Friday, 15 June 2012

Taegeuk Poomsae; Why does "Everybody" Hate Them?

Author performing
the last technique of
Taegeuk Oh Jang
I find Taekwondo history very facinating. I think most of my blogposts has a history element in it to a lesser or larger degree. Our forms history is likewise also very facinating with the evolution going from the "borrowed" forms under the term "Hyung" (pronounced Kata in Japanese) from Chinese, Japanese/Okinawan sources, to the Korean masters own creations like the Kuk-Mu forms and Chang Hon forms, the latter still being used in the different ITF`s and Dojang from a Chang Hon Ryu lineage (Ryu is often used in Japanese martial arts but it can also be used in KMA as they do have "Ryu" in Korean as well. Translated directly it means "Flow" but usually translated into lineage, school or style). A little later what was to become Koreas Taekwondo Association started developing their own forms. First they produced Palgwe and Judanja/Kodanja Poomse and later in 1972 they came up with Taegeuk and a new Koryo Poomsae wich replaced the earlier Palgwe and original Koryo Poomse.

The different forms have survived to a larger and lesser degree. Many Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do schools still preserve the original Hyung (The Chinese ones are a lot more rare but the Japanese and Okinawan derived forms are still out there to a relatively large degree), some schools of Chung Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do lineage (from Son Duk Sung) still teach Kuk-Mu forms, the ITF and other Dojang from a Chang Hon Ryu lineage still teach the Chang Hon forms. The Palgwe were replaced in 1972 BUT they have survived by being practised as "additional forms" by many schools (though in Norway you will be hard pressed to find someone who can teach them to you) and the Taegeuk forms are being practised by millions of people every day all over the world as these are the forms of the allmighty Kukkiwon Taekwondo (often called WTF Taekwondo).

Now as you probably have read the headline you will allready now what the post is going to be about: Why does everybody hate the Taegeuk forms while other forms are being praised? I googled and read a lot of material before writing this post and what people seem to hate the most about Taegeuk Poomsae is this:
  • They are too "simple/basic"
  • The short walking stance are used A LOT
  • No realistic applications
  • They are ugly, boring etc
(Most of the opinions are found on numerous discussion boards all over the internet)

The first one is obviously in the way the patterns "look" and only the performance of the pattern is taken into consideration, but I do not think that Taegeuk Il (1) Jang is more simple than the Heian Shodan (1) though? There are more variation in techniques and stances in Taegeuk Il (1) Jang than Heian Shodan (1). The only thing that might be more "simple" is the short walking stance that seems to be more easy to teach to beginners, BUT there are also long walking stances in Taegeuk Il (1) Jang so here the beginner students has to cope with two very different stances while in Heian Shodan (1) they get away with only knowing 1 stance (two if you count ready stance or "Yoi" but this also applies to Taekwondo students ready stance or "Chombi seogi").

Edit: Disregard the comments on how the Taegeuk 1 has more stances than Heian 1. This is not true and I am to blame:-) The Heian has two different stances (back stance and long front stance, while Taegeuk has two stances (long front stance and short front stance). The other points raised in the post are still true though allthough they are of course just my own opinions:-)

Here is Heian Shodan (1) Kata so you can see how it goes:

Here is Taegeuk Il (1) Jang so you can compare the two:

Ok lets compare them:
Heian has the following techniques:
  1. Low block
  2. Middle punch
  3. Hammer fist strike
  4. High block
  5. Knife hand block
It has only one (or two counting the ready stance) stance.

Taegeuk Il Jang has the following techniques:
  1. Low block
  2. Inward middle block
  3. High block
  4. Punch
  5. Front kick
It has both short and long front stance (and the ready stance).

