Thursday, March 17, 2011

Returning Korean Fighting to it's Roots


Recently on Dojo Rat I took another look at my experience in Tae Kwon Do, which began around 1979. "The Long and Short of Tae Kwon Do" detailed how I witnessed combat TKD degrade into a sport with a rule set that makes it only marginally useful in a serious fight.
I remember one of my instructors, who rescued a woman from being raped in downtown Portland say that without western boxing skills he could never have saved the woman from the two attackers.
There is a long, sordid history of the development of modern Tae Kwon Do, but here's the nickel tour: It originally started out as Shotokan Karate under the Japanese occupation of Korea. Many Koreans took Japanese names and were educated under the Japanese school system.
During the Korean war Korean fighters made their fame killing Chinese soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. These guys were tough, and soon caught the attention of the U.S. military. Decisions were made to categorize various schools of Korean fighters, and "Tang Soo Do" (way of the Chinese hand) became the most recognized system. By that time, the Koreans had distanced themselves from their Shotokan roots by adding spectacular high jumping kicks. These were performed at military and government demonstrations to awe the crowd, and were almost useless in actual combat.
None-the-less, lessons learned in hand-to-hand fighting were taught to Korean and U.S. military units as well as the secret service of both countries.
My instructor, the late Master Tae Hong Choi taught these techniques to Special Forces in Vietnam as well as the U.S. CIA.
Master Tae Hong Choi

Political rivalries that labored under the Korean dictatorship were mirrored in it's agents that were sent out around the world. Eventually, the disparate schools of Korean Martial arts became united under the name "Tae Kwon Do" (foot-fist way).
Originally, our TKD school practiced Korean Judo and Hapkido techniques that reflected the experience of soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as powerful kicks and strikes. One-step fighting patterns, called "Kibone" were practiced using chops, sweeps, elbows and knees.
But with the largely political push to get Tae Kwon Do into the Olympics, the fighting system was watered down to sport level, focusing on highly gymnastic jumping and spinning kicks. TKD fighters were vulnerable to systems that grappled or used fast repetitive hand strikes. The politics were insufferable.
Now it seems that "Olympic" Tae Kwon Do has run it's course. The sport limitations have shown through, and it appears that Koreans are seeking to return to more effective fighting techniques. The video above is of "Taekkyeon", the name hearkening back to an ancient Korean fighting style. While largely ceremonial and dance-like, Taekkyeon competition resembles Capoeria in some ways. The players dance about, switching feet while attempting sweeps and head kicks.
However, as demonstrated in the video above, there is an effort to put serious fighting techniques back into Korean Martial Arts.
And this is a very good sign, as in this era of cross-training with MMA and other systems, the Koreans may once again find their true fighting roots.


Bill said...

Dojo Rat,

Taekkyeon was not considered a MA but more of a game in ancient Korea. The introduccion to the Muye Dobo Tongji, states that at the time the only Koreean MA was archery (eventhough the book describes a Korean sword style also).

The empty hand methods shown in the same work are copy of Qi Jiguang's Jinxiao Xinshu. References to Taekkyeon can be seen in paitings of the period, but again since the MYDTJ does not mention Taekkyeon (which was a compilation of the best fighting techniques to be used to train the korean soldiers) we can conclude that this was not a military skill as Koreans are trying to sale. The English translation of MYDTJ can be found from Turtle Press.


Dojo Rat said...

Thanks Bill,
I am sure you are correct, the references to Taekkyeon are mostly a capoeria-type dance-fight that appeared in cultural festivals etc.

Of course, they are trying to re-invent the wheel, hopefully with some good results.

Craig Willits said...


I have a post on this I'm ready to drop overnight, but short version is as you said: old school TKD had everything needed for combat effectiveness in all tactical ranges (except perhaps ground fighting).

With the rise of sport rules, everything inside punching range was essentially marginalized, and a whole bunch of fancy, useless kicking added. As you intimated, the additions had a lot more to do with making TKD more "Korean" and less "Japanese" than with any utility.

The good news is the close-range stuff can be brought back into the mix, and TKD can be just as effective as any other combat system.

However, and this is a BIG however, doing so will force a choice - do I train for sport or for the street? Different goals, different methods.

More details in my upcoming post. In the meantime, I hoist a virtual pint of Smithwick's in your direction in honor of the day.

Martial Arts Spectrum

Dojo Rat said...

Thanks Craig;
I am in agreement with you.
Tae Kown Do can be re-energized with self-defense. It would be at the cost of Olympic fighting, but that would be ok.
Bring it back my friend!

Dojo Rat said...


Bill said...


Using CMA as a starting point we need to understand that originally these fighting skills were weapons based, empty hand fighting was a basic skill serving as an intro to weapons techniques (as found in the Jinxiao Xinshu).
The main issue I see in all MA is that people are trying to reconstruct techniques either by looking at other MA or through ancient training manuals. Looking at the manuals, it is almost impossible to decipher what the author was talking about as they used obscure therms to describe the techniques contained. Even the illustrations that accompany these manuals dont show applications and one is left to wonder what they were doing.
Looking at the video, I am not sure if they included the jumping and high kicks just for show or if they really believe, that is the best way to prepare for real combat.


Dojo Rat said...

Great review of the subject.
Wanna' write a guest post?

AF1 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AF1 said...

What about Hwa Rang Do, it that a martial art with legit ties to Korea's past?

Craig Willits said...

Hwarangdo is a modern system.

The Lee brothers studied with a Korean monk when they were younger, and on that basis they claim Hwarangdo has ties to antiquity.

However, the system was founded in 1960, snd is a fusion of Japanese and Chinese arts.

As with most modern Korean styles, the tie to antiquity was made mostly for marketing reasons. In 1960s South Korea, you weren't going to put anything before the regime or the population that had any tie whatsoever to Japan. You had to at least maintain the fiction that your art was uniquely Korean. This condition applied not only to HRD but to taekwondo, hapkido, and others.

The fact is that there are few truly aboriginal Korean arts that didn't come from elsewhere. Taekkyon fits this category. A case can be made that ssireum does as well, although I've read one source that claims it bears a resemblance to Mongolian folk wrestling. (Since I haven't wrestled any Mongolian folks lately, I wouldn't know.)

Martial Arts Spectrum

Bill said...

Craig is right, I will expand a bit on this later in the weekend,



Bill said...

I put together someting on the topic here;