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.