Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Who am I? Taekwondo`s identity crisis.. Part One

I really think that we can all agree that the current Taekwondo comunity is suffering from an acute identity crisis that really should be adressed by the governing bodies. With all the ITF`s out there, the independent Dojangs, the "WTF Taekwondo" and the Kukki Taekwondo out there we can not even agree wether Taekwondo is a Sport or a Martial Art anymore. We can not agree what the history of Taekwondo is, some saying it is a 2000 year old Korean Martial Art, some saying it was invented by one man in the 1950s and then "stolen" by many others, some saying it was relabeled Karate and that is just the history, lets not get started with the purpose...

When looking at the purpose of Taekwondo you have just as much if not even more confusion.I mean just ask "what is the purpose of  Taekwondo" to the different students and or instructors and you will get quite a lot of answers...
  • Self Defense?
  • Sport (Combat)?
  • Sport (Demonstration)?
  • Martial Art (to look good, focus on "form")?
  • Fighting?
  • Way of Life?
  • Eclectic (mixed with all or some of the above)?
Today Taekwondo is different things to different people, and the governing bodies of Taekwondo is trying to cater for them all. The Kukkiwon and WTF both stresses sport. because that is seemingly what the people wants. The different ITF`s have all tried to validate themselves as the "true" Taekwondo and a Martial Art and at the same time provide ample competition (sportive) oppertunities for their members. They are all in effect sportive organisations who used sports to popularize Taekwondo in its early years, and keep a focus on sports so they can keep attracting new students.

I think that Kukkiwon should let the WTF do what it does (focus on sport as it is a purely sporting organisation) and focus on Taekwondo as a traditional Martial Art instead of focusing on the sport side. They should put more energy into making clear "why" we do stuff, and provide more books on "advanced" aspects of the Martial Art as Vital Points for both healing and combative purposes, maybe some traditional herbal usage wich was a big focus on the civilian self defense systems of south east Asia before the 1900s. The Korean term for traditional medicine is "Hanbang" (한방).
I also think that they should try to develop a new Dobok that can take a more rigerous training than the V-neck that the WTF developed for competition.

Before the WTF developed the "V-Neck" Dobok the early Taekwondo schools used Karate uniforms or light weight judo uniforms. They were thicker and a lot tougher so it did not rip when they practised throwing or other parts of training involving grappling or holds. These uniforms are often reffered to as "Y-neck" after the shape of the opening. The V-Neck was made for competition and was lighter and thinner so it could be worn under the "hogu" or chest protector. The closed V-neck eliminated the need for adjusting the opening of the uniform wich sometimes happened during sparring with the older uniforms. There is no grappling in the sport so the uniform did not need to   be able to cope with grappling. The focus on sport meant that soon "all" Taekwondo dojang started using the competition dobok or v-neck at all times. As it did rip very easily in grappling some part of the training were de-emphised to the point where people these days say that throws and grappling has no part within Taekwondo.

I have nothing against the competition dobok as it is best suited for the task and environment it was developed for; the sport of Taekwondo, but I do feel that the majority of Taekwondoin out there who has little to no interest in the pure sport side of things should practise in a Dobok that can take a more well rounded training (including grappling and throws). I am not saying that grappling and throws play a big part of Taekwondo, but exluding them completly is something quite recent and new and anything but "traditional".

The ITF`s on the other hand seems to have retained more of the "martial art" mentality. No doubt in a big part of its early millitary connotations (the ITF was never a part of the millitary, but most of their root the "Oh Do Kwan" was a part of the millitary), and the extremly detailed writings of Choi Hong Hi, and as a way to differentiate themselves from the Kukkiwon and WTF. When I search for "Traditional Taekwondo" or aspects of it like forms applications etc the Taekwondoin that I find are most often of ITF or Chang Hon descent. Only rarely do I find likeminded practisioners from Kukki Taekwondo (but they are out there).

Click here for part two:


  1. Dear Ørjan,

    Yes, there are a few (apparently, very few) KKW "traditional" practitioners out there (I'm among them) -- you are not alone.
    I agree with your ideas about the dobok used in traditional dojang. The idea is very simple to me: if we're using forms that somehow existed previously in karate (and I'm sure we are mostly), and if those forms had grappling applications, so there are grappling applications as well in traditional taekwondo. This said, we both know that there's a current trend in karate for finding grappling applications in every part of kata, and I believe we agree there's an exaggeration in this trend; also I believe most grappling applications can and should be adapted to be used not depending on the clothes of the opponent (instead, grips on arms, armpits, legs, neck and head can be used), so maybe we wouldn't need such a havier dobok (but maybe I'm not considering adequately the effects of being thrown continuously, maybe the clothes can get ripped only for the sole falling movements).

