20 August 2021

Pondering Martial Arts in and of the Future

I was recently invited to speculate about how technological advancement might change martial arts. What will the martial arts of the future look like? You can read my essay on the topic in the World Martial Arts Union newsletter (PDF link); it starts on p. 14.

19 January 2021

"Sine Wave" in Korean

Sine Wave Motion in Korean

By Sanko Lewis, PhD

From relatively early in Taekwon-Do’s evolution, there has been a type of “verticality”—i.e. up-and-down movements. The term “verticality” was coined by Judy Van Zile, an ethnographer studying Korean traditional dance. She uses the term to describe the conspicuous characteristic of bending-and-straightening of the knees (and other parts of the body) in Korean traditional dance. Such bending-and-straightening of the knees also became a feature of Taekwon-Do, which differs from Japanese Karate in which Taekwon-Do has its roots. Karate prefers little or no “verticality” during stepping. Prototypical Taekwon-Do (i.e., the “Taekwon-Do” of the late 1940s and 1950s) did not have “verticality” as it was basically still Karate, and participants moved according to Japanese body culture. However, “verticality,” which is innate to traditional Korean body culture, slowly seeped into Taekwon-Do movements. By the 1960s, “verticality” was already implied in the “knee-spring” notion. (This focus on the bending or 'spring'-action of the knee is an iconic feature of traditional Korean body culture.)

Initially ITF Taekwon-Do stepping was done in an up-down motion. Around 1981-1983, under the guidance of General Choi Hong-Hi, this up-down execution was amended to a down-up-down execution (or relax-rise-fall, as I prefer to describe it), which became known as the “sine wave motion.” In some of his writings, Stuart Anslow identifies a seminar in 1983 as the year the term “sine wave” became used to describe this down-up-down kinetic expression. This concurs with the first edition of the Korean version of the ITF Encyclopedia in which the English term for this motion is provided as “싸인 웨이브,” which is the transliteration of the English term “sine wave.”

The common assumption is that General Choi appropriated the term “sine wave” to infuse a scientific notion to this type of movement. This is an assumption I held too for quite some time, but it has always made me rather uncomfortable because it is not scientifically sound. The contemporary down-up-down manifestation mimics the shape of a cosine wave, not a sine wave that has an up-down-up shape, if we start at 0 (i.e., X = 0).  

I began to wonder what term General Choi used in Korean, so I looked up what term is used in my Korean versions of the ITF Encyclopedia. There are two synonyms in Korean for “sine wave”: jeonghyeon-pa 정현파 and sain-pa 사인파 (the latter is simply an Anglicanism of sine-wave). Unexpectedly, neither of these words are used in the Korean versions of the ITF Encyclopedia. The Korean term has actually no relation to this scientific concept. Instead, the Korean version of the ITF Encyclopedia uses the term hwaldeung-pado 활등파도, which literally translates as “bow-back waveform.”

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, and the archer draws the bow, the wooden bow is arched into an obvious curve (the typical bow shape).

In other words, the original Korean term simply refers to the curvature of the wave form, which should resemble a smooth crescent or 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 one's head level throughout the movement), which are incorrect ways of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Upon further investigation I was surprised to note that the transliteration of the Korean term in the 1999 version of the English Encyclopedia (and presumably all subsequent editions) 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. “Yulson” can be written in Korean in various ways 율손, 율선, 열손, 열선—each with different possible meanings. Discussions with native Korean speakers seem to all agree on the second variant: 율선, which is Romanized according to South Korea’s current system as “yulseon.” Finding a proper translation for yulson 율선 is not straightforward.

The translation for yulson 율선 律旋 given by the dictionaries I checked is “melody”. This translation was affirmed to me by a Korean Taekwon-Do master (8th Dan) I consulted. This word is hardly used in modern Korean. A more recognizable term for “melody” is garak 가락, which dictionaries provide as a synonym for yulson 율선. If this is indeed the correct translation, my Korean friends suggest that yulson implies the melodious movement of a tune. It is noteworthy that Korean traditional music has a “curved melodic line with typical vibrato known as nonghyeon or nongeum”—I got this explanation from Professor Sheen Dae-Cheol 신대철 of the Academy of Korean Studies, during a lecture on the aesthetic characteristics of Korean traditional music. If this is the correct understanding of yulson 율선, then we may assume that it refers to the “curved melodic line with typical vibrato,” which may be represented by the oscillating shape of a sine wave.

However, with all due respect to my Korean friends, I’m not completely convinced about the “melody”-hypothesis. The reason for my doubt is that suffix “-son” [-]. The same page in the ITF Encyclopedia that mentions yulson 율선 as translation for sine wave, also lists soopyong-son and topnal-son as translations for “Horizontal Wave” and “Saw Tooth Wave” respectively. (Notice the same “-son” suffix used in these words.) In the Korean versions of the ITF Encyclopedia, the Korean term is not “-son”, but “-pado” 파도. The relevant pages in the Korean version of the encyclopedia (Volume 4, p. 195) and the Korean version of the condensed encyclopedia (p. 322) lists Sine Wave as 활등파도 hwaldeung-pado, Horizontal Wave as 수평파도 soopyong-pado, and Saw Tooth Wave as 톱날파도 topnal-pado. It is clear, therefore, that “-son” - has to have the same or similar meaning as “pado” 파도 which literally translates as wave.

