09 November 2018

An Interpretation of the Korean Foundation Myth of the Tiger and the Bear

The essay below was published in this month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, Issue #116. For Taekwon-Do enthusiasts, it is well worth subscribing, I think.

An Interpretation of the Korean Foundation Myth of the Tiger and the Bear
By Sanko Lewis

“The tiger’s nature is wild and violent, and it causes calamities. Do not act with violence and impatience, for these bring harm to yourself and to others. Always abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.” — Dangun Wanggeom* 

The quotation above is from the Eight Codes of Conduct, said to have been established by Dangun Wanggeom 단군왕검, the legendary founder of Korea. Dan-Gun Tul, the second pattern in the Chang Hon pattern set, was named after the mythical Dangun Wanggeom.

As a moral code, the quotation starts with a curious allusion to the wild and violent tiger. This must be seen within the greater context of the Korean foundation myth. For the sake of brevity, the focus of this essay will be on the part of the foundation myth related to the “Tiger and the Bear” and the Bear-Woman, Ungnyeo, who was the mythical mother of Dangun Wanggeom.

A bear and a tiger pleaded in prayer to Hwanung 환웅, the son of the King of Heaven, to make them human. Hwangung gave them sacred food to eat—twenty cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort—and told them to stay in a cave for 100 days. The tiger was too impatient and left the cave early; whereas the bear remained in the cave and finally emerged a human. She was Ungnyeo 웅녀, the “Bear-woman.” She made thank offerings to Hwanung, but soon Hwangung noticed her crying under a sacred birch tree 신단수 for she could not find a husband and was lonely. Hwanung had pity on her and took her as his wife. They had a son whom Ungnyeo named Dangun, which translates as “Altar Prince” or “Birchwood.” Dangun Wanggeom established Gojoseon, the first Kingdom of Korea in the year 2333 B.C. 

There is much one can extrapolate from the Korean foundation myth, but before doing so, it is useful to understand what the purpose and value of such myths were within the cultures these ancient stories developed and were passed on in.

Older generations, much more than modern generations, had an inherent understanding of the powerful truths that are often embedded in stories. The ancient Greeks used two words to denote ‘truth’: logos and mythos. The former is where we get our modern word “logic” from and refers to logical truths, i.e. truths derived from reason. In our modern age we can understand logos as those truths often associated with the natural sciences. While the ancient Greeks definitely valued logos they also valued mythos, which are those types of truths embedded in mythology—in epic poems and drama.

The ancient people understood that there are certain truths that science cannot adequately deliver. If one were to ask, ‘what is love?’ or ‘what is bravery?’, science has little to say. Of course, science can explain that love is basically a neurochemical cocktail of the endorphins dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, as the American psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz did in his 1983 book The Chemistry of Love. However, anyone that has experienced love knows that it is far more than just fizzing juices having a party in your brain. A better way to learn what love is, is to intuit it from the lyrical language and metaphors in poem and song, or to see it enacted in stories. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides a far better exposition on love than reading a biochemistry textbook. Similarly, the classic Old English epic of Beowulf facing monsters or Homer’s telling of the Greek hero Odysseus’ struggles to return home sheds far better light on the meaning of ‘bravery’ than a scientific analysis of testosterone levels in mammals.

Ancient myths tend to have particular functions. Creation myths gives a cosmological explanation for where the world comes from. Myths, like fables, sometimes provide other ‘origin’ explanations such as psychological answers to the nature of man, for instance the reasons for our innate desires. Another function of myth is to provide an origin narrative for a community. This is known as an ethnogenesis or foundation myth. Furthermore, myths offer a mythomoteur¸ which is a goal or sense of purpose for a community. Additionally, myths provide exempla (singular: exemplum), which are anecdotes that illustrate moral codes of conduct. As such, myths often function as religious narratives.

Following I will provide an analytical interpretation of the Korean foundation myth of the “Tiger and the Bear.” My analysis is based on typical interpretations of archetypal symbols and my knowledge of Korean culture, having lived in Korea for over a decade.

Desire

The tiger and the bear are at the top of the food chain. As animals, they are at the hierarchical pinnacle. Yet they are not satisfied with their current state. Firstly, their discontent in this story may suggest that desire—to want something—is natural. Secondly, the tiger and bear want to be human. This may suggest that there is an innate desire within us to be better; to be more than what we currently are. Or rather, the myth suggests that we ought to have such a desire for self-improvement, and that if we are sincere, the Heavens will assist us. This virtue of self-improvement fits within the Confucian ethic that was to become particularly valued by the Korean people. Confucius taught that all people should strive to by a junzi 君子 (comparable to the Korean seonbi 선비), which were a type of ideal or superior person. Famous seonbi were Yul-Gok and Toi-Gye, both of whom also have Taekwon-Do patterns named after them.

Natural Order

The myth suggests a natural order. The animals realise that humans are of a higher order than themselves; hence, their desire to be human. The myth makes it clear, however, that both humans and animals are of a lower order than the gods, so a natural cosmological order is suggested with the gods at the zenith, followed by humans, and then animals. Such a cosmological order fits well with the emphasis placed on hierarchical order that was later suggested by Confucius.

Humility / Prayer

The thing that the tiger and the bear in this myth strive for is impossible for them to achieve by themselves, therefore they petition to a power greater than themselves—they pray to the Divine. This may suggest the importance of humility, which is a virtue much prized in the Orient.

Heaven Help Those Who Help Themselves

The gods will help us in our striving towards betterment, in our pursuit of our goals and dreams. However, according to this myth the Divine won’t simply give us what we want. We must do something. We must go into the cave and endure the trial.

Controlling Our Wild-Nature: Perseverance and Self-Control

In this myth, the god Hwanung is benevolent and willing to grant their wish, but being human comes with responsibility, and so he gives them a test (of perseverance). Will they simply carry their wild (impulsive) natures into their new human state, or do they have what it takes to be human? In other words, can they control their wild, impulsive natures? Inversely, it may suggest that if we can’t control our emotions, that we are less than human—we are behaving according to our animalistic natures. (This, too, correspond with the Confucian ethic of having one’s emotions under control.)

Need of the Divine

Hwanung doesn’t simply expect them to have this ability in and of themselves. He provides assistance in the form of herbal medicine. This may suggest that to overcome our animalistic natures and strive towards becoming fully human we need the assistance of a Wise Helper. In many myths the main character is assisted by a divine or sage archetype that presents them with wisdom and or gifts which will be invaluable for the successful completion of their journey or pursuit. In this myth, Hwanung fulfil this archetype and presents them with the gift of special herbs. Consuming of the herbs provided by the god and entering the cave may also suggest a type of religious ritual—the beginning of a rite of passage.

Heavenly Medicine

Medicinal plants are a gift from the gods; medicinal plants are sacred. This confirms part of the extended Korean creation myth that Hwanung established laws, moral codes, and taught humans about medicine and agriculture. In many ancient cultures the healers—those with knowledge of the medicinal plants—were also the shamans and priests that were connected with the Divine.

The Cave as a Trial 

The cave is symbolic of a trial, a test, a challenge. In other myths it is the dark, scary and dangerous place that the hero must enter and pass through: the valley-of-death, the dark forest, the depths of the ocean, the belly of the beast, the ‘dark night of the soul’, the abyss.