    As for the identity of traditional taekwondo, that's truely a tough one. My experience has been the following: I'm convinced about the karate roots of taekwondo (I know there is some chuan fa influence, too, although it is not explicit in KKW forms), and I just won't deny them -- instead I will dig them up and try to use them in favour of our art. But karate itself has its own identity crisis! We know karate teached in XX century Japan was very different from the one teached in XIX century in Okinawa. And where do I look for more info? In the "Okinawa's version" (just like many "Japanese style" karate practitioners are doing today!). But where do the "Okinawa practitioners" looked for more info? In Chinese systems. So we can see there has never been that purity thing, and it is very fine to try to understand your art looking for the previous systems that gave birth to it, as long as we remain consistent with the principles of the art. After all, many things were misunderstood in the knowledge transfer between generations, and if we want to practice and teach an effective martial art in terms of real fighting/civillian defense, we have to correct those mistakes.

    Back to the grappling thing, I believe in traditional taekwondo, as well as it happens in Okinawan karate systems (at least I believe so), we should focus on quick limb control/trapping and setups for strikes when it comes to fighting applications of grappling techniques (although throws are obviously still valid). That is to say grappling is far from being a primary strategy for taekwondo. This is consistent with using the art for civillian defense. I always say: try to pin or apply your best jujutsu lock or choke against two opponents at the same time -- you'll only be striked in the head when you go to the floor or give your back to the second opponent. Grappling arts were created for a different context -- for example, samurai war contexts (case of Japanese jujutsu) when the opponent was likely to have body armor and a weapon, and the martial artist would also be likely to have armor, too, so strikes would be less effective, and particularly complicated when the main concern of a fighter would be first disarm his/her opponent. We can go very further in this subject later. :)

    Finally, I'd like to tell you I've been absent from your blog lately, but it doesn't do justice to the quality of your blog's content. It is an oasis in a desert, and I feel very satisfied for having your writings as another good source on traditional taekwondo info. I hope I take the time to stop by more often, as I'll be very beneficted from reading your articles.

    Wish you all the best.


  2. Hi Samir:-D Glad to hear from you. And thanks for reminding me that I am not alone. Your comment on there being grappling in original Kata and so it is in Taekwondo is spot on. The trend of finding grappling Applications for each and every move is not something I adhere to. Our forms consist of Integrated grappling and striking (but the favored strategy is striking) so you will find basic grappling as part of the forms, but finding grappling in all the movements is not any better than the ones who only find striking in all the movements. As in real life the answer is somewhere in between:p

    The grappling in Taekwondo should not rely on a sturdier Dobok, and I agree With you on those Points as well, BUT where a t-shirt or a competition dobok can be used in occasional lapel grab defenses, clinching etc, continous training will make them fall apart. A real life encounter is over in a few Seconds, but in training we isolate different aspects and drill them over time. Where a t-shirt might hold together in a live encounter on the street, it would not hold up to drilling With resistance in the Dojang. Therefore a sturdier Dobok is required in Traditional training (but that is my opinion).

    I am also reminded of an episode a few years back where black and red belts were gathered for a weekend of training and we practised "Mechigi" (the opponent attacks and you end up smashing him to the floor). In real life we will have to really smash the opponent into the floor, but in training and without mats we were told to hold back so there would not be any damages to the training partners.

    My teacher demonstrated the first technique With a student who had just purchased a very expensive and fine v-neck comptetition dobok. As my teacher put the student to the floor holding back so he did not get injured the dobok ripped... It just could not stand the training. Several other students discovered later how unpractical the modern v-neck is when training. I remember discovering that it would be wise to learn how to fall too:p

    Your comments on the roots of Taekwondo is also spot on:-) But how few People out there really know this and Accept it? I still get yelled at for spreading "lies" about the history of Taekwondo because I do not conform to the 2000 years old myth. Digging up the roots to enhance Your Taekwondo is the way to go. Gichin Funakoshi said: Understand the old to understand the New (paraphrasing). The Identity to Taekwondo is hard to find and that was why I started writing. I will try to get part two finished soon. May I quote you in it?