Therefore, a more likely translation of -son is based on a different hanja that means “line.” This better matches the accompanying pictures in the Encyclopedia that shows drawings of a sine wave line, a horizontal line, and a saw tooth line.

This brings us back to the meaning of yul in the term yulson 율선. I suggest that it is based on another hanja that means “rate” or “frequency.” For instance, one’s pulse is biyul 비율, literally “blood-rate”. The alternative hanja means “a law, a rule, a statue, a regulation” which doesn’t seem to fit. On the other hand, “rate/frequency” seems sensible, because a sine wave can accurately be described as a line depicting a frequency. This matches with how some (North) Korean masters describe the sinewave motion as “rhythmic motion”.

Consequently, based on the Korean terms hwadeung-pado (back-of-the-bow wave) and yulson (melodic shape or frequency line), 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. The argument whether the movement looks more like a sinewave or a co-sinewave misses the point. General Choi was using a metaphoric descriptor to depict the smooth curvature of the stepping motion. The stepping should be smooth like a (sine)wave or smooth like the back-of-the-bow. The metaphors are clearly intended to suggest smooth “verticality”; which General Choi juxtaposed with a stepping motion that has no vertical movement (“horizontal wave”) on the one hand or a rugged (“saw-tooth”) movement on the other hand.

While the Korean Encyclopaedia uses the term “bow-back waveform” 활등파도, 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 the sine wave in English. It might have been that he thought few Western people are familiar enough with the archery weapon; or, maybe he did choose to use the scientific term “sine wave” to add some scientific notion to the technique.

Nevertheless, another question may be asked: 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 phases (down-up-down) is not supported by the Korean terminology used by General Choi. The Korean terms hwadeung-pado and yulson, whether understood literally or metaphorically, do not suggest any number of phases (ups-and-downs) 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. A proponent of this view includes Mr. Alex Gillis, the author of the historical exposé A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do.

Another possibility proposed by myself (a Korean body culture researcher) and Dr He-Young Kimm (Korean martial arts historian and author of Taekwondo History) is that the General 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, and is the basic rhythm used in Korean traditional music. 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 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 way of moving (emphasizing relaxation over tension). Of course, my and Dr. Kimm’s cultural hypothesis doesn’t exclude Mr. Gillis’ political hypothesis.

In short, the term used in the Korean versions of the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia to describe the stepping motion is not “sine wave”—but rather “back-of-the-bow waveform”; in other words, a wavelike movement like the smooth curved shape of a bow. It should obviously be understood as a visual metaphor, and not as some inclusion of a trigonometrical function to increase power. 

11 January 2021

Interview with ITF RADIX (Roy Rolstad)

On 8 July 2020, Instructor Roy Rolstad interview with me on Instagram Live for his ITF Radix Talk series. I announced it on my Instagram account (@sooshimkwan) and posted the recording on my Facebook account, but forgot to also share it here on the Soo Shim Kwan blog.

Instructor Roy and I spoke about my martial arts journey, my life in Korea, and of course, the martial arts. We also reminisced about the time he and his family visited Korea a few years ago.

This ITF Radix Talk is just under an hour long; however, we actually had a 30 minute conversation prior to this recording, but there was a drop in the connection so we missed the first 30 minutes. Nevertheless, I think our discussion was still lots of fun and I'm sure will be informative to listeners. 

On the ITF Radix Instagram account you can also watch Instructor Roy's ITF Radix Talks with other notable ITF practitioners from around the world.

Interview with Whistle Kick Martial Arts Radio


In April last year (2020), I did an interview with Whistlekick Martial Arts Radio. I forgot to upload it here on the Soo Shim Kwan blog.

This hour long conversation covers some of my early years of coming to Korea and how my early training in other martial arts (Hapkido and Taekkyeon) informed and influenced my ITF Taekwon-Do training, as well as how a better understanding of Korean and Korean culture affected my Taekwon-Do practice. 

I really enjoyed the conversation with host Jeremy Lesniak and we might even do a follow up discussion in the future. 

You can hear the interview, as well as read a transcript of the interview on the Whistlekick Martial Arts Radio website: Episode 490

29 December 2020

Pre-Rational, Rational, Trans-Rational Views of Martial Arts

This year I haven't had much time to contribute to the Soo Shim Kwan blog. Practically of the posts were material I prepared for academic purposes such as academic articles, conferences and symposiums. However, before 2020 comes to an end, I decided to write one essay. I'm guessing that this essay may rub some people the wrong way, but I think the concepts are very useful and will hopefully help some people in understanding the martial arts better.

