Taekwondo, literally translated, can be defined as “foot, hand, way” or “the way of smashing with hands and feet.” Such descriptive nomenclature understandably implies a curriculum rich in self-defense. Too often, however, this is simply not the case. Given the current popularity of sport competition in the martial arts, many techniques of defensive value have been stripped away or forfeited altogether in favor of those certain to score in the ring. While the thirst for Olympic gold has clearly played a significant role in catapulting taekwondo into the forefront, it should be remembered that the native Korean martial art contains over 3200 distinct techniques. These include a multitude of blocks, kicks, and strikes in addition to a variety of leg sweeps, joint locks and throws, truly qualifying it as a complete form of self-defense.
Consequently, in an effort to preserve the formal nature and defensive infrastructure of taekwondo as originally intended by a portion of its founders, a number of training institutes now promote what is referred to as traditional taekwondo; a measurably alternative style emphasizing a core philosophy rich in basic technique, poomsae and authentic defensive strategy with little or no emphasis on competition thus divorcing it somewhat from its sportive mate.
Nevertheless, this classification can be construed as somewhat of a misnomer since the history or “tradition” of taekwondo as it exists today, is relatively short with much of it being devoted to its promotion as a world sport. Like it or not, the answer to this paradox lays in the fact that taekwondo owes much of its pedigree to foreign influences, some of which are rooted in Funikoshi’s Shotokan karate-do, Ushieba’s aikido, Kano’s Kodokan judo, and to a lesser degree, Chinese gungfu. This is no accident given the geopolitical climate that existed in Korea during the turbulent years of the early to mid 1900’s. In fact, to the experienced eye, many of the martial applications taught today, having been handed down over the decades if not centuries, bear a striking resemblance to those fashioned by the founders mentioned above. Subsequently, in its evolutionary stage, prior to its promotion as an Olympic sport, taekwondo contained a complete palate of defensive techniques. With this in mind, the notion of taekwondo having a “traditional” component based on strong basic skills, poomsae and self-defense, predating the creation of organizations promoting its sportive component, materializes.
Yet, it should be understood that the defensive tactics of traditional taekwondo and the training elements that support them do not alone satisfy the conditions necessary to formalize taekwondo as a traditional martial art. Rather, the practice of poomsae, coupled with the basic fundamentals and the philosophical underpinnings that comprise them, represents a central pillar of the art and is a direct reflection of its unique character and heritage. While it is true that many of the forms practiced by the taekwondoist mirror those of rival Asian martial arts, it only goes to prove that in the past diverse martial disciplines from the region drew from a common well in an effort to construct practical, combat proven formal exercises. While these exercises by now have largely been modified and canonized against the backdrop of Korean martial culture, they embody universal defensive movements that date back to antiquity further supporting the traditional nature of taekwondo.
Moreover, a traditional martial art should embrace an overarching philosophy governed by a set or moral principles that limit its use except in situations of grave necessity. In addition, this philosophical doctrine, while enhancing the character of the martial artist, should reflect the cultural values extant in the discipline’s nation of origin. In the case of traditional taekwondo, these ethical guidelines date back to the seventh century when warriors of the Hwarang, an elite corps of young nobles, sought guidance from the Buddhist monk Wonkwang Popsa before entering battle. This moral compass continues to be practiced by the taekwondoist today.
To further add veracity to the concept of taekwondo as a traditional martial art, it is helpful to establish that a militaristic legacy exists using the available evidence at hand.
History demonstrates that for centuries Korean warriors have stood ready to defend their nation at a moment’s notice. In 1592, fighting monks, keepers of martial arts skills that had all but vanished during the pro-Confucian Chosun Dynasty, were recruited in an effort to resist a massive Japanese force lead by Toyotomi Hideyoshi intent on using the Korean peninsula as a stepping stone to China.
In 1953, taekwondo further crystallized into a legitimate form of self-defense when General Choi Hong Hi created the 29th Infantry Division by marrying regulation drills with martial arts training marking it as a truly unique entity within the Korean military.
