Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Who am I... Taekwondo`s identity crisis part two

This is part two. To read part one click here

This post is dedicated to Steve Nesky, Samir and Richard:-)

Last time I gave a general overview of the current situation where we saw how Taekwondo meant a lot of different things to different people. I gave some history to show how the perception of Taekwondo shapes our training (the uniform in my example from a thicker more durable y-neck uniform (Dobok) to a newer lighter less durable v-neck for competition. This time I would like to give a brief overview on the history of Taekwondo to see if this can explain the current Identity crisis of Taekwondo.

"Modern Taekwondo" has its roots from the different Kwan (Schools) founded in Korea in the 1940s-50s but they themselves had deeper roots from foreign sources.

The Shotokan Root
Chung Do Kwan, Song Moo Kwan, Yon Moo Kwan (later to be reopened as Ji Do Kwan) and Oh Do Kwan all had strong ties to Gichin Funakoshi and his School of Karate. I do not know exactly who Chun Sang Sup founder of the Yon Moo Kwan trained under but I do know it was in Shotokan Karate. The founders of Chung Do Kwan and Song Moo Kwan both trained directly under Gichin Funakoshi himself and his son Gigo Funakoshi. They practised the Funakoshi Karate at an early time after it had been exported to Japan so it was more "Okinawan" than what most today think about as Shotokan (the stances was shorter etc. If you get a hold of one of the early books by Gichin Funakoshi you will see the difference. Lee Won Kuk also travelled to China and Okinawa to further his studies before comming back to Korean and finally opening the first "Kwan" in 1944.

Funakoshi`s Karate was in a constant state of change during the time the founders studied the art. Shotokan Karate as we know it today did not exist yet, but it was under development from the Okinawan art of self defense that Gichin Funakoshi had studied in his youth toward the art of self perfection "Karate-Do". Gigo Funakoshi had started experimenting and being influenced by the Japanese Budo to include longer stances, longer fighting distances, inovating the formal sparring of 1, 2 and 3 sparring. In short Karate was moving away from the combative self defense origins toward a form of excersise with a martial flavour. Over time the grappling element of Shotokan virtually dissapeared, the self defense techniques was down played and several other aspects tradtitionally found within Okinawan Karate like vital point manipulation etc was either down played or dissapeared all together (did you even know that Funakoshi was an adept of Okinawan Kobudo?)

The Karate of Funakoshi had itself an Identity crisis as it was marketed as both a form of self defense, as a form of self improvement, as a form of excersise and a little later as a form of sport. Now it can be all of the above to some extent, the problem arises when some define it more as one thing than another. For one instructor it can be a form of self defense, for another one a form of self improvement, for a third an exciting sport, and maybe just maybe these three instructors teach within the same school and and under the same umbrella term Shotokan Karate.

The Shudokan Karate Root
Ji Do Kwan (the reopened Yon Moo Kwan) and Chang Moo Kwan  both had strong Shudokan Karate roots. The founder of Chang Moo Kwan earned a masters rank in the art under its founder Toyama Kanken and Yun Kwae Byong who opened the Yon Moo Kwan and renamed it Ji Do Kwan after the Korean war also earned a masters rank in the style (masters rank start at 4th Dan which they both obtained). Little is really known about Shudokan Karate. We do know that Toyama Kanken studied Karate on Okinawa under Itosu Anko, as well as Chinese Martial arts for 7 years in Taiwan. Also he exchanged knowledge with Chang Moo Kwan`s founder Yon Byong In who had also studied Chinese Martial arts in Manchuria. Shudokan Karate was very ecclectic martial art, and several of the biggest names in Karate at the time frequented their Dojo (training hall). Toyama Kanken kept Shudokan Karate closer to the original combative roots than many other Schools did at the time. Also the Shudokan stressed the importance of live sparring training and innovated several kinds of protective Equipment, rules etc for sparring. This might be the reason why later the Ji Do Kwan also stressed sparring to a high degree. The little material I have come accross about the Shudokan does not convey an art with an Identity crisis at all, rather the goal seemed to have been combat efficiancy and self improvement through the study and training of combative techniques.

