Friday, October 26, 2018

On the Structure of Taekwondo Forms, Part 1

To all who study taekwondo forms (hyung/tul/poomsae) I present this analysis of their structure. Here I focus on forms as records of self-defense ideas, rather than conditioning tools or cultural vehicles. To really understand the forms it is important to know the sources of these ideas. It is also important to know how a form is structured on a wholistic level, to see that it is not merely a series of isolated self-defense drills. In short, I will focus on:
  • The connection with contemporary Judo
  • The connection with published karate manuals
  • The internal logic of forms; i.e. what connects each set to the next within a form

Early Taekwondo: The Judo Connection

Although taekwondo's most obvious influence is Shotokan karate, if you study the books of General Choi and other early "Korean Karate" writers you'll find that they incorporate grappling techniques into their curriculum, particularly in the area of self-defense. Although there is grappling hidden in karate kata, most early taekwondoin trained in the Shotokan school which did not teach it. So where did all these throwing and locking techniques come from? One obvious source was Judo/Jujitsu. Gen. Choi's books contain signature Judo throws, including the famed inner-thigh lift throw (uchi mata).
A shoulder wheel from Choi's 1965 book (top) and an inner-thigh lift from the 1983 Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do
Two locking techniques, an outer-wrist throw and standing armbar, from Choi's 1965 book.

Historically this makes sense. Judo was well-established on the Korean peninsula before karate. But the connection runs deeper than most taekwondoin realize.

All of the early kwans (schools) likely incorporated Judo into their curriculum. One kwan, the Ji Do Kwan, actually began as a Judo school (Yun Moo Kwan) before adding on karate. Although the grappling aspects of taekwondo were gradually deemphasized, they were never completely forgotten. The Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do (ITF) and Kukkiwon Textbook (KTA/WT) still contain sections on throws and locks, and taekwondo schools that focus on self-defense teach them. But what many don't realize is that various Judo techniques were encoded into the forms, with some portions being directly influenced by old Judo self-defense sets.

This can be seen in the first three ITF forms created: Hwa-Rang, Choong-Moo, and Ul-Ji. These forms, made in 1955-6 by Gen. Hong Hi Choi, Lt. Nam Tae Hi, and Sgt. Han Cha Kyo, reflect a three-level division of fighting techniques. Hwa-Rang focuses on the controlling the arms. Choong-Moo focuses on attacking the base. Ul-Ji on attacking the head. [1] Due to this, the three forms contain Judo locks, Judo throws, and at least one choke respectively. 

A jujitsu set that appears (in modified form) in Hwa-Rang, utilizing the turn into the scissor block as an arm break. Source: Enso-Ryu Jiu-Jitsu

Judo's morote gari (double leg reap) against a double grab, an application for the twin upward palms in Choong-Moo. Source: Mercuryu Judo
Choong-Moo is especially relevant here because it encodes several Judo throws. These throws appear in various karate kata, but most of them are represented differently. Furthermore, Choong-Moo utilizes chain techniques, where if one set fails you can follow with the next set in the form. This suggests actual knowledge of the throws, not just happenstance.
Following a failed shoulder wheel (opponent defends by learning backwards) with a one hand drop, a Judo throwing combination that appears in Choong-Moo steps 18-21. Source: Mercuryu Judo
The influence of Judo also explains some of the changes made to karate movements. Taekwondoin, ignorant of most of the applications behind kata, retrofitted certain movements and sets to fit Judo techniques. One example of this is the ITF version of the twin block, which commonly represents a hammerlock. This is why the front first points outward (the Shotokan version points inward) and why you often perform a wide turn into the movement. [2] Similarly, the circular block from Won-Hyo was altered to sink down during the movement, as if scooping up a leg. This is its apparent application in several forms.
A Judo lock application for the opening of Se-Jong. This same  twin block application works for Dan-Gun and the middle of Won-Hyo. Top source: Modern Judo and Self-Defense by Harry Ewen (1962) via artofmanliness
Another example is the 1965 version of Hwa-Rang's twin block set. Although in the modern version we perform a twin block followed by an upward punch -- like in Heian Nidan -- in the original version step 5 was a back hand outer-forearm block, not upward punch, with the right fist still coming towards the left shoulder. Why block in such a weird manner? The answer is that it wasn't a block, but rather an encoding of Judo's ude garami lock.