The Cave as Grave and Womb / Death and Resurrection 

The cave is both a symbol for the grave (death) and for the womb (birth). The bear, who stays in the cave for the whole duration of the test, symbolically dies in the cave. Bears hibernate in the winter—their hibernation is a type of death from which they re-emerge (symbolically re-born) in the spring. The cave acts as a womb in which the foetus develops—emerging from the cave is analogous to being born. In this myth, the bear goes into the cave, dies from being a bear—it’s wild impulsive nature dies—and is reborn into a human.

Spiritual (Re-)Awakening / Enlightenment 

Emerging from the cave suggests a type of enlightenment—literally moving from darkness into the light. She transcends from animal-being to human-being, and the first thing Ungnyeo does when she emerges from the cave is a spiritual practise: a religious offering to Hwangung.

Thankfulness

Immediately after emerging from the cave, Ungnyeo gives offers of thanks to Hwangung. This relates back to the earlier point of humility. The importance of traditional thanksgiving practises such as at Korea’s most important annual festivals, Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and Seollal (Korean New Year), are already foreshadowed in this ancient myth.

Sacred Tree

The sacred tree 신단수 where Ungnyeo cries and prays is clearly very important. It is at the tree where Hwangung finds Ungnyeo crying, and it is supposedly also at the tree where their union is consummated. Ungnyeo even names her son after the tree. The tree clearly has religious symbology. As the tree reaches towards the sky, it connects the earth with heaven; hence, it is a place (an “altar”) for connecting with the Divine. In naming Dangun after the tree, Ungnyeo clearly associates the tree somehow with the new life of her son. Therefore, we should interpret the tree as a fertility symbol—a symbol of life, possibly even eternal life because of its connection with the Divine. Even in modern Korea, one can still find sacred trees in old villages. ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners may make the link to the pine tree which served as the inspiration for the logo on the back of the ITF Taekwon-Do uniform. The pine tree was chosen as symbol for Taekwon-Do because it is an evergreen tree which ‘never changes its colours’. Unlike other trees that “die” in winter, the pine tree has a seemingly immortal quality to it. General Choi interpreted this unchanging quality as a symbol of integrity.

Social Connection

Ungnyeo is lonely. She wants a husband. She longs for connection with another. The importance of social connection established.

Divine Connection 

Hwangung takes Ungnyeo as his wife. Instead of giving her a human husband, he elevates her, by humbling himself. Here, again we see the importance of connection with the Divine. The purpose of the Divine is to elevate humanity: elevation in state (animal state to human state); elevation in station (nobody / commoner to somebody / queen). This idea of ‘elevation’ also resonates with the previous points related to (self-) improvement.

Family

The filial triad is established: parents and child. Traditionally, in Korean culture the family is of utmost importance. Often the reason for this value placed on filial piety is attributed to the influence of Confucianism on Korean society, but maybe the roots of Korean filial piety reaches as far back as the Dangun myth.

We also notice here the prototypical notion of Sam-Taegeuk; namely, the three essential elements: Heaven (represented by Hwangung), Earth (represented by the Bear), and Human (represented by Dangun).

True Human, Divine Child

Dangun represents the true human. Ungnyeo became a human, but she was not born human. On the other hand, Dangun was born human. Within Korean cosmology, Dangun represents the prototypical human, similar to Adam in the Judeo-Christian creation myth. From an archetypal perspective, Dangun is the Divine Child that will grow up to become the King archetype.

The King as Connection Between Heaven and Earth

As Dangun is the offspring of Heaven (Hwangung) and the Earth (Bear), in him Heaven and Earth is united. Since Dangun is the prototypical human, he is the example for all humans. Every person should bring in themselves a harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. To be truly human, we should represent the characteristics of the King-archetype: a wise and benevolent ruler. (The Chinese character for “king” 王 depicts a vertical line that connects three horizontal lines representing heaven, humanity, and earth.)

Conclusion

In ancient cultures, mythologies were not simply stories for entertainment, but provided important “truths,” that the ancient Greeks called mythos. In our modern times of scientific discovery and technological advancement we are quick to dismiss such stories as mere superstitious fictions. It is certainly the case that modern science can and often does provide better general explanations so that we need not hold onto unnecessary superstitious beliefs. However, some truths fall outside the scope of rational science.

I started this essay with a quote from Dangun’s moral code, that admonishes the hearer not to be like the impatient, violent tiger, but that one should instead “abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.” With a better understanding of the myth that the code alludes to, the admonition carries a richer layer of meaning. The opposite of the wild (impulsive) and violent tiger is not a weak prey, but the bear. Not any bear, but the persevering mother-bear. As mother-bear, she protects her young: those who are in danger, the weak, the miserable, the poor.

For the Taekwon-Do practitioner who practise the pattern Dan-Gun and learned the story of the tiger and the bear, there are valuable truths to be gleamed. Foremost, is the importance of the virtues of perseverance and self-control. The tiger’s inability to control his wild nature prevented him from gaining the prize of humanity. So too, the Taekwon-Do practitioner that wishes to transform into a better version of him or herself needs to have perseverance and self-control. But towards what end? Dangun’s moral code suggests it is towards the betterment of humanity: to “love all beings” and to protect those in danger and the weak. The thoughtful Taekwon-Do practitioner will be quick to see how this resonates with the Taekwon-Do Oath: not to misuse Taekwon-Do, but to be champions of freedom and justice, and to build a more peaceful world.


Dr. Sanko Lewis (5th Dan) teaches literature at a university in Seoul, South Korea. His PhD research focus was on oriental philosophy and martial arts. You can find more of his writing on his blog: http://sooshimkwan.blogspot.com 

* The quotation from Dangun’s moral code is from The Practise of Hongik Ingan: “To Live for the Benefit of All Mankind.” (2nd ed.) by Hyang-jin Jung, Ji-seon Lee, Hang-jin Chang, Yoon-sang Han, and Matthew Jackson. (2014.) 

04 October 2018

The Method of the Dao

"What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art."

Image Source

The following story from Zhuangzi (Inner Chapters: "Nourishing the Lord of Life") describes an account that all traditional martial artists who have walked the martial arts path for some time, and all students of the Dao, understand and strive for. You can see different translations of the story of "The Dexterous Butcher" here. The version below is from the Chinese Text Project

*

His cook was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wen Hui. Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, and employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin, and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of 'the Mulberry Forest' and the blended notes of the King Shou.' 
The ruler said, 'Ah! Admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!' 
Having finished his operation, the cook laid down his knife, and replied to the remark, 'What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but the (entire) carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills. Observing the natural lines, (my knife) slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membranous ligatures, and much more the great bones. A good cook changes his knife every year; (it may have been injured) in cutting - an ordinary cook changes his every month - (it may have been) broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no (appreciable) thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the interstice is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough. Nevertheless, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed anxiously and with caution, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated, and drops like (a clod of) earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand, I look all round, and in a leisurely manner, with an air of satisfaction, wipe it clean, and put it in its sheath.' 
The ruler Wen Hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'

*

This account is, of course, foremost a lesson about #efficacy, but there are much more to be learned from this Daoist anecdote that may be "nourishment" for our lives.

