Monday, September 25, 2017

Thoughts on the Kukkiwon forms

Use of the reaction hand as an a pull from
a 1968 Taekwondo textbook. Source:
  Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings
This blog is mainly concerned with the ITF/Ch'ang Hon taekwondo forms. But what about the other set of taekwondo forms: those of WT/Kukki-taekwondo? In this style forms are known as "poomsae". The poomsae were invented a little later than the ITF forms, for an organization that wanted to make taekwondo a sport as well as a martial art. Hence, there is a lot of skepticism surrounding poomsae. How do taekwondoin know they aren't just random moves strung together? If they have applications, how did they become lost?

I haven't studied the Kukkiwon poomsae in any great detail (Organ Nilsen's blog Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings is a good source for that), but just from eyeballing many of the poomsae: they look like they have applications. That doesn't mean I know what the applications are, but the organization of the movements does not seem random and the movements are not just block-punch-kick.

There are three groups of traditional Kukki-taekwondo poomsae: the eight Palgwae forms, the eight Taeguek forms, and the nine (or ten) Black Belt/Yudanja forms. In this post I've briefly go over each group, and then touch on the new competition poomsae the Kukkiwon is developing.

The Palgwae Forms

The Palgwae forms were eventually replaced in favor of the Taeguek, but some WT schools still practice them. They are similar to karate kata in style, with deep stances and rigid movements. Like the lower ITF forms, they appear to be a mix of original sets and sets from the Heian/Pinan kata. There are eight Palgwae poomsae in total.

One thing I noticed about them is the frequent use of the front block (ap makki); that is, what Kukki-taekwondoin would call a middle block (momtong makki) or inward block. This movement is rare in karate kata and ITF forms, although both styles teach the movement in basics. If you look at Palgwae 1 for instance, it starts out with a low block just like Heian Shodan and Chon-Ji, but then moves into a front block instead of a lunge punch.

In fact, there are few "strikes" in Palgwae 1. I put that in quotes, because obviously "blocks" (makki) can be used as strikes. The front block makes a good hammerfist to the head (in fact, the inward knifeward strike, which is the same motion but with an open hand, is also in the form). It could also represent a grab or, if the opponent is lowered, striking with the elbow.
Striking application for the front block, using the pulling hand to control the opponent.
Source: Richard Conceicao
The forms that looks the most taekwondo-ey are Palgwae 6 and 7 due to the kicks, but they never get more complex than simple front and side kicks. All-in-all, I find these reminiscent of the lower ITF forms. The similarity to karate kata probably makes applications easier to find, but I'm not aware of any systematic study of Palgwae applications.

The Taegeuk Forms

In 1971 the Palgwae were replaced with the eight Taegeuk forms. These forms are simpler than even the Palgwae, although they do a good job of steadily increasingly in complexity. They are also similar to each other because they tend to use variants of the same sets. For example: the first two moves of Taegeuk 1 are walking stance low block followed by walking stance punch, whereas the first two moves of Taegeuk 2 are walking stance low block followed by front stance punch.

The most noticeable innovation with the Taegeuks is the frequent use of "walking stance", a high stance formed by simply taking a natural step forward. Walking stance is not used in any of the Palgwae forms; it was likely invented to distinguish the Taegeuks from karate kata, similar to the addition of the sine wave to ITF forms. Although this change is pointed to as evidence of Taekwondo's shift from a mixed grappling and striking art to a kickboxing art, deep stances are not completely absent from the Taegeuks, and we should remember that the merits of deep stances are debated even in traditional circles. I've read that Okinawan Karate used high stances, and even Gen. Choi wrote in his Encyclopedia that one's front stance must not be too deep. Chambers and the pulling hand are still present. The Taegeuks are also more strike-heavy than the Palgwae, including a wider array of kicks and elbow strikes.

Were the Taegeuks built with deeper applications in mind? Simon John O'Neil thinks so. His book The Taegeuk Cipher contains applications for all eight forms. Take this application for the end of Taeguek 5, for example, which is suspiciously similar to the end of our 5th form, Yul-Gok.
Application for end of Taegeuk 5 (left), very similar to the end of the 5th ITF form Yul-Gok (right).
Sources: Pal Kwon, Southern Minnesota Martial Arts
At the very least, the forms have some intelligent design to them. In Taegeuk 1 the first two low blocks are in walking stance, but the third low block -- performed with a 90-degree turn -- is in front stance, which singles the move out as a throw. Taegeuk 7 uses a ready position in the middle of the form. Some higher ITF forms do this as well, since ready positions have their own applications.

All that said, the Taegeuks are a frequency mocked set of forms for being too simple. You can read a defense of the poomsae here if you're interested.

