18 January 2022

The Tenet of ‘Courtesy’ in Taekwon-Do


Calligraphy by Choi Hong-Hi
of the Tenets of Taekwon-Do

 

General Choi Hong-hi, the founder of ITF Taekwon-Do, composed a list of five tenets that he required practitioners to recite and embody. The tenets, as they are translated into English, are courtesy [예의], integrity [염치], perseverance [인내], self-control [극기], and an indomitable spirit [백절 불굴]. As I pointed out in a previous essay, with some of these terms, there is something lost in translation. This is also the case for the first tenet, “courtesy”.

 

In English, the word “courtesy” suggests polite and respectful behaviour with proper etiquette, which is close to the translations one would get if you search the equivalent Korean word [예의] in a Korean-English dictionary: manners, etiquette, courtesy, politeness, proprieties, decorum, and civility.

 

While this may be a general understanding of the term, the Korean word “ye-eui” has a deeper connotation which one may glimpse when you look at the hanja (Chinese characters) on which the word is based. The hanja for “ye-eui” [예의] is 禮儀. The first character [] can translate to manners (decent and respectable behaviour) or ritual propriety (proper actions during rites and ritual ceremonies), while the second character roughly translates to proper etiquette, but can also translate as righteous or lawful behaviour. What I want to point out here is that the Korean term “ye-eui” [예의] has a much more demanding implication than the English word “courtesy”. Courteous behaviour may simply be good manners and one’s adherence or disregard of them does not really have any serious consequences. Whereas the Korean term implies the righteousness or lawfulness of one’s conduct. 

 

Confucius was a Chinese sage-philosopher
whose teachings greatly affected East Asia.
There are still many aspects of Confucianism
that are part of modern Korean culture.

 

Confucianism is fundamental to Korean culture and central to Confucianism is the concept of li (‘ritual propriety’ or sense-of-ritual). Li covers a wide range of conduct and behaviour from religious rites to state and governmental rituals, to social ceremonies such as at weddings and funerals, to appropriate etiquette for social relations. In other words, it covers every aspect of one’s life: in religious matters, with regards to the State, in society at large, within families, and among all relationships. It is both the adherence to state laws and the respect one shows to one’s parents and elders, including the good manners when interacting with people in daily life, even such seeming trivialities as drinking etiquette and table manners.

Confucianism (cf. Mencius) believes that we have the seeds of li innately inside us, but that a sense-of-ritual should be learned and developed. The idea of “ritual” here should be understood more broadly to include all appropriate behaviours: manners, etiquette, lawful deeds and righteous conduct. Furthermore, notice the concept “sense-of-ritual”: it is not merely about adhering to codes and rules of conduct; rather, there should be an internal sense of appropriate behaviour. Thus, “sense-of-ritual” refers to a developed moral sensibility.

The Confucian ideal is to be a junzi [君子], often translated as “a gentleman” or “superior person.” (The Korean equivalent is a gunja [군자], a person of virtue and culture.) When Confucius’ greatest disciple Yan Hui asked his Master about perfect virtue (ren ), Confucius answered: “Don’t look in a way that is not li, don’t listen in a way that is not li, don’t speak in a way that is not li, and don’t move in a way that is not li.” It would be incorrect to conclude that it is all about outward behaviours—how one ought to or ought not to behave. Confucius’ answer was in regard to his student’s question about virtue. Virtue is more than just an outward display; in a righteous person, virtues have become internalized. Confucian scholars like Mencius considered li a virtue alongside other virtues such as benevolence, filial piety, and sincerity. To another student Confucius answered: “Let your words be sincere and truthful and your actions honorable and careful.”  

 

Bowing before training is one
part of showing courtesy.
 

To bring it back to our original discussion of Taekwon-Do’s tenet of courtesy, the Chinese term li is in fact the same first character in the word “ye-eui” [예의, 禮儀]. Often in Taekwon-Do we understand “courtesy” simply as the respectful behaviours in the dojang such as taking our shoes of before stepping onto the mat, or bowing to instructors or to our opponents before sparring; however, as I tried to show here, ‘courtesy’ must be understood in a much broader sense. Like the other tenets, it is not just limited to the confines of the dojang. The courtesy tenet extends to how we treat people in our daily lives—with respect and sincerity—and the way we conduct ourselves in society. It is not merely about behaviour, but rather an attitude (“sense-of-ritual”). It is also culturally sensitive and situationally sensitive, what Koreans call nunchi [눈치], which is the ability to read a social situation and act appropriately. To embody courtesy means that you will conduct yourself in a noble and virtuous manner at all times—like a junzi / gunja, a person of culture and learning.