23 September 2018

Potch Taekwon-Do Club at National Champs

Instructor Philip de Vos, Riana Serfontein, Hilda Schutte, Edrich Louw

I'm happy to share the results of the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club's recent participation at the National Championships of the South Africa Taekwon-Do Institute (SATI), which was held at Cullinan, Gauteng, South Africa.

Three students participated in the national champs, and all of them brought home multiple medals.

Riana Serfontein earned a silver medal for patterns in the adult female intermediate division, as well as a silver medal for sparring in the adult female intermediate division. Riana also went on to tie for first place in the adult female power breaking division.

Edrich Louw earned a gold for both patterns and sparring in the adult male novice divisions.

And, Hilda Schutte got silver medals for patterns and sparring in the adult female novice divisions.

I'd like to congratulate these three Taekwon-Do practitioners on their stellar performances. The Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club has never been a big club and only a few students participate in the annual national championships, but they always do us very proud.

This year the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club is 20 years old (one of the oldest continuously running Taekwon-Do clubs in South Africa), and is still an authentically traditional ITF Taekwon-Do school with a strong technical focus, that I'm very proud of being a part of. A particular congratulations goes to Instructor Philip de Vos of the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club for the fantastic work he is doing and for the achievement of his students.



06 August 2018

An Application of Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic-Real for Martial Arts Practice

In this essay, I’d like to appropriate an idea from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to understand martial arts practice. One of Lacan’s pivotal ideas, which crystallized over many years, is that of the Imaginary-Symbolic-Real. I believe that this idea could function as a good framework to think about the martial arts, similar to previous frameworks I’ve used, such as the Musul-Muye-Mudo paradigm and the low variables to high variables (or abstract to concrete, or low-resolution to high-resolution) sparring drill paradigm. An assumption in this essay is that the ultimate goal of a martial art is preparation for surviving real violence; i.e. self-defence. There are of course many other goals that martial art systems may have, which were not taken into account in this essay. Also keep in mind that my discussion of Lacan’s ideas is cursory and is adapted to my discussion of the martial arts; for a more in-depth explanation of Lacan’s Imaginary-Symbolic-Real I recommend further reading. (This YouTube-video gives a good introduction.)

(Please note that this essay is in the process of being expanded into an academic article, and may therefore not be copied.)

Imaginary

Imaginary refers to how we imagine ourselves and others to be.

Lacan’s idea of the Imaginary is equated with the mirror stage in child development, when an infant (between about 6 months and 18 months of age) starts to recognize that it is the object it sees in the mirror. This, the psychoanalysts argued, is when the Ego is formed, and resonates with Freud’s concept of Identification. The child looks up at its parents and siblings and identify in them an ideal Ego, a kind of future Ego it hopes to become. The “mirror” can therefore be understood symbolically, so that there need not be an actual mirror; the child may see themselves “reflected” in other children or elders. In his later thought, Lacan did not restrict the mirror-stage only to the infant but extended it into adulthood.

I propose that in the martial arts, the Imaginary is the image we have about what a martial artist is—what someone who is practicing martial arts is like. Note that I’m emphasizing both the act of martial arts (object) and the person engaging in martial arts (subject).

In modern times, this image is highly influenced by popular media. The “image” of a martial artist may be based on the myths of the Zen-like samurai, the Shaolin monk-warriors, and characters in film: Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s depictions of Frank Dux and Kurt Sloane, the many characters played by Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and more recent action stars the likes of Tom Hardy and Jason Statham. Of course, the imagined martial artist need not stay within the realm of Hollywood and Chinese cinema but can also be based on combat sport athletes from WWE to UFC. Finally, for most martial arts initiates, their most immediate image of what a martial artist is, is often their personal martial art instructors (and seniors). It is not for naught that the Korean term for instructor (sabeomnim) literally translates as a teacher to be imitated (literally: “teacher-model”).

A screen-grab from the action-fantasy kungfun film
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

In all these cases, we have a type of idealization of the “martial artist.” In other words, a fantasy. Sometimes martial art instructors (“masters” and “grandmasters”) may unfortunately promote the fantasy of themselves, but often it is simply the students who idealize their instructors. This idealization results from perceiving, and correctly so, the big gap between their own skill level compared to the level of their instructors. The “gap,” which at first may seem quite insurmountable, causes the student to put the instructor on a pedestal. The imaginary ideal functions as a goal to strife for, and while it may be a fantasy, it is not wholly bad. Fantasies are inspirational, hence martial arts philosopher Allan Back, at a Taekwon-Do conference, presented a paper in favour of the myths in martial arts. The fantasy of flying martial artists fighting while airborne in Oriental myths and legends, as well as in cinema, may have been the inspiration behind the development of spectacular aerial kicks seen in Taekwon-Do demonstrations and such as competitions as the Red Bull Kick It extravaganzas.



There is, of course, the danger that the fantasy may be mistaken for reality. Many new martial artists are lured into taking up a martial art by Hollywood depictions of a lone hero single-handedly beating up a gang with hardly a bruise, or other impossible feats. Such a false sense of prowess is naively dangerous.

Real

On the other end of the spectrum is Lacan’s Real. It is a bit tricky to give a simple definition of what Lacan meant by the Real, but for our purposes I propose we understand it simply as that which objectively is, before any interpretation. In other words, reality before it is filtered by our senses and worldviews. This means that the Real is never fully knowable, because our subjective interpretation skews objective reality. Furthermore, the Real is too complex to be fully understood.

For our discussion on martial arts, we will refer here to what happens during a real combative encounter: What is a real fight like? How do trained practitioners really act during a violent encounter? How do untrained people act in these situations? How is the human nervous system affected by stress and adrenaline during a violent conflict? How are muscle control and coordination affected during a life-threatening encounter? How is competition fighting different from street fighting strategically and psychologically? How is a dual (street fight, squabble at the pub, brawl on the playground) different from a predatory criminal attack on an unsuspecting civilian?

A victim of a necklacing -- burnt alive
Image Source

Many of these questions can be—to some degree—studied and there are professionals in military, security, and defence occupations who have taken the pains to research such questions. The problem remains, however, that even when we have analyzed the data, the subjective “lived” experience is different from person to person, and from violent encounter to violent encounter. One simply can’t predict all the variables that come into play during a violent encounter. One can’t know when exactly you will be attacked, whether the floor will be hard or slippery, whether it will be dark, whether there will be weapons involved, how many attackers you will face. At best we can hope for an approximation of likely possibilities.

Symbolic


Lacan’s Symbolic refers to all the societal institutions and systems that are in place to fulfil the Imaginary and attempt to bridge the gap towards the Real. For example, in a country that sees itself as a safe democracy, such systems may include the government and judiciary that ensures regular elections. In the Natural Sciences it is the theories and hypotheses used to try and explain natural phenomena.


In the martial arts context, I propose that the Symbolic is the martial arts system. The martial arts system functions as a paradigm for understanding and preparing for the Real. The system ought to help disillusion the martial arts initiate from the Imaginary. As the practitioner is training in the martial arts system, they learn to distinguish between the Imaginary and the possible Real. They learn that the cinematic depictions of martial arts are often simply fantasy. Yet, they also realize that the amazing abilities of their instructors are not supernatural, but the result of hard, persistent, and very long training.

