18 June 2019

The Fingertip Hand Technique

Walking stance straight fingertip thrust (걷는서 선손끝 뚤기)


The photo above shows a straight fingertip thrust in walking stance 걷는서 선손끝 뚤기 (geodneunseo seon-son-ggeut ddulgi). The finger tip 손끝 (son-ggeut) hand position in ITF Taekwon-Do requires the tips of the forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger to be aligned. Notice how my three fingers are aligned in the photo. Because the length of fingers differ greatly from person to person, the degree to which one has to bend particular fingers to align with the shortest of the three fingers will be very specific to each individual. Of course, for most people the middle finger is the longest, hence it will be bent the most. The tips of the three fingers should be aligned at the front, but also pressed tightly against each other; in other words, the index finger and ring finger should put pressure against the middle finger. It is important to ensure that all three fingertips point forward. The middle finger which will be bent the most might have a tendency to point down, which is wrong, as shown in the photo below.



This photo shows an incorrect alignment of the fingertips.
In this photo, the tip of the middle finger is point downwards
instead of forwards like the index finger and ring finger.
For a proper technique, all the fingertips should point forward.
You can practice the correct positioning by tapping the three fingers together on a hard surface. This technique is designed to work with short clipped nails. (There are techniques such as the "cross-cut" aimed at the eyes that may benefit from longer nails, but the fingertip thrust works best with short nails.)

For a fingertip thrust, the hand can be turned vertical or with the palm either facing up or down, depending on the target aimed for. The vertical hand orientation is known as the spear hand or straight fingertip 선손끝 (seon-son-ggeut) as seen in the photo, the palm facing down orientation is known as the flat fingertip 어픈손끝 (eopeun-son-ggeut), and the palm facing up orientation is known as the upset fingertip 뒤집은손끝 (dwijib-eun-son-ggeut). There is also a variation where the fingers are at a right angle to the palm, which is known as the angled fingertip 호미손끝 (homi-son-ggeut).

Although a conditioned technique can be tough enough to pierce wooden boards, the technique is ideal for attacking nerve plexuses, such as the solar plexus (diaphragm), the philtrum, the bronchial plexus under the arm or the side of the neck, the nerves between the ribs, the pelvic region, and so on. Other soft targets such as the eyes and throat (windpipe) can also suffer damage from a finger tip thrust.

Fingertip attacks are classified as thrusting techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do. Thrusting techniques #뚤기 usually refer to techniques aimed at nerves and soft targets. Thrusts usually hit these vital spots straight on. Punches #찌르기 also usually attack linearly, but are generally aimed at harder targets; for instance, the sternum and ribs, or jaw (chin and angle of mandible) and skull (temple). A "thrust" should not be confused with a "strike" #대리기, which tends to reach its target with a curved or whipping trajectory.


The straight fingertip thrust as shown in the photos have the opposite palm below the elbow of the straightened arm. The palm-below-the elbow execution of the straight fingertip thrust is the formal way it is performed. This is not meant as a support for the arm. Rather, the palm is employed as a preliminary block. The palm is used to check the opponent's attack, to block down the opponent's attack, or push away the opponent's guard, in order to clear the path for the fingertip thrust. The block is formally taught as a palm downward block 손바닥 내려막기 (sonbadak nae-ryeo makgi) and as such the vector of the technique is downward. However, more advanced and realistic execution is as a type of parry, hence the block doesn't have to pedantically press down per se, but could instead just slap the opponent's attack aside (away from your center line), usually diagonally down rather than exactly downward. This deflection is very much akin to pak sao blocks in Wing Chun. As a strategy, this combination of clearing the obstacles followed by an instantaneous attack is very practical and can be done with other attacking tools. For instance, a palm downward block with simultaneous vertical punch, regular fore fist punch, or middle knuckle punch are obvious variation.


In the ITF Taekwon-Do curriculum, the straight fingertip thrust (with it's near instantaneous preliminary palm downward block) is taught around 8th geup as part of the fundamental movements in the pattern Do-San Teul (movement #6). Such a rapid combination of techniques is also found in another cluster in Do-San Teul, namely the fast motion double punch (movements #15 & #16 and #19 & #20).


Read more: Blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do

06 June 2019

The Unfortunate Cost of Evolving from Martial Art to Combat Sport

I've written long ago why I'm not fond of tournament sparring (1, 2). In short, if self-defence training is the goal, a focus on tournament sparring can hamper that goal because tournament sparring tends to narrow the scope of the training to the sporting arena context, which is far too artificial to reflect the reality of a self-defence encounter. Traditional martial arts, and in particular civilian defensive arts, envision quite a different context to prepare for than that of a competition ring.