05 January 2022

What is a Postmodern Martial Art?

In an essay I posted on the Soo Shim Kwan-blog in December 2020 I mentioned as a footnote the idea of postmodern martial arts. In the middle of 2021, while on a martial arts podcast about that post, the interviewer asked me about that postmodern martial arts comment. My answer on the podcast was rather sparce because to answer such a question would really require at least a cursory exposition of what Postmodernism is and only then can one attempt to define what a postmodern martial art would look like. Since our time on the interview was already coming to an end, I kept my response brief. However, the postmodern topic again passed by my radar recently when in two of my university classes this past semester I spent a few units on Postmodernism. This made me think about postmodern martial arts again, so I decided now might be a good time to ponder the topic once more—here in writing.  

What is a Postmodern Martial Art?

 by Dr. Sanko Lewis 


Postmodernism

Image Source 
Different modernist worldviews
promised utopias, but delivered
dystopian regimes.

Let me begin with a brief—and very simplified—introduction to Postmodernism. Postmodernism is a Zeitgeist (“spirit of the time”). Zeitgeists are basically a ‘paradigm’ or ‘worldview’ and is detectible in the many ways that it manifests in society, culture, art, and even technology. The postmodern Zeitgeist emerged around the 1960’s out of an earlier Zeitgeist, known as Modernism. The “post-” prefix in
Post-modernism does not mean that it appeared after the end of Modernism, but merely that it emerged after the start of Modernism. Aspects of Modernism is still very much active today; nevertheless, Postmodernism has become hugely prevalent in many aspects of society at large. Without going into too much of the history of these Zeitgeists, let’s suffice to say that Modernism promised Utopias but delivered the world wars and the exploitation of natural resources. Against this background of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, a cynicism and scepticism emerged which is at the core of Postmodernism. Put simply, Postmodernism rose in reaction to the ideals and values of Modernism.

Some important postmodern themes are:

  • the questioning and doubting of Grand Narratives,
  • the breaking-down or crossing of boundaries and borders,
  • decentralization and discontinuity,
  • and recycling and repurposing.

These themes manifest in many ways. I will discuss the themes and some of their manifestations as they relate to martial arts.

 

Premodern and Modern Martial Arts

However, before we do so, it is important to make a quick distinction between premodern and modern martial arts.

Zhang Sanfeng observing
a fight between a snake
and a bird.

Premodern martial arts are those martial arts that is thought to have developed in “ancient times” and adhere to a premodern worldview; for instance, the believe in an animistic force (such as qi), esoteric tribal (i.e., in-group) knowledge, and techniques inspired by phenomena in the natural world, such as natural cycles and animal behaviour. It is often believed that the martial art and its “secrets” have been handed down in a lineage from master to disciple over hundreds of years and numerous generations. An example of a “traditional” martial art might be Taiji Ch’uan, which adhere to the theory of qi-power, the natural cycles of yin and yang, and the folklore of the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng who witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane.  

On the other hand, modern martial arts are based primarily on a modern scientific understanding of motion (Newtonian physics) and the human body (physiology and biomechanics). Techniques are sourced from what “works” (although this is questionable), rather than handed-down secrets. That does not mean that modern martial arts are not transmitted from one generation to the next, but the relationship is one of coach and athlete, rather than traditional master and disciple. Although ITF Taekwon-Do occasionally regresses to premodern customs, as a whole, ITF Taekwon-Do is a modern martial art that was deliberately modernized by its founder. There are no secrets only available to the insiders; credibility through lineages has been replaced by certificates from an international governing body; magic energy made way for Newtonian physics, and poetic animalistic moves became standardized biomechanical techniques.  