Conclusion


In summary, a good martial art system has several important functions.

First, it dispels the falsehoods of the Imaginary. Whenever a martial art system promotes false ideas of what a real violent encounter is like, or even impractical strategies for fighting, it is failing to dispel falsehoods in the Imaginary.

Second, however, a good martial art system engages the Imaginary in a productive way to inspire the student to grow beyond themselves (their current physical ability) towards an ideal. Mastery in the martial arts may result in a practitioner doing feats that appear fantastical; however, this the result of years of hard work and dedication. When a practitioner sees their instructors do such skills, it can inspire the practitioner to want to achieve the same level as the instructor. Therefore, the Imaginary has an important motivating function.

Third, a good martial art system provides a path for preparing for the Real. There should be a proper pedagogy (syllabus) in place that can guide the practitioner from being completely unprepared for real violence, to be reasonably prepared for the Real. Being absolutely prepared for the Real is impossible, because the Real is impossible to fully predict and comprehend. Even the most experienced combatant does not have a 100% success rate all the time. A real fight is simply too chaotic and unpredictable. Nevertheless, one can prepare to improve your chances as much as humanly possible. A good martial arts system should have a progressive syllabus that aims towards the most likely success. (Consider my essay on a pedagogy that progresses from low variables-high abstraction to high variables-low abstraction.)

Finally, because it is impossible to definitively prepare for the Real, the ultimate training goal is a type of unattainable idealism. This is where the Imaginary plays an important function. The Imaginary provides an idealistic goal—that goal for perfection of technique that is striven for in traditional martial arts. Without this strive towards an ideal, the martial artist could never aim high enough to prepare for the impossibility of the Real. Preparing for the Real is impossible and achieving the perfection projected by the Imaginary is also impossible. Yet it is the strive towards the Imaginary, the strive towards an impossible ideal, that best prepares the martial artist for the Real.

23 July 2018

"Sine Wave" Motion in Korean

Issue #113
This afternoon I read Stuart Anslow's interesting essay “Sine Wave—When a Picture Speaks a Thousand Words” in this month's Totally Tae Kwon Do Magazine (Issue #113, pp. 57-60, July 2018). Mr. Anslow provides a short history of the sine wave motion and points out that originally, what became known as the “sine wave motion” (the term was only employed since 1983, according to Mr. Anslow) consisted only of an up-and-down movement, unlike the contemporary sine wave motion that consists of a down-up-down (or relax-rise-fall, as I prefer to describe it). The common assumption is that General Choi appropriated the term “sine wave” to make it sound more scientific; this is an assumption I held too for quite some time, hence I have personally been rather uncomfortable with the term because the contemporary down-up-down manifestation mimics the shape of a cosine wave, not a sine wave that has an up-down-up shape.

Image Source

Mr. Anslow posits that the reason General Choi used the term “sine wave” was possibly because the wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do did originally start with an upward, rather than a downward, vector, so originally the term “sine wave” was appropriate. It is an interesting hypothesis, but it is problematic because the original movement in Taekwon-Do stepping was a two-phased up-down movement, but a sine wave has a three-phased up-down-up movement, so it is not an exact fit.

Image Source

I suddenly wondered if General Choi used the same term (“sine wave”) in Korean, so I looked up what term is used in my Korean version of the ITF Encyclopaedia. There are two synonyms in Korean for “sine wave”: jeonghyeon-pa 정현파 and sain-pa사인파 (the latter is simply an Anglicanism of sine-wave). Unexpectedly, neither word is used in the ITF Encyclopedia. The Korean term that is used has actually no relation to the sine or cosine functions.

The Korean version of the ITF Encyclopedia uses the term hwaldeung-pado 활등파도, which literally translates as “bow-back waveform.”

Recurve Bow
Image Source
What does this mean? Literally, “bow-back” refers to one side of a bow (archery weapon). The English collocation is “back-of-the-bow,” and refers to the outside of the bow, which is the side facing away from the bowstring. Whereas, the side that faces the bowstring is called the “belly-of-the-bow.” When the bow is stringed, the wooden bow is arched into an obvious curve that we recognize as the typical bow shape.

A photo of a page from the ITF Encyclo-
paedia, depicting the so-called sine wave,
versus the incorrect horizontal wave and
saw-tooth wave. 
In other words, the original Korean term simply refers to the curvature of the wave form, which should resemble a smooth bow-like shape; this shape is contrasted in the Encyclopaedia with the “saw-tooth wave” (abrupt up-and-down movements rather than naturally curved movements) and the “horizontal wave” (keeping the height the same throughout the movement) which are incorrect ways of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Upon further investigation I was surprised to further note that the the transliteration of the Korean term in the 1999 version of the English Encyclopedia is not hwaldeung-pado 활등파도. Instead, it is yulson. Because the English version of the Encyclopedia doesn’t use hangeul (the Korean alphabet), but only transliterations of the Korean words, it required some effort to try and figure out what the word means. Based on how the term is used in the context of the page, it was easy enough to deduce that the suffix “-son,” in this term means line 선. But “yul” was less clear as it could either be 율 (“yool”) or 열 (“yeol”). A possibility for the former is the meaning “rate” or “frequency,” based on the hanja 率. For instance, one's pulse is biyul 비율 (literally: blood-rate). Thus, “yulson” 율선 can translate as “frequency line”, i.e. a line with a frequency, such as a rate chart. This is, of course, reminiscent of a (co-)sine wave. Alternatively, if we take “yul” to be 열, based on the hanja 熱, then it means heat; which would mean that “yulson” 열선, when literally translated, means “heat line.” Based on such a literal reading, “yulson” refers to heating coils or wires; hence if one were to do an online image search for 열선 one would find pictures of wires or copper piping used for heating (often in a wave or coiled shape).

"yulson" 열선, i.e. heat-line
Image Source

A connotative reading of 열선 suggests radiation waves as the following cartoon illustrate.

"Heat rays"
Image Source

Consequently, based on the Korean terms, the intention was not to invoke scientific notions of “sine” or “cosine” waves in particular. The picture in the Encyclopedia doesn’t provide us with a single truncated sine wave (or cosine wave), but instead shows a continuous wave.

Hwaldeung-pado - Image from the ITF Encyclopaedia

A traditional recurve bow
with several curves.
Image Source
The argument whether the movement looks more like a sine wave or a co-sine wave misses the point. General Choi was using a metaphoric descriptor to depict the smooth curvature of the stepping motion, in contrast to a stepping motion that has no vertical movement on the one hand, or a rugged (“saw-tooth”) movement on the other hand. The metaphor of a wave motion that resembles the shape of a bow doesn’t tell us if the curve starts with an upward vector or a downward vector first. While the Korean Encyclopaedia uses the term “bow-back waveform,” it also includes the English translation as (싸인 웨이브, which is the transliteration of the English term “sine wave”). It is not clear why General Choi chose the metaphor of a bow in Korean, but a sine wave in English. It might have been that he thought few Western people are familiar enough with bows-and-arrows; or, maybe he actually did choose to use the scientific reference of a sine wave to add some scientific notion to the technique. Assuming that General Choi had a straight bow in mind (rather than a re-curved bow), the visual image could imply only an up-and-down—as suggested by Mr. Anslow—but that depends on how we imagine the orientation of the bow. To complicate the matter more, historically, Koreans had a long tradition of using re-curved bows, and if one were to use that image, then several little curves would be part of the image. I think such a pedantic reading of the metaphor misses the forest for the trees. The metaphor was clearly intended to suggest a smooth wave motion, and not whether the movement starts with an upward motion or downward motion.