Judo's ude garami in the 1965 version of Hwa-Rang. Note that the cross-arm setup for the twin block had not yet been invented.
Finding Judo sets in the ITF forms should not be surprising because (A) Our self-defense curriculum is full of Judo techniques and (B) General Choi stated that the self-defense techniques are a logical application of movements acquired via the forms. [3] So why wouldn't we find them? 

Karate Grappling

Use of the pulling hand in a 1956
taekwondo demonstration
This is not to say that all the grappling in taekwondo forms is Judo. Clearly early taekwondoin must have had a rudimentary knowledge of karate grappling as well. Take the use of the pulling hand for example. Although this is usually taught as generating power, we see its use as a literal grab and pull as early as 1956, about the time the first forms were made. We see it in both public demonstrations and in books. Hence this karate "secret" was not really a secret at all.

Use of the pulling hand from
Henry Cho's 1968 Korean
Karate book.
Many early taekwondoin, including General Choi, learned karate from Ginchin Funakoshi's Shotokan school. Kwae Byung Yoon trained Shito Ryu karate under Kenwa Mabuni, and Byung In Yoon trained Shudokan under Kanken Toyama. People debate whether taekwondoin learned any bunkai in these styles, but I see this as a red herring. Even if Mabuni and Funakoshi didn't teach bunkai in class, they published books exploring both bunkai and karate's grappling techniques, and these books influenced taekwondo forms. The KTA black belt poomsae in particular use sets straight from these books.

In addition to bunkai examples, Mabuni's books also provide a framework for kata interpretation. He states that in kata you only face one opponent (not multiple opponents from different directions) and that turning in kata is turning relative to your current opponent. Taekwondoin used these principles in constructing their forms.

Application for Sipjin steps 17-19 from Mabuni's Karate-do Nyumon (1938). (Right) Application of the "pull up block" from the front, after stepping behind the opponent's legs. Source: MyFotoFilm
Application for Jitae's bull block set, also from Mabuni's 1938 book.
2nd image source: RussMartinAppliedTKD
Remember that taekwondo pioneers spoke Japanese and trained karate in Japan, and that one kwan founder actually trained under Mabuni, so the fact that Mabuni's ideas are found throughout the KTA poomsae is not a coincidence. The Bubishi and Choki Motobu's books may be additional sources of techniques; Kwae Byung Yoon is known to have quoted the former [3].

Ginchin Funakoshi also published some grappling techniques in his book Karate-Ko Kyohan (1935). There he presents his nine throws, using movements derived from kata.

Funakoshi's "Spinning top throw". Essentially a spinning armbar takedown, it is utilized in various forms.
Some of the early kwan founders had trained in Chinese martial arts, which also use forms and are less secretive about applications. Hwang Kee, the founder of the Moo Duk Kwan, trained Chinese arts while living in Manchuria. Kee would go on to crate the seven Chil Sung forms. They draw elements from Karate, Tai Chi and Shaolin Long Fist. You can view a performance of Chil Sung Il Ro here.

Finally, given that many early taekwondoin crossed-trained in Judo, it's unlikely that they did not notice the grappling techniques contained in karate kata. Ex-karateka who take up a grappling art often have this "a-ha" moment when they realize a throw or lock exists in their kata. MMA fighter Eric Henry stated in an interview that he didn't understand kata until he took up wrestling.

The key point here is that the use of the pulling hand, grappling applications for kata movements, and the basic logic of kata design was not some secret that taekwondoin did not know about. The fact that the KTA black belt poomsae not only include but expand upon these ideas is strong evidence of this.

Karate-based vs Kata-based

There is a distinction between early taekwondoin knowing the general concept of kata applications vs actually knowing the specific applications ingrained in various kata. Taekwondo forms are not just remixes of karate kata. Most of the sets are original, and the sets taken from karate kata are usually altered.