Both traditional martial arts and modern martial arts place their faith in their chosen Grand Narratives. The term “Grand Narrative” refers to a “big story”, i.e., a standard explanation, for how things work. The Grand Narrative in premodern martial arts is the lineage and the inherited tribal wisdom and associated philosopy. The ancestral line is the centre of the system and what legitimizes the practitioner’s knowledge and skill. In the case of modern martial arts, the Grand Narrative is often some form of technical manifesto which is legitimized by a governing body. For example, ITF Taekwon-Do has a technical manifesto known as the “Theory of Power” and the related canonical technical explanations which provides a “scientific model” for the system. This is in turn interpreted and supposedly updated by the Technical Committee of the ITF (whether at a local governing body or international governing body level). In theory the Technical Committee is (or ought to be) populated by people that are highly experienced in the system and have relevant qualifications in, for example, physical education, sport science, biomechanics, physiology, physics, etc.

Both premodern and modern martial arts are structured within boundaries. Premodern martial arts function as intangible cultural artifacts—like traditional dances. The cultural context, such as an ethnicity, tribe, village, or family is its boundary; it is what separates it from another martial art systems. For instance, Taiji Ch’uan is a Chinese martial art that can be differentiate into five (literal) family styles: Chen Family Style (i.e., the version of Taiji Ch’uan developed by the Chen family of the Chen Village in Henan province); Yang Style; Wi Style; Sun Style; and Hao Style. Modern martial arts often define their boundary by their specialization, such as being a striking art or a grappling art, a combat sport or military close combat system, and so on. Modern martial arts seldom claim to be “everything.” Both Judo and Boxing are sports, but clearly within their own spheres: the one would not claim to be a striking system nor would the other claim to be grappling system. Although Taekwon-Do may have some throws and ground techniques, it is ultimately a striking art. Similarly, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu may have some techniques from a standing position, but it is on the ground where it comes into its own.

 

Postmodern Martial Arts

With the preceding context we are ready to dive into the notion of postmodern martial arts. I will propose three examples of postmodern martial arts: Hapkido, Jeet Kune Do, and what has become known as mixed martial arts. And I will discuss each of these in relation to the postmodern themes that I outlined earlier.

 

Hapkido

Hapkido is a modern martial art in the sense that it is one of the “modern” systems that developed in the early 20th century out of a premodern heritage.

Choi Yong Sul, the "founder" of Hapkido

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a young boy named Choi Yong Sul was taken to Japan. There he became a house servant to Takeda Sōdaku, the founder of Daitō-ryū AIki-jūjutsu. At the end of the occupation, Choi returned to Korea and started teaching what he called, among other names, “Yusul” (the Korean rendition of “jujutsu”). As the system evolved, so did its name, and eventually the name “Hapkido” became most popular. While originally based on a Japanese system, Hapkido has evolved dramatically. From early on, techniques that are foreign to the original Daitō-ryū AIki-jūjutsu, such as an extended arsenal of kicks-and-striking techniques, were incorporated from various local (Korean) and foreign martial arts. Hapkido also developed numerous weapon systems influenced from local and foreign, such as Chinese and Japanese, systems. Hapkido is a discontinuous martial art—a bricolage of techniques repurposed from various systems; i.e., “crossing of boundaries and borders”. Additionally, Hapkido still adhere to aspects of premodern martial arts, such as the concept of qi (known as “gi” in Korean) that features centrally in Hapkido’s technical philosophy and practice. Yet it is also acts like a modern martial art—claiming to be a self-defence system based on a technical manifesto of Newtonian physics and biomechanical principles.

Image Source

At first, Hapkido adhered to a strong lineage starting with Choi Yong Sul, but by implication connected to Takeda Sōdaku and his Japanese system. However, Hapkido quickly reimagined itself as a Korean system, and incorporated not only Korean techniques but also Korean philosophical concepts. The lineage with Choi Yong Sul is still acknowledged but as of today there are over 60 governing bodies in South Korea alone, making it very much a fragmented system. It is not a surprise, then, that the technical syllabi are practically unique from school to school, with little standardization worldwide.

