by Master Doug Cook
6th Dan Black Belt / Chosun Taekwondo Academy
Long before the advent of sport sparring and the invention of modern safety gear, in a time when to fight meant to defend one’s life from almost certain death an ingenious method of transmitting martial arts skills from venerated master to loyal disciple was developed. Legend has it that
experienced warriors returning unscathed from combat, a testimony in and of itself to their martial prowess, mimicked techniques used to vanquish opponents on the field of battle for the benefit of those less qualified in the ways of war. This ritual may have been practiced around a campfire, in secret gardens or in the incense-filled halls of ancient Buddhist temples lending credence to the notion that the dynamic practice of formal exercises has existed for centuries. Several examples demonstrating this concept can be traced back to antiquity with roots found in primitive works of art and ancient yogic postures originally intended to promote health and core strength in sedentary clerics.
Today, poomsae, hyung or tul - all culturally-specific terms for Korean martial arts patterns - can be defined as choreographed sequences of techniques aimed at defeating multiple attackers originating from various directions. They can also be thought of as “quality shapes of strength” representing the comprehensive catalog of Traditional and Kukki Tae Kwon Do skills. Moreover, poomsae demonstratively symbolize the essence of the art and can be distilled down into two discrete categories – those created in modern times as opposed to those tracing their pedigree to primordial practices.
In an effort to quantify the significance of this division, we must first appreciate that the formal exercises found in Tae Kwon Do today were not created in a vacuum. Rather, an analysis of the historical evidence at hand reveals that empty-hand fighting arts, in conjunction with their associated formal exercises, developed naturally across continents as various cultures adapted to cope with the dangers posed by increased trade and human aggression accompanied by imperialist desire. Still, the need to practice prearranged chains of combat tactics in a relatively relaxed environment devoid of mayhem and death was apparently universal.
In his book, Moving Zen, Shotokan karate-do practitioner C.W. Nicol describes forms practice as “a dynamic dance; a battle without bloodshed or vanquished.” He further goes on to say that, “we are somehow touching the warrior ancestry of all humanity” and that “of all the training in karate, none is more vigorous, demanding or exhilarating than the sincere performance of kata.” From this we can see that poomsae training, if approached in a traditional manner, not only cultivates defensive and offensive proficiency coupled with ki (internal energy) development, but establishes a profound link with masters of the past who clearly did not perform formal exercises merely for physical fitness as some would claim, but as a means of collating hard-earned martial skills often fostered on the field of battle or in the supercharged atmosphere of some distant training hall, for the benefits of students across the centuries.
In order to fully understand the complete history, philosophy and martial applications of Tae Kwon Do poomsae, hyung or tul, one must openly and without bias, take into account the role Okinawan/Japanese kata and Chinese taolu played in their creation. In 1901, on the Ryukyu archipelago, Yasutsune “Anko” Itosu (1830-1915) introduced karate into the mainstream curriculum of the Shuri Jinjo Elementary School and, later, throughout the Okinawan educational system as a whole with the long range goal of cultivating physical fitness and character enrichment in adolescents. This worthy objective was partially accomplished by practicing sanitized versions of the Pinan (Peaceful Mind) kata created by Itosu. Since, at least for school children, self-defense was not the prime focus of training the practical applications of techniques within the forms were intentionally masked in ambiguity or eliminated altogether. This method of instruction represented a major shift in formal exercise training that would have ramifications far into the future. Criticized for diluting the fundamental purpose of kata, and thus karate in general since forms represented the core of the art, Itosu later wrote, “You must decide whether your kata is for cultivation of health or for its practical use.” He further advised adult students to, “Always practice kata with its practical use in mind.”
Yet, a further endorsement that kata represented a central pillar of karate-do doctrine, awaited the appearance of Gichen Funakoshi (1868-1957) who in his youth, traveled the back roads between Naha and Shuri by lantern light to study with both Itosu and one of his colleagues, Yasutsune Azato (1828-1906), sub rosa. Funakoshi’s required repetition of a single kata under the vigilant eye of Azato day in and day out, often for months on end, to the point of humiliation, clearly instilled an appreciation for the formal exercises that he would carry across a lifetime.
Funakoshi did not bring his karate to Japan until 1922 while in his early fifties. Yet through a concerted effort by he and his third son Gigo (1906-1945), who emigrated to Tokyo in 1923 at the age of seventeen, significant changes were made to the traditional methods of teaching Okinawan karate. By way of example, in an attempt to simplify the pronunciation of the Pinan kata, Funakoshi rechristened the nomenclature to Heian while altering certain prescribed stances and kicks. Likewise, Gigo is credited with the creation of ritual one-step sparring and the three Taikyoku, or Kihon kata that virtually mirror the Kicho patterns used today in traditional Tae Kwon Do. The Taikyoku set was generally used as a precursor to the more complex Heian kata.