Pre-Rational, Rational, Trans-Rational Views of Martial Arts

By Dr. Sanko Lewis

I sometimes find myself bumping heads with rational people over certain aspects in Taekwon-Do because they seem to think my acceptance of some elements of Taekwon-Do is an irrational clinging to tradition or a cult-like following of the principal founder of Taekwon-Do, Choi Hong-Hi. I came to realize that there is a Pre/Trans fallacy at work. Therefore, for this essay I want to explore three paradigms for understanding martial arts, which we can name Prerational, Rational, and Transrational paradigms. We may also name these paradigms Premodern, Modern, and Transmodern.[1] I will apply these respective terms (Prerational:Premodern; Rational:Modern; Transrational:Transmodern) interchangeably.

An understanding of these three paradigms may help us to clarify and distinguish between various martial arts systems and the work of martial arts instructors and scholars.


Prerational Martial Arts, i.e. Premodern Martial Arts

Prerational martial arts—specifically within the East Asian martial arts context—are those martial arts that we usually group under the heading of “traditional” martial arts. These martial arts often have an exceptionally long historical claim, with a mythical or legendary origin or founder. Instructors’ authority is based on an unbroken lineage and their knowledge is supposed to be the accumulated wisdom passed down from one generation to the next, from master to disciple. Such martial arts claim to possess “secret” knowledge, secret techniques, maybe even secret manuals, that was passed down from the previous generation to only the most deserving disciples. The forms (patterns) are often believed to contain hidden or secret techniques that are only known or understood by the initiated. Thus, prerational martial arts may be defined as esoteric.

These martial arts’ pedagogies are often not very structured. Generally, there are no clear ranks (i.e. grades or belts). Rank distinction is very rudimentary. There is the master and his or her disciples, and the students’ seniority is based on their length of study and loyalty. In the most traditional systems, before a master dies, he would appoint his successor—usually the most loyal and longest studying student, who it is believed have learned everything the master knows, including the system’s secret knowledge. Premodern martial arts are also often tribal, believing their system is the best and other systems are weaker since they do not share the same secret knowledge. Not surprisingly, there tends to be a distrust of outsiders. 

A Chinese painting from the 2nd Century BC,
depicting Qigong (Doinsul) exercises.

Often, the theories of power in these premodern martial arts are based on an animistic worldview, such as Daoism (China) or Shintoism (Japan). Animism refers to a belief that everything (from stones to mountains to people) is permeated or animated with a life force or spiritual energy. In East Asia this life force is known as 氣 [Qi (Chi) in Chinese, Gi in Korean, and Ki in Japanese.] It is believed that humans can manipulate through certain training such as Qigong (China) or Doinsul (Korea). By cultivating and manipulating 氣, the practitioner can improve their own health and increase their physical strength—even, acquire supernaturally powerful martial arts techniques. cultivation training often involves meditation and/or breathing exercises, particular poses, and pose sequences (forms or patterns). Furthermore, if one knows the secrets, one can also inhibit the life force in your opponent, for instance through the striking of secret points on their body to create energy blockages. It is important to note here that these prerational martial arts are not necessarily ignorant of physics and physiology, although such knowledge is sometimes based on outdated scientific models.

Premodern martial arts are also known to include other quasi-religious teachings. The martial art is often used as an ascetic discipline for spiritual development. Thus, the martial art is viewed holistically. It is not just about learning how to fight, but also a means to better health, moral growth, and spiritual enlightenment. The student is an apprentice and disciple, and the instructor is a skilled artisan and spiritual teacher.


Rational Martial Arts, i.e. Modern Martial Arts

Jigoro Kana, the Founder of Judo, and pioneer of modern martial arts
The degree to which the label “rational” applies to different martial arts differs, since many rational martial arts also include some prerational elements because modern martial arts usually developed out of premodern systems. Rational or modern martial arts are those that developed during the 20th century and culminated in MMA in the 21st century. Probably the earliest modern martial art is Judo, which was created by Jigoro Kano in 1882. Kano had a Western education and it is believed that this greatly influenced his systematizing of Judo’s pedagogy. He was the first to introduce a belt ranking system in the martial arts. Most of the martial arts that developed in the 20th century such as Taekwon-Do, Jeet Kune Do, and even kickboxing may be considered rational or modern martial arts.

Modern martial arts instructors’ get their authority from governing bodies (organizations) that certify their rank. Techniques are generally explained, not through lineage, philosophical metaphors, or esoteric notions of energy, but Newtonian physics and biomechanics. Research in Physical Education and Sport Science are embraced to enhance the athletes’ performance. In fact, the martial art is often streamlined to a singular focus, such as combatives (e.g. Krav Maga) or sport (e.g. Judo, WT Taekwondo).