Most Hapkido schools present themselves in the way of premodern martial arts with a long lineage, a particular ethno- and cultural quality (i.e., Korean), a master-disciple pedagogy, and even qi-cultivation techniques. However, these elements are questionable, and may rather be understood from the postmodern theme of “recycling and repurposing.” It is difficult to say to what degree Hapkido is Japanese, rather than Korean, not to mention the incorporation of techniques from other systems such, for example, Sambo (Russian wrestling) and various Chinese styles. The master-disciple pedagogy of tribes and villages is not how Hapkido is taught today—rather, Hapkido schools are mostly often businesses and the students are clients. And it is not quite clear how many instructors actually believe that qi is essential to Hapkido techniques. In many Hapkido schools the idea of qi and even qi exercises such as abdominal breathing exercises, often performed at the beginning or end of a class, seem more to be an addendum than truly part of the system. Techniques are better explained through physics, biomechanics, and physiology rather than Taoist principles.

 

Jeet Kune Do

Jeet Kune Do is the martial philosophy of Bruce Lee.

Apart from martial arts, Bruce Lee 
was also a cha cha dance champion.
Image Source


Lee’s family was involved in Cantonese opera, which includes various disciplines ranging from acting to singing to martial arts. Hence, Lee was exposed to these performing arts and even performed in some rolls as a child. While in school, Lee learned boxing and as a teenager he started learning Wing Chung Kung Fu under a grandmaster of the style Yip Man, who claimed to be part of the direct lineage to the Yim Wing-chun after whom the style was named. Lee also added the Cuban dance cha-cha-cha to his extracurricular activities. Lee relocated to the United States where he started to teach martial arts—basically his version of Wing Chun, but here Lee would be exposed to various other martial arts. For instance, Lee learned Taekwon-Do kicks from Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee (father of Taekwon-Do in the USA).

In 1964 Lee had a fight with a Chinese martial artist, Wong Jack-man, in Oakland, California. According to Lee the reason for the dual was because he was teaching martial arts to “outsiders” (i.e., Americans), which was not allowed by the Chinese community. Although Lee claimed to have won the fight, he was disappointed with his performance and concluded that his traditional martial art skillset was too formalized and, hence, limiting. This led to a journey of abandoning tradition for what he called a “style of no style.” His goal was not to create yet another system of fixed techniques, but rather a “philosophy” that embraced the idea of “using no way as way”; i.e., not being limited to any particular martial system but rather incorporating whatever works from any system, based around a number of technical and strategic principles such as efficacy and interception.

Bruce Lee learned Taekwon-Do kicks from Jhoon Rhee


This exemplifies the postmodern questioning of Grand Narratives. Lee questioned both tradition and lineage (“discontinuity”) and started to research and incorporate other martial arts into his system, including those of European origin such as European fencing and savate (a French martial art). Thus, Lee manifested another postmodern theme: “the breaking-down or crossing of boundaries and borders,” which he was also doing, according to his account, by not only learning from other cultural systems but also teaching “outsiders”. Sourcing from different martial arts also exemplifies the postmodern theme of “recycling and repurposing.” Bruce Lee was clearly a postmodernist, and his methodology was one of deconstruction. Lee named his approach Jeet Kune Do.

Today, many people who practise “Jeet Kune Do” are not doing it as a postmodern philosophy. Rather, they have reverted to premodern martial arts notions of lineage and other fixed training methodologies. Nevertheless, there are still people who follows Lee’s postmodern “way of no way”.

 

Mixed Martial Arts (aka Hybrid Martial Arts)

As the name suggest, mixed martial arts are literally the result of sourcing skills from different martial arts to form a hybrid or eclectic system. In other words, it is the individualized practice of mixing techniques together, often to create a personalized “rounded” skillset that can defend at different spheres of engagement: striking, clinch, and ground. One might combine Boxing, Taekwondo, and Judo; or Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiujitsu; or any other combination.

Image Source


This mixing of styles from different systems and even different cultures is a manifestation of the “crossing of boundaries” theme in Postmodernism. Furthermore, as there is no respect for an actual ancestral lineage nor a true governing body, mixed martial arts is essentially decentralized. Practitioners can jump from one school or system to another at whim as soon as they have “collected” a skill or technique that they wish to add to their skillset collage. Mixed martial arts training is discontinuous in nature—this doesn’t mean that the practitioner is not continually training, but simply that they are not necessarily loyal to a continuous lineage as is the case with premodern martial arts or the dedicated specialization in modern martial arts. There is a scepticism in mixed martial arts that questions the validity of traditional (i.e., premodern) martial arts as well as the myopic focus of the modern martial arts, but when valuable techniques or skills are identified, they are dislodged from their original context and repurposed to the new non-traditional context.

