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.

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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.

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

"Heat rays"
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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.
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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.


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