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.