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.