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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Interview with Master Do Kihyun Part 1

Master Do Kihyun is the President of the Kyulyun Taekyun Association and a published author on taekyun.  He has trained in martial arts for over 40 years including taekwondo, kung fu, kendo, karate, aikido, hapkido, and others.  He started taekyun in 1982 and has trained in it continuously ever since.  He has a masters degree in Sports and Leisure and is working toward his PhD.  He now teaches taekyun in Seoul, Korea, at a small school where people (including myself) come from all over the world to train.

Despite his impressive resume, he insists that his most noteworthy accomplishment is having achieved confidence, happiness, and peace of mind through martial arts.  I sat down with Master Do to discuss taekyun and his experiences in the martial arts.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series, and will be continued next week.

Interviewer and interviewee.

Martial Journeys:  What is taekyun?

Master Do:  Taekyun is a traditional Korean martial art.  There are many martial arts in Korea but taekyun is the only one the Korean government recognizes as a Korean cultural treasure.  It is also recognized as a UNESCO world cultural heritage.  Other martial arts like Shaolin kung fu, tai chi and muay thai applied, but they were all rejected. Taekyun is the only one.

Martial Journeys:  Why do you think that is, that it's the only one?

Master Do:  This is just my opinion, but I think it's because taekyun has changed less than the other arts.  I think Shaolin kung fu is a very good martial art, but it might be too commercialized.  It is not an exact tradition because it has changed so much.  Tai chi was also changed by the Chinese government.  But taekyun never changed like that and still maintains its traditional form.  During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese government prohibited taekyun practice.  Only a few people continued to practice taekyun in secret.  After Korea gained its independence, Korean people weren't interested in taekyun.  Since there were so few taekyun practitioners, taekyun couldn't develop.  But it also couldn't change.

Martial Journeys:  Why should someone who practices another martial art be interested in taekyun?

Master Do:  Almost all East Asian martial arts like karate, kung fu, taekwondo and hapkido, are based on Chinese philosophy and Chinese traditional movement.  China is a big country and they have a long history so when cultures collided almost all East Asian martial arts were influenced by Chinese styles.  But taekyun is absolutely uniquely Korean.  It has no horse riding stance and no punches from the waist like most styles do, and taekyun moves according to a unique 3 beat rhythm.  The techniques have a very different flavor compared with other East Asian martial arts.  But it's more than that. Usually Chinese martial arts are very mysterious, Japanese martial arts are very serious, but the Korean martial art of taekyun is just fun.  When you attend my classes, it is not serious or mysterious.  My students are smiling and in good spirits.  That is why I think taekyun is a very good martial art system.  I hope in the future, all the other martial arts will want to change to foster a happy mind, to relax, help each other, and practice to enjoy themselves.

Taekyun students being neither serious nor mysterious.

Martial Journeys:  How old is taekyun?

Master Do:  Nobody knows.  There are historical records from the Joseon Dynasty that depict taekyun, but that's all we know.  Some martial arts have a single founder who created their style, but taekyun developed as a folk activity, so no one knows who originally invented it.  It's possible it didn't even have a founder, and developed as neighboring villages fought each other according to their folk fighting systems.

A historical depiction of traditional Korean martial arts.  

Martial Journeys:  Why is taekyun less popular than it used to be?

Master Do:  During the Japanese Occupation almost all of the taekyun masters died. After Independence Day, Korean people didn't want to learn traditional culture, which had gone out of style.  Major sports like judo and wrestling were popular.  Korea was very quickly modernized and nobody wanted to understand Korean traditional movement.

Martial Journeys:  Why does taekyun include elements of dance?

Master Do:  It's not dance.  Almost all martial arts--not just taekyun--reflect the dance of the culture that created them.  If you watch very carefully, Chinese martial arts are very similar to Chinese dance.  Japanese styles also have a relationship with their national dance system.  It's the same in Africa.  By the same token, taekyun has similarities with Korean mask dance.  The purpose of dance is to express beautiful form, and the purpose of martial arts is to kill.  They have different purposes but they have a similar movement because the people are the same.

