Taekwondo as we know it today comes from the different Kwan (schools) established from 1944-1950s in Korea. All of these Kwan had some relation to Karate (eventhough in two cases the founders also had training in Chinese Martial Arts). Much of the platform Taekwondo is buildt upon (almost all our basic techniques, our tradition of using solo forms, training methods such as 1,2,3 step sparring etc) comes from these Kwan which again was buildt upon mainly a blend of early Shotokan, Shito Ryu and Shudokan Karate.
If you click here you will be taken to an old post I wrote that gives a short and fast overview on the different Kwan, their founders and their early training.
If you clicked the link and did a read through you might have noticed that the name Funakoshi showed up a lot. Gichin Funakoshi (and or his son) taught the founders of Chung Do Kwan, Yoon Moo Kwan, Song Moo Kwan, Oh Do Kwan and greatly influenced the Moo Duk Kwan. So when researching Taekwondo history you can not fail to note Gichin Funakoshi`s influence on the Korean Martial Art of Taekwondo. Much has been written about him and his Karate, but luckily for us he was a very prolific writer himself, so I prefer to look directly at what he himself wrote instead of reading what other people has written about him. Many seems to want to belittle him, and critique his knowledge of applications and blame a lot of modern Shotokan`s problems when it comes to functioning in practical self defense on him. Because of this I was very sceptical when I first read his works, but after going through Karate Do Kyohan (1935 and 1958 edition), his 1920s book plus his autobiography (Karate Do My way of life) I must confess of becomming somewhat of a "fan". He does provide us with some (mildly put) questionable applications to movement in forms but he also sprinkles around a lot of valuable principles and applications we can use.
Those who read my series on Taegeuk Il Jang will have noticed that among other things I believe there to be two joint locks in the form. This is of course only my personal opinion and if you have never studdied applications or history you would most likely think that I am crazy to even suggest such a thing. If however you agree that Taekwondo`s basic techniques comes largely from Karate and that Poomsae is buildt upon basic techniques you might want to reconsider your doubt that joint locks are not in Poomsae. Here is what Funakoshi has to say:
“In karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods, throwing techniques and pressure against joints are included … all these techniques should be studied referring to basic kata” - Gichin Funakoshi, Karate Do Kyohan 1958 edition
Why is this quote important? Because this quote flat out tells us to look for more than just block, kick punch methods in Karate Kata (forms), and since Poomsae was built upon a "Kata-Platform" by extension so does Poomsae too contain grappling methods. It is up to the readers to conclude for themselves if they are there by accident or intentionally included,but personally when seeing what has been written from Funakoshi onward to the Kwan founders I think they are there and they are there by design (but not openly taught as such).
|Image Source: Karate Do Kyohan 1935 edition by Gichin Funakoshi|
In the above picture, Gichin Funakoshi demonstrates a straight armbar. This picture is from the 1935 edition of Karate Do Kyohan, but he also demonstrated it in his 1920s book where he says very clearly that this armbar is one possible application to the "low block" in Chulgi Chudan, Naihanchi Shodan or Tekki Shodan. So me using "Arae Makki" or low block as an armbar in Taegeuk Il Jang is wholly in accordance with the writings of Funakoshi. The early books of Funakoshi was the literal textbooks of the Kwan founders that built Taekwondo`s platform as we know it.
So we have grappling methods in Poomsae (again either by accident or design) but what about the hand on our hip when we punch etc? This is the most frequently critizised thing in traditional martial arts. The reason was clearly given by Funakoshi in all of his books (that I have read) all the way to the 1958 book which was published after his death in 1957.
"The true meaning of the hikite, or pulling hand, is to grab the opponent's attacking hand and pull it in whilst twisting it as much as possible so that his body is forced to lean against the defender."
- Gichin Funakoshi
In his other books he makes it slightly clearer that the point is to grab, pull and twist the opponent so that he is pulled onto a strike and off balanced which makes it harder to defend himself against you but you get the gist of it by reading the above quote as well. In his 1935 book he consistently tells us on each and every punch when he illustrates the Kata Heian/ Pyunahn Shodan/Chudan (Pinan Nidan) that we should visualize grasping and pulling the opponent onto the punch. So not only does he make a clear explanation on the hand that we pull back to the hip, he also makes sure to tell us how to use it in relation to solo performance of forms. Heian Shodan which you can see below has been very influential on our modern Poomsae
So when you look at my applications and see that I most often pull my opponents arms when punching this is not something I have come up with on my own, but rather me using a principle that I got from my study of Taekwondo history.
