Sunday, January 24, 2021

Musings on forms 2: What happened to the applications anyway?

Here I go sounding like a broken record.

If you search for taekwondo form applications online, there isn't much to find. In fact, you're likely to find the following perspective:

Taekwondo forms don't have applications. Their makers did not understand the concept of bunkai and received inferior karate training. My instructor never taught me any deeper applications, and the forms don't make any sense to me. Therefore, any applications you find are just coincidences.

This is an understandable viewpoint. It's also completely wrong. Take the first point, that early taekwondoin did not understand the concept of bunkai. One of the fundamental "deeper application" concepts is that the pulling hand may be used to grab and pull in the opponent. You see this application in early taekwondo manuals such as Hwang-Kee's Tangsoo-do Kyobon (1958), Son Duk Sung's Korean Karate: the Art of Taekwondo (1968), and Sihak Henry Cho's Taekwondo: Secrets of Korean Karate. (1968)

Images from books mentioned. Credit to Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings for discovery and images

Here is the same concept from a 1956 taekwondo demonstration. Notice how the chamber of the knifehand strike is used as a block, and then the arm is pulled while a strike is simultaneously performed.

Video Source

It's true that other explanations for the pulling hand -- such as deflecting an opponent's arm or creating reaction force -- are also given in these books, but the concept of the pulling hand was not unknown.

And the broader concept of oyo/bunkai was not unknown either, because multiple karate masters had published books explaining the concept. By the time pattern Hwa-Rang was made circa 1955, Ginchin Funikoshi had already published Ryushu Kenpo Toudi (1922), Rentan Goshin Toudijutsu (1925) and Karate-Do Kyohan (1935); Kenwa Mabuni had published Karate Kempo (1934) and Karate-Do Nyumon (1938); and Motobu Chōki had published Okinawan Kenpo Karate-Jutsu (1926) and Watashi No Karate-Jutsu or “My Karate” (1932).

Mabuni's books are particularly important because they explain that you only face one opponent in forms, the meaning of angles, etc. But how do we know early taekwondoin read these books? Because self-defense sets from these books are encoded into the forms! Take the following bear hug defense from Mabuni's Karate-Do Nyumon, which is found in the KTA poomsae Sipjin.

In this defense you strike the opponent's groin, then reverse head-butt them, and finally step your left leg behind theirs and pull up their legs to throw them. (Aside: that last step is a common rear-bear hug defense and you can find several videos of it online, including this one). That last movement is even called a pull-up block! It is named such because the application is to pull up the opponent's leg. The KTA could have come up with some silly name like "upward block with the inner-forearm" but instead called it a "pull up", giving away the deeper application.

You see this in some ITF patterns as well. The two-direction kick is Juche is derived from Mabuni's knee-bar takedown.

Some of Funakoshi's nine throws also make their way into the ITF patterns.

Of course, not every movement in taekwondo forms can be traced to some 1930s karate manual. But early taekwondoin had another source of self-defense knowledge they used to contruct their forms: judo and self-defense jujitsu. You see several examples of these in early taekwondo manuals, including General Choi's 1983 Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. According to Choi, these self-defense sets directly follow from principles explored in the patterns. This statement makes little sense if the movements only have block or strike applications.

A throw and a lock from the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do (1983). Above, a U-shape punch sets up a fireman's carry. Below, an X-fist pressing block is used to create a rear shoulder lock.

Judo was a popular art on the Korean peninsula by the time taekwondo was born. One kwan, the Yu Mun Kwan even started out as a judo school and later added karate to their curriculum. Sadly, the grappling side of taekwondo is virtually never taught to students, but it is preserved in the patterns. Taekwondoin saw that karate movements had grappling applications and so used those movements to reverse-engineer grappling into their own forms.

Also, despite Choi's apparent attempt to disguise every movement as a block or a strike, we see veil drop from time to time. The W-block (or mountain block) is shown as a strike. The nine-shape block as a wrist break. Older versions of the patterns give instructions which are obviously not blocks or strikes.