However, in this post I want to speak about other "costs" that comes at the expense of a sport focus.

Here I want to focus on the WT style of Taekwon-Do as an Olympic sport. There are some attempts to get ITF Taekwon-Do to also join with WT to become one event alongside WT under the "Taekwondo" umbrella. There is a believe that such a move will secure the ITF Taekwon-Do's longevity, enhance its prestige, and strengthen Taekwon-Do's position at the Olympic Games.

Image Source: https://www.olympic.org/taekwondo


I am somewhat skeptical. I believe an evolution from martial art to combat sport comes at an unfortunate cost.

First, when a martial art changes into a sport there is a dilution of the rich historical arsenal of the original system. When Judo was developed as a streamlined version of Jujutsu, many of the original techniques were purged. Similarly, when the focus in Taekwondo becomes sport competition, a big percentage of techniques are inevitably neglected. Taekwondo enthusiasts are all aware how Olympic Taekwondo has reduced the martial art—that is by its very name supposed to be a foot-and-hand system—into primarily a kicking system. Sadly, an emphasis on kicking in sport Taekwondo has not enriched Taekwondo’s kicking arsenal with more kicks, but rather reduced the arsenal to only a handful of techniques that works well in the limited context of the sports ring.

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Roman_wrestling
Second, not only are there technical losses when a martial art becomes a sport, but there is also an intangible loss in the form of a reduced cultural and philosophical heritage. Of the surviving historic European martial arts (HEMA) that became modern sports such as western boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and fencing, very little of the original cultural and philosophical heritage are practised and celebrated by the athletes training and competing in these sports. Even Judo, which was intended by its founder to be a pedagogic tool to teach certain philosophical values, is in current times usually practised simply as a sport with hardly any philosophical teachings as part of training. Contrary to such combat sports, in martial arts the cultural and philosophical heritages are usually integral to their practise.

Third, when the philosophical and cultural heritage is removed it is often replaced with “[p]ositive sporting values and objectives”*. In the case of Taekwondo as promoted by the WT, an emphasis is given to the sport values of Olympism. This means that the original East Asian philosophy and values that are inherent to the martial arts are replaced with western values (i.e. Grecian inspired Olympism) for the combat sport. The adoption of Olympism may at first seem commendable. However, the East Asian martial arts are not culturally neutral. Quite the opposite: East Asian martial arts, like folk dances, function as containers of cultural heritage. Therefore, when focussing on the sport aspect of the martial art there is an emphasis of the new sport values, which inevitably results in a de-emphasis of the original cultural heritage. In a discussion on the western-centric Olympic sports, Allen Guttmann laments the resultant cultural imperialism. He argues that even when East Asian martial arts spread to the west, they often “[transformed] in accordance with Western assumptions about the nature of sports”*. Ironically, instead of the intended goal of using Taekwondo for soft power diplomacy the result is a form of “soft colonialism,” where the original martial art loses its Oriental identity—to be replaced with a western inspired identity. At the very least this should be considered culturally insensitive and a regrettable loss.

Is the security and prestige of joining the Olympic Games worth the losses? For some people who see the opportunity of winning a medal at the Olympic Games in their chosen sport, it is worth it. For others, those who see the martial arts something other than a sport, for example as containers of cultural heritage, it is not.

18 April 2019

Knee-Bending Movement 오금질 in Korean Body Culture

A very important part of Korean body culture is the bending of the knees, known in Korean as "ogeum-jil" 오금질. In the video below, a Korean folk dance instructor discusses this feature of Korean movement. It is only in Korean, so it won't be of much value for most readers of my blog who do not speak Korean; however, even browsing through the video will highlight some of the similarities between the stepping in Korean folk dance and some of the ways we move in ITF Taekwon-Do.


The following video shows some Taekkyeon 택견 training. Taekkyeon is a Korean folk martial art that employs a three-beat triangular stepping known as "pumbalbgi" 품밟기 which also involves the Korean "ogeum-jil" or knee-bending.


It is likely that the term "ogeum-jil" is what became known as "knee-spring" in Taekwon-Do.

This motion of knee-bending is part of a larger aspect of Korean body culture known as "gulshin" 굴신, which refers to the contraction and expansion of the body through different means; for example, the bending and flexing of the knees, the expansion of the torso through breathing, and the lengthening of the spine, even the mental attitudes of lightness and heaviness. All of this may create a vertical lengthening or shortening of a persons frame, hence it has been translated into English by one dance scholar as "verticality".

In the following video about breathing in Korean traditional dance, one can see the different aspects of "gulshin" in action.


