Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Traditional Roots

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 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 He is affiliated with American Karate and Taekwondo Organization and Molum Combat Arts Association.


The Strongest Karate said...

Mr Wee wrote: "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."

If I am understanding him correctly, he is stating that the 'stopping' of the strike (at point of impact) is what creates it's power. I have also heard this called "the snap" or "snap back". And this is physically untrue.

Without getting all "Mr. Wizard" here, it is forward movement that generates forceful impact; the stopping of this movement is inert on the result it's impact. There is simply no relation.

The snap back is, of course, valuable because it prevents you from being over extended and vulnerable to a throw, etc. But one should not mistake one benefit for another.

Then again, perhaps I am misunderstanding his use of the word "kime".


Paul said...

I might be wrong, but I think what Wee said might mean locking the bone-structure of the body upon impact, and this interpretation makes good sense. In Chinese internal martial art, it is achieved through one point on the ground and one point at impact to create the structure, with a relaxed (muscles-as-one) body (which essentially means muscles in perfect relaxed alignment), and hold your breath on impact.

The Strongest Karate said...


I am not familiar with the practice you describe (or at least not aware that I have observed it in motion). But it sounds like something that would be interesting to examine.

Also, holding your breath at point of impact? Hmm...I've always been taught that that doing so often tenses your muscles.

More than 1 way to skin a cat, I guess

Paul said...

Hi Brett,

....or roast a baby pigeon (I beg your pardon, you don't eat pigeons...:):))

Nice chatting with you!

Colin Wee said...

Yes, what I'm referring to is not the deceleration of forward momentum or linear movement. If so, that would be counter to the power one generates from moving forward. I'm talking about transmitting body mass as one unit by tensioning the muscles upon impact and beyond. Hope that explains.

Thank you for your seeking clarification.


The Strongest Karate said...

Mr Wee,

Thank you for the clarification. Unfortunately, this student is much more visual/kinesthetic so I am still a little shakey on the details. Although that is my own failing, not yours.

If it isn't too much to ask, would you happen to know of a youtube video that explains the concept? If not, no worries.


Colin Wee said...

I have not gone to youtube for this specific issue, so am not sure.

Many of my intermediate students have problems with this fundamental skill, and I suspect it's because of the equipment we use in class - there's not enough feedback that comes from a hand held strike mitt.

On a striking post however, if I use 'arm only' and hammer it, the arm feels 'strong' but because it is disconnected from the body the power predominantly comes from the muscles driving the arm motion.

However, when I strike the target (at short range) for real - the movement is more of a pulse that starts from the legs, goes through the torso, and then launches the body forward. The arm is held connected with the side of the body as long as possible, and in the end - as it is released, the mass of the body is injected into the target.

The arm itself feels almost relaxed as opposed to the first strike. But the feedback is unmistakeable - as the body has been fired all at once, the striking power has significantly increased.

This happens for lunging type strikes somewhat similarly. You gain forward momentum, but before you make impact, the body 'locks' or freezes so that the forward drive from your legs can be transmitted through the body into your striking tool.

Just to be sure - The punches I'm describing above are for 'basic' type punches - not shoulder-high roundhouse type strikes.


Colin Wee said...

Brett - by 'The Strongest Karate' handle, certainly you must have practiced or explored this concept before. Maybe we're talking about similar concepts you practice but in dissimilar terms? Colin

The Strongest Karate said...

Hey Colin,

Ok, I think I am beginning to understand. What you describe sounds like what I know to be called "kinetic linking" or "driving up from the legs". If that is the case then yeah, I am familiar with the concept and it can be devastating.

Colin Wee said...

That sounds exactly like what I'm talking about! :-)