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.”