Probably the pinnacle of modern martial arts is Mixed Martial Arts. MMA has nearly completely thrown-off its obligation to lineage and tradition. Techniques are aggregated from many different martial arts based purely on their efficiency within the MMA ruleset (most notably the UFC). Techniques are explained by means of a Western scientific understanding of physics, biomechanics, and sports physiology. There is no ascetic goal or focus on spiritual growth or development of the character. Instead, the focus is to become a better “fighter” (i.e. athlete), physically and technically.

Rational martial arts tend to reject and look down on prerational martial arts, viewing them as useless, outdated, and superstitious or fake.


Trans-Rational Martial Arts

For this section on transrational martial arts, I am going to talk more about transrational martial artists in particular, rather than transrational martial arts in general. The reason is there are very few martial arts systems that as a whole can be considered transrational because most practitioners within these systems are often blends of Pre-Rational and Rational.

Transrational refers to a transcendence (and inclusion) of the rational. It is the ability to use the rational, without fully rejecting everything that the prerational represent. It is an ability to re-investigate the prerational and reinterpret and re-apply premodern ideas and techniques from a new paradigm. Note that the transrational practitioner is not a blend of Pre-Rational and Rational, but a transcendence of both. I will provide some examples later which will help to clarify the distinction.


Applying these Paradigms to Taekwon-Do

To make these concepts more tangible, I will now apply these paradigms to (ITF) Taekwon-Do.

Taekwon-Do developed in the 20th century. It was built on a foundation inherited from mostly Shotokan Karate which in turn came out of prerational martial arts. However, from the start, Taekwon-Do based its teachings on Newtonian physics. In all 15 volumes of the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia, there is only one short passage referring to (“Ki” / “Chi”), and not within the context of power generation. Power generation is understood through such equations as Force = Mass x Acceleration or Kinetic Energy = ½ Mass x Velocity².

Even the language has been demystified. Nearly all terminology has been stripped of their poetic and metaphoric nuance. There are no techniques with names like “monkey steals peach”, “pulling the tiger’s tail”, or “silk reeling”. Instead, techniques are conspicuously descriptive: front punch, side strike, low block, back kick, joint break… There is no “secret” knowledge in Taekwon-Do that are only available to the grandmasters. At a technical level, Taekwon-Do instructors are simply coaches that help the practitioner achieve their athletic goals.

Taekwon-Do is a modern, rational martial art; however, occasionally we can find some prerational / premodern aspects within Taekwon-Do.

Considering WT / Kukki Taekwondo for a moment, the idea that Taekwondo has a 2000-year Korean history is still propagated by some members of World Taekwondo and the Kukkiwon. Even though this 2000-year history narrative has been thoroughly debunked, there are still people who cling to this notion because such a long lineage claim provides a sense of legitimacy. (And it sidesteps the inconvenient truth that Taekwon-Do has its roots in a Japanese martial art.)

Choi Honghi

While ITF Taekwon-Do has thankfully not taken up this untruth, there are nevertheless people with similar prerational views within ITF. One example is the unwavering loyalty to the Choi bloodline and lineage proximity to General Choi Honghi, who was the principal founder of Taekwon-Do and first president of ITF Taekwon-Do. There are some people within ITF who are obsessed with their lineage proximity to General Choi; in other words, the idea that if you trained directly under General Choi or if your instructor trained under General Choi, then your Taekwon-Do is more legitimate than someone who is a third or fourth or later generation practitioner. Before General Choi passed away, he appointed North Korean IOC member, Chang Ung, as his successor. Dr. Chang Ung was succeeded by Grandmaster Ri Yongson. Some people are of the opinion that those who do not follow this lineage are not really doing authentic ITF Taekwon-Do. Similarly is the idea that there is “magic” in the Choi bloodline; the notion that General Choi’s son, Grandmaster Choi Junghwa, is the only true embodiment of Taekwon-Do and that people who are not following him are not practicing true Taekwon-Do. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not disrespecting General Choi or the Choi-family, I’m just pointing out that this type of thinking is prerational and tribalistic. One is definitely able to practice real ITF Taekwon-Do—and be great at it—even if you have never trained directly with General Choi or Grandmaster Choi Junghwa. You can also be a true practitioner of the ITF system, even if you are not affiliated with any of the mainstream ITF branches. There is no magic in the lineage, bloodline, or organization. General Choi broke with that prerational lineage notion when he made it clear that Taekwon-Do is a new invention based on Karate and a few other sources and by teaching Taekwon-Do not to a few selected students, but all around the world to anyone willing to learn. There are no secrets passed down to a select few. Taekwon-Do has been democratized. Anyone may have access to the Taekwon-Do knowledge as provided in the ITF Encyclopedia and other sources.[2]

A further example of prerational martial arts thinking you may have come across are those people who search for “secret” applications from the patterns and go through great pains to show applications from the patterns—sometimes the applications are ridiculously contrived but they are presented as “hidden” discoveries. Rational martial artists often fall into this trap because they want to explain the inclusion of the patterns within the system in a rational way. They want to legitimize the training in patterns, since it is so obvious that the patterns are unnatural and do not reflect actual combat.