The Shito Ryu Root:
The Ji Do Kwan (yes it had a very broad set of roots and it is very interesting to study them all) had in addition to the Shotokan and Shudokan roots also a strong tie to the Shito Ryu Karate. Yun Kwae Byong kept very busy in his Martial Arts studies and in addition to getting a masters rank (4th Dan) in Shudokan Karate he also got a 7th Dan in Shito Ryu Karate studying directly under Shito Ryu`s founder Kenwa Mabuni. Mabuni had studdied Okinawan Karate under both Anko Itosu and Higaonna which made him one of very few Masters who had studdied both Shuri Te and Naha Te (Funakoshi and Toyama Kanken had both studied Shurite Karate). He like Funakoshi stressed the importance of Kata (Hyung) and Shito Ryu has an impressive stable of Kata as it contains both the Shuri te and Naha te Kata. But there are differences between Mabuni`s Karate and Funakoshi`s Karate. He did retained a lot of the traditional knowledge of grappling, vital point manipulation and Bunkai study (Bunkai = the analysis of Kata for combative meaning). I have quoted him extensivly in the blog over the years I have been writing as Mabuni not only being an all around "expert" of Kata but his understanding of them were very good and deep, plus he put some of his knowledge into writing:-) (Funakoshi`s books also reveals that he knew FAR more than most people give him credit for). As for and Identity crisis for Shito Ryu? Today yes, it suffers from the same as the Shotokan did/ does and Taekwondo for that matter as it is marketed as a wide range of different things. At the time Yon Byong Kwae studied though it was an art focused on self perfection/ improvement through the study of a combat art. The sport side came later in Shito Ryu.

The Kwon Bup Root (Quan Fa/ Chuan Fa):
The Schools with Chinese roots where more common than many think. Ji Do Kwan0 had it through Yon  Kwae Byong`s teacher Toyama Kanken. Yon  Kwae Byong did not study Kwon Bup exclusivly for himself, but it is likely that Toyama Kanken let his experiences influence his teachings. We know he regarded the Chinese Martial arts highly as he activly recruited Yon Byong In because of his knowledge of Joo An Pa (generic term for Chinese Martial Arts).  Chang Moo Kwan had a really strong Chinese root because both the founders earliest experiences was centered around Chinese Martial Arts in Manchuria as well as the Karate of Toyama Kanken. Moo Duk Kwan was also one of the Schools with ties to Kwon Bup through its founder Hwang Kee. Hwang Kee worked in the Railroad in Manchuria and studied Chinese Martial Arts there (including Yang Tai Chi). Today`s Taekwondo does contain certain influences of these arts, but the influences ar subtle in comparison to the Karate roots.

As for the Identity crisis of Chinese Martial Arts during this era: YES many suffered deeply from them. They had practical roots of combat efficiancy at heart untill the 1900s-1940s when the focus shifted from combat efficiancy toward making a healthy and strong nation. The Chinese had many internal problems at the time (the opium crisis, all the forign countries relentlessly taken advantage of them etc) and the Chinese were even called "the sick men of Asia" by the Japanese. Earlier incarnations of the Chinese Martial Arts had a strong focus on practicality and weapons as a Warrior would always fight with his weapon first and with his fists only as a last resort. Not much different than a modern day soldier really. Tai Chi really showcases this shift of emphasis to the Extreme where it started out as a no nonsense combative art and evolved into a mystical Health Dance routine done in Extreme slow motion. It has gotten to the point that most of the "practisioners" of Tai Chi does not even realize that the movement they are doing contain practical applications.

The Korean Roots:
The only widespread Korean Martial art at the time of the founding of the different Schools (Kwan) which later formed Taekwondo in the 1940s-50s was Ssiserum, a form of wrestling. Suffice to say if it influenced Taekwondo in its formative years the influence was marginal at best. Taek Kyon was just about extinct at the time, but fragments of knowledge existed around Korea. Hwang Kee (founder of Moo Duk Kwan), Choi Hong Hi (founder of Oh Do Kwan) and Lee Won Kuk (founder of Chung Do Kwan) all said they had practised this form of martial art in their youths. It is hard to say if they really did that or that they claimed it as part of catering to the nationalistic feelings that where very high in the time after the Japanese pulled out as well as after the Korean war when the People had to rally together to rebuild their country. Taek Kyon might not have directly influenced modern Taekwondo through direct importing of its techniques, but it did in a very real sense influence modern Taekwondo through the idea to focus on the foot as a main weapon. The feet where looked at as a suplement to hand techniques in the root arts of Taekwondo, most only including references to the hands or fist in their very names, but Taekwondo included references to both the feet and the hands. The Korean pioneers shifted their focus from the hands and focused on the legs as a way to recreate Taek Kyon and make their own Native Martial Art. What we need to remember is that both Ssiserum (wrestling) and Taek Kyon where not only for combative efficiancy, but it was a festival martial art for an audience. Therefore Taek Kyon contained high kicks as well as trips and throws as these were exciting to watch for the public. At one time it was banned because of rampant gambling (also proving that it was closer to a "sport" than its Japanese/ Okinawan and Chinese counterparts. For younger people it was also practised as a game, and for older people for health benifits. In a way it was a modern Martial Art even before the Japanese took over Korea in 1910. You had the recreational aspect, health aspect, sport aspect and also the transferrable skillset lead some to pursue it as a combative art too. At the time the Japanese pulled out untill after the Korean war Taek Kyon was associated with street thugs.