    Take care Samir:-)

  3. Hello
    interesting discussion, and one that needs to be done far more often. i know one school owner who was angry and indignant that someone had said that he wasn't teaching "TRADITIONAL TAEKWONDO (tm)" i think it would be impossible for him to define except in the crudest manner possible. yet he is firm in his belief that he has the Holy Grail truth. thus he will never introduce weapons (no place), rarely goes into accupoints and their utility, everything can only be described as a block or kick, he is quick to try to denote that this or that technique or approach is not TKD.

    this is highly absurd. "Styles" (Ryu) are like languages. they absorb the influences around them. English has probably stolen more words from every language on the planet than any language i can think of, yet we don't speak of "traditional" English. Most of us wouldn't understand it anyway. People misunderstand the slightly older English words of the King James bible.

    i find alot of the same nonsense thrown around as "stylistic purity". while every art and style has a dimension that it's practitioners wouldn't feel comfortable moving out of, the lessons of one can be invaluable to the other. i recently wrote about practicing TKD as if you were doing Tai Chi. it really does inform and enrich.

    by the way, my first uniform in TKD was a Japanese (Tokaido) karate gi. it was thick by todays standards, and as a white belt i really appreciated its acoustic value. the snapping sound it made had me believing that my strikes were really superb! it was only later, when i got my first judo gi that i realized what a heavy duty uniform was, that thing felt like it would stop bullets.

  4. Glad to hear from you again Richard. I thought this topic might garner some interest:-) I am still writing part two, but I will try to show off some history to see where the confusion comes from (as taekwondo has been used as a generic term for unarmed martial arts, and its fragmanted beginnings of the many different Kwan).

    ""Styles" (Ryu) are like languages. they absorb the influences around them." that was one great quote Richard. I would copyrighted that phrase as soon as possible or I will be forced to steal it from you:p

    "i recently wrote about practicing TKD as if you were doing Tai Chi. it really does inform and enrich."

    Where did you Write that? I would love to read it:-D Sounds interesting. We are also encouraged to practise slow sometimes, both as a Method to focus on technique With little to no tension and sometimes we do it With as much tension as possible. The latter makes us aware of the muscles we should not activate and wich only serves to brake Our technique instead of enhancing them.

    "it was only later, when i got my first judo gi that i realized what a heavy duty uniform was, that thing felt like it would stop bullets."

    My first uniform was the competition v-neck. It was not untill I got my black belt I purchased a traditional Dobok With a Y-neck and which was thicker. I have tried a judo gi though and I also thought it had to be able to stop bullets:p Those are Heavy duty stuff:-p You practise at a traditional School, what kind of Dobok do you usually wear there?

  5. Replies
    1. I am moving from one appartment to another one so I do not have internet access or much spare time to write. I do hope that I will have it finished and posted the first week of July:-)

      Usually I post about 4 times a month, but my busy schedule prevents me from doing so these days. Glad to hear about your "eagerness":-)

  6. hello
    wanted to get back to you but have been stuck in studies. with regard to uniform, almost all schools go with the v neck model, as they regard this as Korean. as a brief aside, when we used the older uniforms, we would never tie them. during sparring if the uniform was grabbed it would pull out, thereby denying a firm grip with which to move you. those were rougher days!

    the tai chi thing was written as a brief thing to certain colleagues.few practice it as a martial art so much of it is meaningless to them. here were some of the points i was discussing:
    1. moving in "peng". that is every movement that you make is in perfect structure. that is why it is practiced so slowly. in TKD so much is covered by momentum and muscular strength, we should be testing this continually, but almost never do.
    2."the art lies in the transitions" in TKD we forget this. we think that each punch/kick is an end point. it is not. the flow from one technique to the other is where the real action takes place. you throw a punch and then move into something else--did you rake down their body , sweep something out of the way, coil up to uncoil,conserve momentum. any of these is a use, and largely overlooked.
    3. was your block "smacking something" or was it used to deflect and position your opponent in precarious balance, making it so easy to uproot them that one finger will do it. (actually fundamental Tai Chi strategy).
    There is more, but i think that you can get the much of TKD fundamentals are misused or misunderstood. although i guess it is the same for most martial arts. seems unfortunate though.

    1. I agree. Interesting observations Richard. The end point of technique is indeed usually the focus in Taekwondo.