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. 

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