Recognizing the vital roles Itosu, Azato and Funikoshi played in the proliferation of formal exercises brings us ever closer to the nexus of the correlation between Okinawan/Japanese kata and contemporary Tae Kwon Do poomsae, hyung or tul. Indisputably, Korean formal exercises were heavily influenced by events that occurred in neighboring countries shortly before, or concurrent with, the Japanese Occupation of the nation during the years of 1910 to 1945. Clearly, the practice of karate required a deep understanding and respect for kata which continues to stand as a centerpiece of its practice to this day. This principle must surely have been inculcated in the minds of Chung Do Kwan founder Won Kook Lee (1907-2003), Byung In Yoon (1920-1983) of the Chang Moo Kwan, Hwang Kee (1914-2002) father of the Moo Duk Kwan and Choi Hong Hi (1918-2002) creator of the Oh Do Kwan, while studying in Japan under the direction of either Shudokan karate founder Kanken Toyama (1988-1966) or Funikoshi. All of these innovators, soon destined to promote enduring martial traditions within the borders of their native land, returned home from abroad undoubtedly with practical knowledge of the Taikyoku, Pinan, Bassai, Jitte, Empi and Tekki kata – all considered traditional formal exercises - that would ultimately evolve into the Kicho, Pyung-Ahn, Balsek, Sip Soo, Yunbee and Chul-Ki hyung respectively of Tae Kwon Do.
Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, when Tae Kwon Do, still referred to as taesoodo, tangsoodo and kongsoodo in many circles, was in its infancy, poomsae practice consisted largely of exercises derived from these Okinawan, Japanese and Chinese disciplines. As a result, the founding fathers of the original kwans or institutes could not help but transmit the formal exercises they learned abroad while at university as their nation staggered under the weight of the Japanese Occupation. Nevertheless, a strong desire existed among many masters, Choi Hong Hi not being the least, to create patterns with a distinctly Korean flavor. Consequently, in founding his style of Tae Kwon Do, Choi was the first to deviate from the past by developing the Chang Han set of formal exercises between 1955 and 1988 with the assistance of Tae Hi Nam, Young Il Kong, Cha Kyo Han, Chang Keun Choi, Jae Lim Woo, Kim Bok Man and Jung Tae Park, that bear the shadow of techniques culled from his training in karate-do. Furthermore, as a tribute, Choi based the underlying definition of each pattern on personalities and concepts pivotal to Korean history. The Chang Han series of International Taekwon-do Federation tul currently consists of twenty-four patterns and differs significantly from others in the fact that their movements subscribe to a wave or sign-curve motion of the body as it transitions from stance to stance, sequence to sequence.
Following Choi’s exodus from Korea and the eventual entrenchment of the Korea Taekwondo Association coupled with the establishment of the Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo Federation by a younger generation of practitioners not directly affected by Japanese instruction, three revolutionary sets of formal exercises were developed over the course of eight years in an effort to eliminate any vestige of foreign influence from the emerging art. Of these, the elder Palgwe and Yudanja series poomsae, created between 1965 and 1967, were intended to test the proficiency of color belt or gup level students, and dan or black belt practitioners, respectively. Partially inspired by the Pinan/Heian kata, the eight Palgwe poomsae reflect philosophical doctrines culled from the ancient Book of Changes or the I Ching and tend to emphasize low stances amplified by a variety of effective hand techniques. Moreover, technical components increase in complexity as they advance from one form to the next providing an effective barometer for rank advancement. Likewise, the Yudanja poomsae were crafted concurrent with the Palgwe set and at the time included Original Koryo, Keumgang, Taebaek, Pyongwon, Sipjin, Jitae, Cheonkwon, Hansoo and Ilyo, the latter eight of which continue to be sanctioned by the Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo Federation today. Aside from their technical diversity, the Yudanja set follow lines of motion described by Chinese and Korean characters that depict the philosophical concept characterized by each poomsae and contain advanced techniques unique to the dan grade holder. The committee members participating in the formation of the Palgwe and Yudanja poomsae consisted of kwan representatives Keun Sik Kwak (Chung Do Kwan), Young Sup Lee (Song Moo Kwan), Kyo Yoon Lee (Han Moo Kwan), Hae Man Park (Chung Do Kwan), Jong Myung Hyun (Oh Do Kwan), Soon Bae Kim (Chang Moo Kwan) and Chong Woo Lee (Ji Do Kwan).
Nevertheless, Tae Kwon Do is the child of change and has continued to evolve in complexity since its inception during the tumultuous midpoint of the twentieth century. Even today, technical enhancements are evident at almost every training venue one visits in Korea, the homeland of the art; whether it is at universities offering taekwondology as a major, or the Kukkiwon, center of taekwondo operations worldwide, the quest for modernization proceeds unabated. And so, it should come as no surprise that less than a decade after the introduction of the Palgwe set it was decided by committee to generate a new and innovative series of formal exercises in conjunction with a vastly revised version of Original Koryo.
