Taekwondo Forms in 1958

It could be argued that the first book ever written on Taekwondo was a book published by Hwang Ki in 1958. The book is called ‘Tangsudo Textbook’ – now while it could be counter-argued that this makes it a book on Tangsudo and not Taekwondo (particularly since Hwang Ki’s Mudeok-kwan remained separate from the other kwans of the Kwan Era, and since Hwang Ki’s style of martial arts still exists today, and still uses the name Tangsudo) Mudeok-kwan was one of the nine original kwans, and this book is about the style of martial arts that were being practised in Korea at this time. The first book to be published with the name ‘Taekwondo’ on it was published by Choi Hong-hi a year later.

Hwang Ki’s book is freely available to view online. A copy of the book is owned by the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and they have scanned the book and made it available online here: http://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10524/1073

On page 19 of the book is some fascinating information. Hwang lists the forms that are practised in Tangsudo:

List of forms from Hwang Ki's 'Tangsudo Textbook' (1958)

There are a number of things that are fascinating about this information. Firstly: the spellings of the names of these forms. Hwang lists a series of five forms that are called the 삥앙 pping-ang forms. These are clearly the Pinan forms from Karate (here Hwang uses the Okinawan name for them, rather than the Japanese, which is Heian). Unlike nowadays, when it’s relatively easy to use various dictionaries to find the correct Korean pronunciation of Japanese words, Hwang has simply best approximated the Japanese pronunciation of the name of each form using hangeul.

So in order to find out which forms Hwang is talking about here, the first thing we have to do is match each one to the correct name of the form.

Section 1:
  1. 기초형 1부 gicho hyeong 1 bu – This is actually the correct name of the form – 기초 gicho – a series of three basic forms still practised in some schools today.
  2. 기초형 2부 gicho hyeong 2 bu
  3. 기초형 3부 gicho hyeong 3 bu
  4. 삥앙 초단 pping-ang chodan – Clearly Pinan – a series of five basic forms – called Heian in Japanese Karate. The correct name for them in Korean is 평안 Pyeong-an.
  5. 삥앙 2단 pping-ang 2 dan
  6. 삥앙 3단 pping-ang 3 dan
  7. 삥앙 4단 pping-ang 4 dan
  8. 삥앙 5단 pping-ang 5 dan
  9. 나이한찌ー 초단 naihanjji chodan – Clearly Naihanchi – a series of three forms, of which this is the first. The series is also called Tekki in Japanese, and 철기 Cheolgi in Korean.
  10. 빳싸이 ppatssai – Clearly Passai – called Bassai in Japanese Karate. The correct Korean translation is 발새 Balsae.

There’s nothing all that odd about the forms in section 1. This is a fairly standard list of forms that colour belt students today practise as they progress towards black belt. What’s mainly of interest in section 1 is how Hwang has approximated the pronunciations of the names of the forms.

