With today (9th November) being what would be the 100th birthday of General Choi Hong Hi (regarded by many as the founder of tae kwon do), I just searched tae kwon do on Google. About 134 000 000 results, in 0.58 seconds. If the goal of General Choi was to get global exposure for this martial art, the result of this simple internet search would suggest that he succeeded, in pretty spectacular fashion.
As a practitioner of tae kwon do since the early 1990's, my personal focus and emphasis within the art has shifted as I have personally evolved. At times I have been focused on competitive success, at times the acquisition of grades at other times the application of technique for personal defence. However, through quiet reflection recently I have become increasingly aware of how little I understand about this martial art I have studied for nearly half of my life. In this I don't refer to the physical acquisition of techniques etc. More significantly I became aware of how little I understood about the intentions of those who founded the art (as for all things there is an intended purpose) and what their focus was.
As students of tae kwon do we are tasked with learning the history and theory surrounding the art. It is necessary for us to learn the dates of significant events, meanings ascribed to patterns and terminology for techniques. This factual education is important and lays the foundation for further research. It is only through further research however that one can identify the intentions and drive for the art.
This article is not intended to engage in a political statement concerning tae kwon do, or indeed avail itself with discussion surrounding the benefits and limitations of administrative (governing) bodies. Essentially this is as much a personal statement of intention and focus for Renegade Martial Arts, as much as it is an interpretation of the information found so far in this ongoing research.
It is without question that tae kwon do was formulated as a result of investigation and practice into other martial arts. Prior to the time of its inauguration there were various 'hard-style' kwans (schools) within Korea, practicing a equal variety of physical techniques. The name tae kwon do was agreed by a consensus of masters and politicians, aimed to unify this broad range of traditional styles. The technical foundation of tae kwon do is again unquestionably based on a unification between these traditional Korean forms, influenced by the Japanese and Chinese martial arts experience of those founding masters. Tae Kwon Do from its conception was therefore focused on unity and providing a wholeness.
The political evolution of tae kwon do across the later 20th century unfortunately served to be divisive, with this fundamental focus being lost. The necessity to obtain this global recognition and standing has essentially drawn factions into what should have been a singular art. Moreover, individual preferences and interpretations have codified systems and sets of techniques within the art as being ‘correct’ to the exclusion and sometimes derision of all others. This division, which has happened away from the public view, has ultimately served to provide a main-stream perception that tae kwon do is at best an Olympic sport or a martial form useful for exhibitions of trick kicks and gymnastics but little else. At worst, this misinterpretation has provided perception is an ineffective martial system for personal defence, or just a derivation of karate with no identity of it’s own. Evolution is inevitable, however the movement here has taken tae kwon do away from the central principles.
As an example here, anecdotally we had a conversation recently with a student at a local tae kwon do school who is set to take his 1st Dan test. They (he and his fellow students) had been told by a visiting senior black belt that they were not ready for testing and should defer in lieu of more training and practice. When questioned over the content of the testing we were reasonably astounded by the absence of any requirement to demonstrate anything other than technique for competition, or have any knowledge of the foundation theory for the art (moral culture, tenets etc.). It’s hard to believe that this was the intention for practitioners of the art at it’s conception.
A second example was highlighted when personal researching in to the composition of tae kwon do. It is 100% clear that tae kwon do was always intended to be a functional and effective martial art. The development in the Korean infantry divisions, if nothing else, exemplify this very well. Moreover the detail authored by General Choi in ‘the encyclopedia of tae kwon do’ directly references how the fundamental components of tae kwon do are mutually supportive and inextricably linked.
Fundamental movements, dallyon (equipment maintenance), patterns, sparring and self defence form the circular, flowing nature of tae kwon do. (In the context of tae kwon do dallyon should be seen as maintenance of the body; strength, flexibility, conditioning and cardiovascular fitness training) Each component aspect of the art supported the next with no one being more necessary than the other, in respect of the goal - that being the use of techniques against spontaneous attacks (self/personal defence). For example, competitive sparring, whilst discussed in the same document, was never intended to be the end goal and instead was a fundamental component allowing practitioners to apply skills to moving opponents. A further section exists to discuss exhibition tae kwon do, suggesting techniques to be used in such contexts. However it was not the intention for these techniques to become the gauge on which the effectiveness of the art is judged. The personal misinterpretation and preference of technical details has also served, in certain cases, to marginalise (and exclude students from learning) aspects of tae kwon do, such as throws and ground fighting techniques, which existed in the original conception of the art. This interpretation has also in extreme cases provided codification to elements of the art, for which creativity and flexibility should have been maintained. For example, in the context of pre-arranged sparring it was emphasised that any techniques could be combined to provide three or two step examples and these were not limited to set patterns of movement or techniques. Additionally pre-arranged drills were intended to be performed one (solely moving backwards) and two (moving backwards and forwards) way, although many only practice these drills one way.
Again, it was not the intention for this article to be a political statement or derision of any governing body for the art. It is the intention here for us to outline and demonstrate what we believe our focus of tae kwon do to be. We practice tae kwon do as a complete martial system. We embrace all components of the art and provide students opportunity to train and develop in all these, in a graduated, progressive manner. We retain the focus of tae kwon do for effective self defence. From our research (which is always ongoing) we believe that this best represents the intentions of the founders of the art. We retain focus on the development of our students physically, emotionally and spiritually. We believe that tae kwon do is more that a set of physical techniques and we place equal emphasis on the understanding of the morality, values and tenets on which tae kwon do was founded. For us we embrace tae kwon do with the spirit of unity, which we believe it was created to facilitate and exemplify.