So the belief that early taekwondoin did not understand the concept of the pulling hand, bunkai, or grappling within the patterns is not actually true. Nor is "the forms don't make any sense to me" a serious argument. Any solo form looks like confusing if you don't understand what's actually going on, and 90-percent or more of karate bunkai out there either changes the kata or isn't very practical. That doesn't mean better bunkai doesn't exist, just that it's hard to discover. Forms do take a long time to understand, but once the veils drops you may find sets that initially appeared ridiculous become elegant and practical. 

Finally, the best evidence for applications are the forms themselves. All taekwondo forms have a logical structure and may even embody a certain strategy. I don't believe each form is a "complete fighting system", but each form is meant to give you enough information to survive a specific self-defense scenario.

Extinction is the rule

Further evidence aside, we now have to ask a key question: if applications exist, why does no one know them? Why didn't instructors write them down? Why do high-level "masters" not seem to know any?

The first thing to realize is that extinction is the rule, survival is the exception. A loss of form applications is not unique to taekwondo: most variations of kung fu and karate did not record their applications either. Many karate kata are not that ancient: the Pinans were made in 1895. Why didn't Ankō Itosu write down all the Pinan applications? Why didn't Ginchin Funakoshi write down the reasons he made modifications to his revamped Heian versions? Kata researcher Nathan J. Johnson has argued that high-level Okinawan masters were just as confused as to the meaning of older kata as Westerners are[1]. Great "masters" such as Funakoshi, Itosu, and Motobu knew the concept of bunkai, but none appear to have inherited the original meanings of kata movements.  The majority of karate schools still do not teach bunkai, despite the wealth of information that has become publicly available in the past two decades.

One feature of traditional martial arts -- and Eastern cultures in general -- that Westerners find difficult to understand is strict deference to your elders. In the TMA world, this means that you do not question your instructors about the nature of forms unless they give you permission to do so. So if instructors do not teach bunkai, the students are unlikely to search for it. TMAs have a long history of teaching the kata without the accompanying applications, as well as wrapping kata in a sort of mystical shroud: pretending they make you better at fighting without actually explaining how. The sportification and hobby-fication of TMAs have worsened this, as instructors don't have incentive to spend time on form applications.

False narratives

In the taekwondo world, there are a few false narratives that prevent students from finding (or even looking for) form applications. From the ITF side, the narrative is that General Choi is the "founder of taekwondo" and invented all 24-26 patterns. From what I gather from various interviews, Choi was the organizer who conceived the patterns, but the actually selection of the movements was up to 12+ Korean commanders, the most influential ones being Kim Bok Man and Woo Jae Lim. These commanders -- all of whom were experienced martial artists -- collaborated to create the ITF patterns over a period of two decades. Why was this collaboration necessary if the patterns are just careless assortments of karate movements? What were they planning?

Did Choi know any deeper applications? In the opinion of Stuart Anslow[2] he did not, because it would have been embarrassing to be taught by an inferior commander. After the move to North Korea, nearly all of Choi's senior black belts left ITF and he had to reorganize with his junior black belts[3]. Any deeper applications left with these men, and Choi had to play himself up as the creator of the ITF patterns (as well as the "founder of taekwondo") and invent a blocking or striking application for every movement. Because many ITF students seriously believe Choi did it all, they don't look for applications beyond what Choi provides in his Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do.

On the other side of the aisle, the KTA/Kukkiwon was propagating the myth that taekwondo was a 2,000-year-old martial art, and not a recent derivative of karate. There was also a national push to turn the art into an Olympic sport, meaning that sparring and athletic kicks became a bigger focus than traditional self-defense. The official purpose of the 17 KTA poomsae was always in flux, with philosophical explanations being tacked on over time[4]. So a set of forms that should have been understood as being grounded in early 20th century karate manuals and self-defense judo was instead understood as a uniquely Korean system developed for either philosophical development or as a calisthenics routine to get better at the Olympic sport.

The meaning of Tae Kwon Do

Here is a description of the meaning of Tae Kwon Do from Choi's 1965 book Taekwon-Do: The Korean Art of Self-Defense.