It is often claimed that Po-Eun is based on Naihanchi. But while the emblem and a few movements from Naihanchi are borrowed, the sets are all different. The KTA poomsae Pyongwon also uses the emblem and some movements from Naihanchi, but for some reason avoids the comparison. It is better to say that Po-Eun takes some inspiration from Naihanchi, mixing a few retrofitted movements with the creators' original ideas. The ITF form with the closest resemblance to a karate kata is Won-Hyo, which is based on Heian Nidan. But even Won-Hyo makes alterations, such as the addition of a ready position.

Again, the alterations are best understood in terms of retrofitting. Taekwondoin did not know the original meaning of Heian Nidan's twin block set (neither do modern karateka), so they invented their own applications for it and altered the set as appropriate. This is why different variations of the twin block set appear in Won-Hyo, Palgwae 4, 1965 Hwa-Rang, 1983 Hwa-Rang, and Taebaek.

Kicking Techniques

Taekwondo forms contain substantially more kicks than their karate cousins. I was surprised to learn that roundhouse kicks appear in no Shotokan kata (excluding the ground kicks in Unsu), and only in one KTA poomsae, Taeguek 6. In contrast; Hwa-Rang, Choong-Moo, and Ul-Ji each contain roundhouse kicks; as do some later patterns such as Gae-Baek and Choi-Yong. Moon-Moo and Juche contain many advanced kicks, and the KTA poomsae have their share of power kicks as well.

The back leg sweep, a roundhouse kick
application. Source: The Human Weapon
Kicks were no doubt added to make the forms more Korean, in homage to the native kicking art of Taekkyeon. But there is a bit of cleverness going on here, in that techniques useful for sport sparring are also being practiced in a manner relevant to self-defense.

Many of the roundhouse kicks in forms are not meant to be aimed at the opponent's front, but rather the back of their legs. The shin is used to sweep the back of both knees at once. Whenever you see instructions to perform the kick at a 45-degree angle (as in Choong-Moo and Gae-Baek), consider you may be kicking in the back of the opponent's legs. [5]

Other kicks have a similar cleverness to them. Taekkyeon's twisting kick becomes an oblique kick to the knee. Spinning kicks become inside leg reaps. Even that crazy split kick in Juche, while meant to be visually impressive, may be used on the ground as a knee bar takedown, a technique that also appears in Mabuni's 1938 book.
Juche's two-direction kick is also present in Mabuni's book. It is used on the ground as a kneebar takedown.

The Men Who Made the Forms

The ITF forms were made collaboratively by 10+ Korean commanders, with often multiple commanders working on a single form. Gen. Choi's role in their creation is difficult to ascertain because different interviews contradict each other: supporters of Choi play him up as the genius behind it all, while detractors of Choi claim he was just the organizer. The likely truth is that Choi commissioned and conceived the basic design of the forms, but relied on the collective martial arts knowledge of his subordinates to figure out what worked.

The original 20 ITF forms were made over the span of a decade. Their creators were experienced martial artists who practiced hard style, military taekwondo. Some of these men, such as Nam Tae Hi, had killed actual enemy combatants in melee. I am saying this to point out how illogical is it to say the forms are just random arrangements of karate movements, as is sometimes asserted. When was the last project you spent a decade working on? It is also illogical to suggest that impractical block-strike applications, such as using the U-shaped block to stop a vertical stick or a palm upward block to lift a punch, are the "real" ones. We will get to why these bad applications were promoted in a moment.

We can apply a similar logic to the KTA poomsae, which were made by representatives of the nine kwans. Why would you create a form with no logic behind it? Even if the logic is rudimentary, something should still be there. These men were all proud of the martial art they studied and wanted it to be effective. You may still think the applications within poomsae are impractical, but they cannot be random or without meaning.

How the Applications Became "Lost"

Given the above, why were the grappling aspects of forms never taught? Why did taekwondo instructors insist on impractical block-strike-only applications? The answer is probably different for ITF vs KTA taekwondo, but here are some hypotheses people have:

1) Carry over of karate tradition. Taekwondoin taught the forms the same way karate schools taught them: with block-strike applications only. The jump is Toi-Gye is said to be jumping over a stick sweep, for example, which is the same explanation karate textbooks gave for the jump in Heian Godan. The idea was that you did not teach form applications to just anyone, only to dedicated students. [6] And given that the Oh Do Kwan was a military kwan now being transitioned into a civilian art, Choi and his commanders may have been reluctant to share the techniques with the general public.