Another example is the ‘sinewave motion’, which is a teaching aid that conveys a number of useful principles, which I will simply reduce to (1) as far as possible begin each movement from a state of relaxation, (2) accelerate all of your body mass in the direction of the technique, (3) when possible move with gravity. Apart from these technical functions the ‘sinewave motion’ also have a cultural funtion; it provides a Korean cultural character to the techniques by including Korean Body Culture elements such as ogeumjil  오금질  (knee-bending / knee-spring), three-beat rhythm, gokseonmi 곡선미 [曲線美] (Korean curved line aesthetics), etc. Unfortunately, there are some people who consider the ‘sine wave motion’ in a prerational manner as a “secret” or “magical” way to increase power. They use it as a tribal identifier to look down on other martial artists who do not know and use this “secret” method. Also, they often apply the ‘sinewave motion’ not as a teaching aid to convey certain principles of movement, but in all contexts even when it would be illogical to do so. For instance, the full ‘sinewave motion’ contains a relaxation, rising, and execution or falling phase, often mnemonically chanted as “down-up-down”. Doing the falling phase during an upward technique such as a high punch is counterproductive, nevertheless, these practitioners apply the ‘sinewave motion’ in a blanket fashion to nearly all techniques. 

Tribal premodern thinking is also evident when certain organizations prohibit their members to train with non-affiliated members (i.e., outsiders) or prohibit them to compete in tournaments or participate in seminars of other organizations. Nearly a decade ago, a friend and I who both practice ITF Taekwon-Do and Hapkido used to train together. At the time, we could freely train Hapkido together, but not Taekwon-Do because the ITF organization he belongs to did not allow members to train with outsiders.” One would hope that such tribalistic and esoteric thinking would be something of the past; however, I heard of a recent case where one ITF group expelled a master who opened his private seminar to members outside of the ITF group he was affiliated with.

Moving on, I believe, based on General Choi’s continual evolution of his system, that Taekwon-Do was intended not to be simply a rational martial art, but rather a transrational martial art. Rational martial arts, as I mentioned before, are usually myopic. They tend to have a single focus such as competition or combat exclusively. MMA as exemplified by the UFC or Krav Maga are such examples. At the very beginning, even General Choi viewed his new style in such a manner—primarily as a combat system for the ROK military.

Like the holistic prerational martial arts, transrational martial arts also acknowledge that the martial arts may have many different goals. ITF Taekwon-Do is foremost an “art of self-defence,” but it can also be a means to improve health and develop character, be a recreational sport, a way to promote Korean culture, and even a soft diplomacy tool. In his further development of Taekwon-Do, General Choi started to include these and other goals for Taekwon-Do. Instructors are therefore not reduced to sport coaches only, but to life coaches—and based on the ITF Taekwon-Do terms for instructors, they are conceived as teachers of moral wisdom.

Rather than disregarding everything prerational as irrational, as proponents of rational martial arts tend to do, transrational martial artists revisit prerational aspects and reinterpret them from a new enlightened vantage point. Meditation and danjeon-breathing are a common part of prerational martial arts, which is often disparaged by modern martial artists because these breathing exercises are part of the -development curricula of premodern martial arts. Transrational martial artists, however, are aware of the contemporary scientific research on the numerous benefits of meditation practices such as visualization for performance enhancement, mind-training for focus, and conscious breathing techniques (aka “breathwork”) that can be used to achieve various physiological and psychological states.

The patterns are similarly upcycled by transrational martial artists. The patterns are not viewed as -cultivation poses, as in the case of prerational martial arts, nor do they pretend that the patterns are combative manuals as sometimes happen with rational martial arts. They accept that the patterns are cultural artifacts inherited from the prerational martial arts and has value as part of the intangible cultural heritage of the system. Transrational martial artists are honest about the fact that patterns do not reflect real fighting and that we do not fight like we do patterns. Instead of trying to derive hidden secret applications from the patterns, transrational martial artists rather use the patterns in a more general way to teach certain movement principles or use sequences of the patterns as inspiration for dynamic context drills. Note this is different from searching for secret or hidden applications, because generally these secret-technique hunters try to find specific applications for a movement sequence. Whereas, applied to dynamic context drills, these sequences are used to find combative or tactical principles, rather that specific applications[3]. A good example of someone who use the patterns in a transrational way is Master Colin Wee[4]. Transrational martial artists will also employ the patterns for purposes beyond combat; for example, the patterns are great for suhaeng 수행, a type of movement meditation practice.

Moving on to the ‘sinewave motion’: instead of seeing the ‘sinewave motion’ as bad science, as so many of the modern martial artists do, transrational martial artists understand that the ‘sinewave motion’ is simply a tool for teaching particular principles about movement and Korean culture; and they use these principles not dogmatically but as they are situationally apt. 


