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).

Worksheet: Counting in Korean – Sino-Korean Numerals 1 to 10

If you’re a Taekwondo instructor, you can give this worksheet to your students as practice of Korean numbers. It contains five exercises on the Sino-Korean numbers 1 to 10, using only the romanisation of the Korean in the Revised Romanisation system. Click the link to download the PDF file.

Worksheet: Counting in Korean – Sino-Korean Numerals 1 to 10

The proper names for ‘ITF’ and ‘WTF’ Taekwondo

(I started writing this article before the World Taekwondo Federation changed its name to just World Taekwondo, but the point still stands. Also, this article somewhat assumes that you haven’t read any of my other posts, as I use the conclusions of this post across the rest of the blog.)


The two most popular styles of Taekwondo are generally referred to as ‘WTF Taekwondo’ and ‘ITF Taekwondo’. I don’t know about you, but to me these are rather uninspiring names for styles of Taekwondo – sets of initials – they are quite stale and corporate.

‘WTF Taekwondo’ refers to the World Taekwondo Federation, which follows the style and curriculum of Kukki-won, the national centre for Taekwondo in Seoul, South Korea. It’s the style that’s used in the Olympics, so it’s a very visible style of Taekwondo.

‘ITF Taekwondo’, following a similar idea, refers to the International Taekwondo Federation. The ITF was founded by Choi Hong-hi, and the organisation follows the style of Taekwondo promulgated by Choi. However, since its inception, the ITF has split multiple times, and presently there is not just one International Taekwondo Federation, but at least three (which you can read about here: This division is the result of years of disagreements. Several separate organisations call themselves the ‘International Taekwondo Federation’, and each one claims to be the genuine ITF.

There are also other international organisations which practise the same style as the ITFs, but which don’t call themselves the ‘ITF’ (and aren’t necessarily direct secessions). Taekwondo International would be an example of this.

All of the different ITFs (and the other organisations like Taekwondo International) continue to follow Choi’s style of Taekwondo, but there are variations. An example is that students in some of these organisations practise the form Juche, and students in others practise Kodang. So when we say ‘ITF Taekwondo’, which ITF are we referring to? Which ITF is the authority on what ‘ITF Taekwondo’ is?

The name ‘ITF Taekwondo’ is therefore ambiguous. It doesn’t refer to just one style – it refers to one or all of several, ever-so-slightly different styles practised by the different ITFs and ITF-like organisations. (And when you have to explain to someone why the style of Taekwondo you practise is called ‘ITF Taekwondo’, you end up having to explain all of that history, and it gets confusing quickly.) Also, neither of these style names are Korean. I think in Taekwondo, a general principle should be: Korean first, English second (or any other language second). ‘ITF Taekwondo’ and ‘WTF Taekwondo’ are therefore not ideal names for these two styles.

Furthermore, while ‘ITF’ and ‘WTF’ Taekwondo are the two most popular styles, there are several other styles of Taekwondo. ‘GTF Taekwondo’ is the style of the Global Taekwondo Federation. The GTF was established by Bak Jung-tae, and follows a style that’s derived from Choi’s style. The proper name for ‘GTF Taekwondo’ is a topic for another post.

There’s also Cheongdo-kwan Taekwondo. Cheongdo-kwan was one of the original Kwans in 1950’s Korea. Today, the official Cheongdo-kwan supports the curriculum of Kukki-won, but there are other groups with the Cheongdo-kwan name which practise the original style of the school, which includes a number of forms from 松濤館 空手 Shōtōkan Karate.

It’s clear that the names generally used for many styles of Taekwondo are not ideal. So what should these styles be called? What form should these style names have?

Style names in Karate follow one of two schemes: the –ryu scheme, where the style name ends in 流 ryu, meaning ‘style’, such as 剛柔流 Gōjū-ryū or 一心流 Isshin-ryū, and the -kan scheme, where the style name ends in 館 kan, meaning ‘hall’ or ‘place’, such as 松濤館 Shōtōkan. Why is this relevant? Why are the naming conventions in Karate relevant to Taekwondo? Well Taekwondo is of course related to Karate, and one of the features that it borrows is that its name follows the same naming convention as many Japanese martial arts. The -do of Taekwondo is the same -do as in 空手道 karate-dō, 柔道 jūdō, and 剣道 kendō. Consequently, the conventions of style names of Japanese martial arts are also relevant for Taekwondo. Indeed, the original Kwans of Taekwondo all followed these conventions, and the -kwan (관 kwan is the Korean pronunciation of 館 kan) scheme (hence why they are called ‘Kwans’):

  • 창무관 彰武館 Changmu-kwan
  • 청도관 靑濤館 Cheongdo-kwan
  • 강덕원 講德院 Kangdeok-won
  • 한무관 韓武館 Hanmu-kwan
  • 정도관 正道館 Jeongdo-kwan
  • 지도관 智道館 Jido-kwan
  • 무덕관 武德館 Mudeok-kwan
  • 오도관 吾道館 Odo-kwan
  • 송무관 松武館 Songmu-kwan

You may have noticed that there is a Kwan in this list which does not follow the -kwan naming scheme. Kangdeok-won has the ending -won. 원 院 won means ‘institute’ or ‘centre’, and the fact that Kangdeok-won is considered influential in the development of Taekwondo establishes the -won ending as a valid ending for style names in Taekwondo.