A sport known as “Mixed Martial Arts” (MMA), epitomized by the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), has emerged. This sport is in many ways similar to modern martial art combat sports—it is nevertheless postmodern in its mixing of a serious sport with the pomp and pageantry of the entertainment industry.

 

Embracing a Positive Postmodernism

I’m certain, that many martial artists would feel offended if I were to say that their practise is postmodern or even that they could benefit from being more postmodern in their training. For many people, Postmodernism has become a swear word, often associated with Relativism and Nihilism; hence they associate anything “postmodern” with meaninglessness. Unfortunately, this is due to a common misunderstanding and inadequate understanding of Postmodernism. It is not the case that Postmodernism is anti-truth, as is often claimed. Postmodernism’s protest of Grand Narratives does not mean that there is no truth, but rather that reality is too multifaceted to be explained by a singular framework (i.e., one Grand Narrative).

The parable of "The Blind and the Elephant"
exemplifies the postmodern understanding of truth
that is approximated through different points-of-view.
Image Source


A postmodern pursuit of knowledge is one that allows for many points-of-view. In martial arts terms we may call it “cross-training.” It is the realization that there is no ultimate martial art, but rather that we can learn from many martial arts. And in fact, it is such an ability to view the world from different points of view that brings us closer to reality. As such, simple “cross-training” is not enough. For instance, mixed martial arts are postmodern in their cross-training, but they are often spiritually superficial, as they still tend to cling to singular goals, such as a modernist ideal of winning at all cost. Mixed martial artist could benefit from expanding their “cross-training” to other “spiritual” disciplines such as finding ways to include a “spiritual discipline” or “moral culture” or even meditation in their training so that they don’t just train how to fight, but also pursue becoming better human beings (goals often pursued  within premodern martial arts). It is here then where I want to connect this essay with the essay which I wrote just over a year ago on “Pre-Rational, Rational, Trans-RationalViews of Martial Arts”.

It is my conviction that there is value in becoming transmodern martial artists that incorporate the best of both premodern and modern martial arts paradigms and develop systems that are truly beneficial at various levels. I believe that one can do this within existing systems or individually within one’s personal martial arts journey. It requires, however, honesty, humility, and open-mindedness. Honesty to admit what doesn’t work within your system; humility to learn from other people and other sources; and open-mindedness to explore the unfamiliar.

I do make a distinction between simply a postmodern martial artist and a trans-modern martial artist. The former can easily become haphazardly fragmentary, without any over arching cohesion. Or, simply busy with deconstruction* without reconstruction. However, if the postmodern journey is a positive one, where the deconstruction is also generative, then it may be of the trans-modern sort: a creative journey of development that synergistically brings together principles and ideas across various styles and disciplines to create something deeper and richer.

*Deconstruction is a postmodern methodology for analyzing the underlining assumptions and contradictions within a system.

28 November 2021

RIP Grandmaster Park Jong Soo

Grandmaster Park Jong Soo and Dr. Sanko Lewis (2014)

I am saddened to hear that Grandmaster Park Jong Soo – one of the most prominent (ITF) Taekwon-Do pioneers and one of the original grandmasters – passed away this weekend in Canada. I tried to contact him a month or two ago, but without success. One of his students told me that he is not doing well, so his passing didn’t come as a complete surprise, but it is still sad and a terrible loss for the global martial arts and (ITF) Taekwon-Do community. He was a phenomenal martial artist who inspired thousands of people.
 
Grandmaster Park is one of the “lineages” I claim, as he was the mentor of my instructor, Master Kim Hoon. I also did my last Taekwon-Do black belt test to 5th Dan with Grandmaster Park in April 2014. Master Kim Hoon insisted that I grade directly under Grandmaster Park so that I could have the honour of having been tested by one of the original ITF Taekwon-Do grandmasters. It was indeed a privilege to have met Grandmaster Park on several occasions. Even at his advanced age he had a powerful charisma that inspired admiration and respect. 
 
