead. If I'm not mistaken, General Choi was the first to move away from using Shino-Korean (i.e. Korean words based on hanja) to using pure Korean terminology. His motive was very much a patriotic one. He wanted to evolve Taekwon-Do into a truly Korean martial art and a primary way for doing so was to use pure Korean terminology. There was also a practical purpose to this. As Taekwon-Do under General Choi was developed within a military context, he abandoned the more poetic descriptions that were often part of the Chinese descriptions for martial arts techniques. Commanding soldiers requires direct, precise language, rather than the sometimes ambiguous terms still found in some Chinese martial arts. I should include here a slightly more controversial reason--a possibility pointed out to me by my PhD promoter; Dr Peter Ha suggested that General Choi's involvement with northern Korea as sponsors for his Taekwon-Do Encyclopedia need also be taken into account, as they tend to be language purists and also refrain from using hanja. Because they provided financial aid for the printing of the ITF Encyclopedia, it is possible that they also pushed for using purely Korean, rather than Shino-Korean vocabulary.

In short, daelyeon is a good translation for sparring, but it is a more traditional word, based on Chinese characters. As Taekwon-Do evolved, mostly pure Korean terminology were adopted. The pure Korean words gyeorugi and matseogi are now more commonly used. In Kukki Taekwon-Do the term gyeorugi with its competitive connotation is primarily used, and is a good translation for tournament sparring. This was a sensible choice for the Kukki branch of Taekwondo which already evolved towards sportive emphasis from as early as the 1960s. On the other hand, the term matseogi that is used in ITF Taekwon-Do does not denote competition but rather alludes to combat as in a self-defence situation. General Choi's military background may have been part of the motivation in adopting this term. Interestingly, daelyeon seems to be the most neutral term when neither sport or self-defence is implied, but simply referring to fighting or sparring in general.

17 March 2017

Korea Hapkido Federation - Ulji Kwan - Colour Belt Syllabus

I started Hapkido at an Ulji Kwan dojang back in 2006. The Ulji Kwan is one of the big Kwans in the Korea Hapkido Federation. Having spoken to some sources, apparently, the Ulji Kwan group, and particularly Master Jo's dojang where I started my Hapkido journey, is a very traditional style of Hapkido.

Since my Hapkido base is with the Ulji Kwan, I thought it valuable to share Master Jo's colour belt syllabus. Just before he retired from full-time teaching, he video recorded his colour belt syllabus with the help of instructors Duke Kim 김경호 사범님 and (Dr) John Johnson 사범님. I also got to help out a bit with the recording behind the scenes when they started the project.

Following are links to the colour belt syllabus from lowest (8th geup) to highest colour belt rank (1st geup).

Videos of the higher ranking syllabus (1st Dan and 2nd Dan) can also be found on Instructor Duke Kim's Youtube-channel. Note that in Hapkido the colour belt geup numbering is in descending order (8 to 1); however, at black belt the geup numbering follows an ascending order (i.e. 1st Dan, 1st geup through 11th geup; and 2nd Dan, 1st geup through 13th geup).

My own style of Hapkido has evolved somewhat away from how it is practised at the Ulji Kwan, possibly to a slightly more Chinese influence: a chi-na 逮捕, as the Chinese call it, or geum-na  금나 as it is known in Korean, way of doing joint-locks and throws. Or at least, towards a more ITF Taekwon-Do way of integrating geum-na. Those that have trained joint-locks, throws and other such grappling techniques would know that I fully incorporate ideas such as ITF's sine-wave motion to explain and perform many of these techniques.

06 March 2017

Martial Artists Sharing Ideas & ITF's Sine Wave Motion

About a week ago some friends and I came together to hang out and have a quick dinner. Since we are all martial artists, it didn't take long for us to start talking about martial arts in general, and pretty soon we were on our feet sharing ideas. It was indeed a most memorable evening and a great way for any martial artist to spend his or her time, with other like-minded people, putting egos aside and learning from each other. The stylists, myself included, in the video represent experience in the following arts: Kukki (WTF) Taekwondo, ITF Taekwon-Do, boxing, Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua, Wing Chun, Kickboxing, Taekkyeon, Jeet Kune Do, Mantis, Hapkido, and others.

One thing that stood out for me is how open those practicing Chinese martial arts are to the idea of "sine wave motion" in ITF Taekwon-Do. I've had conversations about this topic with people from many different styles with different levels of agreement or dismissal. But in my experience, the Chinese stylists always "gets" it. I've long argued that as long as people continue to try and interpret ITF Taekwon-Do in a historic Karatesque manner, they will simply fail to understand the new evolutionary path that ITF Taekwon-Do has undergone -- moving away from its Shotokan Karate roots to a more Korean kinaesthetic that is more in line with Chinese martial arts, than Karatesque Japanese martial arts.