So to recap so far we have seen two things that we must come to terms with when studying Poomsae for combative meaning:
- The forms have grappling methods included within them (not just striking)
- The hand going back to the hip usually has something in it
"Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon by Kenwa Mabuni as translated by Joe Swift:
The meaning of the directions in kata (Poomsae) is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata (Poomsae) movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that "this kata (Poomsae) moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents" or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now.
Looking at the enbusen for Pinan Nidan (Pyung Ahn 2 Hyung), one can see that karate kata (Taekwondo Poomsae) move in all directions, forward and back, left and right. When interpreting kata (Poomsae), one must not get too caught up in these directions. For example, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata (Poomsae) begins to the left that the opponent is always attacking from the left. There are two ways of looking at this:
1 - The (Poomsae) kata is defending against an attack from the left.
2 - Angle to the left against a frontal attack.
At first glance, both of these look alright. However, looking at only number (1), the meaning of the kata becomes narrow, and the kata, which in reality must be applied freely in any situation, becomes awfully meager in its application.
Looking at an actual example, the 5 Pinan kata all start to the left, and then repeat the same series of techniques to the right. Looking at interpretation (1), the opponent must always attack from the left, and while fighting that opponent, another opponent comes from behind so the defender turns to fight that opponent. This type of interpretation is highly unreasonable.
Looking at interpretation number (2) however, the 5 Pinan kata show us that against an attack from the front we can evade either left or right to put ourselves in the most advantageous position to defend ourselves."
Here is a link to the original site where I found this.
Another thing we should do but which we often fail to do is to put our application in context. Luckily Funakoshi gave us the context in his books so that we know what environment we should apply our forms to. Other pioneers like Motobu and Itosu agree on this but I would like to share the quote by Funakoshi that both gives context to the forms, and tells us what we should have as our goal when studying the forms.
"Once a form has been learned, it must be practised repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a form in karate is useless."
So the forms are not for solo performance sport (competition), they are not for dueling applications (Taekwondo student vs Taekwondo student), they are for an emergency (i.e self defense). It is not the solo performance that is important, because if it is not understood and trained to such a degree that it can be used in a self defense situation it is useless! Contrast this with the situation we have today where in both Taekwondo and modern Karate most people only know "dueling" applications (defenses against formal attacks, hands on the hips for no apparant reason etc), where we focus mainly on performance of the form instead of how to apply them. I think focusing on solo performance is important as we need a solid and good template to work from, but if there is no substance (no idea of applications whatsoever) they are not a good investment in training time. Sure you get "movement education", or moving meditation and various health benifits from training Poomsae so even without applications I might be hard on them when I say they are useless, but then again the self defense aspect is an important aspect, and the teacher of our teachers so to say highlighted this aspect very much. There is another quote by Funakoshi that also highlights the importance of application:
“You may train for a long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning Karate is not very different from learning a dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of Karate.”
Again we see the importance placed not on solo execution and perfecting only your basics but also on how to be able to understand and use them. Funakoshi was far from alone in thinking like this though, you will find similar quotes from different masters saying roughly the same message. Choki Motobu does not really feature in any known Taekwondo lineage (he did not as far as I know teach any Kwan founder but he did study under one of the same instructors that Funakoshi also studdied under), but I really like reading his books and studying his works too. Like me he was very into pragmatisism but he also used his forms (mainly Naihanchi) as a base for his method. He said:
“All kata use the so-called postures (kamae). In fact, there are many kinds of postures and many kinds of kata. While learning these postures should not be totally ignored, we must be careful not to overlook that they are just forms or templates of sort; it is the function of their application which needs to be mastered.”
(In Taekwondo terms: Kata = Hyung or form, Kamae = Poom )
While we are speaking of Choki Motobu we should also include this quote (allthough he has a lot more)
“The techniques of kata have their limits and were never intended to be used against an opponent in an arena or on a battlefield.” – Choki Motobu
The above quote is not meant to be a slight on our techniques or forms, he is simply saying what forms are not: They are not for performance sport and they are not meant to be applied in a sporting enviroment. Taekwondo of course has techniques meant for sport too, but not so much in Poomsae. This difference in emphasis (to be used in a self defense context not a sportive context) is one of the reasons why people who only experience sparring in a sportive context fail to make the link between forms and sparring. Could some of the techniques be applied in sport? Yes of course they can, and Choki Motobu demonstrated this brilliantly himself against a Boxer, but that was not their original intent. We must strive to keep "context" in our mind when analyzing Poomsae for combative meaning. One of the critisisms I got in my Taegeuk il jang series was that I should not give up a perfectly good submission for a finishing strike when I allready had the opponent in a lock. That is purely a sportive thinking as submissions have little if any value in self defense. I see the need for them in low level responses, and in some proffessions, but in a life and death situation? What do you do when his friends attack you with both of your arms tied up into holding your original attacker in a submission? Knowing the context (which we now do because we have the words of the old masters) we can see that the armbars are either "breaks", used to set up the opponent for finishing strikes, or being adapted into a lock for a low level response against a low level threat. The Poomsae does not demonstrate it in this context which is why we see them executed the way they are, but that does not mean that we can not chose to adapt them for any purpose that suits us as long as we understand the difference between what the Poomsae demonstrates and what we are actually using.