One memorable moment with Grandmaster Park that suddenly stands out to me now was directly before my 5th Dan test when I and my student Cory Wells who tested for his 2nd Dan went to pick up Grandmaster Park at his hotel and drive him to the dojang where the test were to take place. The traffic was somewhat heavy, so the ride was a bit slower than expected, but it also afforded us more time to just chit-chat as we made our way through Seoul. Grandmaster Park commented on the different landmarks he recognized and how dramatically Seoul had changed since the time of his youth. It was a sweet moment to share in his reminiscences. He talked about the political situation, the governance of Park Chonghee, his times with General Choi Hong Hi, and several other memories. It reminded me anew how much Taekwon-Do is connected with the modern history of Korea, with the politics and with the nation that took up the charge to rebuild themselves after the decades of Imperial oppression and the wars. Also, seeing Seoul through his eyes made me fall in love with the city I now call home all over again.
 
Cory Wells, Sanko Lewis, Grandmaster Park Jong Soo, Master Kim Hoon (April 2014)
 

I extend my condolences to Grandmaster Park’s family, loved ones, and many students. His impact was prodigious, and he will be greatly missed. Taekwon!

24 November 2021

Q & A: Who is Choi Hong Hi, did he get a Nobel Prize, and was he a unifying figure between North and South Korea?

Several months ago I saw the following question on Reddit/taekwondo:

"Can somebody please help me clear the story of how Master Choi Hong Hi managed to share TaeKwon-Do to the world and what is the story behind this martial art. Also did the man get a Nobel Prize or anything at all? He was a real unification figure of the 2 countries!" [June 25, 2021]

I answered the question there and decided to post the answer here, now:


On 18 June 2021 I visited the Kukkiwon in Seoul, South Korea. (The Kukkiwon is basically the Mecca for WT / Kukki style Taekwondo.) The reason for my visit was to see a photography exhibit about the early history of Taekwondo. The photo exhibit lasted only one week; it was unusual in its clear depiction of Choi Honghi's central role in Taekwondo. I must be clear that the exhibit was not about Choi Honghi, but about the history of Taekwondo. Yet, nearly half of the photos featured had Choi Honghi front and centre. As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words.

 

Taekwondo History Photo Exhibition at the Kukkiwon, Seoul, Korea - June 2021

When I came to Korea over a decade ago, I was advised to be careful what I say and write about Choi Honghi and (his) ITF Taekwon-Do. This was during President Lee Myung-bak's administration who was very anti North Korea. Up until that time, Choi Honghi was practically considered anathema and his involvement in Taekwondo history was actively suppressed by the government and Taekwondo authorities. People who practised ITF or spoke favourably of Choi Honghi were covertly investigated by the NIS (National Intelligence Service; previously known as the KCIA).

Things have changed a lot since that time. Especially, in recent years I've seen a re-evaluation of Choi Honghi academically and within major WT/Kukki Taekwondo organizations here in South Korea. (WT, i.e. World Taekwondo, and Kukki Taekwondo have historically been negative of Choi Hong hi.)

Here are some examples:

On 28 November 2018, I attended an academic conference titled: "Conference for the 100th Anniversary of Choi Hong Hi: Taekwon-Do and Life; How to View Choi Hong Hi". The conference was held at the Korea National Sport University and was organized by TaekwonBox Media. Attendees included mostly people from the Taekwondo Promotion Foundation, and Taekwondo professors, researchers and students from Taekwondo colleges. Note, that at the time the conference occurred, there were no ITF Taekwon-Do departments at South Korea universities; the participants at this conference were primarily WT people. I think one of the speakers made a valid point: Dr. Heo Keonsik, who is the General Director of the Chungju World Martial Arts Mastership Organizing Committee suggested that Choi Honghi's legacy was suppressed and ignored because of "Red Complex", which is a "complex" in Korea that causes people to avoid and self-censor anything related to communism and North Korea. (Choi Honghi visited and introduced ITF Taekwon-Do to North Korea in the early 1980s. He did so in his capacity as a Canadian citizen, not as a South Korean citizen; nevertheless, as a previously South Korean military general, this act was viewed as treasonous by many South Koreans.)