Korean mask dance.  Thanks to koreanet for making the image available for reuse.

Martial Journeys:  Which is better for a beginning taekyun student, a dance background or martial arts background?

Master Do:  Either will be helpful but martial arts is better because all martial arts have a common philosophy.  Technique is not important.  The most important thing is to get a sense of how to avoid or how to hit.  It is very difficult.  If I am attacked, I need to be able to avoid the attacking technique, be able to block, and be able to hit.  If someone has a lot of taekwondo fighting experience, it's very helpful.  He already knows how to avoid and how to hit, so just learning taekyun technique is easy.  Of course if his taekwondo practice consists entirely of forms, he won't have that benefit.  But if he develops to a high level of skill in fighting technique and competition, how to avoid and how to hit, he can learn taekyun techniques very quickly.  It's just like if someone is very good at swordplay, he can learn another sword very quickly.

This interview will be concluded in Part 2.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Drill for Very Straight Punches

Even though this trip to Korea wasn't part of the 50 States Challenge, I would be remiss if I didn't come back with a Takeaway Technique for the blog.  

The idea of economy of movement is not a unique one.  In a life-and-death situation, a fraction of a second can make all the difference in the world, so the idea of not wasting any time during your movements is just common sense.  

When Grandmaster Park talked about this, it boiled down to a simple phrase that I have heard from him many times, "Straight is fast."  You can get very academic about proving that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but really it just means your punch is faster when it goes directly to its target.  

Eh... I just can't bring myself to crack a joke about Grandmaster Park.

He liked to draw an analogy to Wild West shootouts.  He said that gunfighters had to learn to draw their weapons very quickly in order to survive, and they did so by very straight direct movements.  The shootouts from movies are a creative interpretation of historical fact, but drawing a weapon as quickly as possible has obvious benefits, and not just in the Old West.  So for the sake of Grandmaster Park's explanation, imagine the quick draw from the stereotypical Western shootout, which is convenient for its simplicity.  The gun was likely holstered on the hip (not the leg) of the shooting hand.  The very fast movement to remove the gun and shoot from the hip is intended to optimize speed.  Presumably those who weren't as fast as their enemies died and were unable to pass on their technique.  The surviving technique involves a very fast, very short movement with the elbow tucked in, which you might notice, does not look terribly different from a punch from the hip.

The moral of the story is that straight is fast, and keeping the elbow in toward the body keeps the movement straight.  Even people who conceptually understand this mechanic sometimes have trouble adhering to it.  Twisting the fist from palm-up to palm-down necessarily moves the elbow, and for many people it naturally drifts away from the body during that movement.

Master Jang from Sunrise Taekwondo (who I should mention is not Grandmaster Park's student and, to my knowledge, they have never even met each other) showed me how he teaches students to keep their punches straight.  He breaks it down into three steps:

Master Jang teaching, because he always seems to be doing that.

1.  Start by holding both fists out in front of the body to be aware of alignment in the end position.  Without twisting the arm at all, pull the hand halfway back to its starting position on the hip/belt/floating ribs/etc., according to your style.  During this movement, the forearm should brush against the side of the body.  Pause, then complete the movement. Ignore the punch, and reset the hand at the punch's end position and repeat the return movement.  Practice one side only, then practice the other side.

2.  Now add the punch.  As the returning hand pauses in its intermediate location, the punching hand should pause next to it.  It shouldn't twist at all in this stage of the movement, and the forearm should again brush against the side of the body.  Complete the movement and end in a punch with the back hand returned.

3.  Now take out the pause in the middle.  It should be a normal, full-speed punch at this point.

Here is a video of Master Jang demonstrating the progression.

And the same thing viewed from the side.

To my thinking, this drill provides three main benefits to the student.  First, it emphasizes brushing the arm against the side of the body, which will straighten out a punch all by itself.  Second, the pause in the middle allows the student to check their technique at the point where the mistake is usually made, whereas performing the punch at full speed can obscure the mistake.  And finally, it delays the twisting movement.  