21 February 2017

Jan & Feb 2017 South Africa Report

I would like to report a little on my journey over the last two months during my annual South Africa travels.

The first dojang I had the privilege of visiting was the Pinetown Stingers club, in KwaZulu Natal. Whenever I visit the Durban area, I also try to visit the Stingers dojang. With my previous visit I wasn't able to visit the dojang, but I did visit with Sabeomnim Sean Cremer at his house. This year, however, my travels coincided with their training, so I could attend one of their session. As always, it was lots of fun training with the KZN guys. My friend Damien, who was a student with me here in Korea and also tested for his black belt under me, was also able to come through from Durban to visit. I've always had a close connection with KZN Taekwon-Do and visiting them is like visiting family.

Of course also visited my Soo Shim Kwan family.

First was my visit with Horangi Dojang in Grobblersdal. This club is just going from strength to strength under the leadership of Instructor Gerhard Louw. I was impressed with how the higher ranking students have improved since I saw them last year -- their are defintely some future champions among them, and the eagerness of the lower belts shows me that Instructor Gerhard is doing a great job.

During the two nights that I taught at the Horangi Dojang, I tried to cover several principles. On the second evening, I was requested to demonstrate some patterns. Last year when I performed patterns there, I was a little sick, so was disappointed with my demonstration. This year, I performed several patterns and felt much more pleased with what I was able to present to them. Bsbnim Gerhard and I also did Gae Baek Tul together, and we also demonstrated some slightly more advanced self-defence techniques, to the glee of the students. For the much of the evening, we practised some self-defence techniques, but more simplified since the Horangi dojang's members are mostly children.

Near the end of my time in South Africa I went to Potchefstroom and visited the other Soo Shim Kwan dojang, the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club (PTC). Under the guidance of Instructor Philip de Vos, there is a good standard amongst the students. The Potch club have always been small in numbers, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Since PTC is an adults only club, I used the opportunity to explain some important principles. I expounded on the ITF pedagogy as a whole. The club has a few new members, so I wanted to give the students a broader understanding--a theoretical platform--to understand how ITF Taekwon-Do progressively guides a person with no prior fighting experience through a slow process of conditioning (physically and mentally), for a violent, combative encounter. I touched on ideas like the sparring phases, the Golden Move, and how ITF Taekwon-Do attempts to prevent the freeze reflex and trigger a fight response during an adrenalized encounter. The classes had a little bit of a lecture feel to them, which is not a bad thing occasionally since it is associated with a university.

Next year PTC will have its 20 year anniversary. I started the club in 1998. As part of the celebration, PTC will be the host for the National Championships in 2018. I really hope I'd be able to attend the event.

A highlight of this trip was, of course, the Hapkido Seminar that I presented in Pretoria. It was the first Korea Hapkido Federation seminar hosted in South Africa, to a primarily black belt audience.

This seven hours long hands-on workshop covered the most important aspects of Hapkido, from break falls and rolling, to joint locks, throws, pins, and even some unique kicks. The attendees were all tired, bruised and nearly broken, but their eagerness to learn kept them from quitting, and even after such an exhausting event they were still able to muster the smiles you can witness in the photo above. This seminar functioned as the first formal KHF event, with the intention of establishing an offical KHF branch in South Africa. I in particular want to thank Sbnim Sean Cremer and the other KZN members that travelled so far to attend the seminar.

Martial art wise, it was a particularly productive visit for me this year. On my way back from South Africa to Korea, I stopped over in Hong Kong, where I also got to train a little in Wing Chun, which was a wonderful experience that opened my eyes to new ideas and helped me to rethink my understanding of ITF Taekwon-Do as well.

I wish all the Soo Shim Kwan members, and all other readers of this blog, a wonderful 2017. My you experience progress in your martial art path, and also grow in the other areas of your life: vocationally, relationally, mentally and spiritually.



23 January 2017

Hapkido Registration & South Africa Seminar

I am happy to announce that the Soo Shim Kwan has registered with the Korea Hapkido Federation. This comes after my promotion to 4th Dan in Hapkido in August, 2016.

Although I have always supplemented our ITF Taekwon-Do syllabus with skills from Hapkido, these recent developments bring more formality to our Hapkido connection. It also allows our students to officially progress in Hapkido along side ITF Taekwon-Do if they so choose.

On the 29th of January, 2017, I will give a formal Hapkido seminar and workshop in Centurion, South Africa for Soo Shim Kwan and SATI black belts. The six hour seminar will cover basic Hapkido principles, break falls & rolls, locks (wrist locks, elbow locks, shoulder locks, and knee locks), throws, and other miscellaneous techniques.