Taegeuk 1 and Heian 1 has the same number of different techniques but Taegeuk 1 has one more stance to cope with. Why then is Taegeuk seen as more simple than the Heian or other form sets? In addition Taegeuk 1 has the most difficult technique demanding the most of the students; the front kick... Also it has the most "advanced" performance line (called embusen in Japanese) with Heian having an "H" pattern and Taegeuk having an "H-I" pattern (ok I suck at explaining but it can be seen in the upper left corner of the clip showing Taegeuk 1). Taegeuk 1 "wins" over Heian in terms of most variation, most demanding technique and most advanced performance line... There are people that does not "love" the "Heian form set" but they are far fewer than the ones disliking the Taegeuk form set. Here I have taken the most "basic/simple" (judged on performance) Taegeuk form and compared it to the most simple (again in performance) Heian form. Yes the Taegeuk forms might appear simple enough but that does not change the fact that the beginner student following the Taegeuk forms has to cope with more variation than the beginner student following the Heian forms. There is a cross over point though, the Heian forms does become more difficult and varied in performance on a more rapid scale than the Taegeuk forms does though so if I were to compare Taegeuk 3 with Heian 3 the picture would change:) But this brings me to the next point: Is simple/Basic really a bad thing?

I mean they are not so simple/basic that they are easy to teach (or I am a bad instructor or my students are not good learners or a combination of all the above). And even so during a real attack the adrenaline dump makes fine motor skills jump head first out of the window so to speak, making what is usually said to be "advanced" techniques impossible to apply... This line of thought actually seem to validate that "The Taegeuk Approach" of being fairly "simple" to perform when compared to rival form sets (E.g. Heian, Chang Hon etc) is a good way to go... Techniques or sequences being simple to perform makes most application derived from them simple to perform wich again makes the applying of the form in a "real" situation "easy" when compared to more "advanced" (read: difficult to perform forms/patterns).. KISS; Keep It Simple Stupid is a general rule that many now apply to self defense. Looking at this really makes the "I hate taegeuk forms because they are so simple" view seem a little unapropriate. Now if we ONLY look at performance and the forms as a PERFORMANCE SPORT, then yes the Taegeuk are simpler and more basic viewed as a whole set when compared to the 5 Heian forms or the first 8 Chang Hon forms etc. But then again if you want a more challenging way of "martial performance dance sport thingy" why not go the XMA (Xtreme Martial Arts) route and just dump all traditional forms alltogether????

XMA Forms Demonstration:

"This is not a martial art" I hear you say.. I you were to extract usefull self defense techniques from this form you would be left with those found in the Taegeuk series (some punches, and some "blocks"). But if you hate the Taegeuk forms merely because they are simple and basic (as in performance) and you love the (insert another form set here) because it is more challenging, demanding, or "advanced" (to perform) then this form in the above clip is actually even more "advanced" and should be adopted into (insert your own martial art here) training. This form far exceedes ALL "traditional" forms I have ever seen performed. The reason for this is simple: The "traditional" forms were not really made to be "challenging" or "demanding" or "advanced" they were made to ensure the transmission of usefull techniques, principles and strategy from one generation to the next. Does the form in the above clip do this? No it does not. That form is made to be more challenging and demanding and advanced and it succeds in this.

Then you have the issue with the "short walking stance" that is supposedly used A LOT in the Taegeuk forms. Personally I think this is just a stupid statement to make as there are 8 forms in the Taegeuk series and the short stance vurtually dissapears to never be seen again after the third one.. The statement or opinion of the short walking stance is used in all the taegeuk forms are made by people having an extremly little amount of practise in Taekwondo. Maybe they learned the first three forms (wich in Norway would put you at about 1,5 years of study but far less in other regions). They learned 3 of 8 forms and then decided that all 8 are like the first 3.. As to why people hate the stance I have read comments like:
  • Lacks stability
  • No power
  • Looks stupid
  • No balance
  • etc etc
I really do not get it.. The short walking stance is actually just a normal walking step frozen in time, and as all stances are not stances as something you stand staticly in but rather just a frozen transitional phase the comments like it lacks stability, looks stupid, no balance etc really makes no sense. The only "stance" that everyone is training EVERYDAY is the short walking stance. Everytime you take a single step you practise it. Are you walking around with no stability and balance? Are you walking around falling down on the ground everyday? Do you even have to think when you walk on how to move without falling? Are you drunk? The "No Power" issue I can relate to. I think that people can generate more power easily by using the more popular "long front stance" but there is one thing that soooooo many people just do not get. Training beginners in Short walking stance teaches you to create power from the stance you are more likely to be in when attacked on the street! Also teaching power generation in short walking stance makes generating power in long front stance even easier! It is actually ingenious BUT many people never finds an instructor who appreciate this and teaches this way so I do see why the short stance is not appreaciated by many. A student of Matsubayoshi Ryu Karate explained proudly the uniqueness of his style of Karate as being a lot more street worthy than for example shotokan because they taught the beginners to develop power from a short stance as this was how they probably would be standing in when attacked on the street. I chuckled a little and was asked why I chuckled. I just stood up and performed Taegeuk Il (1) jang.. The Matsubayoshi Ryu student laughed too when he got it:-)

