Taekwon-do's Black Hole
by Stuart Anslow, IV
Applications, above and beyond the standard punch, kick, block variety with regards to
the patterns of Taekwon-do are still in its infancy with regards to learning and teaching
them. Though still only taught as standard in a few schools, this is changing and the
movement for more realistic interpretations is growing rapidly.
However, some still choose to stick to the stance that if General Choi didn't say it was
so, then there cannot be more to the patterns than has already been taught or what is
listed in the manuals. This is either their firm belief or a resistance to it as it would mean
having to admit there is more to Taekwon-do patterns than they know or can currently
Either way, this doesn't change what I'm about to say, as Taekwon-do is like an onion,
the more layers you peel away, the more in-depth and interesting it becomes.
This article refers to applications that can be found within the Taekwon-do patterns
and not Taekwon-do as a whole as there are things that influenced Taekwon-do the art
(as a whole) and there are things that purely influenced the patterns. For Taekwon-do the
art, there are any number of influences, this is clear from my own research of the Ch'ang
hon system and though Taekwon-do is by and large influenced by Shotokan, it also has
influence in varying degrees and guises from Judo, Hapkido, Taek Kwon and other arts.
However, the patterns of Ch'ang Hon are, by and large, influenced by Shotokan (with WTF patterns being influenced by Ch'ang Hon and thus by design, also Shotokan) and not other arts. They have the Korean twist on them, but they are still following the same template of Shotokan and it is this area and this area alone that we are talking about here.
The black hole referred to in the title is also a black hole in Karates history, which in turn has had a major effect on Taekwon-do and this is in regards to Karate Kata, and kata applications. It isn't just a belief, but fact backed up by lots of research and evidence, both by myself and well established Karate researchers.
According to author and Shotokan historian Bruce Clayton, he offers a theory that pre-Shotokan Karate (Okinawa-te) was the art practiced only by the palace guards for defence of the King of Okinawa and as such it was top secret. The king died in 1879 and thus the 'official secrecy' sworn by all who studied was dissolved. Reading Claytons work seems to offer that most of those working in the palace had normal jobs, but, in times of defence of the king, sprung into action as body guards and protectors. Matsumura was a palace body guard, his student Itsou worked in the palace also (as a scribe and thus perhaps had a similar role in times of trouble) and Gichen Funakoshi (the man responsible for introducing Karate to mainland Japan) was a student of Itsou. The way I read it seemed to imply that Funakoshi was a body guard in training, but was not a full bodyguard and as such had not learnt the full body guarding system, and when the king died, his training was not completed as it was no longer required in its initial role. So its possible that Funakoshi had learnt Itsou's kata , but not the fine details, which were only filled in when a body guard was to take it up as an official duty/job and then sworn to the same secrecy of the others. So Funakoshi didn't learn the finer details of the patterns, just the shell of punch, kick and block!
Another point to consider is that following the Kings death, it is known that Master Itsou set about redesigning the Karate system for the Okinawan schools, giving it a less lethal approach by utilizing blocks rather than grab/break techniques. Many karate-ka feel this is the main reason for losing the lethal bunkai, due to its solid historical grounding. Funakoshi then took Karate to Japan in the same mode as Itsou's "school system", thus in-depth/dangerous applications didn't travel across from Itsou to Funakoshi, Itsou to the schools or Okinawa to Japan. The buck stopped with Itsou and started again with Funakoshi in a different guise.
Not all Karate-ka are happy with this reasoning and offer plausible alternatives, which do not change the facts, just the reasons. Some feel that Funakoshi did indeed learn the more deadly applications but perhaps the oppressed (Okinawans) didn't want to teach the oppressors their system, so again, gave them the "school system" or that when it came to Japan, the younger men wanted to test themselves by fighting and Funakoshi deplored that and thus ensured the most deadliest of applications remained hidden from (in the words of one Karate historian) these "hot blooded young males" as they wanted to test themselves via fighting and thus the sport side developed and the more martial side declined. Funakoshi himself was also promoting the 'Do' side of martial arts, as a way of bettering oneself first and foremost; hence other side of the art was relegated lower down the league (so to speak).
There is also evidence to support that it's only since 1901 that kata/patterns were used as a mass training system for large groups. Originally, before Itsou introduced them to the schools of Okinawa, kata were a more personal thing. One instructor would teach one or two students his kata, they would then amend and change the kata to suit their own fighting style and so on. Uniformed group practice is another area that has travelled across from country to country, when in fact, this wasn't the original intention, but again, as most were unaware of this it continued in this vein as the 'correct way' when in fact is may not have been meant to be this way at all.
Karate (and thus Taekwon-do) borrowed/stole a lot of ideas from Judo. Judo was already a popular martial art in Japan and when Karate came across the instructors noticed its popularity and over time, borrowed heavily from it; a uniform for all students, making them equal was borrowed, known as the 'gi' or in Taekwon-do's case, the 'Dobok', the ranking system was borrowed, making everything more defined and less personable, as a level and criteria for each grade was now required and this became more formalised as time passed, long kata were split, time between ranks was lessoned and removed the old ideas of training one kata for many years, competition formats were borrowed from Judo (such as idea of ippon (full point) and wazari (half point) scoring for kumite). Kata as a competitive field came a little later as kumite focus became popular and a decline in the practice of kata was noticed, so it too was introduced in a competitive format in order to give an incentive to students to keep practicing their kata alongside the kumite side. To do so meant a level playing field was needed in order to judge them, so for patterns/kata this was simply the shell of patterns, the aesthetic side of them, which is how they are mostly performed today. However, the biggest ideal borrowed from Judo shifted the balance considerably, from training as a means of defence to training as a means to character development, the 'Jutsu' became the 'Do' and that is another item carried forward onto Taekwon-Do, with General Choi emphasizing the 'Do' aspect even further still. Jutsu (musul in Korean) means technique method or skill, Do on the other hand refers to the 'way' or the journey through the art and how it affects the student (for the better).