Born in 1972, the Taegeuk poomsae by decree effectively replaced the existing Palgwe set. This significant modification in the Tae Kwon Do curriculum of the time is thought to have been politically-oriented inasmuch as the Moo Duk Kwan was not represented during the formulation of the Palgwe series. Yet in a practical sense, the Taegeuk poomsae were exceptional in that they contained the upright high forward or walking stance and featured a greater percentage of kicking techniques than their forerunners. Moreover, as Tae Kwon Do began to evolve into a combat sport with Olympic aspirations, a method was required to teach and support the upright fighting stance used in sparring competition and these new poomsae satisfied that need. If viewed from above, the pattern of movements within these forms trace the Chinese symbol for “king”. Bearing the namesake of the Korean flag, the Taegeuk patterns share philosophical principles running parallel to those of the Palgwe series based on the powers or elements of the Universe.
Concurrently with the creation of the Taegeuk series, Original Koryo was superseded by an intricate, new poomsae bearing the same name. Opening dramatically with a knife hand block in back stance quickly followed by two sides kicks of varying height, Kukki Koryo poomsae was deemed appropriately challenging for the black belt holder and a worthy vehicle to gauge proficiency for promotion to 2nd dan. Overseeing the developmental process of Kukki Koryo and the Taegeuk series was Keun Sik Kwak (Chung Do Kwan), Young Sup Lee (Song Moo Kwan), Kyo Yoon Lee (Han Moo Kwan), Hae Man Park (Chung Do Kwan), Jong Myung Hyun (Oh Do Kwan), Soon Bae Kim (Chang Moo Kwan) and Chong Woo Lee (Ji Do Kwan) with the addition of Young Ki Bae (Ji Do Kwan) and Young Tae Han (Moo Duk Kwan). Certainly, over the years, other patterns were created by first and second generation grandmasters including the seven Chil Sung hyung of Moo Duk Kwan Soo Bahk Do and the eighteen Songham formal exercises of ATA Tae Kwon Do that reflect slightly divergent styles of Korean martial arts.
Today, the required performance of poomsae, hyung or tul by Korean stylists, except for those engaged in the practice of ITF Taekwon-Do, varies greatly from organization to organization and school to school. Based on the 1970s edict by Kukkiwon that the Taegeuk series eclipse the Palgwe set completely, a vast majority of master instructors sadly jettisoned the latter in favor of the former altogether. Likewise, the original iteration of Koryo was replaced by the radically different version currently sanctioned by the World Taekwondo Federation, Kukkiwon and the Korea Taekwondo Association. Nevertheless, schools supporting a classical approach to training frequently include both the Palgwe set and what has now come to be known as Original Koryo in their present syllabus. Moreover, as an adjunct to the traditional curriculum, many poomsae or hyung, with a direct lineage to their Japanese/Okinawan and Chinese kin are included as well. Although altered somewhat to suit the basic parameters of Tae Kwon Do, we see evidence of this fact with the inclusion of formal exercises such as Balsek (Bassai), Chil-Ki (Tekki/Nihanji), Yunbee (Empi), Sip Soo (Jitte) and Jion, to name a few.
Yet, just as the eum/yang or the duality of opposites predicts, formal exercise practice symbolizes a danger that cuts both ways; forfeiting poomsae training altogether in favor of strategies that focus exclusively on sport sparring represents a tragedy of grand proportions in denying the practitioner to experience the myriad benefits associated with the process. Likewise, attempting to master every pattern within the lexicon of Kukki and traditional Tae Kwon Do could, potentially, be of equal disservice since an in-depth analysis or hae sul of the practical applications embedded in the form may become blurred or ignored altogether. After all, as Funakoshi was fond of saying, “The old masters used to keep a narrow field but plough a deep furrow.”
In many circles today, it is said that if the traditional methods of teaching Tae Kwon Do are to be preserved, it will occur in the West. This statement is partially based on the fact that major founders of the art no longer reside within the borders of Korea, but have long ago relocated here and abroad. Moreover, there exist a vast number of instructors outside the homeland of Tae Kwon Do who favor the practice of formal exercises coupled with practical self-defense techniques, both hallmarks of traditional Tae Kwon Do, over Olympic-style sparring and martial arts practice merely as a path to physical fitness. Clearly, it is this group who will safeguard the rich heritage of traditional Tae Kwon Do and act as fertile ground for the conservation and continued cultivation of the formal exercises unique to the art.
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 his most recent contribution, Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, focusing on the rewards and virtues of tae kwon do, published by YMAA of Boston. Master Cook and Grandmaster Chun have just completed a new book on Original and Kukki Koryo poomsae targeted for publication in July of 2013. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, seminars or workshops at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More to follow in upcoming new book; Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae - Original Koryo and Koryo by Richard Chun and Doug Cook, published by YMAA Publications, Inc.