This delay is correct according to the styles I have learned, though I'll certainly concede that others may teach punching differently.  But setting style differences aside, delaying the twisting movement allows for a straighter punch.  The elbow simply can't move very far laterally when the arm is more extended.  As an experiment, give this a try.  When your fist is near your body, it is easy to rotate the elbow, though you run the risk of looking very silly.  If you try the same shoulder movement with your arm most of the way extended, you can probably only move your elbow by a few inches.  So even a mistake in the shoulder movement can be minimized by delaying the twist.

It's a very specific drill to address a very specific problem, but if you happen to have that problem, I hope this helps.

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.

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Forbidden Garden

Changdeokgung, the Palace of Prospering Virtue, is the most picturesque of Seoul's five palaces.  The traditional right angles are often eschewed in favor of aesthetic merit. There's plenty to appreciate in the palace itself, but the gem of the site is Huwon, the garden behind it.

Some architecture in Changdeokgung Palace.

"Huwon" literally means the "Rear Garden," but it is also called the Forbidden Garden, the Inner Garden, or the Secret Garden.  It takes its more dramatic names from the rule that no one could enter it without the king's permission.  Today the names are still somewhat applicable because of how hard it is to get tickets.  This was my first visit to the garden, and it wasn't for lack of trying on previous trips to Korea.

Getting here is easy.  Getting further is hard.

The garden itself sprawls across 78 acres.  Much of it is a pleasant walk through wooded landscapes, but the garden also holds a number of pavilions and structures.  One of the first points of interest is this two-story pavilion.  The first floor was the royal library and the second floor was a reading room.

Juhamnu Pavilion behind Eosumun Gate.

A little deeper into the garden is Bulromun Gate, a simple stone archway carved from a single rock.  It is said to confer longevity and health to anyone passing through.

Health and long life?  Yes, please.  But two days later I caught a cold.

There are many beautiful ponds and pools in Korea's palaces.  Traditionally they are square to represent the Earth, in line with the beliefs of their architects.  This pond takes a smaller view.  It is the shape of Korea.

A pond in the shape of what is now North Korea and South Korea.

Deep in this garden created for the royal family's relaxation and amusement is the most unlikely addition--a rice paddy and a pavilion with a thatched roof.  This was created for a yearly ceremony in which the king would personally harvest the rice and rethatch the roof. By the king doing the work himself, the royal family could understand the hard work of the people he ruled.  This was no publicity stunt.  It was hidden away in the most private grounds of the palace where no ordinary farmer could ever see it.

Cheongeuijeong and the king's rice paddy.

The ceremony is still performed to this day, but since Korea hasn't had a king in over a century, the ceremony is now a historical reenactment.  

On the way out of the gardens, I snapped this picture of one of the main palace buildings. This was where the king would perform formal ceremonies and meet with dignitaries. Day-to-day ruling happened elsewhere.  But I always thought the most interesting thing about it was that these buildings are constructed entirely without nails.  Nails were only used to hang something on a wall.  This entire structure was built by cleverly interlocking tight-fitting pieces of wood.

Building this would be challenging even with the aid of nails.

Like many traditional Korean buildings, the corners in Changdeokgung palace have clay figurines called japsang.  There can be anywhere from three to eleven of them, but they always appear in odd numbers.  They are decorations, but they also were intended to ward off evil spirits.

So, Joseon Dynasty ghostbusters?

Changdeokgung Palace is over 600 years old.  It was burnt down partially or completely no less than three times over the course of Korea's turbulent history, each time being rebuilt according to the original design.  It has seen generations of kings come and go. But the palace grounds hold a living thing that has survived all this and more.

When 750 years old you reach, look as good you will not.

This is a Chinese Juniper tree planted here before the palace was built.  Its wood was used to make incense for rituals at a nearby shrine.

Downtown Seoul is only a few steps away, and the thick of the modern world with it.  On some level it seems absurd that these ancient sights can exist in the same space as high speed trains, free WiFi and skinny vanilla lattes.  But that is Seoul--a city that has enthusiastically embraced modern technology while still being very proud of its 6000 year history.