Considering these naming schemes, we can write a list of conventions that a style name should follow. A traditional style name should:

  1. Be a Korean name, subsequently translated into English or romanised
  2. Follow
    1. The -ryu or -yu naming scheme (流 -ryū in Korean is pronounced either 류 -ryu or 유 -yu
    2. Or the -kwan naming scheme
    3. Or the -won naming scheme
  3. Be based on
    1. The name or pen-name of its founder (a traditional example of this would be Shōtōkan Karate, which was named after 船越 義珍 Funakoshi Gichin, whose pen-name was 松濤 Shōtō)
    2. Or a philosophical concept (a traditional example of this would be Gōjū-ryū, meaning ‘the hard and soft style’)
    3. Or a place (a traditional example of this would be 少林流 Shōrin-ryū, a style of Karate which is reportedly named after 少林寺 Shàolín sì – the Shàolín Temple in China)

So following these conventions, what are some better names for ‘ITF Taekwondo’ and ‘WTF Taekwondo’?

As for ‘ITF Taekwondo’, Choi’s pen-name was 창헌 Changheon, meaning ‘blue pavillion’, and so his style of Taekwondo could be called 창헌유 Changheon-yu. And indeed, Choi himself calls his style this in older versions of his encyclopaedia. This is the name I use for the style whenever I write about it (and is the name Choi’s style is known by in South Korea). Another possible name for Choi’s style could be Odo-kwan. Odo-kwan was one of the nine Kwans, and was founded by Choi. This follows the -kwan naming scheme, and 오도 吾道 odo means ‘our way’. If Choi ever called his style of Taekwondo this, he did not do so very often, and so this name should not be used to refer to Choi’s style of Taekwondo as it exists today.

As for ‘WTF Taekwondo’, ‘WTF Taekwondo’ is not the style that follows the philosophy and principles of a single person, but is instead the style put forth by the Taekwondo centre in Seoul, known as 국기원 國技院 Kukki-won. This name can be used for the style of Taekwondo, as well as the physical place, since the name already follows the conventions listed above – 국기 國技 gukgi means ‘national art’ or ‘national skill’, thus is a philosophical concept, and the name follows the -won scheme.

So these are my recommendations for how we should refer to the major styles of Taekwondo. ‘ITF Taekwondo’ is properly called Changheon-yu Taekwondo (or Ch’anghŏn-yu if you prefer the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation, and Changhon-yu if you prefer a simplified romanisation), and ‘WTF Taekwondo’ is properly called Kukki-won Taekwondo (which would be written Gukgi-won in the Revised Romanisation, and Kukki-wŏn in the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation). These names are unambiguous; they are Korean; and they are not stale or corporate in the way that ‘ITF’ and ‘WTF’ are.

Worksheet: Counting in Korean – Native Korean Numerals 1 to 10

If you’re a Taekwondo instructor, you can give this worksheet to your students as practice of Korean numbers. It contains five exercises on the Native Korean numbers 1 to 10, using only the romanisation of the Korean in the Revised Romanisation system. Click the link to download the PDF file.

Worksheet: Counting in Korean – Native Korean Numerals 1 to 10

The Gungmu Forms

In 2014 I published a book titled Taekwondo Forms. The aim of the book was to document a wide variety of forms in a consistent style, making it easy to compare and reference those forms.

The book covers most of the forms from four major styles of Taekwondo. There are, however, forms from those styles and others that are not covered by the book. Among those not included is a series of forms known as the ‘Kuk Mu’ forms, which are reportedly practised by students in some Cheongdo-kwan Taekwondo schools.

The Kuk Mu forms are very obscure. Online, there are only a few references to these forms – there are a few websites listing the movements of the forms in English, and there are a few videos on YouTube showing the forms. In printed materials, I have so far only found two references to the forms. Importantly, one of them is Son Deok-seong’s book: Korean Karate. Son Deok-seong was the successor to Li Won-guk, who established Cheongdo-kwan. Son Deok-seong’s books are therefore quite significant in Cheongdo-kwan Taekwondo, and the appearance of the Kuk Mu forms in Korean Karate confirms that they are part of the Cheongdo-kwan style (even if they are not practised by or known to a large number of students in that style).

The hangeul for Korean terms is rarely given online, and even in textbooks on Taekwondo it is unusual to see, and the hangeul or hanja for ‘Kuk Mu’ are not given in Son’s book. In Korean Karate, however, and in many places online, the meaning of the name ‘Kuk Mu’ is said to be ‘national art’. This means that the first syllable is 국 國 guk – meaning ‘country’, ‘land’, or ‘nation’ – and the second syllable is 무 武 mu – meaning ‘war’ or ‘martial art’ (which is also the bu from 武道 budō, and the wu from 武术 wǔshù). Because of the pronunciation changes that take place in Korean, these two syllables together should be romanised (and pronounced) gungmu (in the Revised Romanisation of Korean). This is the correct writing of the name of the form, and is what I will use everywhere else in blog posts and books that I write. (Though perhaps the most helpful spelling of the name is kungmu (the spelling in the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation), which will most closely approximate the pronunciation for non-hangeul readers.)

Most descriptions of this series of forms agree that there are five forms in the series. In Korean Karate, only two Gungmu forms are listed, but Korean Karate specifically does not list all of the forms practised in Cheongdo-kwan – higher level forms in particular are omitted from the first book. Some higher forms are listed in Black Belt Korean Karate, but only four, and none of them are Gungmu forms. Given that black belts normally have more than four forms to practise, it seems likely that there are more forms that were not added to Black Belt Korean Karate either.

Beyond that, most video sources and written descriptions seem to agree on what the movements of these forms are – this could be because of a limited number of practitioners in Cheongdo-kwan, and so a limited potential for variation.

The Gungmu forms need to be written about and analysed more. They are only described in a few places, and many of those descriptions are idiosyncratic, and not detailed enough.

A list of websites that give information on the Gungmu forms

(I would not consider all of these to be reliable and authoritative – some of them are and some of them aren’t)


First Video! How to count to 10 in Korean – Taekwondo Terminology Tutorials

What is hopefully the first of many videos, in this video we look at how to count to ten in native 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.

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.