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).

How to count from 10 to 100 in Sino-Korean numerals – Taekwondo Terminology Tutorials

In this fourth video in the series on counting in Korean, we look at how to count from 10 to 100 using Sino-Korean numerals.

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.

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.


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.