The last point that is frequently viewed on forums on the interent is the lack of practical applications from the Taegeuk forms. "They were just political tools nothing more", "They are the fast food of martial forms", "They were created by a comitee. Getting people to agree in wich pizza to order is hard enough, designing forms with meaningfull applications would be impossible" etc These are just a few quotes that I found. I have had problems and still there are some sequences that I do not get. I do not give up though because at one point this was true for all the Taegeuk forms. Today I have more experience and I get most of them just fine. And if I am stuck there is one book that anyone practising Kukkiwon Taekwondo should buy right now: The Taegeuk Cipher by Simon John O`Neill! Read it and love it. In that book there are realistic meaningfull application for each and every move:-) Not only is there a meaningfull application to each and every move, there is also a meaningfull progression from the beginner to the advanced student, AND there is a meaningfull progression from the beginning of a situation toward the later stages of a situation! He might be seing things in them that were not put in there intentionally, and I might too but I do not care. Meaningfull applications in the Taegeuk are abound and the whole set covers pretty much all the most likely attacks and scenarios. The underlying principles that the tecniques rest upon takes care of every scenario and attacks!.

So when you think about it, the Taegeuk series are not "too simple", they are not boring (if you know the applications), they do not make a lot of use of the short walking stance (they are vurtually only seen in the first three forms), they do contain meaningfull/realistic applications and they are not "ugly".


  1. hello
    i feel that i should comment since i know that this was a poke at me-(same thing happens to me at the movie theater, i know the audience is pretending to laugh at the happenings on the screen, but i know that they are all REALLY laughing at me!) remember the old saying-"just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you."

    i have confessed my dislike of the Taeguk forms. to be completely fair mostly the lower ones. they get better around 5 and up. my comparison though is not to the heian but to the palgye.

    in past discussions i have appreciated your sense of diplomacy and desire to give the benefit of the doubt to all parties concerned. in this respect you are somewhat more generous than i.

    i feel that the older forms were somewhat closer to the original intent of the karate roots (shotokan/shito ryu etc.), hence the actual applications were a little clearer-albeit still very muddy. coming from a background where we did all the palgye, all the taeguk, some older TKD forms, and a bunch of Korean variants of the shotokan forms( yunbi, balsek, chulgi !-3, Chinte, kanku-dai, etc) i may have a bias based on familiarity.

    anyway, your post made me stop and try to formulate my feelings about these forms;
    1. i have no real objection to the shorter stance per se, as i believe that there are lessons to be learned from it-as you note. i feel that the longer traditional stance was designed to provide a lesson as well. in both cases however the lesson got lost in the technique. i don't know of many instructors that spend time on the fine points of motion and power generation associated with either stance.
    2. i believe that there is a fundamental confusion in the TKD and karate world as well, as to the role that forms play. are they supposed to teach us techniques, or remind us of techniques that we have already learned. while this is an issue to large to explore fully here, the idea that the forms will instruct us in a fighting situation is a tenuous one. sadly, i believe that the more modern the form, the less the relationship. many schools relegate the forms to a minor role because they can't make a connection between sparring and the utility of the forms to it.

    1. Hi Richard. I hope your shoulder is getting better:)

      The post was not about you, it was about the countless posts on discussion forums bashing the Taegeuk series. I was bored so I surfed around the forum and forum and did a google search on discussions regarding Taegeuk Poomsae.