Section 2:
  1. 나이하찌 2단 naihajji 2 dan – Clearly Naihanchi Nidan – no idea why Hwang changed the spelling here from that in section 1.
  2. 나이하찌 3단 naihajji 3 dan
  3. 찟듸 jjitdui – Clearly Jitte.
  4. 찐도ー jjindo – Clearly Chintō.
  5. 소림 장권 (小林長拳) sorim janggwon – This is fascinating – more on this further down.
  6. 꾸상군 (公相君) kkusanggun – Clearly Kūshankū. The correct name in Korean is 공상군 Gongsanggun.
  7. 로ー하이 rohai – Clearly Rōhai. The correct name in Korean is 로학 Rohak.
  8. 54 보 (步) 54 bo – Clearly Gojūshiho. The correct name in Korean is 오십사보 Oshipsabo.
  9. 지욘 jiyon – Clearly Jion. The correct name in Korean is 자은 Ja-eun.
  10. 완시유ー wanshiyu – Clearly Wanshū. The correct name in Korean is 완수 Wansu.
  11. 삼전 (三戰) samjeon – Clearly Sanchin (based on the hanja).
  12. 전장 (轉掌) jeonjang – This is the form Tenshō. It’s not obvious from the hangeul, but the meaning of the hanja is the same as that of the kanji for Tenshō.
  13. 씨ー산 (十三) sshisan – Clearly Seisan.
  14. 세ー시얀 seshiyan – This would appear to also be Seisan. There are multiple different pronunciations of the name of the Karate form – this is probably why the form is listed here twice.
  15. 씨빠이 (十八) sshippai – From the hanja this is clearly Seipai.
  16. 싼씨빠이 (三十八) ssansshippai – It’s not obvious which form this is. The hanja means ’38’, implying that there are 38 movements in the form, but there is no Karate kata with this name. It’s possible that there is an error on this line in the book, and that this should say 三十六, which is the name of a form – Sanseirū – meaning ’36’.
  17. 빼지유린 (百步連) ppaejiyurin – This is interesting – this would appear to be the form Pechurin (based on the hangeul). Not much has been written about this form in English, and this is the first time I’ve seen hanja / kanji written for it anywhere. The correct hangeul writing of 百步連 is 백보련 Baekboryeon, and it roughly means ‘100 continuous steps’.
  18. 소ー진 sojin – Clearly Sōchin.
  19. 사이후아ー saihua – Clearly Saifa (there is no corresponding letter for ‘f’ in Korean, so here it’s been approximated as a ‘h’).
  20. 구르룽후아ー gureurunghua – It’s not obvious from the romanisation, but from the pronunciation this is clearly Kururunfa.
  21. 로하이 初段 rohai chodan – Clearly Rōhai. Again, Hwang has already listed this form further up. Here Hwang seems to suggest that there are three Rōhai forms, and that this is the first.
  22. 로하이 2단 rohai idan
  23. 로하이 3단 rohai samdan
  24. 얼 씨쓰슈 (二十四手) eol sshisseushyu – This again is interesting. There’s no Karate form with this exact name, but there is one that’s similar: 二十四歩 Nijūshiho. 二十四手 means ‘twenty-four hands’, whereas 二十四歩 means ‘twenty-four steps’. A lot of Karate forms have a name that’s a number followed by ‘hands’ or ‘steps’ so the difference isn’t significant. What’s particularly interesting here, however, is that Hwang’s phonetic approximation using hangeul is not a phonetic approximation of the Japanese pronunciation – eol sshisseushyu and nijūshiho clearly sound nothing alike. But it is a phonetic approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of 二十四手, which is èrshíshǒu (in Mandarin). (If you’re not used to reading romanised hangeul or Hanyu Pinyin, then you’ll just have to trust me that the pronunciations of these words are very similar.) This shows that Hwang had a knowledge of how certain words were pronounced in Chinese.
  25. 운슈 (雲手) unshyu – Clearly Unshu.
  26. 담퇴 damtoe – There is no Karate kata with a name like this.
  27. 타이그권 (太極拳) taigeugwon – This one’s complicated – more on this below.

There’s a lot to remark here.

Firstly is Hwang’s use of the character ー. While this character looks like the Chinese character 一 yi, meaning ‘one’, it probably isn’t. It’s quite likely a character known as a chōonpu in Japanese. In Japanese, the basic phonological unit is a mora rather than a syllable. A single syllable in Japanese can be comprised of one or two morae – a syllable with two morae has a greater stress or length than a syllable with one mora. Hwang is trying to represent the Japanese pronunciation of words using hangeul, and it seems like he’s borrowed the chōonpu character from Japanese in order to represent the stressed syllables. (Read more about this character here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%8Donpu)

Now by far the most interesting form listed in section 2 is the one called Sorim Janggwon. This is interesting because there is no Karate kata with this name. (If there were, it’s name in Japanese would be Shōrin Chōken.) Any time the characters 小林 appear in Korean and Japanese martial arts, it’s usually a reference to the Shaolin Temple in China. Since this form has not come from Japanese Karate, the presence of this form in this list would appear to show some Chinese influence on Hwang’s style of martial arts.

This is crucial because Hwang reportedly studied martial arts under a Chinese instructor for a while, but the veracity of this is uncertain. The fact this form appears in this list may support the idea that Hwang had some training in Chinese martial arts.

The name 小林長拳 altogether means ‘Shaolin Long Fist’.

This Chinese influence may be further supported by the last two items in the list. The penultimate item is 담퇴 damtoe. There’s no Karate form with a name anything like this, so it’s nothing to do with Karate. But this sounds very strongly like Tántuǐ – from Chinese martial arts. It’s difficult to discern more about this from the information given, but you can read more about Tántuǐ here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%A1n_Tu%C7%90

The final item, 타이그권 (太極拳) taigeugwon, is interesting – it could be a reference to several things. There is a series of three forms in Karate called Taikyoku, which has the same kanji 太極. These forms are known to have been practised in Korea at this time, and they appear in Choi Hong-hi’s 1959 book, as well as many others. However, 太極拳 is also the name of the Chinese martial art Tàijíquán – more commonly known in English as Taichi. The fact that Hwang has given the full name of that martial art style here, rather than just the name for the Karate form, suggests that here he is referring to the Chinese martial arts style. Why he’s referring to this in a list of forms is not clear; however, it would further support the idea of Chinese influence on Hwang’s style of martial arts.

Why do we practise forms in Taekwondo?