The Black Belt/Yudanja Forms

Unlike the Palgwae and Taegeuk forms, the nine Yudanji forms are not a consistent set which build on one another. Each one was supposedly made to represent a different Kwon school, and it shows.

The 1st Dan form Koryo relies heavily on striking: including low and high kicks, elbow strikes, and throat grabs. Its ready position is reminiscent of the Heaven Hand from Kwang-Gae, although the orientation of the palms suggests it can be used as a direct strike to the opponent's face. There is a strange portion in the middle of the form where a slow motion, circular low target hammerfist strike is used; explanations of this movement I've come across include a strike to a downed opponent, a bear hug defense, or just centering your chi.
A Danish team's interpretation of side elbow strike followed by low section hammerfist as a dual strike to the opponent's ribs and groin. But wouldn't a low block after the elbow strike be better for this?
Source: DTDT
In contrast to the fast and dynamic Koryo, the 2nd Dan form Keumgang contains a number of slow-motion movements, no kicks, and a lot of repetition. It's an interesting form and I've seen some creative interpretations for it. Take the spinning angle punch, for example. It may seem bizarre at first glance, but it makes a good spinning armbar takedown.
Source: Pal Kwon
The 3rd Dan form, Taebaek, is the most karate-inspired of the set, being clearly based on the Heian/Pinan kata. There are some curious alterations, however. For the opening set of Heian Nidan, the hammerfist is changed to a punch, which is the same alteration that ITF taekwondo uses in Won-Hyo and Hwa-Rang. In any case, because it's based on the Heians it's fairly easy to guess applications for. [1]

Beside the nine Yudanja forms, there is a retired form called the "original Koryo"[2], which despite the name bares little resemblance to the modern Koryo. In fact, this is the original 1st Dan form; it was replaced with the modern Koryo around the same time as the Taegeuks replaced the Palgwae. It is surprisingly short, only 20 moves, but seems to enjoy a good reputation among those who study applications. Richard Conceicao has two videos (one, two) on this form.

Application for a set from the original Koryo ending in a low X-fist block. Source: Richard Conceicao
Officially it was retired for being too simple, which I find unlikely since although it is short it certainly isn't a simple form. The real reason for its replacement, like the Taegeuks, may have been political.

The only textbook on applications for the Yudanja forms I know of is Taekwondo Poomsae: The Fighting Scrolls by Kingsley Umoh, but it is not comprehensive.

Competition Poomsae

In the past couple years, the Kukkiwon has experimented with new, challenging poomsae for taekwondo competitions. 13 such forms have been invented (ten back in 2016, then the three recent Bee-Gak poomsae). Their introduction has been controversial, as they are clearly developed to show off taekwondo's athletic kicking techniques. Below is a performance of Bee-Gak 2.

Proponents of the new forms point out that the traditional forms don't represent what the art has become and these forms give students a chance to practice advanced kicks. Opponents state that this is a consequence of the sportification of taekwondo and the forms were not created with any practical self-defense knowledge in mind.

The new poomsae appear to be a mixed bag of kicking and traditional hand techniques. But it's not clear that these techniques have any meaning beyond looking cool. Several of the hand techniques are done in slow motion: is that for application reasons or because they provides an aesthetic contrast to the fast flowing kicks?

I will say a few points about the new poomsae. The first is that having poomsae specifically for competitions isn't inherently a bad thing, provided you keep in mind that's what they are for. Kukki-taekwondo has 17 traditional forms; 26 if you include the Palgwae forms and the Original Koryo. That's already plenty of self-defense knowledge. Second, just because a form looks incoherent at first doesn't mean it is. Karate kata applications were lost for decades, despite the fact that they are practiced world-wide. Forms just aren't made to have obvious meaning. Juche is an example of a "flashy" ITF form, but Stuart Anslow managed to find some interesting applications for it (yes, even for the split kick). Third, for all the disparaging of block-punch-kick applications, those aren't bad things to learn. Defending against and delivering strikes are more likely to help you in a self-defense situation than a complex grappling technique. My issue is that traditional forms simply aren't good at teaching block-punch-kick. The lunge punch doesn't exist outside the dojang, and no one chambers before blocking or pulls their opposite hand down to their hip. A true block-punch-kick form would look more like shadow boxing, which the kicking sections of the new poomsae sort-of approach.

[1] I don't mean that the Heians are inherently easier to understand, but rather that there is already a lot of online information about applications for the Heians.

[2] Some schools teach both versions of Koryo, and refer to them as "Koryo 1" and "Koryo 2". "Old Koryo" is also a common name for the original Koryo.