      The points against the Taegeuk series can be summed up in the ones I have given in the post above. I found countless posts against the Taegeuk series but the little I found in its defense were just as thoughtless as the comments against.

      Often the Taegeuk series was compared against the Heian/Pyong Ahn series in these discussions. That is why I used Heian in this post. That being said: -"just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you.";) (love that quote).

      Thank you for highlighting my diplomatic tendencies though:-) You do know the definition of a great diplomat? "A great diplomat is someone who can tell another to go to hell in such a way that the other person is actually looking forward to the trip":-p I believe it was Winston Churchill who said it but I might be wrong:-)

      The fact that you dislike the Taegeuk series (the first four or so at least)is not something I am against in any way. As you have written you have extensive knowledge of several forms sets and more time invested in the martial arts than me so your opinion is a lot more well thought of than the standard points against the Taegeuk that I saw over and over again on the discussion forums. You do not dislike them simply because you think they look ugly or something like that you have the experience and knowledge and a good well thought answer (as we can see in your comments).

      1: I wrote about the arguments against the short stance out of the comments on various discussion forums. A practisioners such as yourself with the years invested in training and studies and thinking outside the "box" would probably see that there are lessons to be learned from it so it is no suprise to me that you can appreciate them. That being said there are so many instructors out there who never "gets" it and therefore you have students who never "gets it" either. It is a shame and I hope the blog post above and your comment does something about this:-)

      2: I do agree with you here, except that I believe in the Taegeuk series. But just about any other modern forms I have seen are basics thrown together and its purpose has change greatly from what the forms intention used to be (according to my own understanding of the original Karate pioneers works and that of modern researchers like Patrick Mcharty, Iain Abernethy, Vince Morris etc etc). Likewise even the older forms are relegated to a minor role if they are not "properly" studied:-)

      The so called relationship between sparring and forms would make an interesting future blog post:-) Thanks for the idea Richard. Personally I do not see any direct relationship between sparring (competition style) and forms.

      Thanks for a great comment Richard:) Great stuff.

  2. as a final note, as i always seem to ramble too much:

    3.this one is an entirely personal issue with me. these forms were created in my lifetime. a couple of the creators are still alive. they are not traditions that were handed down with the original intents lost in time. yet the applications and intentions of the creators were never, to my knowledge, codified in any comprehensive way. the Kukkiwon web descriptions are almost laughable in their simplicity.

    most recently, a number of changes to these forms was instituted. again there is no explanation as to the rationale.

    we have therefore been forced to "reverse engineer" these things in order to make them meaningful to us. You mention Mr. O'Neil whom i have had a number of communications with, as an example of these efforts.

    i have had to do the same thing as well-so far i have done original Koryo, koryo,keumgang, taebek. all because i wanted actual combat utility out of what i was practicing.

    this should not be the case.
    i have had discussions with well known instructors about this. some have assured me that all i had to do was go to Korea and ask for these answers. i have discovered that this is not so. Grandmaster Chun and Master Cook could not get the information they were looking for, and secondarily, some information that they could get was not for attribution or publication.

    i once started to write an essay on who "owns" TKD at this point, given its worldwide scope. i guess i should complete that one.

    i apologize again for the length, and i hope that i have not wandered too far off the reservation with the scope of the comment.
    thanks for listening!

    1. I think you ramble to little:p I have thouroghly enjoyed reading every comment you have written on this site, and I do hope you keep em comming:)

      3: The formulators applications or thought behind the forms were never really codified. That is true. They have never really made it clear on what applications they intended for the forms.

      I read an interview with one of them where he was asked if this was a valid application to the form where the inteviewer showed the Grandmaster a sophisticated application. He answered that the application is one way to look at the sequence. The interviewer then asked if there were hidden techniques and applications in the Taegeuk series. The Grandmaster laughed and said that there was nothing hidden as the forms were clear for everyone to see.

