Tuesday, 6 March 2012

No first attack in Taekwondo?

No first strike in Taekwondo?
When reading about Poomsae or traditional Taekwondo in general one often finds statements like: "Every Poomsae (form) starts with a defensive technique to symbolise that the Taekwondoin will never throw the first strike." Another common statement regarding the philosophy of Taekwondo is "There is no first strike in Taekwondo". The last one is obviously "borrowed" from Karate our sister martial art. They have a maxim wich goes "Karate Ni Sente Nashi". This is often translated as "There is no first strike in Karate", a more correct translation of the term would be however: "There is no first initiative in Karate" or in other words a Karate person would not intentionally start a fight.

How a "Karate Maxim" made its way into Taekwondo is no great mystery. If you have not yet read the post on Taekwondo`s Karate roots please do so as you will see very fast just how close Karate`s history is to our own. I first encountered the Taekwondoin never strikes first mentality when reading a book on Taekwondo called "Taekwondo" by GM Cho. "Every Poomsae (form) starts with a defensive technique to symbolise that the Taekwondoin will never throw the first strike"; is actually a quote from that book allthough I have seen the statement almost word for word in numerous books, articles and other media.

I think this mentality and both "maxims" (all the first moves of Poomsae are defensive, and the Taekwondoin never throws the first punch) should be contompleted as they do limit both our practical applications of Poomsae and because the second maxim when intrepreted literally tells us to wait for the oponent to throw the first punch BEFORE we are allowed to defend ourselves. This is considered a very bad strategy by the worlds leading self protection experts. Did the pioners of Karate and todays (Grand)masters get it wrong? Karate was originally intended as a civilian self protection system, and Taekwondo was according to some pioneers of Taekwondo said to be developed to be a better system than Karate (For the record I do not think any is better than the other, just two different branches but growing out of the same tree trunk).

Gichin Funakoshi (on the right) 
Lets take the first "all the first movement of Poomsae are defensive" . This is one question I can answer in both ways. In the simplified hard style Taekwondo this is true to a certain extent. You see all Poomsae start with a movement in the "makki" class. "Makki" is translated as "block" 99,9999% of the time. I looked it up in a Korean-English dictionary to see if that was true. The Japanese term for "block" is "uke". It is just that "uke" actually means "receiving" or "receive" when correctly translated. This changes the oportunities when intrepreting the movements through labels. A high section block would be a hig section reiceiver, you receive the attack but in what way? When I looked "makki" up in the dictionary I got many meanings;  the most interesting was "to arrest" and "to hinder an attack". I did also get the boring meaning of blocking an attack just to set the record straight. How one hinders an attack is an important question to ask one self as this is a valid intrepretation of the word "makki". Another natural follow up would be "what is an attack"?

If we are going to discuss how to hinder an attack we should know just what it is that constitutes an attack in the first place. Lets look at the dictionary for this one.

"at·tack  (-tk)
v. at·tacked, at·tack·ing, at·tacks
1. To set upon with violent force.
2. To criticize strongly or in a hostile manner.
3. To start work on with purpose and vigor: attack a problem.
4. To begin to affect harmfully: a disease that attacks the central nervous system"
The one I find most interesting for this discussion is this: 1# To set upon with violent force. I understand this as an attack is not neccesarily a punch comming towards your head, but once the attacker has made up his mind that he is going to attack he has set upon with violent force. The violent force is comming. How to hinder this? Many options really, do not be there, run before the attack is imident, move out of the way of the attack, block the attack or you can attack first. The first move in each and every poomsae begins with a movement in the "makki classification"; in other words they are designed to hinder an attack. Look at Taegeuk Sa (4) Jang the opening move is a "knife hand guarding block" or "Sonnal Guodeuro Makki".  

This is most often intrepreted as a block to a straigh punch. You move your hands behind you, then accross your body to block with one hand and the other guards your solar plexus. Very defensive intrepretation wich fits the mentality we are discussing well. Another intrepretation however is a defense againset a haymaker, you move off the attacking line, block with both hands in a flinch response, grab the hand with one of yours and the other strikes the side of the attackers neck with a knife hand. This fits better to the overal movement and all the movement is used not just some parts. This application fits with both the mentality we do not strike first, but also with another maxim that used to be popular in Taekwondo wich is now (almost) gone: "One strike one kill/il Kyok Pilsung" (a better translation is actually: "one strike to victory"). Where am I going with this? I want to show that eventhough the first move of the Poomsae might be purely defensive in a basic understanding of application, it is a lot more proactive when you understand the purpose of the movement in a combat setting.

