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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Modern Side of Taekwondo

Depending on how you do your grouping and counting, taekwondo can be considered the most widely practiced martial art in the world.  For better or worse taekwondo is everywhere.  From tiny dojangs all over the world to the Olympics, taekwondo is practiced in over 200 countries with over 8,000,000 black belts and that doesn't even include those who practice ITF taekwondo.  At the center of this wide success is Kukkiwon, the headquarters of the World Taekwondo Federation, better known by its unfortunate acronym, WTF.

The gateway into Kukkiwon.

Like all things, taekwondo is a product of what it used to be.  To greatly oversimplify its history, there were originally nine styles, or "kwans," that combined to form Kukkiwon. The Korean government supported Kukkiwon and within Korea, this unified body reigned supreme.  Outside of Korea, where the Korean government couldn't reach, not everyone joined Kukkiwon.  There are still schools that teach according to the original kwans.

Each of the original nine kwans are commemorated in a museum at Kukkiwon.

The process of unification was not a smooth one, and to this day it can be a touchy subject to some.  So when a stranger at Kukkiwon asked me if I practiced taekwondo, it was a bit risky to answer as honestly as I did.  I said yes, but it was a little different because I came from a kwan.  He didn't seem offended but answered eloquently that it didn't matter, "as long as you wear the white uniform."  He went on to emphasize the importance of taekwondo uniting with one voice, and how much taekwondo has been able to accomplish through unity.  He cited the Olympics as an example.  He said that karate, lacking a single governing body over its 400 splintered organizations, has never been able to enter the Olympics as taekwondo has, and that Kukkiwon has made taekwondo powerful.

By chance I arrived at Kukkiwon during the demonstration team's practice time.  Much of what they did was a walk-through of their upcoming performance, but they also practiced some of their more challenging board breaking feats.  During the show they used demonstration boards, which are designed to break easily, but for rehearsal they kicked foam squares to conserve boards and to avoid littering the stage with splinters.  One particular break that the team found difficult involved running across the stage, jumping off a partner while being thrown higher, kicking a board mid-flip at the apex of the jump, and landing gracefully in a fighting stance.

Personally, I have absolutely no inclination to ever be two stories off the ground and upside down while in a state of free fall.  It probably goes without saying that a stunt like this is beyond my skill.  Even when they missed the break, or the kicker stumbled on the landing, I still thoroughly enjoyed watching them practice.  It made them seem more human to watch things happen less than perfectly, but also I loved that they seemed to be having fun.


When the performance began, it was broken into three sections.  The first was a demonstration of skills, and the second and third part told a story.  Like Cirque du Soleil, the story in a performance like this is a thinly veiled excuse for a visual feast.  For the story, the performers wore red, blue and black uniforms to indicate rival factions and played out an impressive display of stylized conflict, ending with a reconciliation and celebration of unity.  Throughout the performance the audience was treated to 45 minutes of stunning feats of martial athleticism.  This video should give you an idea.


And the break they were perfecting?  Here is the moment of truth:


After the show I spoke with one of the performers who happened to speak a little English. He had been training in taekwondo for 20 years.  I didn't ask his age, but I guessed that must have been pretty much his whole life.  He endured a grueling audition to secure his place on the demonstration team.  To start, they had to run 10 laps around the Kukkiwon building (my guess is that's about a 2-mile run), before demonstrating any techniques. They first had to show their command of basics, but they also had an opportunity to show off "specialty kicks."

Lim Hoosang, Kukkiwon Demonstration Team athlete.

Taekwondo is known for its graceful high kicks, and this trip to Kukkiwon did not disappoint.  But behind the flashiness and the impressive technique, there was an ever-present message.  Today in many parts of the world we can walk the streets safely without facing violence on a regular basis.  In this safer modern world, martial arts have often maintained their relevance by purporting to teach values.  Kukkiwon lists courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit.  I found it oddly fitting that the value Kukkiwon sought so earnestly to impart on that day to be none of those, but unity.

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