A question still remains: why the change from the original up-down to the current down-up-down motion for most standard movements in ITF Taekwon-Do? The common assumption that the term “sine wave” (or “co-sinewave”) explains the three parts is not supported by the Korean terminology used by General Choi. The Korean terms, whether understood literally or metaphorically, do not suggest any number or phases in the motion.

There are some possibilities:

Several people believe it was a political move by General Choi to discredit masters that were not loyal to him and had left the ITF. By introducing this change the General could claim that they are not teaching the founder’s “authentic” Taekwon-Do. Proponents of this view include Mr. Anslow and Mr. Alex Gillis, the author of the historical exposé, “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do.”

Another possibility proposed by myself and Dr. He-Young Kimm is that Gen. Choi introduced a three-beat rhythm as part of his continuous effort to make Taekwon-Do a truly Korean art. Moving according to a three-beat rhythm can be seen in Taekkyeon (a Korean folk martial art) as well as traditional Korean dance; in other words, a three-beat rhythm is part of Korean body-culture. The change to a three-beat rhythm is a departure from the Japanese two-beat rhythm found in Karate. The three-beat rhythm in ITF Taekwon-Do is usually achieved by an initial conscious relaxation, followed by an up-down (or rise-fall) movement when executing many techniques. This initial relaxation was, as far as I am concerned, an ingenious contribution to ITF Taekwon-Do’s makeup. It has completely changed the way Taekwon-Do is performed—moving it away from Taekwon-Do’s Karate roots towards a more naturalistic Korean and Taoistic Chinese way of moving—i.e. flowing with the waves.

Of course, my and Dr. Kimm’s cultural hypothesis doesn’t exclude Mr. Anslow and Mr. Gillis’ political hypothesis.

In summary, General Choi used different terms in Korean and English to denote the vertical oscillation of the ITF Taekwon-Do practitioner when executing stepping. Since the terms are different in English and Korean, one has to read them as metaphoric images.The English metaphor of a sine wave and the Korean metaphor of a bow-shaped waveform both suggest a natural (rather than a rigid) wave-like movement. One cannot deduce from these metaphors the initial movement (whether one should start with an upward or downward movement) or the number of phases (for instance, up-down, or down-up-down). The reason for the change from the earlier up-down, to the current down-up-down movement may have a cultural or a political origin; it might also be a combination of the two.


19 July 2018

There Is No Such Thing as Taekwon-Do Philosophy—Or Is There?

In Taekwon-Do, we often talk about the “Do” of Taekwon-Do, calling it the philosophy of Taekwon-Do; but what do we mean by this? How can we sensibly talk about philosophy in martial arts? Can we really speak about philosophy of Taekwon-Do? If so, can’t we also speak of the philosophy of boxing? Or for that matter, the philosophy of soccer or of golf or of figure skating?

Some might argue that these are sports and not particularly “cultural”—they aren’t vehicles of a cultural heritage as are the traditional martial arts, but just because a physical activity is infused with cultural vestiges, it doesn’t mean that there is anything particularly philosophical about them. Cricket, the sport enjoyed mostly among the countries of the British Common Wealth is part of a specific cultural tradition, but we don’t try to find a “philosophy of cricket.”

Others might say that the martial arts are philosophical because of certain values such as courage, respect, courtesy, integrity, patience, discipline and so on that are promoted in the martial arts. However, one need not do martial arts to attain these virtues. In many modern sports such virtues are also promoted under different guises, such as sportsmanship, or developed through diligent, disciplined training. Take body-building as an example: body-building requires serious diligence and self-discipline, yet I’ve never heard any discussions about the “philosophy of body-building.” Also, these values such as courtesy, discipline, courage, and so on can be found in immoral contexts too. Even among gangsters there may exist a certain moral code that includes courage, mutual respect, and courtesy (in the form of expected behaviours within the group).

Neither can the philosophy of martial art simply be the theoretic study of its techniques and strategies. Such a theoretical study can be found in boxing, rugby and basketball too—in any game for that matter. Techniques and strategies does not make a philosophy.

Is what makes martial arts different from such sports as boxing the fact that the martial arts have a military, combative tradition? This cannot be the reason either: a military origin does not necessitate a philosophical development. Many combat practises that were used in militia do not claim to teach “philosophy.” For instance, the spear as stabbing and projectile weapon (in both the west and the east) was practised in the military but didn’t develop into a “philosophy.” And while the sword was used in the West on the battlefield, and thoroughly studied as a systematized combative system (fencing), it didn’t become a philosophy in the West. On the other hand, in the East in the form of Kendo (“The Way of the Sword”), it does claim to be a philosophical pursuit. It doesn’t follow that just because it was used on the battlefield that it is also a philosophical study. Throughout history there have been many forms of combat practised in military settings, but few of them claim to teach philosophy. Consider for instance the modern-day practise of Krav Maga—a thoroughly “martial” combat system.

What many describe as the philosophy of the martial arts, namely the cultural aspects embedded in the martial art, or the values gained by martial art practise, or the study of the martial arts’ techniques and strategies, or a link with a military tradition, are not actual philosophy in the proper use of the word “philosophy.”

True philosophy refers to six broad categories of knowledge:

  1. Metaphysics (The Study of Existence: what exists and what is its nature), including Cosmology (The Study of the Origin and Existence of Things), Ontology (The Study of Being); Religious Philosophy (Theology: The Study of Supreme Beings or Ultimate Causes; and Teleology: The Study of Purpose and Meaning),
  2. Epistemology (The Study of Knowledge: what is truth and how can we know it),
  3. Value Theory, which includes Ethics (The Study of Action: what is moral), Jurisprudence (The Study of Law: what is legal), Politics (The Study of Force: what is permissible), and Aesthetics (The Study of Art: what is beautiful and valuable),
  4. Logic (The Study of Reason: what is logical and reasonable), 
  5. Phenomenology (The Study of Conscious Experience: how do we experience and interpret our internal and external worlds), and 
  6. Anthropology (The Study of Humans: what is society).

It is therefore not strange that one should not hear about the “philosophy of boxing” or the “philosophy of basketball,” as these activities are not trying to answer questions regarding metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics, logic, or anthropology. (Although an anthropologist would probably have much to say about man’s proclivity towards competition and beating each other up.) The ultimate goal of boxing or soccer or cricket is not to answer some philosophical question; it is not to find the answer to ultimate truth (epistemology), or to explain the nature of our souls and what happens to us after we die (metaphysics), or to consider what is right from wrong (ethics), nor is it to contemplate art (aesthetics).