On 22 June 2020, I participated at a symposium at Youngsan University's Busan Campus. The symposium focused on the article "The Early Globalization Process of Taekwondo, from the 1950s to the 1970s" by Taekwondo scholars Drs Udo Moenig and Youngil Kim. The article was submitted to the Asian Journal of Sport History and Culture and was published in March 2021. I think Dr Moenig would not be offended with me for saying that he is not a fan of Choi Honghi; nevertheless, his article made it abundantly clear that Choi Honghi and his direct subordinates were fundamental in the early spread of Taekwondo around the world. (Dr Moenig has submitted a very critical article about Choi Honghi -- I think to the same journal -- which, if accepted, should be published towards the end of this year or early next year.)

The Taekwondowon (a Korean government institution dedicated to the advancement and promotion of Taekwondo) has included Choi Honghi in the "Hall of Taekwondo Greats" where they credit him (if I remember the plaque correctly) as the person who coined the name "Tae Kwon Do", the first president of the Korea Taekwondo Association, and for spreading Taekwondo around the world.

Now to address the original question more specifically.

Choi Honghi organized and spearheaded the first Taekwondo demonstrations outside of Korea (Taekwondo Goodwill Tours) which led to the establishment of the first Taekwondo organizations in other countries. Many of Choi's subordinates became the first formal teachers of Taekwondo in other countries. When you search for "father of Taekwondo in [Germany/Netherlands/Poland/UK/Singapore/Vietname/etc.]", practically each one of these "fathers" are direct subordinates of Choi Honghi. It was on this foundation that the WT could later claim a world wide Taekwondo presence that helped get Taekwondo into the Olympics.

Choi Honghi did not get a Nobel Peace Prize, but he was nominated for it by the Canadian government. He was a Canadian citizen in good standing and high esteem. The Canadian embassy in Seoul, Korea, even named their exercise hall the "Choi Hong-Hi Gym." There is an academic article currently in process that is considering Choi Honghi as an advocate for peace. After some recommended edits by the academic journal reviewers, the article is likely to be published towards the end of this year or early next year.

Choi Honghi was not a unifying figure between North and South Korea although he clearly articulated his hope that Korea would be unified again. He also (in)directly created a means for North and South Korea to interact through what has become known as "Taekwondo Diplomacy". In recent years, when North and South Korea were at a political stalemate, they have used "Taekwondo Diplomacy" as an excuse for these two governments to re-establish diplomatic relations. The North Korean (ITF) Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team and the South Korean (WT) Taekwondo Demonstration Team joined in shared Taekwondo demonstration over several years now (such as at the 2015 WT World Championships, the 2016 North Korean visit to South Korea, the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and some other joined activities). You can find some recent academic articles online about how Taekwondo diplomacy has been used and even how Choi Honghi's philosophy contributed to this. (Search for "Taekwondo" + "diplomacy" or "sport diplomacy" or "soft diplomacy".)

Choi Honghi is a divisive figure, but even in South Korea where his contributions were actively suppressed by the government (since the time of the dictatorial president Park Chunghee), his contributions are as of late being critically re-evaluated and he is being honored as one of the key-figures in the establishment and spread of Taekwondo.

As for part of your question, "what is the story behind this martial art": the question is a bit vague and the topic is quite broad to discuss here properly. Nevertheless, here is a very short summary. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that evolved out of Japanese Karate. The term "Taekwondo" ("Tae Kwon Do" / "Taekwon-Do") was coined around 1955 by South Korean military general, Choi Honghi. By the late 1960s the term was applied to all the forms of Koreanized Karate that was pracitsed in South Korea.

By the early 1970s there were two clear branches of Taekwondo that became known as ITF (International Taekwon-Do Federation, with Choi Honghi as founder and first president) and Kukki Taekwondo (which means national Taekwondo) or WTF (World Taekwondo Federation; the name was changed to simply "World Taekwondo" in 2016). WT is the Taekwondo practised in the Olympic games and has a primarily sport focus. ITF is not in the Olympic games and follows a more "traditional martial arts" curriculum.

I recommend the book A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do for a more thorough answer to your question.

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 did an 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.