To understand ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion, one has to take into consideration these aspects of Korean body culture. The sine wave motion is not merely a "scientific" attempt to increase the amount of body mass employed in techniques by first raising the body to create potential energy, and then dropping the body to convert the potential energy into kinetic energy. While this is part of how sine wave is understood, it should be understood within this larger, cultural framework. The sine wave movement is part of Korean body culture.

05 April 2019

"Martial Arts" in Korean



On a Facebook group that I belong, the following questions were recently posted:

1. When did the term "Art" get applied to martial studies? 
2. Do Koreans call TKD an "Art"?

The term “art” in “martial art” doesn’t mean “aesthetics,” as it is often suggested. The word comes from the old French “ars,” which means craftsmanship and was adopted into English to mean skill, particularly of something that needs to be practiced, hence the related term “artisan.” Thus, martial arts simply mean ‘war skills’ (“martial” from Mars, god of war; “arts” from ‘ars’ [old French], meaning craftsmanship, skill).

(As a side note, Dr John Johnson and Dr Peter Ha wrote a paper in which they argue that the English term “martial art” should be understood as a system for self-cultivation. They also propose that the terms “combat system” and “combat sport” be used for other types of martial arts that do not have the self-cultivation goal, but rather combative or sportive goals, respectively. I don’t agree with how they define the term “martial art” based on the etymology of “art” that means skill, as I explained above, but I agree with their assessment that there are different categories of martial arts and that using more precise language is probably better.)

In Korean there are three terms that is usually translated into English as martial arts: “musul 무술”, “muye 무예”, and “mudo 무도”. The base term “mu 무” (from the hanja: 武) translates to roughly “martial” (“martiality”). The suffixes “-sul 술”, “-ye 예”, and “-do 도” translate as “skill”, “art”, and “way” respectively. Since “art” in the English term “martial art” means “skill,” the closest Korean equivalent is “musul”. Interestingly, the “art” in “muye” actually does have a stronger aesthetic connotation in Korean; while “martial art” in English is actually more about a practiced skill, the Korean term “muye” is more about a creative skill.

The preferred term in Chinese for martial arts is “wushu” 武術, which is the same as “musul” in Korean and “bujitsu” in Japanese; i.e. martial skill. In Japanese, the term “budo” has become preferred for their (modern training of) martial arts and corresponds with the Korean “mudo”; i.e. martial way 武道.



Which is the Korean preference? Korean traditionalists typically use the term “muye 무예” (hanja: 武藝 ) in their writing. This point was brought up specifically by the professors at Kyunghee University (Korea) where I did my PhD. The ancient Korean martial art texts have “muye 무예” in their titles: Muyejebo (1598), Muyejebobeonyeoksokjip (1610), Muyesinbo (1759), Muyedobotongji (1790). A modern example is Taekkyeon practitioners who refer to their style as “our [Korean] martial art” (uri-ui muye 우리의 무예) in their writings. Even General Choi, when he described Taekwon-Do as the “Korean art of self-defense” literally called it “hoshin yesul 호신예술” (i.e. the art [creative act] of self-defense).

There are two things that need to be pointed out:

First, although the term “muye” is typically used to refer to traditional martial arts in Korean, that doesn’t mean that there is a very strong emphasis on creative expression. Having lived in Korea for over a decade and having trained in several Korean martial arts (ITF TKD, Hapkido, Taekkyeon, and other cross-training), hardly any Korean instructors I’ve trained under stressed creativity (creative self-expression) as a primary part of their discipline. That's one reason why I disagree with the notion that the ITF patterns is a dance where the practitioner can creatively express themselves. (I have not trained much with Kukki/WT instructors, so I don’t know if creative self-expression is something that is emphasized in Kukki/WT Taekwondo.)

Second, the terms “musul,” “muye,” and “mudo” are sometimes used to suggest a practitioner’s growth on the martial arts journey, starting with a basic acquisition of techniques (“musul”), to a creative improvisation of techniques (“muye”), to a spiritual discipline where lessons learned in the dojang is intuited to life wisdom (“mudo”) beyond fighting. I’ve written about this here on my blog, and Dr Johnson has also written academically about it.



In short, to answer the original question:

The English term “martial art” is better understood as “war skills”.

Koreans have three terms for martial arts: “musul,” “muye”, and “mudo.” All three terms can be used and often are used interchangeably by Korean speakers. Although lay people often use “musul,” “muye”, and “mudo” as synonymous, the term “muye” is typically employed by Koreans to refer to traditional Korean martial arts, differentiating it from the Chinese “wushu” (“musul”) and the Japanese “budo” (“mudo”). The terms are also sometimes applied to indicate a person’s progression along the martial arts journey, with “musul” referring to the foundation level or technical training and “mudo” implying ascetic self-development. Koreans who practice martial arts as a way of life refer to themselves as “mudo-in 무도인” (literally: martial-way-person).