Forms are practised in all styles of Taekwondo, and they are practised by students of all grades and degrees. Clearly they are central to Taekwondo training. Some people (like myself) like forms, and like practising them, but a number of people dislike forms. I’ve met a number of people over the time I’ve been training in Taekwondo who strongly dislike forms, and who vastly prefer to do other kinds of training such as sparring and self-defence training, and who wonder why we train in forms at all in Taekwondo. It is to those people that this post is written – I aim to show that even if you don’t like forms, there are good reasons why they’re such a big part of Taekwondo.

1. Body Control

This, I think, is THE most important reason to practise forms. Body control is just the ability to move your body into a specific position and know, without looking to check, that your body is in the correct position. It’s the ability to perform a punch and to know that your wrist is straight and that the opposite hand is on your waist without having to look to check, or without having an instructor come along and adjust the position.

This might sound like a very basic ability – and it is – but a lot of people, when they first start training in martial arts, do not have this ability. This is especially true with older students (30 years and older), who – if they have never done any physical activity that requires precise movements of the body, such as martial arts or dance – will have become used to a certain way of moving. When they first start training in martial arts they have to unlearn the way they have learnt to move over the first few decades of their life.

Forms are excellent for teaching body control, because they are a choreographed sequence of movements, and they should be performed in a very precise way. Importantly, the transitions between movements in forms are very specific – you have to move a specific foot, you have to turn a specific direction, you have to start the next technique at the correct point, and you have to maintain balance throughout. All of this forces you to think about how you are moving, and this is how forms train you in body control.

(This point isn’t so relevant if you’ve been training in Taekwondo or another martial art for several years. After a few years of training, you will have learnt body control, and it’s not an ability you will forget quickly. However, for beginners, learning body control, and hence practising forms, is essential.)

2. Competitions

Some people dislike the ‘sport’ side of Taekwondo: the style of fighting that’s used for competition sparring – which is often criticised as unrealistic – and the performance of forms. However, Taekwondo practitioners want to be able to compete, so there should be a part of Taekwondo which allows them to do that (even if it doesn’t completely emulate a real fight).

Forms are an excellent way of judging a Taekwondo practitioner’s ability. They are a test of balance, flexibility, and just the ability to accurately perform any given technique. Since everyone in a given style of Taekwondo will learn the same forms, they are a standardised way to compare the abilities of a group of practitioners. Indeed, so useful are forms for competitions, Kukki-won created a set of 10 new forms specifically to be used in competitions.

3. Forms are the lexicon of a martial art

This is another very important reason for practising forms. The forms of a particular style of a martial art contain all of the techniques that are part of that martial art. They are a dictionary of techniques – if you learn all of the forms, then you have learnt all of the techniques taught in that martial art.

This idea is arguably somewhat undermined by the fact that people like Choi Hong-hi and Hwang Ki wrote encyclopaedias for their styles of Taekwondo, and those encyclopaedias are far more detailed and specific than the forms are. Nevertheless, it is still the tradition, in the martial arts that are related to Karate, that each generation of students teaches forms to the next generation, and that knowledge is passed down through those forms, which encapsulate all of the knowledge of that style. Forms form a kind of ‘oral history’ – a ‘choreographic history’ or a ‘choreographic lexicon’ – and passing that from one generation to the next is part of the traditions of Taekwondo.

4. Fitness

Forms are not performed particularly fast, but practising them does improve your fitness. Forms often involve performing low stances and various different kicks, which improve your flexibility and strength. They often also involve one-leg stances, which together with any high kicking techniques improve your balance.

One could argue that there are plenty of general exercises you could do to improve these aspects of fitness, but forms do all of them at the same time. Forms are excellent for improving your general fitness.

Forms do not teach you how to win a fight, but they’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to be a foundation of training from which other forms of training – free sparring, self-defence training – develop.

‘Is Taekwondo a religion?’

I’ve put the title above in quotation marks because this is not a question that I am asking of you, the reader – this is a question that was asked of me a long time ago. Actually, more specifically, it was put to me as a statement – that ‘Taekwondo is a religion’ – by one of my friends.

I hadn’t been training in Taekwondo for very long at the time – probably about a year and a half – and the friend who asked it of me was not a martial artist at all. She was just very interested in philosophy (and went on to study philosophy at university).

My answer at the time was a firm ‘no, Taekwondo is not a religion’, though not having thought of the question before, I was not very well equipped to say why it was not. Nevertheless I have not forgotten being asked the question.

Certainly in some ways Taekwondo is similar to many world religions. We have a traditional style of clothing – the dobok; we have traditional rituals that we learn from and teach to each other – the forms; we have separate denominations – the different styles of TaekwondoChangheon-yu, Kukki-won; we have founders; we have a hierarchical structure.

But these things alone do not make something a religion. Many of these attributes also apply to the supporters of football clubs, and they are generally not considered a religion (though I’m sure some philosophers would disagree). This question comes down to, as it often does: what is the defining quality of a religion?

