What is a form? In a literal sense, it is a sequence of movements designed to be instructive or useful in some aspect of Taekwondo training. Forms have many uses. They teach correct stances and stepping, posture and balance, timing. Most importantly they teach you the basic form of each movement: how to punch in an offensive stance, how to maintain a defensive stance.
But there are some exercises in Taekwondo which also have all of these attributes, but which are not considered forms. Set sparring would be an example of this. (There is a broader point here as to whether a set sparring exercise could be considered a form, but that’s a topic for another post.) However, there are some differences between set sparring and forms that would allow us to define what a form is more narrowly. Set sparring is generally practised with an opponent; forms are an individual activity. A form could be defined as an instructive sequence of movements that is performed by one person. But then, in Changheon-yu Taekwondo, there is the exercise called 사주 지르기 Saju Jireugi, which also fits this definition but which is universally not considered a form (sometimes to the confusion of white belt students).
All of these considerations lead to a new question: what is the defining quality of a form? What is it that makes a form a form?
Returning to the example of Saju Jireugi in Changheon-yu Taekwondo, the explanation that’s often given for why this exercise is not a ‘form’ is that it doesn’t have an interpretation. The other such exercises in Changheon-yu Taekwondo – 천지 Cheonji, 단군 Dan-gun, 도산 Dosan, and so on – all have lengthy explanations of what the name means, given by Choi in his encyclopaedia. Saju Jireugi does not have a lengthy interpretation, just a short literal translation of ‘punching in four directions’ or more commonly ‘four-directional punch’. I find this distinction arbitrary – Saju Jireugi does have an interpretation, just a short one instead of a long one. A translation is a kind of interpretation.
Saju Jireugi is ultimately very similar to the exercises above it. In fact the only real differences seem to be that it’s easier than all of the other exercises in Changheon-yu (though it’s only slightly easier than Cheonji), and that the name of the exercise has no 한자 hanja writing (지르기 jireugi only has a 한글 han-geul writing). And in fact I think this second difference is quite significant.
All of the other twenty-five forms in Changheon-yu (including both 고당 Kodang and 주체 Juche) are consistent in how they’re named. They’re all named after a person, a group of people, a place, or a philosophical concept. They all have a writing in both han-geul and hanja. And they are all exactly two syllables long. This last part perhaps reveals Choi’s intentions. There are many examples of when Choi takes a longer name or word, and shortens it for the name of a form: 연개소문 Yeon Gaesomun was shortened to 연개 Yeon-gae, 을지문덕 Eulji Mundeok was shortened to 을지 Eulji, and there are several other examples.
I think the fact that Choi chose to give the other exercises, the forms, in Changheon-yu, names that fitted these criteria, and that he did not give Saju Jireugi such a name, is what means that Saju Jireugi is not a form.
Now at this point, I would expect the reader to point out that the conventions that apply to Changheon-yu don’t necessarily apply to other styles of Taekwondo. That’s true. However, when looking at the forms that are practised in other styles of Taekwondo, it is apparent that these conventions on form names are broadly true of Taekwondo in general.
These conventions are followed for many of the forms that have been inherited from Karate. (Now, this is arguably not a valid example. Forms loaned from Karate are arguably not ‘Taekwondo’ forms, since they were not designed or named by someone who practises Taekwondo. Also, since they were not named by Taekwondo practitioners, they are arguably not relevant when discussing the naming conventions of forms in Taekwondo. However, the style of the names of Karate 型 kata almost certainly inspired the way in which Taekwondo 형 hyeong are named, and their similarity supports this idea.) 平安 Heian, 披塞 Bassai, 燕飛 Enpi, 明鏡 Meikyō, 観空 Kankū, 鉄騎 Tekki, 十手 Jitte, 半月 Hangetsu, 慈恩 Jion, and more all follow this pattern. (Hangetsu is three syllables but it’s only two 漢字 kanji characters.) In this list I have included many kata that were renamed by 船越 義珍 Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of 松濤館 空手 Shōtō-kan Karate, whom many of the early practitioners of Taekwondo are believed to have been taught by. Many of these kata appear in early editions of Choi’s encyclopaedia, as well as Hwang Ki’s textbooks, indicating that these kata, as well as Funakoshi, had an influence on the idea of what a form is, and how a form should be named, in Taekwondo.
And in Kukki-won Taekwondo, these naming conventions have been followed up until this point: 팔괘 八卦 Palgwae, 태극 太極 Taegeuk, 고려 高麗 Koryeo, 금강 金剛 Keumgang, 태백 太白 Taebaek, 평원 平原 Pyeong-won, 십진 十進 Shipjin, 지태 地跆 Jitae, 천권 天拳 Cheon-gwon, 한수 漢水 Hansu, and 일여 一如 Iryeo all follow this pattern.
In fact the only examples I can think of where this convention isn’t followed are in some of the forms that have been inherited from Karate, as well as the very obscure and very undocumented forms practised in early Changmu-kwan and Kangdeok-won. Several of the ten new Kukki-won forms depart from these conventions: most of them do not have hanja writings – they are based on native Korean words – and several have names with more than two syllables. The decision by Kukki-won to give new forms names that don’t follow these conventions is a notable break from tradition.