The question we should ask then, if we are talking about martial art philosophy, is whether or not the martial arts really try to give philosophical explanations. And in the cases where the martial arts do give such answers, are they truly derived from the study of the martial art in and of themselves—or are they derived from another, actual philosophical framework. For instance, in the case of East Asian martial arts that generally claim to be “philosophical,” these philosophical answers are usually answered not as something extrapolated from the martial art itself, but rather as regurgitations from the world-views that the martial art is situated in; for example, a Taoist cosmology, a Confucianist morality, or a Buddhist ontology. Frankly, if one were to search for philosophical answers it would be far better to just go and search for those answers within the philosophical systems of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, or another religious or philosophical system, rather than doing it in this roundabout, second-hand way of studying martial arts.

Now, it doesn’t mean that one cannot attain philosophical insight through the martial arts. Take for instance the philosophical tradition of Taoism which forms the bedrock for many martial arts—philosophical Taoism focusses on finding harmony and staying within the “Way.” Martial arts can become an object lesson for understanding “harmony” and the “Way.” Philosophical Taoism is difficult to articulate verbally and is often better understood in action (or “non-action,” as the case may be). Similarly, the combination of Taoism and Buddhism known as Zen is also a philosophical tradition which is better experienced than explained. Zen is learned via a physical discipline such as sitting-meditation, the repetition of a tea ceremony, spontaneous flower arrangement, and also martial art practise. Enlightenment in the Zen tradition is achieved, suddenly, in the act of doing something, not in theoretical contemplations. Even the ethics found in Confucianism is often acquired in the act of ritual and interaction with one’s seniors, peers, and juniors—as is the case in a martial arts school.

While it is possible to gain philosophical insight through the martial arts, the question remains whether the martial arts are truly philosophical systems in and of themselves? Can we truly talk about the philosophy of Taekwon-Do? Shouldn’t we rather talk about the (East Asian) philosophy as incorporated into Taekwon-Do instead or revealed through Taekwon-Do? Even in the ITF Taekwon-Do Enclycopaedia, the author reveals that what he means, when he talks about “Taekwon-Do Philosophy,” is the “ethical, moral, and spiritual standards” derived from the ideals and examples of historical Korean figures (ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1, p 89). We ought probably be more careful about talking about the “Do” in Taekwon-Do as if it is a fully formed philosophy. The ITF Encyclopaedia does list certain normative ethics (virtues to strive for), but these are not inherent to the martial art, but derived from Oriental Philosophy (Ibid., p. 45).

With this post I hoped to emphasize the fact that what people usually refer to when they talk about Taekwon-Do philosophy is not really philosophy in the proper—academic—sense of the word. That doesn’t mean that one cannot bridge philosophy and martial arts. I think it is possible to have actual philosophical discussions about the pursuit and practise of martial arts. I just don’t think what most people (and even instructors and masters) offer as “martial arts philosophy” is actual philosophy, but rather esoteric clichés and stale motivational truisms wrapped in ancient Oriental exoticism.

In future posts I hope to talk more about possible intersections of martial arts and philosophy, and of course in particular “Taekwon-Do philosophy”, or put more appropriately, philosophy as it relates to the Taekwon-Do (or martial arts) context.

11 June 2018

Sine Wave Motion Q&A

About a year ago, someone on a Facebook-group posted a few questions about the sine wave motion. I stumbled on my reply to these questions and thought that they might be interesting to some readers of my blog. 

Does sine wave and knee spring action describe the same motion? 

Many Korean activities refer to the bending and extending of the knees. Different activities use different terms. For instance the term used in traditional dance might be different from the term used in Taekkyeon, but in practice it is basically the same principle. One such a term is ogeum-jil 오금 질. Ogeum literally refers to the back of the knee and jil means an action; in other words, the bending action of the knee joint. Although I haven’t confirmed this, it is likely that the term “knee spring” which was one of the early terms associated with ITF Taekwon-Do’s sine wave motion may have been a rough translation of ogeum-jil. Another term used in more everyday situations to describe the up-and-down motion accomplished by the bending of the knee gumshil 굼실. This term can for instance be used to describe the oscillating, wave-like locomotion of a worm, and is a term I’ve come across in Taekkyeon to describe their bouncy stepping. Finally, to answer the question, it is my opinion that knee-spring and sine-wave motion is the same thing in as far the sine-wave motion is most often accomplished through knee-spring.

When performing a sine wave, is the movement always “down, up/down”? 

My simple answer is no. Although the most common expression of the sine wave motion is “relax-rise-fall”, this is not the only way it manifests. Take for instance the palm upward block in Gae-Baek Teul where the motion is relax-rise. I personally also do my forearm rising blocks as relax-rise. There are also instances where you may already be in a “raised” position and only dropping is necessary, or you are already in a lowered position and you may only want to rise (imagine doing an upward punch, moving from an L-stance to a vertical stance).

It is useful to think of sine wave motion as the vertical displacement of the body mass. In traditional Korean dance, this is referred to as “verticality”. Sometimes you want do drop your body mass, other times you may want to lift your body mass. It all depends on the technique and purpose.

Is a sine wave performed for every technique execution? 

If you think of the sinewave motion as “relax-rise-fall”, then the answer is no. There are however two principles of what the sinewave motion tries to accomplish in practically every technique; (1) starting from relaxation and (2) accelerating the body mass in the direction of the technique.

An interesting related question is if hip twist is performed in every technique. To this I would answer no, as well. There are for example techniques such as a wedging block or twin punch that does not contain a hip-twist as you can’t rotate your hips in opposite directions at the same time.

Many techniques benefit from both a sine wave motion and a hip-twist, while some techniques can only benefit from one or the other.

What movement causes the initial downward motion? 

Relaxation.

Does a sine wave motion include a knee spring action? 

Yes. See, the answer to the first question.

When did Taekwon-Do introduce the “down, up/down” motion? 

When I look at old footage, I recognize the seeds for “verticality” already from the late 1950s. It seems that it only became formalized in the 1980s, when the initial relaxation became emphasized. This conscious relaxation is, in my mind, the most dramatic evolution to Taekwon-Do movement.

Is hip twist used to help power a technique? 

Yes. Acceleration of the body mass in the direction of the technique is accomplished in two ways: hip twist and rising or dropping the body in the direction of the technique.

To initiate a step, does the student push off with the foot in motion, relax the stationary knee or both? 

It depends on the technique, the initial stance and the next stance. (See a related post: "Motion Without Movement."

Does the 2017 North Korean Demo Team in Muju perform sine wave during Chon-Ji? If so, during which movements? 

Yes. All of them.

29 May 2018

A Personal Anecdote about Siblings Sparring

This post will be somewhat autobiographical and is inspired by a recent discussion on Facebook about siblings sparring against each other at competitions.

Me on the left at about 17 years old, and my brother on the right
at around 24 years old. In the middle, Abrie, one of our friends at the time.

My brother and I started Taekwon-Do together, hence we were at the same rank for most of our early martial arts careers. (He stopped at 3rd degree, but I'm still going.) Although he was older and heavier than me, we still ended up having to compete against each other on several occasions. As colour belts, I personally found it very hard to compete against him in sparring and only won against him one time -- and according to him it is because he let me win. His perspective may very well be true, as the idea of purposefully hurting a member of my family is something that I never could feel comfortable with (and still don't). I'm older and much more experienced now, and have the control and skill to spar against someone without ill-intend. This is something I didn't have when I started TKD.