2) Asymmetric distribution of knowledge. Since different commanders made different forms, no really knew the true applications to all of them. Hence when General Choi dispatched his black belts to different countries, no one could reasonably teach the applications. So they stuck to basic block-strike interpretations.

3) Choi lost his black belts. After the move to North Korea, General Choi was abandoned by most of his senior black belts, including the commanders who helped create most of the forms. This is not to say Choi had zero deeper application knowledge, but he probably had incomplete knowledge and wanted to avoid public embarrassment. (Stuart Anslow argues that Choi's subordinates may not have even told him the applications, again to avoid the embarrassment of a subordinate teaching Choi).

4) Changing priorities on the part of Choi. Here are the objectives of taekwondo according to an interview with Choi later in his life:
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.
What? Slim and trim the body? Self-defense and fighting are not even mentioned! This is in sharp contrast to how taekwondo is defined in Choi's 1965 book Taekwon-Do: The Art of Self-Defense.
Translated from Korean, "Tae" (t'ae) literally means to jump or kick or smash withthe 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-defence, 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.
At some point in his life Choi ceased to promote taekwondo as a fighting art. He restyled it into fitness and self-improvement instead. He was also obsessed with standardization and making his art looks distinct from karate (and KTA taekwondo), culminating in the addition of the sine wave. This is something uncomfortable for many ITF taekwondoin to admit, but the version of the art we learned is far removed from a practical fighting art.

5) Intense sportification. In the case of the KTA poomsae, the race to get into the Olympics led to a deemphasis on traditional aspects of the art. To make taekwondo look like a distinct sport, kicking techniques were emphasized. Hand techniques were downplayed and grappling techniques all but forgotten! Even poomsae performance became a sport. In this climate, there was little interest or use for poomsae applications.

6) The 3,000 year old myth. The KTA downplayed taekwondo's karate origins and instead promoted the idea it was an ancient Korean art. Questions about the origins of poomsae were actively discouraged, perhaps to avoid the connection with contemporary karate manuals. The reliance on Judo/Jujitsu may have been downplayed for the same reason. In contrast, the connection with Taekkyeon was emphasized, despite the fact that Taekkyeon's contribution was a minor one.

Continued in Part 2


[1] As further evidence of this, this three-level division of applications was used in the fourth pattern, Sam-Il, as I discussed in The Study of Sam-Il. The division is not absolute: Choong-Moo begins with an attack to the neck and Ul-Ji contains many locks, but the overall strategy of the two forms is nonetheless throws and attacks to the head respectively.

[2] The cross-arm setup for the twin block was a later addition. In Choi's 1965 book both arms move up in parallel starting from the hip. This is also indicative of the hammerlock application. Only Hwa-Rang appears to have been altered to take advantage of the new cross-arm setup.

[3] The exact quote from the Encyclopedia is:
These [self-defense] techniques are the logical application of various movements acquired from patterns [forms], sparring, and fundamental movements to be used against a sudden attack.

[4] Source: Andreas Quast in his contribution to the 2016 edition of Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat.

[5] The back leg sweep is also in some Taekkyeon forms, where the performer will swing one or both arms in the opposite direction of the roundhouse kick. However, I am not aware of a direct relation between Taekkyeon forms and taekwondo forms.

[6] There are more complex reasons for this. It was believed that by sharing form applications with outsiders, this would give away your techniques and thus make it easier for opponents to defeat you. Many kata are deliberately built to be hard to interpret. Taekwondo seems to have carried over this idea, as the creators went to absurd lengths to disguise each technique as a block or a strike; e.g. using the double arc hand block to catch a throw pillow. Some of the forms are also quite brutal at times, with applications such as dropping the opponent onto their head or attempting neck breaks. While part of the heritage of military taekwondo, these are unethical for civilian self-defense.

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