Sahyun and sasung – unravelling the mystery

If you’re fortunate to be the owner of a copy of Choi Hong-hi’s condensed or full Encyclopaedia of Taekwondo, and you’ve wandered through some of the pages at the back of the book concerning belts and ranks and titles, you might have seen a section describing the Korean titles given to black belts of various degrees.

In this section there are some very familiar words such as sabeom (written sabum in the book), which means ‘instructor’. The hangeul for sabeom is 사범, and you can look this word up in any reasonably comprehensive Korean-English dictionary. The word is also listed on many websites about Taekwondo as meaning ‘instructor’, and is used in lots of Taekwondo schools every week around the world.

However, also in this section of Choi’s book, you’ll also see words such as sahyun and sasung. Choi describes these words as being used to refer to high-ranking Taekwondo practitioners; however, if you try to look these words up in a Korean dictionary, they are nowhere to be found.

I’ve done this many times over the last few years to try to figure out what the hangeul and hanja for these words are, but have never found anything in any dictionary to suggest that they even are Korean words. Part of the difficulty in doing this is guessing at what the hangeul might be. In his various books, Choi uses his own system of romanising Korean text that is largely based on the American pronunciation of English letters. Knowing this I would guess that the hangeul for sahyun would actually be 사현 and the hangeul for sasung would be 사성; however, putting these words into good online Korean dictionaries (such as reveals nothing.

I concluded that these words were simply too obscure to be included in a normal Korean dictionary. I reached a dead-end. Until that was I discovered this page by a Dublin Taekwondo instructor called Robert Howard, which finally gave me the answers I was looking for.

The reason these terms do not appear in standard Korean dictionaries is because they are new terms invented by Choi. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising – Choi studied calligraphy from a young age, and seemed to like inventing new words (he came up with the name ‘Taekwondo’). I think this is even evident in the names he chose for the Changheon-yu forms, which I think are far more interesting than those of the Kukki-won forms.

The information on the page linked above reveals that sahyun is actually 사현 師賢 sahyeon. 사 師 sa means ‘teacher’, ‘master’, or ‘expert’, and 현 賢 hyeon means ‘a worthy or virtuous person’ or ‘moral’, thus sahyeon means ‘moral teacher’ or ‘wise teacher’. The syllable 현 also appears in words such as 현자 賢者 hyeonja and 현인 賢人 hyeonin, both of which mean ‘wise man’ or ‘sage’.

Similarly, sasung is actually 사성 師聖 saseong. 성 聖 seong means ‘sage’, and thus saseong means ‘sage master’ or ‘sage teacher’ – a title so honorific it could pretty much only be used for Choi himself. The syllable 성 聖 seong also appears in the word 성현 聖賢 seonghyeon, which means ‘sage’.

사현 師賢 sahyeon; moral teacher, wise teacher
사성 師聖 saseong; sage-master

These two words reflect the idea that Taekwondo is not just a method of combat – it is also a moral culture. They also show that high-ranking Taekwondo practitioners should not just be skilled fighters, but should be moral teachers and leaders.

These two words also, to an extraordinary degree, show the presence of Confucianism in Taekwondo. Korea was, for a very long time, a model Confucian society, and Confucian ideals still permeate modern Korean culture. One of the central ideas in Confucianism is that of the sage-king – the idea that the leader of a nation (and leaders in general) should aspire to be like the great sage-kings of antiquity – benevolent rulers who embodied Confucian ideals. The fact that Choi has chosen words here that seem to specifically refer to sagehood shows the influence of Confucianism on Taekwondo.

These two words will be added to the next edition of Taekwondo Terminology (whenever that comes out).

Can you learn Taekwondo without an instructor?

Can you learn Taekwondo without having an actual instructor standing in front of you telling you what to do? The short answer: in my opinion, no. It is not possible to learn Taekwondo – assuming no previous training in a martial art – from just printed and online materials. If you’re completely new to martial arts, and you want to learn Taekwondo, you need to find an instructor.

I think the main reason for this is that people who haven’t done a martial art before – and who haven’t done anything that requires very precise movements of the arms, legs, and whole body – generally have very limited body control. Body control is just the ability to move you arms and legs into very specific positions, and to know whether or not, without looking, an arm or leg is in a given position. It sounds deceptively simple, but a lot of people, particularly by the time they are 20 or 30 years old, have gotten used to a certain, quite limited way of moving, and when they start Taekwondo, they have to unlearn this. Without having a physical instructor in front of you, watching the techniques you do, and correcting them, it’s very difficult to learn body control.

Thus if someone who had never done martial arts before tried to learn Taekwondo from one of Choi’s books, or from some Kukki-won videos online, they may be able to roughly mimic the movements, but there would be a lot of inaccuracies. Furthermore, they wouldn’t be aware that there was anything incorrect about the techniques they were doing.

In addition to that, someone who had never done martial arts before would generally not be able to know whether any one learning resource they find is good. For example, there are loads of forms videos available online; some of them show a person performing a form well, others show a person performing a form incorrectly. Unless you’ve had a lot of training from an experienced instructor, you’re unlikely to be able to tell one from another.

However, there are a lot of caveats to this statement. If someone did have previous martial arts experience, for example – whether it’s Karate or Muay Thai or even something like Judo or Kendo, which focus on very different kinds of combat – then I think they would stand a much better chance of learning Taekwondo without an instructor, and just using books and videos. This is because even though Judoka and Kendoka learn to move in a different way to Taekwondo-in, they still learn body control. They learn to identify the positions of the hands and feet in movements, and can translate that into their own actions. Such a person trying to learn Taekwondo in this way would still face a number of difficulties without an instructor, but not as many.

And similarly, if you’re someone who already has a grounding in Taekwondo, you can certainly learn more Taekwondo without needing an instructor. If you’ve been training in Taekwondo for, say, three years, and you read about the next form you’re learning in a book, or you watch a video of it, then you’re definitely going to be able to learn a lot.

So in conclusion, if you’re completely new to martial arts, and you want to learn Taekwondo, find an instructor. If you have some experience in martial arts, you will definitely benefit from having an instructor, but you could also learn some parts of Taekwondo without one.

Beyond just learning the movements, there are a number of other reasons to train with an instructor. An instructor or the organisation they are part of can promote you through the colour belt grades, and then eventually to black belt. Training with a larger organisation will likely also give you access to Taekwondo competitions and seminars.