My parents were not very involved in our Taekwon-Do careers, so in our case, the decision was left to us. Thinking back, I found it traumatic to spar (it felt like fighting, not sparring) against my brother and I think that for me personally it would have been better not to have compete against him in sparring. I didn't have the maturity to be able to differentiate between fighting and friendly competition. My brother on the other hand was far less sensitive than I was as a child, and I don't think it affected him much at all.

It is very likely that my inability to differentiate between friendly sparring and a fight had to do with the history of my brother and I, rather than only my immaturity at the time. My brother is much older than me (7 years) and when we were younger--that is, before we started TKD--he used to bully me. Hence, for me personally it was difficult to differentiate between friendly sparring and fighting when it came to the two of us. I don't think I usually had the same trouble of differentiation when I sparred against other people.

There was only one time that I can remember, around the same time as the picture above was taken, that the sparring turned into a fight. During the competition, right as we started the round, my opponent cursed me because I had beat his friend in a previous bout. I lost my temper and went quite hard; I broke his jaw and he had to be rushed to hospital with a bad concussion. Not one of my proudest moments. Again, this is an example of how, as a teenager, what was simply a sparring match became a "fight" when the other kid made it "personal". Thankfully, I'm not generally a violent person by nature and have seldom had such experiences of losing my temper again. With time and maturity comes calmness.

With this in mind, would it have been better if I did not partake in sparring until I learned to differentiate between sparring and fighting?

Apart from the martial arts which I started as a teenager, I never did other contact sports as a child, nor had I other rough-and-tumble opportunities with my father or older males. I think a child learns to differentiate between "play fighting" and "real fighting" in these contexts and because I missed out on such opportunities I learn those lessons much later in the dojang.

So, no I don't think it would have been better were I not to have been exposed to sparring. I think it served an important function to teach me social concepts like physical contact, hard play, and healthy competition over "fighting". While I do think sparring was good for me, I also think sparring my brother was not good for me (or us).

So, should siblings (children) spar each other at tournaments?

It may be better to speak with the children individually and privately to assess how they feel about it. If they don't have problems with competing against each other, it shouldn't be an issue. However, if it makes one of them feel uncomfortable, I'd suggest that other ways be found, for instance letting them compete in patterns, or in other divisions. Also, if one child already feels inferior to his or her sibling, having the kid lose yet again against the better (often older) sibling is not necessarily a good idea. In fact, parents often think it is good to have their kids participate in the same activities, but that is not always wise. Some children need to find their own unique activities to excel in and not always be in competition for the same thing with their sibling(s). A wise parent knows that their children are different and requires particular parenting.

Literally decades later, and I am still of the opinion that the competition between my brother and I was not a good thing. I believe it affected our relationship negatively in more ways than one.

At the same time, I'm very thankful that my brother and I took up Taekwon-Do together. We are very different people with regards to our characters, worldviews, political opinions, and most other aspects of our personality. The martial arts, however, was something we had in common -- a love we shared.

I'm certain that had we not started it together, I would have been unlikely that I would have enrolled by myself. I was an introvert. Thankfully, my extroverted brother's enthusiasm had me excited enough to try it too. As a colour belt, there were many an evening that I didn't feel like going to training, but my brother encouraged me and set an example for me. I am appreciative of that. Now, about 25 years later, my brother has long since stopped formal martial arts practise, but I'm still hooked. I sometimes wonder how it would be not to do martial arts, but the very idea seems too strange to imagine. Martial arts have become so much a part of me, there is literally not a day that goes by without me thinking about some aspect of it.

13 May 2018

Flexibility and Current Science


A recent academic publication (April 2018) (see the abstract here) provides a meta-analysis of the current literature (23 articles) regarding types of stretching and their effectiveness. The conclusion is that static stretching provides the greatest increase in flexibility (range of motion) compared to other types of stretching. Stretching should be done at least five times per week. (The full article suggests that there is no benefit to stretch every day of the week. Five days per week is enough; six days per week is okay, but seven days per week has no additional benefit. I'm guessing a day or two of rest per week may actually be beneficial, although it is not mentioned.) The stretching duration should be at least five minutes; however, there is no benefit for stretching more than ten minutes. So in short, for the greatest increase in flexibility, use:

  • static stretching 
  • five days per week 
  • for around 8 minutes per muscle group. 
To get the most out of your time, try to do stretches that include several muscles at once. For instance, the regular front split stretches the psoas and quads in the rear leg and the hamstring of the front leg -- and if you flex the front foot and toes back, the calf muscles are stretched too. In this way you can stretch at least four muscles groups by doing just one regular stretch.

By focussing on more than one muscle group, it will still require at least 30 minutes of almost daily devotion to get general, overall flexibility of the lower-body. Therefore, I recommend Netflix-stretching. 😅 I also recommend using PNF-stretching initially to quickly get into a deep stretch, and then staying in the deep stretch for the suggested eight minutes.

Finally, remember, that if you feel any severe pain, sharp or stinging pain or extreme burning sensations, stop the stretch immediately. Also, refrain from hard stretching while injured.

In the video below you can listen to a discussion about stretching in general and also hear about the article mentioned above:



10 April 2018

The Twisting Kick

The twisting kick 비틀어차기 as it is called in ITF Taekwon-Do is, I believe, an iconic kick of Korean martial arts. It is a prominent kick in ITF Taekwon-Do, practised in Kukki Taekwondo (although much less so in WT Taekwondo*), it is a staple kick in Taekkyeon, and can also be found in Tang Soo Do curricula, with variations of it present in Hapkido as well. It is a kick seldom observed in Japanese and Chinese martial arts, although variations of it is sure to be present in some non-Korean martial arts. I have found it an effective technique to use on non-Korean stylists whom are unfamiliar with this deceptive kick.

Twisting Kick at Middle Height
Photo taken by VS Force ©

The term "twisting" is a translation of the Korean biteul-eo 비틀어, based on the verb biteul-da 비틀다, which means to twist or wring something, for instance wringing water out of a wet towel. In the case of the twisting kick, it denotes the outward corkscrew motion of the kick, and also the twisting motion that occurs throughout the body when kicking; often the torso and arms are twisted in the opposite direction of the turning of the hips and vector of the kick. Not only is the kick surprisingly deceptive because of its uncommon out-curved line trajectory, but with correct training it can also be quite powerful because of the way it accelerates. To get power in the kick, one has to strongly rotate the hip outwards, swinging the knee in an arc towards the target, and finally flicking the lower leg out, all in a smooth whip-like snap. The twisting kick is almost always performed with the ball of the foot in ITF Taekwon-Do, as I demonstrate in the photo above.

The video below is a tutorial for how the kick is usually performed in ITF Taekwon-Do.


You can see a WT / Kukki Taekwondo tutorial of their version of the twisting kick here.

For beginners, I teach the twisting kick in steps: First, lift the knee up as if you are going to do a front kick. Next, drop the knee side-ways, so that your lower leg aims towards the horizontal. Finally, flick the lower leg out, into a snap kick. Now attempt to do these steps fluidly, rather than separately. To do the kick at middle and high heights, the knee should be brought diagonally across (rather than straight up), then the hips should be swung outward so that the kick comes out in a nice C-shape arc toward the target.