Other "blocks" can also be intrepreted purely offensive. First move of Taegeuk Oh (5) Jang for instance could be a hammer fist strike to the groin (wich would make the oponent bend forwards opening them up for the next hammer fist strike to the back of the head). Maybe this is a prime example of a makki technique that hinders an attack that is about to happen? I am not saying it is, I am just asking you to think about it for a moment. My intrepretation on the all first moves are a symbol that we never strike first, is that we can actually strike first if we have to, but we should never start trouble or do anything to get ourselves into trouble in the first place. I take the strike as a symbol of an offensive act/attitude and consider myself attacked the moment the oponent has made up his mind to attack me.

In a self defense scenario when is the oponent actually attacking?
  1. When he has made up his mind to attack you? 
  2. When he starts verbal abuse?
  3. When he pushes you?
  4. When he grabs your lapel and shakes a fist in front of your face?
  5. When the punch is thrown toward your face?
  6. When the punch connects with your face?

This could be a normal course of events in a self defense context. At what stage is it safest to stop the attack? At what stage shoyld you  try to hinder the attack? The answer is simple yet difficult. The safest is obviously not to be there at all, in other words stop before number 1 above. The next best thing is to flee the scene or talk your self out of the situation from stage 2-3. At stage 4 he has grabbed you and taken away your opurtunity to flee. If you have not considered preemptive strike before now maybe now it is a good idea. At stage 5 you are at a great disadvantage. Action is faster than reaction (no matter how hard you train). So when we look at this from the safe place infront of our PC it is easy for me to say that you should flee, or strike first then flee. For many people out there it is a lot more difficult because we are taught from childhood not to hit anyone. It is difficult because you think it is wrong. Maybe you think you do not have the law on your side if you strike first. Maybe you are not even thinking straight because of the adrenalin rush (very probable). Because of all of the above reasons we should as Taekwondoin really explore the subject indepth and try to make up our mind as to what to do if the shit hits the fan so to speak. If we are mentally ready there is a slight chance that we will fare better than if you have never explored the subject. Therefore this is a difficult yet simple answer. On paper (or on the screen) it is easy to say what is good, but in reality there are many things to consider.

Now lets look on the "There is no first strike in Taekwondo". As previously stated this saying is borrowed from early Karate. Both Funakoshi and Mabuni (possibly Toyama Kanken as well) used this saying a lot. Choki Motobu also used it in his teachings, allthough you can find quotes of him like "Karate is Sente", sometimes mistranslated as "Karate is the first punch" or "Karate is first initiative" (the latter being a more correct translation). This suggest the opposite of the normal "There is no first strike in Karate". The thing that is great with these three pioners of Karate (two of the three being the primary martial educators of several future to be Taekwondo Kwan) is that they explained their views of the statement quite clearly in their writings.

Blocking a low attack
or stiking the gorin
of the oponent?
Today many masters and instructors teach their students this statement and mentality, because they intrepret the statement literally "There is no first strike in Taekwondo" as in "You practise Taekwondo so you never ever strike fist". The funny thing is that if you read the works of Mabuni, Motobu and Funakoshi you will see that they meant it symbolicly. Funakoshi writes and I am paraphrasing: "If you find yourself in a situation where you can not flee, or talk yourself out of now is the first time to consider to use Karate. Feign intoxication (fancy word for drunk) , fear or helplessness and when the attacker least expects it strike with all your might at a vital spot and flee and seak shelter and help." This is inline with what Mabuni and Motobu says on the subject as well (allthough with different wording). This strategy is completly inline with the worlds leading self defense experts, lull the attacker into a false sense of security, strike first and flee and get help as fast as you can. It is telling that the master (Funakoshi) that is most famous for this saying actually advices us to strike first if you get into a nasty situation. Funakoshi has been critizised for his seemingly lack of understanding of real combat and violence, but here I totally agree with him, and I think after having read works of the likes of Geoff Thompson etc that they would agree with him as well.
There is also a legal side to this case as well. An important question to ask ourselves is: "Can you strike first before the attacker actually attacks you with the law on your side???". This will obviously depend on where you are living, and I really hope to be able to answer the question in the near future. For now I will just close the post with: "Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six". I do not know who said it first but I think it rings true. Preemptive striking is a sensitive topic that I hope to explore more in the future. In my opinion this is something that is not done nearly enough in most Dojang.

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