Personally, I think that a religion has to have a supernatural belief system – you have to believe in a deity or some other metaphysical entity. While in Taekwondo we do idolise a number of people – such as Choi Hong-hi and Hwang Ki – there are no gods or goddesses. On this alone, I would say that Taekwondo is not a religion.

However, some would argue that belief in the supernatural is too narrow a constraint for the definition of a religion. It would most likely exclude Confucianism (which I would also not consider a religion, but again some would argue differently). Some would argue that a religion is any codified set of beliefs.

Taekwondo – particularly Changheon-yu Taekwondo – does have a set of beliefs. These are the tenets, or virtues, of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. These are the tenets by which students are expected to act in Taekwondo classes. But it is also often remarked that Taekwondo is not just an activity that you do for a few hours a week – it is a way of life. The five tenets, as well as other aspects of Taekwondo and Korean culture, are supposed to be part of your life outside of the dojang too. Therefore, the tenets, and the culture of Taekwondo, is a set of beliefs about how to live, comparable (and indeed heavily influenced by) the values of Confucianism.

So under this broader definition of a religion, where a religion is simply any set of beliefs, Taekwondo could be considered a religion. However, this does also make it arguable that capitalism is a religion as well. (Again, I’m sure that some philosophers would argue that capitalism is a religion.)

So in conclusion. This question leads to the usual philosophical minefield about the definition of religion and what things you think should and shouldn’t be considered a religion. While there are some similarities between Taekwondo and world religions, I think they are sufficiently different that Taekwondo should not be considered a religion.

No more ‘first grandmasters’ or ‘supreme grandmasters’

The titles used in martial arts are well known even outside our subsection of society. Hollywood has taught everyone that high-ranking experts in a martial art are given the title ‘master’, and those at the very top are given the title ‘grandmaster’. So it is with martial arts, Jediism, and Chess. You don’t have to spend long in the world of Taekwondo, though, to encounter someone with an even more grandiose title. There are people who claim titles such as ‘first grandmaster’ and even ‘supreme grandmaster’ (you may even know who it is I’m thinking of).

I don’t know about you, but to me it all seems quite ridiculous. It’s the same problem as the ‘eleventh degree black belt’ problem – an issue so well-known it is brilliantly parodied by Master Ken on Enter The Dojo. Being just a master or even a grandmaster apparently isn’t satisfying enough for some people, so they give themselves an extra word – something to signify that they are the best, the first, the most awesome, compared to all the other plain old grandmasters. Where does this end? Will we one day read of someone who calls themselves ‘Most-Awesome Supreme First Infinite Best Grandmaster’?

It’s all a bit much. Personally I even wonder whether ‘grandmaster’ is a bit much – ‘master’ in itself seems like such a significant title, suggesting, as it does, complete mastery of the martial art – ultimate skill – does it really need the ‘grand’ prefix a few years later? Regardless of that, what can be done about this problem? The people who choose these titles are often the leaders of Taekwondo associations that have split off from the main blocs (the World Taekwondo Federation and the various International Taekwondo Federations). They are not constrained by the rules of a larger organisation or even the opinions of the people in wider Taekwondo – they are free to make their own version of the art, and indeed its titles.

One hopes, of course, that the people who perpetuate this one-upmanship realise the futility of it, and decide to drop the extra titles of their own volition. That’s the ideal-world scenario, so obviously that’s not going to happen. Another option, which can be taken by us lowly, untitled black belts, is simply to refuse to use these extra titles when referring to these people, and drag them back down to ‘master’ or ‘grandmaster’. That’s risky too – Taekwondo is very hierarchical. Such rebellion risks undermining that, and risks undermining a part of the Korean-based culture of Taekwondo.

Perhaps the best solution is simply propagating a culture of humility within Taekwondo. Black belts should know, anyway, that their degree doesn’t really matter. I’ve met second degree black belts who are ten times better than fifth degrees; first degrees who are better than second. By the time you get up into the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth degrees, it’s no longer about how good at sparring you are or how fit you are (most people at those degrees are ancient anyway), and it’s not about how grand your title is. It’s about all the things you actively do in Taekwondo. It’s about the organisation and the competitions you run. It’s about your contribution to Taekwondo. It’s about how you improve Taekwondo for those of lower degrees and grades.

If someone legitimately has the title ‘master’, then I am impressed. I’m not more impressed if they have the title ‘supreme grandmaster’ – if anything I’m less impressed because I see what they’re trying to do.

How to count to 10 in Sino-Korean numerals – Taekwondo Terminology Tutorials

In this third video in the series on counting in Korean, we look at how to count from 1 to 10 in Sino-Korean numerals.

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.