High Twisting Kick
Image from ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4
In ITF Taekwon-Do one is usually admonished to keep the standing foot flat at the moment of impact because it ensures a more stable base. However, there are certain kicks, such as this one and the spinning reverse turning kick, where the forces involved in the kick put a lot of strain on the knee-joint of the standing leg. Therefore, especially when the target is at a weird angle, I'm a little lax with the flat-foot rule. I let the tensions in my joints and body indicate if it is "safe" to put my heal flat or not. Generally, when I perform this kick at middle or high sections, I do not have my standing foot flat, but rotate on the ball of the foot. Pictures in the ITF Encyclopaedia also show the heel of the standing foot lifted off the floor at the moment of impact.


At lower heights, the twisting kick is quite effective when targeting the lower shin, side of the knee, the inner thigh, and the groin of an opponent positioned in front of you. The side of the knee can be kicked either on the inside or outside and will cause the opponent's leg to buckle. Be careful, as the knee and supporting tendons can be seriously harmed by such an attack, especially when the leg which is being attacked is bearing much weight.

As a middle section kick, it is ideally used when an opponent stands to the side-front of you. Common targets include the floating ribs, bladder, solar plexus (diaphragm), and kidneys. In ITF Taekwon-Do the ball of the foot is the primary attacking tool. When wearing shoes, the toes (tip of the shoe) is an effective weapon. For a middle twisting kick the instep is not an effective attacking tool and not prescribed in ITF Taekwon-Do. However, an often under utilized option is the knee. The twisting knee kick works very well at a middle height for someone standing close to you and towards your oblique.


High Twisting Kick
Photo taken by VS Force ©


High Twisting Kick
Image from ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4
As a high kick, a flexible practitioner may effectively employ this kick against an opponent standing right next to them, kicking their face. The knock-out point on the side of the chin (acupressure point ST-5, known in Korean as daeyeong 대영) is a good target. In the Korean martial art Taekkyeon the high twisting kick is often used for an opponent in front of you. Using the instep as the attacking tool, the kick targets vital spots on the side of the head, such as the chin, the angle of mandible, or temple.

In Taekkyeon, the twisting kick is known as naechagi 내차기, and is usually used to attack either the lower limb or the head. The low kick targets the ankle or lower shin, inner thigh or inside of the knee; while the high kick is aimed at the head. An attack to the head is called a high (nopeun 노픈) naechagi or a gyeotchigi 곁치기. The video below shows a gyeotchigi.


In Hapkido the slap kick (bitgyeo chagi 빗겨 차기) is reminiscent of a twisting kick. The verb bitgyeo-da suggest a skidding quality. Hapkido's slap kick is similar to an ITF vertical kick, but it hits the target in a diagonal skidding motion, unlike the ITF vertical kick that slaps the target with more of penetrative force, rather than skidding. Hapkido's bitgyeo chagi also uses the instep as the attacking tool, like Taekkyeon's gyeotchigi; whereas ITF's vertical kick employs the footsword.  There is another kick in Hapkido that has a very slight twisting quality to it, namely the center-toe kick, also known as front toe kick or spear foot kick. The Korean jokki jireugi 족기 지르기 translates as toe-stabbing kick. The kick is performed like a front kick with the toes pointed (spear foot), however the extended leg twists outward in the hip-socket at the moment of impact. The most common target is the side of the groin or other sensitive areas and pressure points. I'm not sure if Hapkido's front toe kick really qualifies as a "twisting" kick as the general vector of the kick is not performed in a C-shape arc.

As for the twisting kick in non-Korean martial arts, I have not yet been convinced that it is the same kick. I've been pointed to the uchi mawashi geri and gyaku mawashi geri in the Karate styles. I've looked at several examples of these kicks on YouTube and what I've seen are simply not twisting kicks as I understand it; instead, they are what we in ITF Taekwon-Do may call hooking kick and outward vertical kick, or fan kick (buchae chagi 부채 차기). After more personal research I found a kick in Kyokushin Karate called uchi heisoku geri, which I think may very well be considered a twisting kick. I wonder if the fact that the founder of Kyokushin Karate was a Korean, may be the reason this kick is part of their curriculum. I've been told that there is an equivalent kick in some Chinese martial arts as well as in the Brazilian martial art Capoeira; however, I have not been pointed to specific examples to be able to confirm this.

The twisting kick is one of my favourite kicks. It is a relative short range kick, and is therefore useful in the punching range and because of its unconventional vector, it is quite difficult to notice and defend against. Before practising the twisting kick, I strongly recommend warming up your knees and stretching your groin and hip flexor muscles. Another tip for the kick is to keep your leg relaxed and perform the kick in a whip-like action as this will increase the speed and power of the kick.

...ooOoo...

* While the twisting kick is part of traditional Taekwon-Do curricula, and can therefore be found in some Kukki Taekwondo schools, I think it is seldom practiced in WT Taekwondo schools. It has been my experience that most WT Taekwondo practitioners I have spoken to, don't practice it, and surprisingly, many people don't know about it. I think the reason for this is that the twisting kick was not powerful enough to score a point in full-contact WT Taekwondo competitions, in part because it is often taught with the instep rather than the ball of the foot, in Kukki/WT schools. However, with the new WT rules that allow for points scored to the head with light contact kicks, it is foreseeable that the twisting kick may make a comeback.

14 March 2018

South Africa Trip 2018

My annual trip to South Africa in January and February this year was quite a blessed one. Apart from spending some quality time with family and friends, I also had the opportunity to visit several martial art schools and friends.

In Cape Town, I visited the Instructor Jaren Philips' ITF Taekwon-Do school in Green Point, where I shared some thoughts on Korean body culture and the overlap between Taekkyeon and ITF Taekwon-Do.

With black belts at the Green Point Dojang.
In Kwa-Zulu Natal I visited my friends at the Pinetown Stingers Dojang where we practiced some of break-falling and joint-manipulation techniques.

With some members of the Pinetown Stingers Club. 

In Centurion I presented an ITF principles seminar with participants attending from the greater Pretoria region, Potchefstroom, and the Vaal Triangle. The workshop centered on re-thinking how we apply fundamental motions in a practical manner that makes full use of different possibilities presented to us within the context of the Theory of Power.

WIth some participants at the workshop in Centurion.
I was delighted to be able to visit the Potcheftroom Taekwon-Do school this year. I started this dojang exactly 20 years ago and couldn't have imagined that it would continue to exist for such a long time. The school have always been relatively small, but the quality is consistent and under instructor Philip's care, I am happy say that the Potchefstroom Dojang is doing very well.

With some students at the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club.

Apart from my Taekwon-Do adventures, I also gave an introductory Hapkido seminar in Cape Town. There are hopes that from a small Hapkido training group a Hapkido school will open in the Mother City.

With Anthony Lapperts
I also introduced, for the first time in South Africa, hopaesul -- the study of a Korean weapon known as hopae. The introduction was presented to some higher level black belts as an addendum to the Centurion workshop.

With the Korean weapon, hopae