Translated from Korean, "Tae" (t'ae) literally means to jump or kick or smash with the foot. "Kwon" denotes a fist-chiefly to punch or destroy with the hand or fist. "Do" means an art, or way or method. Thus taken collectively "Taekwon-Do" indicates the technique of unarmed combat for self-defense, involving the skilled application of punches, flying kicks, blocks, dodges and interceptions with the hands, arms and feet to the rapid destruction of the opponent. … In these days of violence and intimidation which seem to plague our modern societies, Taekwon-Do enables the weak to possess a fine weapon to defend him or herself and defeat the opponent as well.

And here is a quote from the CD-Rom version of the Encyclopedia, over two decades later.

The objectives of Taekwon-Do are to cultivate character, to trim and slim the body, to bring out one’s strong strengths, to display graceful techniques, and to cultivate one’s mind. Thus Taekwon-Do may be considered to be a part of our life like breathing or thinking.

Fighting and self-defense are not even mentioned!

Like many traditional martial arts, the focus shifted from fighting to a sort of self-development system using martial movements.


This makes it easier to market to a wider audience, especially children. But the downside is that there is even less incentive to spend time on the practical application of the movements. KTA taekwondo suffered from the same issue. 
Additionally, taekwondo was originally a military art -- a variant of karate with some judo and taekyeon -- that then became a civilian art. There may have been a reluctance to teach the actual applications Korean soldiers knew, because it was not relevant to the sport that taekwondo eventually became. 

Forms vs Live Training

There is another reason why instructors -- including those who do care about fighting -- will not bother with form applications. MMA and other combat sports have proven that you don't need forms to become a good fighter, and that more emphasis should be put on live training. There is a growing sense in the TMA world that too much time is wasted on forms, and that instead of focusing on applications they should focus on sparring, conditioning, and partner drills. This kind of training produces competent fighters in a short time-frame.

(Even in early taekwondo this was the case: the kickboxing aspect of the art -- which is an entirely different style than the mixed grappling and striking art contained in the forms -- was visually impressive and looked more like "real" fighting. Many taekwondo masters were competent kickboxers, and it takes time to train powerful kicks.)

This isn't helped by the fact that the vast majority of "applications" out there are either grossly impractical or don't look like the forms. "You can't drop one hand to the hip in a fight", a fighter will say, unaware that the purpose of this motion is to grab and pull in the opponent. Because of the dearth of information publicly available, discovering practical applications takes time, time that could be spent on other kinds of training. Due to this, studying form applications is a niche activity practiced by hobby-ists who aren't interested in becoming professional fighters themselves (including yours truly).

Finally, I should note that it is difficult to teach form applications to a large group of students, especially when that group is largely children.

Form applications: Why bother?

I began searching for form applications not because I was interesting in "redeeming taekwondo" but because I enjoy solving puzzles and learning martial art techniques. I learned a lot about throws, locks, and strangles by studying forms and trying to uncover their hidden meaning. That said, for your average taekwondo student is it worth learning applications, or is it a waste of time?

I argue that so long as you are learning forms (patterns/kata/hyung/poomsae), you should also know how to apply them for self-defense. Otherwise, what's the point? We purport to be studying taekwondo, but the vast majority of early taekwondo techniques are not taught. Nor do forms have to be mutually exclusive with live training: forms are libraries of techniques. Once you learn those techniques, you can practice them in a live setting with a partner.

Ideally you should not have to spend time discovering applications at all: they should be handed down to you by a knowledgeable instructor. That was the whole reason I started this blog. That's also why I wrote The Study of Sam-Il and Chon-Ji, Dan-Gun, and Do-San. This way if someone else is interested in taekwondo form applications, hopefully I can give them a head-start.


1) The Enigma of Karate Kata by Nathan J Johnson

2) Anslow explains his reasoning in Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul Vol 1

3) Information from Alex Gillis' book A Killing Art: the Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, compiled from various interviews.

4) If you compare the meaning of the black belt poomsae given in the 1975 Taekwondo Poomse textbook vs later textbooks, you see that the philosophical explanations were either altered or added later.