The formation of modern Taekwondo:
The formation of modern Taekwondo happened over a long period of time (1940s-mid to late 60s). As we have explored so for in this post the different Schools had different roots and the root-arts themselves had very different philosophies and emphasis. What they did have in common was that they fell into the Martial Arts category (obviously), they focused on striking in their fighting strategy, and thanks to the nationalistic influence of Taek Kyon the striking part preffered by most Kwan was the legs. In the end the Govenment demanded that the different Schools merged together and formed one National Martial Art and with that the Korean Tae Soo Do Assosiation (later the Korean Taekwondo Association) or the KTA was founded. Now some of the roots of Taekwondo had Identity crisis of their own, but I really think that the forced merger of all the different Kwan under one name (Taekwondo) was the real instigater of the Taekwondo Identity Crisis. Right from the start of Taekwondo we had high ranking Masters that had wildly different views on what excactly Taekwondo was/ is. They did not even practise the same forms (hyung) or when they did they practised different variations of them, even calling them different names (Chulgi, Nabojin and Kima are all Naihanchi Kata). Over time though they all agreed to one common system of techniques and forms and founded the Kukkiwon. Others who did not agree with this moved out of Korea and took their art(s) with them, while yet others choose to follow Choi Hong Hi and his newly founded ITF. At all times during this process you had high ranking masters comming from wildly different Martial Arts who held highly different beliefs and philosophies of Martial Arts that had to work together. The one common thing that all could rally behind in the Kukki Taekwondo was the sport aspect of free fighting (today known as Olympic Sparring). So the sport side was emphasised very much along with the Kwan root of the instructors idea of what Taekwondo should be.

Personally I think it is wrong to say that Taekwondo is this or Taekwondo is that. I rather like to say that MY Taekwondo is this or My Taekwondo is that. We need to take responsibility for our own understanding of Taekwondo and come up with our own interpretation. Taekwondo has never been set in stone, it has extremly diverse roots, it has gone through an extensive evolution since the 1950s and there is not ONE founder who can say that Taekwondo IS THIS! PERIOD! (Unless you practise ITF Taekwondo that is because ITF Taekwondo or Chang Hon derived schools count Choi Hong Hi as the sole founder of Taekwondo. So is Taekwondo a sport? Is it for self Defense? Is it a recreational way of excercise? Yes it is all the above, and much much more. I really can not see how the Identity crisis of Taekwondo can be resolved because it has always been there right from the founding of the KTA and eventhough the KTA standarised the forms, techniques, and terminology to help with the merger of Taekwondo into one martial art we still today see that different Grandmasters have wildly different ideas of what Taekwondo is. Today it has gone to far really to make a solution possible because even if you somehow got one high ranking grandmaster or even the highest ranked Grandmaster in the world and he sat down and wrote a great Tome on what Taekwondo is, you would still have all the different Grandmasters, masters, instructors and students clinging on to their own interpretation of what Taekwondo is.

In part one I wrote about the need to create and adopt a thicker more traditional uniform. I did not mean that we need it because it is the original and only way to practise Taekwondo. I meant that it was needed because if we adopt one such Dobok, we can embrace the diverity of Taekwondo training more than if we only practise in a light weight competition dobok.


  1. well, i feel the need to say something (hopefully) worthwhile for at least 1/3 of the time because of the dedication. Robert Dohrenwend wrote an excellent article in the now defunct dragon times magazine (abbreviated version here

    i think, as you correctly point out, that this indigenous creation/2000 year old, stuff just really has to go. yet i still hear it all the time.

    i believe that it's real danger lies in blinding students from taking a hard look at the differing influences and seeing how they can fit into their present practice.

    my belief is that most of those who refer to themselves as practicing "traditional tkd" do so to differentiate from the sport. while this is commendable ( i have done it myself) it is also limiting.

    a historical note: Kano, Jigoro (judo founder) was not only an excellent martial artist, he was a man of the world and widely renowned. He sponsored both Funakoshi, and Ueshiba (aikido) while they were setting up their respective schools in Tokyo.