      He did say that the applications derived from the forms would depend on the level of the student. It was a long time ago and I do not find the interview anymore but my teacher seems to be following the same idea. He has taught me different applications to the same sequences more than once.

      As for the Kukkiwon applications they are insane!:p I saw that the clip I used in the post above did contain 1 application from the Kukkiwon in the end. That application would probably work in a light contact sparring session or even a full contact one if the defender angled himself appropriatly (so he did not take the full force of the kick on his arm).

      Interesting fact though: The Kukkiwon applications has evolved the last 30 years and evolved in the right direction. The Taegeuk series applications are still all kick block punch as was all the Black belt forms, BUT in the newest Kukkiwon Textbook the black belt forms applications are starting to make use of the pulling hand and even has a little grappling element in them. This is not the case if you compare the same applications in earlier editions of Kukkiwon Textbook:-) They still leave a lot to be desired but give them 30 years more and maybe just maybe you will see something that you will not laugh out loud at:-) The trend in other books are going the opposite way though. From having an explonation on nearly every move (allthough kick block punch) most books today have NO explanations what so ever. Only motions.

      "most recently, a number of changes to these forms was instituted. again there is no explanation as to the rationale."
      What changes are you referring to? And have they stopped explaining changes in the forms? Not even a "More paowah!" (more power) explanation?:p

  3. Part two:-)(just found out that there was a limit on how long the comments can be:p)

    The reverse-engineering of forms is something I had to do too, because like you I wanted combat utility from the forms that I practise (I practise only the Taegeuk and black belt forms (Koryo-Hansu). I also learned Chulgi 1 as it was a form that intrigued me:-) I agree that everything would be a lot easier if someone could just "give us the answers" but I am not sure if that would be as fun as finding them on my own:p The answers are not definitive anyway and if you do go to Korea and ask 10 Grandmasters their application from a given sequence you will probably end up with at least 10 different applications:) Ranging from "You said whaaat?" to "wow, why did I not think of that" (most would probably be "you said whaaat??" though):-)

    Take the Taebaek Poomsae`s inward turn blocking (the ones done slowly after the knife block/strike and followed by two punches). The kukkiwon exponation is that you and your opponent punch at the same time and with the same side. The opponent punch is the inner one. You therefore use the inward turning block to move his arm to your outside... (I think I will give this one my wote on the worst application ever)

    This explonation is in the "you said whaaaat??" catagory. In Poomsae class in Korea we were taught by a 9th dan who had a completly different take on the same movement. You block the opponents haymaker with the high knife hand block and strike his neck at the same time. The opponent grabs your striking arm to prevent you from striking his neck. You perform the inward tourning blocking hand to remove his grip (this was his first take), the second was simular but here you used the movement to reverse the grip so you held the opponent in stead (his second take on the same movement). Essentually someone grabs your wrist, you turn your hands on the outside of his hand, over it and then down (like a beginning of a wrist lock). The opponent has to let go (this is good), or hang on and lock his wrist (this is good) or you reverse the grip so you have control (this is good):-) The 9th Dan at that university taught all three on that one motion:-)

    The advice I would give to anyone travelling to Korea to find "answer" is either to find an old veteran who has seen it all (like the Poomsae teacher at Chosun University) or to find a small sized Dojang hidden away in a back alley somewhere. The fancy big comercial ones look good but they are wery "shallow". The back alley ones on the other hand are sometimes real "gems":-)

    I hope you do finnish your essay on who "owns" TKD and I am looking forward to reading it:-) It is a great discussion.

    The length of you comments are not an issue:-) Those who doesnt want to read it will move on, and lose what knowledge they could have gotten. Those who reads the whole thing will have something to think about and learn something. Reading your comments this morning gave me a great start on my monday:-)

  4. hello
    1. thank you for tolerating my rambling. i really do try to be clear and concise, but it doesn't always work out that way. your diplomacy is showing again.
    2. please consider your diplomacy quote stolen for my future use.
    3.the GM statement that said nothing was hidden reminded me of a gem from my past. i once had an instructor say to me "everything is hidden in the open." of course it is. the problem is you need the eyes to see it!there are many subtle things going on that are imperceptible to the novice, but they are what make everything work.
    this is not a value judgement, it is a fact of the learning process.

    a quick example from Tai-Chi. we have all seen the old master put his hands on someone pulse and proceed to blast him across the room. our assumption is that he has pushed him with both hands. not really. he slightly uproots him with one hand, and as he crosses the threshold, transfers the push to his other hand. (explaining "crossing the centerline" is too much to go into here but is the reason that what we call a reverse punch is a normal punch in Korea).
    anyway, what he has done is not "hidden", we can't see it. it was "hidden in the open."
    this applies to so much. thanks for reminding me of it.

