I remember back when I was a kid that the “Korean Karate” guys were considered the tough guys on the block. Sadly, the reputation of Taekwondo has suffered. In general, modern Taekwondo isn’t what it used to be.
Still, there are a few teachers out there who follow a traditional approach, have a deep root in the strengths of Taekwondo practice and yet are keeping up with the times.
One of these is Mr. Colin Wee. Mr. Wee was kind enough to write a guest post for Cook Dings Kitchen which you’ll find below. Enjoy.
What has happened to Taekwondo? By Colin Wee
“Taekwondo is the biggest joke and it SUX.”
Try telling that to any Taekwondo practitioner in the 1950s to 1960s, and you’d be asking for a world of hurt. Taekwondo then was hard hitting, literally a take-no-prisoners system. In both the Korean and Vietnam War, Taekwondo practitioners were feared as ruthless and effective killing machines.
Out of Korea, students of Korean Karate instructors, such as GM Allen Steen (GM Jhoon Rhee’s first black belt student) in Texas, continued this trend and carved a reputation in the 1960s to 1970s as fierce fighters in the ‘Blood and Guts’ era of American martial arts.
So what has happened to modern Taekwondo that it has found itself in such a sorry state?
The answer lies in how you define what Taekwondo is.
In my world view, early Taekwondo comes up tops because it took an overly rigid Karate system as it was practiced in the 1920s and 1930s, and it injected innovation, mobility, and relaxedness into the system. How much of that influence came from the practise of Taekkyon is up for debate, but the inclusion of faster footwork and long range kicks allowed for freer body movement. It allowed for both phenomenal power and blinding speed.
At the heart of that Taekwondo however was still an engine driven by hard style linear karate. Yes, early Taekwondo’s hyung had been mostly repurposed from Shotokan’s kata but it was still all about kime or ‘focus’. Kime is the locking down of muscles upon impact. It creates immense striking power because the decelerating body structure is used to transmit a larger mass into the striking tool. Taekwondo then became as devastating at long range as it was at short range.
Where I trained as a young black belt it was always known that the best fighters are also pretty good kata practitioners. This is a correlation which defies logical explanation unless you understand that ‘good’ kata is linked with good kime. And good kime is fundamental to having the kind of scary power that Taekwondo was famous for.
If you however subscribe to the view that Taekkyon is the progenitor of Taekwondo, and that Taekwondo’s 2000 year old history establishes a direct lineage with Hwarang warriors, then that bypasses the unbearable truth of Taekwondo’s Japanese connection, fully differentiates it from Shotokan karate and, as you can see from how hyung and palgwe are now performed, has had kime excised from the heart of Taekwondo.
Now, I’m not saying there are no redeeming features about modern Taekwondo. It hasn’t become the world’s most popular martial art for nothing. What I’m saying however is that its evolution from the 1960s onwards has changed its intrinsic nature.
The mantra of modern Taekwondo has to be kicks, kicks and more kicks. Of course there is also General Choi’s positing the Sine Wave as a point of power differentiation for Taekwondo. But that hasn’t metastasized into modern skills for modern practitioners.
What modern Taekwondo has is a phenomenal array of long and mid-range tools, and an impressive sport training approach – all capitalising on mobility, relaxedness and speed. Ironically it is the focus on these strengths which draw the greatest disdain from other stylists. Not because of the strengths per se, but of course what the style has given up in search of that excellence.
When Rick asked me to write about Traditional Taekwondo, my immediate thought was not to grandstand. But the truth is that given we pride ourselves on a ‘less is more’ philosophy, we’re hardly going to make waves. Our approach - simple techniques applied with generous variation, has always been what it’s all about.
Traditional Taekwondo cannot be all things to all people. Even in a progressive school such as ours, I can only offer so much from the pattern set. I make no apologies for it, and my students know they can and should go fill in the gaps in their knowledge. They however often find themselves stuck on early Taekwondo’s very compelling story. The story begins with very hardy people, their idea to improve on the world of hurt they were experiencing, and the innovation they gifted their new fighting art.
I owe thanks to Rick, Cook Ding’s Kitchen and its readers, and readers of Traditional Taekwondo Blog http://www.joongdokwan.com for giving me the chance to continue telling the story of Traditional Taekwondo and the little slice of history we represent.
Colin Wee is a 6th Dan Black Belt in Traditional Taekwondo. Over the last 29 years he has practiced three martial arts in three different countries. Currently Chung Sah Nim or Chief Instructor at Joong Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do, he leads a small group of dedicated adult students, and shares his perspective at Traditional Taekwondo Techniques Blog http://www.joongdokwan.com. He is affiliated with American Karate and Taekwondo Organization and Molum Combat Arts Association.