    Now, as a thought experiment, having the famous creator of an art that contains throws, locks, chokes, etc., paying your rent, how quick are you to demonstrate the same in your art? Maybe the wiser choice is to deemphasize that and concentrate on showing your striking and kicking. this makes your art seem different and keeps the rent paid.

    already, early in Japanese karate, there are complaints that the complete art is being lost. there is a fear that practitioners will only think that it consists of kicking and punching. Funakoshi himself says that the art is very different from the one he practiced in Okinawa.

    anyway, to get back to TKD. we should be celebrating the wide diversity of influences and experimenting with them. instead, we are narrowing them down. While i have my problems with much of the current low level WTF poomse, they still have value if taught correctly. this is rarely if ever done-(for overly long video digression by me on the subject

    most of the time poomse is either just done to get the next belt, or left out altogether. how interesting it would be to see what some of the original thoughts for applications were. How shocking it would be if Kukkiwon apps made any real sense, after all they standardize for a reason right?

    most variations of styles reflect changes that their creators made to existing ones to either accommodate body types, or i, would venture more often, to correct flaws that they saw in those systems. that is why they went around studying others. How many people nowadays look for shortcomings or flaws in the system they are studying? if is my firm belief that if you can't identify where your system has shortfalls, then you really haven't studied it.

    we need to come to terms, and embrace the diversity of where this all comes from and stop pretending these influences never existed. you are right as well, in the idea that we need to develop our own way of lloking at what we do. Not every answer has to come from Korea. they have their own ideas about the direction that they would like to go (read "sport competition"). that direction does not have to be ours.

    so, i am forced to again apologize for the length of this rant. this is what happens when i end up with too much time on my hands.

    1. Sorry for late reply but I do not have internet at home yet (still unpacking after moving). Thanks for the link to the article and the youtube video (I thouroughly enjoyed the video, and when I have more time I will read through the entire article but I do not have that much free time at the moment).

      I do not have anything against Taekwondo students Learning Korean martial arts history, but I do have everything against using the Korean martial arts history to blind them from the truth as well as withelding the true Taekwondo history so you can exclusivly promote the Korean history instead.

      Blinding the students from their true history is robbing them from their martial Heritage, as well as robbing them from seeking answers and additional knowledge about their own art within their root arts.

      The length of Your rant is pretty ok Richard, The blog is still known as Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings and we should all feel free to ramble on as long as we feel like it:-) Your thoughts on the Kano/ Funakoshi relationship is also interesting and not often brought up. That might explain why Shotokan downplayed their grappling while Shito Ryu preserved more of theirs.

  2. Yes, moving is supposed to be its' own reward, but i always hated it. the only good thing about it was that it made me throw out a lot of stuff that i really didn't need. good luck!

    i brought up the Kano/Funakoshi relationship because to me it is so essentially human. Some subscribe to the "great man" view of history, others the "social condition" theory. i suppose that is all well and good, but i prefer the histories of people acting on a level that they always did.

    myths can be powerful and compelling, but that does not make them true. they can also be self serving. check out this revision of the "Hwarang tradition" that turns the whole thing into "sissy boys"

    i knew an instructor who thought that the book "the Killing Art" (gilles?) was good but that "i would never let anyone under black belt read it." why? because it tore away the Korean myth of history and honor that had been so carefully created. i preferred the reality. the choices that were made because of philosophies, political infighting, or just plain chance, all serve to illuminate the process. that process is the way people in groups always behaved.


    1. Moving is sometimes fun and sometimes frustrating:p I finally unpacked my "Library" so I can start fact-checking the Things I Write again.

      I also prefer the history grounded within reality. Colin Wee had a great article series going in the Totally Taekwondo Magazine where he wrote about the lives of the Taekwondo pioneers. It was a little fiction but it was written in a first persons view. Both entertaining and educational.

      The Hwarang are a touchy subject for KMA practisioners and especially those who hold on to the dear 2000 years old myth. The only "true" fact that I know about them is that very little is actually known:p My own master told us that very little is known about them so there are all kinds of theories about them. The one you linked to is one of those theories, and I believe he might have been thinking about it because he said: Hwarang has been described as everything from legendary Warriors to gay boys.. It would be interesting to find unbiased Research into this part of history though. There is one account in the Muye Dobo Tongji that I have been meaning to share about one Hwarang that single handidly killed his enemys king (not in a heroic Battle but he did it alone).

      The Killing Art by Alex Gillis is one of the best Taekwondo books out there. I would not reccomend beginners Reading that book either but not because it ruins the 2000 years myth, but being exposed to all the political infighting and Taekwondo history`s more Shady sides all at once can be heartbraking. I felt really sad when I read it through, and I allready knew much about the history.