Special doboks for referees in Taekwondo

I have always liked the dobok. Its design allows for free movement while also looking strong and powerful. It is traditional, and a symbol of Korean culture, but not inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Two or three times a year I go to officiate at Taekwondo competitions, and have been doing so for about eight years. For the competitions, officials are instructed to wear black trousers, and a black v-neck t-shirt with the word ‘Official’ embroidered onto it – we’re given the t-shirt when we first go to officiate at a competition. Most people generally wear sports shoes.

I think that the monotonous and undistinctive clothing that the officials wear does not help to give the sense of authority and expertise that we need. The officials are ultimately the people running the competition, and that involves doing things like keeping the audience from intruding on the rounds, telling competitors where to go and more generally what to do, and even disqualifying competitors if they break the rules of the competition. The officials are also expected to know a lot about Taekwondo – both the art itself and the rules of the competition. The officials need to be seen as authorities and experts, and how we look can influence that.

As such, I have long thought that officials in Taekwondo need a special design of dobok to wear at competitions. Being a dobok, officials could wear their belts with it, which would remind everyone that these officials ARE black belts, and they are very skilled in Taekwondo themselves – they’re not just people who’ve been taught the rules and brought in to help. Having a different design – i.e., one that’s not white – rather than just wearing the existing black belt doboks, would make it easy to tell the officials and the competitors apart – which is vital during rounds – otherwise the competitors would mistake the referees for their opponents and start fighting them. Having an exclusive design would also add to the sense of authority that the officials have.

Having special clothing for referees would not be unique to Taekwondo – referees in Sumō have their own styles of clothing – indeed refereeing in Sumō is seen as an art as much as the wrestling itself is, and Sumō referees have their own traditions. And in Taekkyeon – one of the ancestors of Taekwondo – they have special referees’ doboks. In Taekkyeon they are bright yellow – perhaps not a good choice of colour for Taekwondo, but if Taekkyeon can have special referees’ doboks, then we in Taekwondo definitely can too.

So what should the design be? Well, the normal dobok is white, and black belts get some black edging to it. In the organisation that I train with, instructors have a black dobok, which has gold lettering embroidered onto it. It has always seemed slightly odd to me to give instructors a black dobok, since black is the colour of expertise or perfection in Taekwondo, but masters’ doboks are still white. Nevertheless, the referees’ dobok could also be black, symbolising a different kind of expertise to that of the instructors. The instructor is skilled in teaching; the referee is skilled in scoring a fight.

But to avoid the symbolism of black, the referees’ dobok could be dark blue or dark red. Blue and red are the colours of the Taegeuk, as seen on the flag of South Korea. If the doboks had gold embroidery, they would not look dissimilar to the clothing worn by the aristocracy of ancient Korea. Yellow also has traditional symbolism – it is one of the colours of the Samsaeg-ui Taegeuk – perhaps appropriate as it’s the colour that represents humankind (blue and red represent the sky and the earth). However, yellow is bright and garish, so likely to be unpopular. Orange, magenta, and purple are also too garish. Green has no particular symbolism, and is an odd colour choice for a dobok generally. Brown and grey are too dull.

So blue, red, or yellow would all be advisable colours, with gold embroidery. No black edging – I think that would be too much. Despite the challenge of designing and manufacturing a dobok, and then persuading practitioners to buy it and wear it, I think having special doboks for referees would be worth it.

How to spell ‘Taekwondo’

From the title of this post, and indeed the title of this blog, you can already see what my opinion on this is. Let me explain it.

I see ‘Taekwondo’ written in a lot of different ways. I see it written: Tae Kwon Do, Tae Kwon-Do, Tae-Kwon-Do, TaeKwon-Do, TaeKwon-do, Taekwon-Do, Taekwon-do, TaeKwonDo, TaeKwondo, Taekwondo, taekwondo, T’aegwŏndo, Taegwondo. (All of these different ways written deliberately and not mistakenly.)

Most of these writings vary only in whether syllables are separated by spaces and hyphens, and in capitalisation.

I think that the correct way to write 태권도 is ‘Taekwondo’. No spaces, no hyphens, no capital letters in the middle of the word, but the first letter should be a capital letter.

Firstly, why shouldn’t there be any spaces? ‘Taekwondo’ is one word in Korean. It would be like, in English, instead of writing ‘information’, writing ‘in form ation’. Certainly, each of the syllables in ‘Taekwondo’ has meaning – just as ‘in’, ‘form’, and ‘ation’ have distinct etymological meanings – and looking at the separate meanings is how we learn what the whole word means, but ‘Taekwondo’ is not three words, it is one.

Why shouldn’t there be any hyphens? In large part for the same reason that there shouldn’t be any spaces. Writing ‘Tae-Kwon-Do’ suggests that it’s three words rather than one. Writing ‘Taekwon-do’ suggests that the ‘do’ is a suffix that can be omitted as with ‘Karate-do’, but no-one ever calls ‘Taekwondo’ just ‘Taekwon’.

Furthermore, in the McCune-Reischauer and Revised systems of romanisation, hyphens are significant. They are used to separate letters that English speakers may interpret as a single sound – specifically they are used to distinguish between ‘ng’ and ‘n-g’. An example of this is in the word 평안 pyeong-an. If the hyphen were omitted from the romanisation, this would be written ‘pyeongan’, but this is ambiguous – is the pronunciation like ‘pyeong-an’ or ‘pyeon-gan’? Thus, hyphens shouldn’t be used to separate syllables unless necessary to help with pronunciation.