Pre/Trans Fallacy

At the start of this essay, I mentioned the Pre/Trans Fallacy. This fallacy occurs when rational martial artists mistake transrational martial artists as prerational. The problem is that transrational martial artists sometimes use the practices, terminology, and metaphors of the prerational system. Rational practitioners have a knee-jerk reaction to this, and then simply dismiss transrational instructors as prerational. The difference between prerational martial artists and transrational martial artists is vast. When a transrational martial artist use aspect from prerational martial arts, they do so from a completely different paradigm. They are not working from a prerational “magic” paradigm, but from one that is rational and open-minded. They view the martial arts in a broader context, for instance not simply as a means for fighting but as a tool for enhancing individuals’ lifes and affecting society—informed by modern science, personal experience, and cultural awareness.

For example, I am an ITF Taekwon-Do practioner who performs the ‘sinewave motion’ during patterns. When someone tells me that what I’m doing is “too slow” and will never work “in the streets” I can only shake my head. This is obviously a case of Pre/Trans Fallacy. I know full well that it is too slow and that doing such a block/punch/kick sequence is not reflective of actual fighting. I don’t perform patterns because I think ‘it’ is ‘reality’. There are many other valuable reasons for training in the patterns and doing the the ‘sinewave motion,’ which I have written about extensively elsewhere on my blog. And truth be told, I’ve come to realize that doing the patterns simply because they connect me with an intangible cultural heritage is of value in and of itself. (Although I definitely think that there is useful skill transfer when the patterns are properly employed as part of a sensible pedagogy.) Similarly, I am aware that General Choi Hong-hi was a flawed man, so I do not venerate him in a cult-like manner, as so many ITF practitioners do. Nor do I participate in contemporary cancel culture, which is an approach followed by many non-ITF people. Instead, I am appreciative of the great legacy of General Choi Hong-hi and other Taekwon-Do pioneers and as a martial art scholar I try to objectively contribute to correcting the narratives with regards to the history of Taekwon-Do. In this sense, I have an appreciation of lineage and those that came before me, without having an unhealthy obsession with it.


Take Away

Firstly, I’d like to encourage you to evaluate your training practices and to make sure that you are not doing Taekwon-Do as a premodern martial art. I don’t think most people who practice Taekwon-Do are practicing it in a prerational way, but I am convinced that many people do cling to some prerational notions, such as the examples I mentioned earlier. Furthermore, Taekwon-Do had its major development between the 1950s and 1980s. Since then, there has been ground-breaking research within the fields of Physical Education and Sport Science that can dramatically enhance your training practices. We should embrace the best of what scientific research can offer. There are many resources you can consult to make your training practice more scientifically sound[5].

Secondly, if you are already a rational or modern martial artist, there are two things to watch out for. First, be careful not to box-in the martial arts into your myopic idea of what it is supposed to be. For instance, I have interacted with great martial art scholars who said that Taekwon-Do should rid itself of all this extra traditional baggage and become simply a combat sport. This is such a blinkered view of what Taekwon-Do is and can be. People take up martial arts for many reasons. There is no reason why a martial art cannot be used and trained for different purposes. Second, be careful not to simply dismiss certain practices, and by implication certain instructors and practitioners, because you think that they are busy with prerational / premodern exercises. For instance, some people may completely dismiss pattern training or the use of the ‘sinewave motion’ as it is trained in patterns because it doesn’t prepare someone for a real fight. And, at face value I agree with this. However, I train and teach patterns—including the ‘sinewave motion’—not because I think they are good templates for fighting. There are lots of other value that can be derived from the patterns and certain ways of moving. The patterns can teach many principles that one cannot easily learn when sparring, when training at a faster pace, and so on. Some of these principles do indeed contribute, albeit in an indirect way, to actual combat. Just as skipping rope and speed ball training contribute indirectly to a boxer’s skill but are useless for fighting in and of themselves. Furthermore, the patterns may be used for all kinds of additional purposes, such as suhaeng or movement-meditation, breath-work practice, coordination practise, etc. Just because I teach patterns does not mean I’m stuck in a prerational / premodern paradigm. Quite the contrary.

Finally, I encourage you to become a transrational, transmodern martial artist. One that is rational, but intuitive; logical, but open-minded.

[1] My use of the term “transmodern” should not be confused with “postmodern. I believe that postmodern martial arts do exist, but for the purpose of this essay I’m not going to make that distinction as it would make the essay to long and complicated and is not necessary for my argument.

[2] While it is true that Taekwon-Do has been democratized, that does not mean that there are not some instructors with a better understanding of the material and underlying principles and who are better at teaching the material. Teaching is itself a talent and skill, and some people are better at it than others. Finding a good instructor is a great advantage.

[3] I should add here that I don’t mean to say that there are no applications for pum [i.e. movement sequences] in the patterns. There often are and it may be useful to teach them to students as long as they are mostly obvious rather than contrived applications. However, an obsessive search for “secret” or “hidden” techniques are a sign of prerational martial arts thinking.