    1. 1: Feel free to ramble on:-) There is a reason I called the blog "Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings":-)
      2: He he, It is a great quote and the best explonation on diplomacy I have come accross.
      3: Hidden in plain sight or hidden in the open is actually a good explonation for the legendary "hidden" techniques of martial arts:-)

      By the way: Do you have any combat applications for the "fair lady works the shuttle" in Tai Chi? You mentioned it being a movemenent pretty close to Sipjin Poomsaes "Bawi Milgi" or "rock pushing" technique. I have seen the move on youtube and it is very close indeed but I am having trouble finding a Tai Chi usage for it (most seem to be just as "clueless" when it comes to practical usage of their forms as us "KMA" guys:p Or maybe it is just that the "good" gyus are not uploading to youtube?;)

      I was explained that the normal/reverse punch was called normal punch/natural punch in Korean terminology based on the way people naturally walk while swinging their arms. The natural way of doing this is to move the left arm forward with the right leg and vice versa. So a right handed punch with the left foot forward is termed natural punch/normal punch and a right punch with the right foot forward is called unnatural punch/reverse punch. Another popular theory I have ben told is that it is the opposite of the Japanese terminology and therefore the Korean uses the terms they use to day to differenciate themselves from the Japanese.

  5. oops! sorry, forgot!
    i can send you a small list of changes to the Taeguk forms, and some competition (if i can find that one) if you are interested.
    drop me an email address that you can be reached at.
    send it to

  6. Hello

    indeed i do. "fair lady" consists of two basic motions-an upward movement with the forward hand, with a straight pushing motion with the other hand.

    (brief sidebar) Tai chi basic approach is to redirect the opposing force, destabilize, and then push to ground. they hit amazingly hard but almost always to fit this overall goal)

    so, as opponent attempts to strike the upper arm intercepts in a similar manner to a high block. while it appears to look the same,it is not a hitting block. it rides the arm up to stretch out and expose his side, and twists slightly to redirect the torso. if done correctly the attacker feels as if his arm has just slid over your block as if it was covered in oil.

  7. part2
    the object is to twist the opponents body so that his shoulders are perpendicular to the line of hes feet, as this represents maximum instability.

    the lower hand now moves forward and strikes with the effect depending on the intent:
    1. if your a power type of guy you will go for the liver or spleen shot (medical emergency) or break a few ribs. (we always strike rib cage from side because while the ribs compress front to back-they do not have that capacity sideways)

    2. if you are a vital point type of guy you will go for ht1, sp21,gb25, sp/gb crossing,etc. as these are all on stretch they are even more vulnerable to attack.
    3.if you are a really cool dude--combine 1 and 2.

    there are many subtleties involved in the above, even though it seems too long already, but that is the general idea.

    my feeling is that the movements in Sipjin have similar combat utility, even though some of my peers just think i am crazy. i guess i am used to that.
    hope this helps!

    1. Thank you so much for that explonation. I guess you are one of the really cool dudes then?;) That is one of the best applications I have seen to this move.

      A very simular movement is depicted in the Muye Dobo Tongji too so I am not suprised that the move shows up in Tai Chi, but in Taekwondo circles there seems to be a general acceptance that the move is just for health and internal ki excercise purposes.

      The whole poomsae Sipjin is one of the most "internal" forms we have in the kukkiwon syllabus but that does not mean that the movements do not have any applications whatsoever.

      Thank you for this, I will "play" with it a little and see if I can make it work for me:)