Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Tae Kwon Do

I have sometimes wondered why Tae Kwon Do has such a bad reputation with many who practice other martial arts. I was poking around some websites and fora recently, and I learned that the Tae Kwon Do these martial artists are criticizing, which is the Tae Kwon Do being taught in many dojangs around the US, is not the Tae Kwon Do I learned.

I began studying TKD around 1982, long before it became, or even was under consideration to become, an Olympic sport. My instructor, Master Kim, did not teach us the "sport" TKD that seems to dominate American TKD today. We learned the original, traditional TKD.*

For instance, we learned roundhouse kicks that come across horizontally, at a 90 degree angle, not the 45 degree angle upward kicks being taught now. We were taught high kicks, but we were not taught that high kicks were the main part of our arsenal. Master Kim taught us that being flexible, strong, and skilled enough to perform those kicks would make us better fighters even if we never actually used one of those high kicks in actual self-defense (the whole matter of whether high kicks can be effective in street fights -- which I know for a fact they can -- I will leave for some other time). He taught us speed and power. He taught us the vulnerable points of the human body and how to target them with fast, powerful kicks to disable our opponents.

Apparently unlike most TKD schools today, Master Kim taught us locks, holds, and grapples. We spent a great deal of time doing step sparring, which are various self-defense techniques against things like kicks and punches all the way up to knives and guns. He taught us pressure points and showed us how to immobilize our opponents with them. We often did drills for learning how to defend ourselves in various scenarios, such as drills for fighting multiple opponents.

According to my reading, Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do are very close to the same martial art, but with a more realistic, self-defense orientation in TSD as opposed to TKD, with more focus on proper technique and forms. But, as it turns out, a series of forms Master Kim taught us called Pyong An are actually the more traditional forms used by Tang Soo Do. We learned those in addition to the TKD Palgwe forms and also another set of forms that seems to have originated with Shotokan karate. I have learned that practically no students in any other TKD school (none that I have met, spoken to, or seen on the internet) learned both Pyong An and Palgwe, let alone the other set that seems to be unique to Master Kim's school.

Also, it appears that some of the elders of TKD have tried to eliminate any non-Korean influence from the art. As such, according to my reading, TSD has a much better variety of techniques than TKD. But Master Kim must not have been prejudiced against Japanese and Chinese influences, because we not only learned all the techniques commonly found in TSD, Master Kim taught any technique he knew about and thought useful. We also learned a lot of Hapkido, which Master Kim was also a Master of.

We learned proper blocks, punches, knife-hand techniques, and evasions. Apparently, today, the lack of punching in "sport" TKD, where it is difficult to score points with a punch, has led to both a lack of training with the hands and also to bad habits amongst "sport" TKD practitioners like not bothering to keep one's hands in guard position during a match. That never happened when I was training with Master Kim.

Also, it seems that in many TKD schools these days, the students rarely see the Master, being taught by other high-level students. When I trained, I trained directly with Master Kim, at the time an 8th-degree (now 9th-degree) black belt and (at the time) tied for the highest ranked TKD practitioner in the US. He knew my name, he developed a training program for me, and he personally corrected my form and technique class after class.

Master Kim wasn't perfect, by any means. He pioneered some of the things plaguing TKD today, such as creating a lot of belt ranks in order to make more money with more promotion tests, being overly concerned with money in general, and not concentrating on punches enough in class (we were proficient with punching, but not as proficient as we should have been -- though, fortunately, a friend of mine from class and I spent a lot of time working on punches ourselves and so became the best punchers in the class).

So, in the end, I believe that the TKD that is so often criticized in martial arts circles is not the TKD I learned. Though TKD may be taught more often as a sport than a martial art now, I was not taught TKD as sport. I was taught TKD as martial art and as means of self-defense. I have read a lot Bruce Lee's writings on Jeet Kune Do and have found that Master Kim taught us all the techniques therein. The only difference is that Jeet Kune Do uses those techniques in different ways, with different strategies. All I had to do to was to internalize the new ideas of Jeet Kune Do in order to benefit from Lee's work. I didn't have to learn a single new move.

* While Tae Kwon Do as its own martial art dates only from the 1940s, it is based on Korean, Chinese, and Japanese martial arts each with long histories.


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