[4] Joong Do Kwan Taekwon-Do, Perth, Australia. http://www.joongdokwan.com/

[5] Some recommended resources you can start with are Steven J. Pearlman’s The Book of Martial Power, Jason Thalken’s Fight Like a Physicist, Jung K. Lee’s The Science of Taekwondo, Larence Kane and Kris Wilder’s The Little Black Book of Violence, and Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence, to name just a few. The Combat Learning Podcast by Josh Peacock is also a great entry into methodologies of effective training based on Physical Education and Sport Science research.

To my friends, students and readers of Soo Shim Kwan, I wish you all the best for 2021! 

21 December 2020

Revisiting Taekkyeon Basics

Although I have around ten years of intermittent Taekkyun experience, I joined some friends last month for an introductory workshop in Taekkyeon. This year (#2020) presented few opportunities to train martial arts with friends, so when the Kyullyun Taekkyeon Headquarters asked me if I wanted to introduce a few of my friends to Taekkyeon I was more than eager.

Let me first give some context. The City of Seoul sponsors a certain number of foreigners to take introductory lessons in selected traditional Korean activities. One of them is Taekkyeon and due to the pandemic, the Kyullyun Taekkyeon Headquarters had not filled their quota for the year, so they asked me if I knew of a couple of foreign friends in Seoul who'd be interested. I immediately had two people in mind, acquaintances that I knew through social media. The one is a dancer with experience in traditional Korean dance and the other one is a model with experience in Hapkido. They were perfect candidates, I thought, to appreciate this traditional Korean activity. I was particularly curious to see which of the two would catch it the quickest, the one who understood Korean body culture the best or the one who practised a Korean martial art, albeit quite a different style.

I expected the class to be taught by one of the lower ranking instructors, but to my surprise Master Ki-Hyun Do (the president of Kyullyun Taekkyeon) graced us as the teacher on the day.  Master Do is one of my favourite grandmasters. Always friendly, always humble, always passionate. 

Dr. Sanko Lewis & Master Ki-Hyun Do

The lesson included some theory, basic etiquette, traditional breathing, the basic stepping pumbalbgi, some kicks and simple strikes. It was a very well structured workshop aimed at people with no prior knowledge of Taekkyeon. While I was quite familiar with these basic movements, I found it delightful nonetheless. It is also nice to be a student sometimes. I've been an instructor for over 20 years and also work as a professor, so most of my life I spend in teaching mode. I therefore really enjoy those times when I can just step back and be a student. 

While I'm beyond the basics, it was still sweet of them to also give me a certificate to prove that I can do pumbalbgi #품밟기! 😅 

Thank you to the Kyullyun Taekkyun Federation, Master Do and my friends Josh and Alessandro for a fun afternoon.

03 December 2020

Preserving Korean Body Culture in Traditional Dance and Martial Arts

On 12 November 2020, UNESCO ICM (International Center for Martial Arts) hosted their Annual International Martial Arts Academic Seminar, in Chungju, South Korea at the new UNESCO ICM building. The topic for this year's seminar was COVID-19 Pandemic: Martial Arts Response and Beyond. There was a special session within this seminar dedicated to the book launch of UNESCO's Living Heritage Series: Traditional Martial Arts as Intangible Cultural Heritage. As I contributed a chapter to the book, UNESCO asked me to be a presenter during the special session.

The book is available as both a printed book and e-book. The e-book can be downloaded for free from UNESCO ICM's website as a PDF here. My contribution is chapter 15. 

The seminar was originally supposed to be live-streamed but there was some technical difficulties. However, the event was recorded and the different sessions have been uploaded onto UNESCO ICM's YouTube channel. Below is the special session (Session 2: Traditional Martial Arts as Living Heritage), in which I presented. My presentation starts around the 22 minute mark, and afterwards there was a panel discussion about preserving traditional martial arts in the Korean context in which I also took part.


15 November 2020

Royal Asiatic Society Lecture: Movement Characteristics of Korean Traditional Dance and Martial Arts

On Tuesday, 10 November 2020, I gave a lecture to the Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch, in Seoul. The lecture occurred via Zoom and was recorded.  Below is how the lecture was advertised, and below that is the YouTube link to watch the recording online. 

Movement Characteristics of Korean Traditional Dance and Martial Arts

In this lecture, Dr. Sanko Lewis reveals several key characteristics that give Korean traditional dance and martial arts their particular “Korean flavor.” Through ethnographic research, Dr. Lewis identifies similar kinetic principles employed in the traditional Korean movement disciplines and discuss their cultural origins and technical functions. He also points out how attempts to appeal to a younger audience may cause a martial art to lose its traditional identity; for example, taekwondo’s inclusion of K-pop music and urban dance is eroding those characteristics that taekwondo shared with traditional Korean disciplines such as traditional dance. After this lecture, you will be able to identify the movement characteristics of Korean traditional dance and martial arts, which will enable you to recognize and have a better appreciation for the kinetic aspect of Korea’s intangible heritage.


