31 October 2010

How "Fist of Legend" Helped Me to Understand Taekwon-Do Better

One of my favourite kung-fu films is Jet Li's Fist of Legend. The first time I saw it, I got an epiphany about the development of Taekwon-Do, even though the film actually never officially mentions either Taekwon-Do or Korea.

The context of the story is 1937 with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, China, at the start of the Second Japanese War (1937-1945). Chen Zhen, the main character played by Jet Li, is a Chinese student studying at a university in Japan. He is trained in traditional Chinese martial arts, undoubtedly of the soft style variety. During one of the early fight scenes he uses standing grappling techniques, in other words trapping and joint-locking, known in Chinese martial arts as chin-na 逮捕 and in Korean, I think, as 체포 techniques, from the verb 체포하다 that basically means arresting or apprehending; i.e. techniques involving grabbing or seizing an opponent.

This first fight scene starts at around 3:30 in the YouTube video below:

Later in the film Chen Zhen is taught another Chinese style Mizyongyi which is related to the Northern Long-Fist and is therefore generally considered to be a hard style. Nonetheless, as you can see in the video below of a practitioner performing a Mizyongyi form you will notice that it is still very much imbued with circular motion techniques, typical of many Chinese martial arts and often associated with soft style martial arts.

Mizyongyi is known for its deftly footwork and feints.

Chinese styles are not the only exposure Chen Zhen gets. In one scene he duals a Japanese master called Funakushi Fumio. The name is clearly meant to remind the viewer of Funakushi Gichin, the founder of modern Karate (Shotokan). Funakushi Fumio uses a typical hard linear Japanese style, which, judging from the inferences, we can assume to be Karate. Chen Zhen and Funakushi Fumio ends the fight in a dual. Funakushi then teaches the young Chen to “learn to adapt.”

Chen Zhen finally faces Gō Fujita who also uses a very hard style, also depicting a very hard style Karate. (Fujita is played by Billy Chow, a real-life kick-boxing champion.) Chen Zhen soon finds out that in order to win Fujia he cannot rely solely on his Chinese martial arts, he has to include hard linear motions. His attacks starts to include hard linear strikes and kicks. Furthermore, he changes his footwork dramatically, adopting shorter stances in which he “bounces” on the balls of his feet similar to Western boxing. The footwork is reminiscent of footwork we see in Taekwon-Do sparring. What he starts to do is a hybrid style which looks very much like I “grew up” with in ITF Taekwon-Do.

(If this is not similar to the Taekwon-Do you are familiar with, I would not be surprised. Because of the focus on tournaments, most Taekwon-Do schools don't practise a multitude of techniques and fighting has become narrowed down to the limited techniques allowed for tournament sparring. The video above—kungfu movie theatrics aside—is, however, very much like the Taekwon-Do I learned when I just started Taekwon-Do under Sabeomnim Johan Bolton. I even learned those punches to the armpits!)

In an earlier scene in the movie, around the end of the first third, Chen Zhen talks about “Japanese Style”; however, while the concepts of speed and precision are part of modern Karate at the time in which the story is set, the kick he demonstrates is not “Japanese Style”. It is a reverse side-piercing kick, straight out of a Taekwon-Do manual, circa the late seventies; a technique that was developed after the setting of the film. Furthermore, the footwork he demonstrates at the end of the film is something more evocative of Western boxing, i.e. the bouncing in a neutral stance, but also the way he would switch his feet or turn his facing posture is textbook Taekwon-Do sparring.

So this is what I got from the film. This is a movie about Chinese and Japanese martial arts and the result one would get when mixing the two. Korean martial arts are known for their kicking techniques, of which Taekkyeon is the most probable parent, but which influenced by Northern styles, since Korea is a peninsula attached to the north of China. Because of the Japanese influence Korea also got a strong dose of Japanese hard style, as we well know, in the form of Shotokan Karate. The result is a hybrid of the two, developed in a modern time when Western influences, including Western boxing started to be introduced to the Orient. The film, I believe, brings tribute not only to the martial arts from China and Japan, but also to the new martial art that develop in Korea, the little country flanked by China and Japan.

My interpretation of this movie could very well be completely off and merely be a subjective imposing of my Taekwon-Do paradigm onto the movie. This is quite possible the case; nonetheless, it was this movie that opened my mind to the reality that ITF Taekwon-Do is actually a combination of hard / linear techniques and soft / circular techniques. Because I recognised Taekwon-Do so clearly in the hybrid style the lead character demonstrated at the end of the film, I started to seriously look into Taekwon-Do's techniques, trying to understand the different influences that played into it. I have come to the conclusion that ITF Taekwon-Do is both a hard style, because it is so strongly based on Karate, and a soft style based on soft style circular movements which I now know to be rooted in Taekkyeon, but of which the basic principles derived from Chinese martial arts. (Since the time I started Taekwon-Do it has evolved to include even more soft style characteristics.) It also has some concepts derived from Western boxing. My instructor, Sabeomnim Johan Bolton loved to quote Grandmaster Hee Il Cho saying that “Taekwon-Do is firstly boxing.” I've never been able to find the source of this quote, but I don't doubt the authenticity of it as it is very much in line with Grandmaster Cho, whom mentioned his approval of boxing training as part of Taekwon-Do in numerous interviews.

This is the Taekwon-Do I practise—this lovely hybrid of linear and circular with a drizzle of boxing for good measure.

Post Script: My purpose of this essay was not to claim that Taekwon-Do is better than either the Chinese Martial Arts or the Japanese Martial Arts; rather that Korean Martial Arts were heavily influenced by both Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts and that ITF Taekwon-Do adhere to principles prominent in both circular / soft styles and linear / hard styles.

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