Why shouldn’t there be any capital letters WITHIN the word, like in ‘TaeKwonDo’? This is just bad English. The trend for using capital letters in the middle of words (like in ‘YouTube’) is a modern phenomenon that’s used most often in brand names. It’s inelegant, and looks very odd if you dO iT aLl ThE tImE.

Why should there be a ‘k’ instead of a ‘g’? G’s in Korean words tend to be confusing. For example, the romanisation of 고려 according to the Revised Romanisation is goryeo, but the ㄱ in this position is pronounced more like a ‘k’ than a ‘g’, which is why writing this word as ‘koryo’ makes a lot of sense. This is also true of a word like 국기원 – written gukgiwon in RR, but more familiar when written kukkiwon. When the ㄱ is in the middle of the word, the pronunciation IS often more like a ‘g’, but a ‘g’ is often still confusing for English speakers, so a ‘k’ should be used. (Similarly, I advocate writing ‘kukki-won’ rather than ‘gukgiwon’, ‘songdo-kwan’ rather than ‘songdogwan’, and so on.)

And finally, why should ‘Taekwondo’ always start with a capital letter? ‘Taekwondo’ is a proper noun – it is a name – not capitalising the first letter would be like writing ‘britain’ or ‘korea’. Taekwondo is a specific style of martial arts, much the same way that Impressionism is a specific style of western art, and both should be written with a capital letter at the start.

My conventions when writing Korean text

I write a lot about Taekwondo. At the time I’m writing this blog post, I have written nine books on the subject. I write a lot about the terminology used in Taekwondo, even if that’s not the main subject of the book or post. If I use a Korean word in the text, I will give the han-geul, hanja, and romanisation for the word in-line. I do this because a lot of authors mis-romanise Korean words, sometimes to the extent where you can’t be sure what word they mean. Korean is the proper language of Taekwondo, even though probably more of the art’s practitioners are not Korean and do not speak conversational Korean. When authors mis-romanise han-geul, the reader can’t be sure what the correct Korean is, and what the correct pronunciation is, and this leads to a degradation of knowledge among Taekwondo practitioners. By including the han-geul directly in the text, the reader never has to look it up, and can be sure that the romanisation presented is correct.

However, adding the han-geul, hanja, romanisation, and translation for most of the terms I use into the text is quite difficult to do right – it’s a lot of information and if it’s not presented well and consistently, then it’s confusing. Here are the conventions I use for adding Korean into what I write, and why I use them.

Let’s say I want to put the word dojang into a sentence. I put the han-geul, 도장, first, because Korean is the proper language of Taekwondo, and so should come before anything else. If the han-geul has a writing in hanja, which for dojang is 道場, that will come immediately after the han-geul, separated by a space. I think it’s important to write the hanja because if it’s not there then the reader may have to look it up, which is time-consuming and not straight-forward for the average reader. After that I will write the romanisation. I use the Revised Romanisation of Korean. The main reason I use this romanisation system is because it’s what I’ve always used, and I want to be consistent with what I’ve already written. I actually think that the McCune-Reischauer system is better at representing the pronunciation of Korean. I will sometimes include the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation of the word in parentheses () if I think it’s useful. The romanisation I always put in italic text – which is why I always put Taekwondo in italics.

So for dojang, I would normally write this in the text as: 도장 道場 dojang

If I’ve already written the han-geul and hanja for a word in the book or post that I’m writing, I won’t include it a second time if I write the word again (the exception being for lists of movements of forms).

These conventions give the reader a lot of information, make it very easy for the reader to find out the han-geul for a given word, make it easier for people whose first language is not English to interpret what I write, and reinforce Korean as the proper language of Taekwondo.

Why do I say ‘form’ instead of ‘pattern’?

I practise Changheon-yu Taekwondo – the style of Taekwondo promulgated by Choi Hong-hi. In Changheon-yu, we call forms – predetermined series’ of movements that are used as educational exercises, among other uses – ‘patterns’. We use this word because it’s the word that Choi favoured. I, however, prefer to use the word ‘form’, and here’s why.

In the early years of Taekwondo, everyone called these exercises 형 hyeong, which is the Korean pronunciation of the Japanese word 型 形 kata, and this is evidenced by early Korean texts. 형 hyeong is generally translated into English as ‘form’. Now, however, alternate words are used. Choi changed to using 틀 teul to describe them. 틀 teul literally means ‘mould’, and the implication here is that the exercise ‘moulds’ or ‘shapes’ your techniques. Choi chose ‘pattern’ as the translation of 틀 teul, with the same aim. In Kukki-won Taekwondo, 품새 pumsae is the modern Korean term for these exercises.

Part of the motivation behind these changes was to de-Japanese Taekwondo. Taekwondo is descended from Karate, and for a long time, the Korean pronunciations of Japanese terms were used to describe techniques in Taekwondo. However, since the Japanese had occupied the Korean peninsula for several decades, and had attempted to eradicate Korean culture, many of those in Taekwondo wanted to remove the influence of Japan on the art, and this meant changing the terminology. That’s why nowadays we use the term 손칼 sonkal to describe a knife-hand, rather than the term 수도 sudo – the Korean pronunciation of 手刀 shutō, which refers to a knife-hand in Japanese martial arts. The word for ‘form’, 형 hyeong, was also replaced.

I use the word ‘form’ rather than ‘pattern’, when writing in English, because I think that ‘pattern’ implies the wrong meaning – ‘pattern’ suggests a series of movements that repeat themselves, and while this is true for some forms, it isn’t true for a lot of them. ‘Form’ is a generic word that doesn’t imply anything about the content of the exercise. Also, using ‘form’ brings the terminological conventions of Taekwondo into line with those of other martial arts. I use 형 hyeong in Korean for the same reason.