10 November 2020

A Lacanian Framework for Taekwondo Practice

On Friday, 6 November, I took part in Youngsan University's 2nd International Taekwondo Conference, co-hosted by the International Academic Conference of Taekwondo, in Busan, South Korea. Twelve presenters from around world took part, representing Korea, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Poland, the UK, and the USA. While most presenters participated via Zoom, we were about five presenters that could present in person here in Korea.

Apparently the Zoom-session was recorded, so I'm certain the conference as a whole will become available online eventually. However, I decided that since I have the slides and script ready, I will personally record my presentation as well, as there were several people that have asked me for it already. I uploaded it on YouTube, so you can watch it here. The abstract for my paper is below. [See the bottom of this post for an update.]



A Lacanian Framework for Taekwondo Practice

Sanko Lewis, PhD

Martial arts act as a container for divergent phenomena, ranging from cultural and sometimes even esoteric aspects on the one end to violent combat on the other extreme. It can be difficult to understand how such different parts of a martial art may fit together into a coherent whole. This is particularly true for taekwondo that claims to be both a means to self-development, a sport, and a killing art. French psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan proposed a Three Orders paradigm to systemize the psychoanalysis into three orders: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. The Imaginary refers to how we imagine the Self and the Other to be. On the other hand, the Real is actual reality unfiltered by interpretation. The Symbolic is the systems (culture, society, etc.) which mediates between our image of reality (Imaginary) and reality as such (Real). Lacan’s Three Orders may function as a useful paradigm to discuss different aspects of taekwondo. Within the martial arts context, the Imaginary is strongly affected by myth and media from the origin myths of the martial art, to Hollywood and Asian films, to commercialized combat sports; as well as by the practitioner’s exaggerated image of his or her instructors, masters, and grandmasters. The Real, however, is the combative encounter as a true violent act. The Symbolic represents the codified pedagogy with its rituals and curriculum that ought to move the practitioner from the Imaginary towards preparedness for the Real.

Keywords: Lacan, psychoanalysis, taekwondo, martial arts, pedagogy

7 January 2021 Update: The recordings of the conference have been uploaded onto the iACT YouTube channel. My presentation was part of Panel 1.

20 July 2020

Promoting Peace, Practising War: Mohism’s Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts

My pre-Covid19 plan for this month (July 2020) was to travel to Europe and attend the 6th Martial Arts Studies Conference, focusing this year on Martial Arts, Religion, and Spiritually. The conference was supposed to occur in the scenic French city of Marseilles at Aix-Marseille University on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of July. Of course, nothing went as planned this year. At first it was thought that the conference was to be cancelled, but in the end it turned into a cyber conference, and although I couldn't visit southern France, I was still able to participate in the conference by recording my presentation as a video and participating in a live online panel discussion.

There were nine panels; I participated in Panel 4: Ethics in Modern Martial Fighting Games and Martial Arts.

Below is a summary of my presentation, below that the official abstract for my presentation, and at the bottom the actual presentation available on YouTube.

The panel discussion was also recorded; I will upload it once it becomes available.

Summary by Kai Morgan

Are the traditional East Asian martial arts physical methods of violence – or peaceful activities of self-cultivation, grounded in traditions such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism? Sanko argues that they are actually both at once – but many practitioners simply ignore the violent aspect, as it’s too complicated and/or uncomfortable to assimilate.

Sanko then asks whether the East Asian philosophy of Mohism can answer this paradox, and enable us to reconcile both faces of the martial arts, as it teaches both active peace promotion, and a duty to physically protect the weak and innocent from harm by means of defensive war . . .


Promoting Peace, Practising War: Mohism’s Resolution of the Paradoxical Ethics of War and Self-Defence in East Asian Martial Arts

by Sanko Lewis, PhD

Many traditional East Asian martial arts seem to counsel against the use of violence, yet actively teach physical methods of violence; in essence “promoting peace, practising war.” In part, the paradox exists because East Asian martial arts derive their morals from the generally pacifist religio-philosophical traditions of East Asia, namely Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. There is therefore an internal conflict between the moral traditions that provided the context in which these martial arts developed and the original combative purpose for which the martial arts developed. Previous attempts at resolving the martial arts paradox of promoting peace while practising techniques of violence simply redefined martial arts as either activities of self-cultivation (cf. “Budo”) or as sport, rather than address the main issue of justified violence. Hence this study searched for ways to reconcile peace promotion with “war” practise. The East Asian philosophy of Mohism provides a framework capable of promoting peace while also justifying violence in a morally congruent manner. Mohism’s teaching of universal love and mutual benefit offers an example of active peace promotion, while accepting the duty to physically protect the weak and innocent from harm by means of defensive war. Likewise, traditional martial arts in the form of civilian defensive arts can also justify their training and conditional use of violence for the purpose of protecting innocent victims from attackers.

Keywords: Mohism, ethics, martial arts, self-defense, violence