Finally, as for “Taekwon-Do,” since the term includes the “-do” suffix, we can assume that the pioneers hoped that it would be a system of self-development and not simply a “musul” or “muye.”

29 March 2019

Korean Dance, Sine-Wave Movement, and Breathing

I recently took up Korean traditional dancing again. I'm taking classes offered by the National Theater of Korea, which also offers classes in Korean traditional drumming (that I also learned before), and Korean panseori (traditional singing). The reason for taking traditional dance (and why I previously took Korean drumming) is to continue my understanding of traditional Korean body culture.

Attending the recent dancing classes affirmed again the strong similarities with the way we move in ITF Taekwon-Do. Something that is particularly standing out for me this time is breathing in dancing, and how it correlates with the breathing we do in ITF Taekwon-Do. My friend Dr John Johnson also sent me some academic articles about breathing in Korean dancing which I'm slowly working through (as they are in Korean). The following quotation is from another article that I downloaded from somewhere else long ago, which illustrates the similarities between breathing in ITF Taekwon-Do and traditional Korean dance:

"When inhaling the body expands, rising, moving out or up, with arms and legs being lifted and stretched. When exhaling the body contracts, sinking, moving in or down, with arms and legs being lowered or bent." -- Dr. Young-Ae Park, "The Two Characteristics of Korean Dance".
Korean dance movements start from a lowered position with the limbs relaxed and the knees bent. This is the same for ITF Taekwon-Do techniques that start in a neutral position (sometimes known as the intermediate position), as I explained in a different post long ago.  In Korean dance, the dancer will start a movement by "rising, moving out or up" which corresponds with an inhalation. This is the same with most ITF Taekwon-Do techniques: the legs are extended, the body raised and the technique is "loaded" for execution. Next, the technique is "released" corresponding to a "sinking, moving in or down . . . and the legs being lowered or bent" while exhaling.

In Korean dance, such up and down movements, with associated breathing, includes more layers of detail, including mental states, postural nuances, particular points of relaxation and tension. The same can be said for the different techniques in Taekwon-Do, of course. I hope to write an article about this sometime, and will probably write about my experience in traditional Korean dance here on this blog in the future.


03 March 2019

The Teleology of Sparring in ITF Taekwon-Do

The following video recording is of my presentation at Stanford University, at the 2019 International Academic Conference for Taekwondo. The video quality is a bit low as I captured it with my mobile phone from the video stream that was made during the conference. When I find a better quality recording, I will post it later. Below is also the abstract for my presentation.





Abstract: The Teleology of Free Sparring in ITF Style Taekwondo

The Korean term for sparring in ITF style taekwondo is matseogi which denotes opposing or standing up against an adversary. This is different from the term gyeorugi (i.e. from gyeoruda, “to compete”) that is used in WT / Kukki taekwondo or the older term daeryeon (“fighting”) that was used in the early development of taekwondo. Matseogi in ITF style taekwondo ought to be understood teleologically as a “Korean martial art of self-defense.” Towards that goal, the ITF pedagogy guides the practitioner through various types of matseogi (from “pre-arranged” to “unrestricted”), which is supposed to sequentially prepare the practitioner for the telos (i.e. ultimate goal) of real-life self-defense. It is very difficult to prepare for a real-life self-defense situation because reality is often chaotic, with many unpredictable variables. Consequently, the ITF pedagogy offers yaksok matseogi (“pre-arranged sparring”) with much reduces variables, so that the practitioner can focus on and hone appropriate skills for specific variables. Progressively more variables are introduced until the practitioner finally practices jayu matseogi (i.e. “free sparring” or “unrestricted sparring”), which is supposed to allow for the inclusion of as many variables as possible to mimic the chaos of a real-life self-defense encounter. This type of training is often referred to as “reality based” training. However, the term jayu matseogi (“free sparring”) has been appropriated for competition sparring at ITF tournaments. Because competition sparring is bound by numerous sparring rules, this type of sparring still has too many reduced variables to reflect the very high variable situation of a real self-defense encounter. Since for many ITF schools competition sparring is considered jayu matseogi, their pedagogic telos is never achieved, as there is no ultimate “reality based” training that mimics the unpredictability of a real self-defense encounter. It is my proposal that ITF competition sparring should be renamed because the current misapplied use of the term jayu matseogi effectively erases the true definition and purpose of jayu matseogi in the ITF pedagogy. Instead of jayu matseogi the term gyeorugi is an appropriate designation for competition sparring. Furthermore, actual “reality based” jayu matseogi needs to be reintroduced in schools where it is not trained, in order for ITF style taekwondo to achieve its pedagogic telos as a “Korean martial art of self-defense.”