Below is a short list of some of the principles we can see from the above quotes:
- The forms have grappling methods included within them (not just striking)
- The hand going back to the hip usually has something in it
- The forms are not a choreographed fight between you and 8 opponents. There is only one opponent.
- Don`t be fooled by the performance line, the angles in the forms demonstrates where you move and position yourself in relation to the attack, not where you are attacked from.
- Knowing only the forms as performance art is useless (hey not my words).
- Mastering the forms practical applications is very important (some would say the whole point)
- The context the applications were meant for was in a civillian self defense situation (an emergency).
Take the two first movements of Taegeuk Il Jang (since I have pictures for them)
This is the most popular application and it looks OK on first glance. But is it really? Is this the correct "context"? We have to say no. You might encounter a kick like attack on "the street" but it is not likely. This is much more a Taekwondo student vs Taekwondo student than a self defense context. The hand is on the hip in both actions (the low block and punch) but it does not really "do" anything. So no grappling is involved and only a part of the movement is used. The chamber of the low block is completly ignored and with a full chamber you would probably not have the time to block the kick anyway.
Lets look at the application I provided for the same two techniques:
In this application we are faced with an "attack" that is not on the top of the most likely faced "attacks" on "the street" but it is actually on the top ten of the statistics I saw based on police reports. Here the chamber serves a purpose (you can look at how it can save you if the opponent fire off a punch at you in my taegeuk blog post), the context is correct and the hand is on the hip for a reason. The angle of the forms are used (you move to the outside of the opponent), and if you read the taegeuk il jang blog post you will see how the form advices you to move 90 degrees when you do the follow up arm bar from the same form. The reason for 90 degrees? Because it lines you up perfectly for the finishing shot. Most grapplers would prefer to rotate more so they are more like hip to hip with their opponent. This gives you more control and easier to put the opponent down for a lock, but that is not "in context" of the form. There is a mixture of grappling and striking, there is only one opponent, and with training this can be used in an emergency. This is much more "historical" accurate application based on the testemony of the old masters than what you usually see as the mainstream applications today! In fact if you do this to all the applications I present in the article series on Taegeuk il jang (which I linked to earlier in this post) you will probably agree that my applications fit a lot better in the context and align themselves better with the principles outlined by the old masters when compared to their modern mainstream counterparts.
Allthough some (many even) are not what you can call historical applications (as in I made them up myself, I did not find them in an old book) they are all based on the information gleaned from researching Taekwondo history and the root arts of Taekwondo history. The masters of old did present us with plenty of applications that do not fit with what they themselves said. Funakoshi for instance shows us again and again that the hand is on the hip for no apparant reason, yet he does also show us good applications where both hands are in use. But why should we take only the most basic applications they provide? Why not focus on the best parts of them and develop our own to be on par with the best of theirs?
Many modern Taekwondo students refuse to see the link between Karate and Taekwondo which is very sad. They exlcude themselves (and their future and present students) from a treasure trove of information. Many are content with either using Poomsae as movement education, for health benifits or as a catalogue for "outdated" and "useless" way of fighting techniques. Focusing on practical applications however you make a direct link that is impossible to not notice between basic techniques, forms and self defense. If you tweak your sparring to include more elements of Poomsae (allowing grabs, sweeps, locks, throws, etc) you will make a direct link between all of the pillars of Taekwondo (basics, forms, sparring, self defense and even breaking). I see this as a great thing personally as self defense is one of my main goals for practising Taekwondo and it is also I am told one of the primary reasons why people take up martial arts. When I practise "Arae Makki", or any other basic technique I am practising a movement that I can directly relate into self defense. When I practise solo performance of Poomsae, I am practising self defense, when I am drilling self defense (on my own with a partner) I am drilling the practical applications of Poomsae. When I spar outside of the Dojang I am practising the practical applications of Poomsae in an unscripted manner. Many modern Taekwondo students practise their basics to be better at solo performance of Poomsae, and then sparring techniques and sparring to be better at competition sparring. They are in effect practising two different martial arts, one without practical applications, and one with only applications in mind (but for sport). My personal approach to Taekwondo makes no such distinction as it is all a means to an end, and there is a clear link between everything I do.