But the great wheel of progress in the development of a unified Korean battle art with a complete defensive strategy did not stop there. In 1962, President Go Din Diem of South Vietnam requested that the Korean government send representatives of their native martial art to instruct the Vietnamese military in taekwondo. This initial group was lead by Major Tae Hee Nam of the Oh Do Kwan. In fact, this training became so effective that the Viet Cong directed their troops to retreat rather than confront the taekwondo-trained soldiers.
Contrary to the historical evidence at hand, critics who support the perception that taekwondo has evolved into nothing more than a popular, modern combat sport continue to debate the fundamental defensive value of the art. To further compound this issue, it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate an instructor faithful to the principles unique to traditional taekwondo. This dilemma is made all the more poignant in an article published a number of years ago by the late writer and martial arts instructor Jane Hallender entitled, Is Taekwondo a Sport or a Self-defense System? Acutely aware of the differences involved, Hallender warned, “There is more to taekwondo then just tournament competition. From kicks, to hand strikes, to throws, to joint locks, taekwondo possesses an array of defensive measures designed to thwart virtually any kind of attack. The most difficult part will not be learning the self-defense techniques, but finding a taekwondo instructor who still teaches them.”
With the above in mind, we at the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, in tandem with others globally who share a similar vision, have steadfastly attempted to promote, support and preserve this alternative entity that is traditional taekwondo.
For instance, at Chosun we adhere to a stringent curriculum composed of a repeating template that increases in complexity throughout the various belt levels; promotion from one rank to the next is predicated on proficiency in an escalating series of basics, one, two and three-step sparring, self-defense drills, poomsae, sparring and breaking skills. Students are also expected familiarize themselves with Korean terminology and the philosophy associated with their forms. There is nothing haphazard about our program; every student knows precisely what is expected of them in order to achieve advancement. All requirements are clearly written out to avoid confusion and preserved as password-protected downloads on our web site to be included in a training journal all students are required to maintain.
And since poomsae embodies the pinnacle of tradition in taekwondo, as a United States Taekwondo Association affiliate school under the direction of Grandmaster Richard Chun, we perform the eight Taegeuk and Palgwe set of poomsae, in conjunction with the traditional Moo Duk Kwan and required Kukkiwon black belt Yudanja series. We also practice the Kibon set, Pyung-Ahn hyung and several of the ITF tuls, although these are not required for promotion.
Lastly, at Chosun we highlight the self-defense, physical fitness, and self-enrichment components of taekwondo; this is in keeping with taekwondo as a martial way or a path to excellence. In addition, we amplify our practice with meditation and ki (internal energy) development exercises. While our school attends several tournaments a year, we do not view the classical martial arts simply as sport and so do not focus merely on competition. Instead, we look to fortify internal resolve, strength in the face of adversity and defensive skills that can effectively be relied upon to diffuse a confrontation that spirals out of control beyond the confines of verbal mediation. Then, in an effort to reach outside the walls of our dojang, we offer a series of technical seminars and self-defense courses to martial arts schools and civic groups at little or no charge.
The battle to maintain taekwondo as a traditional martial art is, ultimately, not an easy one. Students are required to learn far more than the few well-placed kicks favored in a competitive environment. Rather, the practice should be viewed as a vast mosaic with many interconnecting elements. If any one element is deficient, the remainder will likewise dissolve in failure; all must act in concert. The quest to develop proficiency is a demanding process that few have the time and, often, the resiliency to put forth. This makes the successful journey all the more dear to the worthy practitioner capable and willing to invest the determination required to support a meaningful education in traditional taekwondo. However, by following the above guidelines and unyieldingly offering a curriculum rich in technical skill to color and black belts alike, the traditions of taekwondo will remain strong going into the future.
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of three best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, and Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, all published by YMAA of Boston. Master Cook and Grandmaster Chun have recently completed a new book, Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, targeted for publication in July of 2013. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.