09 July 2017

Taekkyun: An Essay

I was recently asked to write a 700 word essay for a magazine about my experience in Taekkyeon. Below is the first draft of that essay. 

Taekkyeon: Korea’s Folk Martial Art
By Dr. Sanko Lewis

Although I couldn’t understand the words, I could easily hum along to the soulful pentatonic melodies. The grannies happily sang the songs of their youth, while rhythmically stepping in a triangular pattern, bending their knees in a rhythmic bounce with each step, and swinging their arms this way and that way, as if wading through barley fields. The uninitiated seeing these elderly women in their sixties, seventies, and eighties—one even aged ninety-three—singing and moving to the rhythm of their ancestral songs would easily mistake the activity for a folk dance, rather than a martial art.

My first encounter with Taekkyeon, Korea’s most authentic martial art, was quite providential. I’ve already been practicing Korean martial arts since I was a teenager. I had a fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo and also a black belt in Hapkido, but I was eager to experience the lessor known Taekkyeon. Both Taekwondo and Hapkido are strongly influenced by Japanese martial arts—a legacy of the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Taekwondo evolved from Shotokan Karate, and Hapkido evolved from Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. Taekkyeon, however, was a folk martial art practiced before the annexation of Korea, and suppressed nearly into extinction during the occupation. I knew that if I truly wanted to understand Korean martial arts, that I had to learn Taekkyeon. I was thrilled when I discovered that there is a respected Taekkyeon instructor at the very university where I just started working.

He was an oriental medicine doctor by profession and taught acupuncture and Taekkyeon at the university’s “Life Long Education Center.” The center offers different classes to retirees, hence the reason this class was filled with Korean grannies who came for acupuncture lessons on Wednesday and Friday mornings. I only attended the Wednesday morning class because on Fridays it clashed with one of the literature classes I teach in the English Department. When the grannies finish their acupuncture lesson, an hour of Taekkyeon followed. Halfway through the Taekkyeon class, someone would sneak out to switch on the rice cooker, for afterwards it was time for lunch. The grannies brought fourth numerous containers of homemade Korean side dishes—pickled chilies, beans glazed in honey, fern-shoots brined in soy sauce, stir-fried mushrooms, sweet lotus root, spicy kimchi—everyone shared in the merry potluck. I became very fond of these ladies who treated me like a long-lost son who they had to reintroduce into their culture. They not only fed me (and made sure I ate more than enough), they also taught me their beloved folk songs, and even showed me how to put on the white hanbok—a traditional Korean outfit—worn during Taekkyeon training. I found the unusual knot used to tie the jacket in the front and the pant legs tight against the ankles particularly challenging, and when my knots were jumbled one of the grannies would re-knot them properly. I loved training with the grannies and enjoyed being part of that unique community, but after a few months I realized that I wasn’t learning much anymore. The grannies went through all the fighting motions, but they never actually sparred, and even if they did, I would have felt much too uncomfortable sparring against them. It was then that I started looking for another Taekkyeon group where I could learn the more practical side of the martial art. My Taekwondo instructor in Seoul did some research and found me one of the most reputable Taekkyeon schools in the country, located in Insadong, a “traditional street” in downtown Seoul.

Even at this school, with a clear sparring focus, and known for hosting regular “Taekkyeon Battles,” I was surprised to discover the use of traditional Korean music. Warm-ups were done to the rhythm of a folk song and occasional singing, and during sparring sessions a live folk music percussion band accompanied the “battles.” Taekkyeon is innately connected to the traditional folk rhythms of Korea. Taekkyeon’s fundamental movements are based on a triangular stepping pattern known as pumbalbgi that follows the three-beat rhythm found in traditional Korean music. There is a conspicuous bounciness about Taekkyeon that echoes the up-and-down motions seen in Korean traditional dance. The knees are rhythmically bent and extended so that the techniques acquire a wavelike motion quite distinct from the martial arts of the neighboring China and Japan.

Not unlike a dance, the movements should be enjoyed. “Don’t be too serious,” advised Grandmaster Do one evening, “you should always smile while doing Taekkyeon.” And so I smiled, thinking back to the cheerful grannies that taught me to sing their childhood songs.