Whatever version of events in modern Karate's formative years you chose to go with, they do not change how it affected Taekwon-do and why there's a black hole within it!
Karate may have travelled from Okinawa to Japan and then to Korea and that is what Taekwon-do was based upon originally, however, the finer details of kata, for one reason or another, were not transmitted across as only the basic building blocks of kata were. These were remodeled by many Karate systems and of course Taekwon-do itself, however, they were still used/modeled with the same outlook as Funakoshi had (or gave) and thus the punch/kick/block variety of kata/patterns continued in various forms and guises, all the while carry within them the building blocks for a deeper understanding of the techniques they contain, with most not even realising it.
Anyone who was instrumental in forming kata from 1901 to 1998 (give or take) used the Funakoshi Shotokan model (I'm referring to Taekwon-do & Karate here), therefore, they were all based on the punch/kick/block mentality, but all carried with them the building blocks to make them more than the sum of their parts - if they had veered away from this, it wouldn't have been possible in the same way, but they didn't and so here we are today, but know armed with the tools, knowledge and understanding to utilize them as they were originally designed to be used.
So when I discuss masters not knowing the deeper applications to patterns, I am not referring to a single master, but to all that fall into the time period above. Like it or not, as patterns were carried forward, whether consciously or not, certain attributes were carried along with them... and its these attributes that allow people like myself to either unlock them, or make them more than they previously were by peeling back the onion layers. It's not a slight on the masters that didn't know or realise or their martial knowledge. For example, the Ch'ang Hon system of Taekwon-do teaches many throwing techniques, there are sections in Gen Choi's manuals on them, but on the surface, these are not in the patterns; not as standard applications put forth by the instructors that created them, though when digging a little deeper they are there, many Jiu-Jitsu guys easily recognise them! So the martial knowledge was there, just not with regards to applying it in the patterns.
It doesn't mean individuals didn't utilize them in a more pragmatic manner prior to now, I'm sure certain karate instructors did, I know Taekwon-do drill instructors did, George Dillman and others did, but the issue was that due to communication at the time, these were relatively small instances compared to the wave of punch/kick/block kata/patterns going around. It's only now, with modern technology, that insights, theories, research, evidence etc. can be shared and discussed openly that the relevance of it all becomes more of a force to be reckoned with and of course we need those that are willing to question and go against the doctrines of the last 100 years. In essence, Karate and Taekwon-do have come full circle and I (and others) feel it's time to embrace that and throw away the shackles of the past in order to gain a better future for the art we love!
It reminds me of a TV advert I saw recently: Say I was a caveman and aliens felt it would be good for us to have the wheel and they dropped some stone circles with holes in them and in one they put an axel, thinking it's quite simple to make the leap from stone circle to cart. However, having never seen a wheel, or a cart, plus the wheel was lying flat with a pole sticking out the centre I associated it with what I know already. Great I thought, it must be a new washing line (as that's what I have seen already) - so I connected the pole with vine and hung my loin cloths out to dry! The point is, it would take almost a 'vision' for someone to realize in the 1950s to 1970s, that patterns evolved with more than punch/kick/block until modern technology, openness and sharing, walls and barriers came down and of course history allowed the odd light bulb moment and insights. All this has allowed instructors and students to gather evidence to the contrary of what has been taught so far, to the point when they finally went "A-ha!... I wonder"
That's my take on things, why I wrote my book and why I argue against certain issues. I don't want anyone to think I am disrespecting Taekwon-do, General Choi or any martial arts founders, because I hold the pioneers and masters in great respect, I just see things differently, as 'our time' allows me to do so.
I see this journey as one of furthering Taekwon-do and its development and taking it into the future. Even if an instructor or student chooses to categorically ignore the evidence that there is more to patterns than meets the eye, the simple fact that there are alternative and often better applications still make a worthwhile addition to those that practice Taekwondo patterns simply because they add to the art... and anyone who would dismiss that isn't doing the art a disservice, but themselves and their students, as martial artists should grow and mature and even General Choi stated that he left the development of Taekwon-do in the hands of the instructors! If we kept to the doctrines of the past simply on the premise that they are from a higher authority and thus know better, we would still believe the earth was flat and that babies should sleep on their fronts to avoid cot deaths (an old and new example of why it is good to question!).
Finally, I'd like to leave you with a passage that might prove interesting. I noted it particularly as it mentions "rising block"... it's part of a piece written by Iain Abernethy (renowned kata bunkai exponent) from a piece titled "A Brief History of Kata"
"Itsou's modifications resulted in huge changes in the way the art was taught. The emphasis was now placed firmly upon the development of physical fitness through the group practice of kata. The children would receive no instruction in the combative applications associated with the katas and deliberately misleading labels were adopted for the various techniques. Today, it is Itsou's terminology that is most commonly used throughout the world and it is vital to understand why this terminology developed. When studying the combative applications of the katas remember that many of the names given to various movements have no link with the movement's fighting application. Terms such as "Rising-block" or "Outer-block" stem from the watered down karate taught to Okinawan school children, and not the highly potent fighting art taught to the adults. When studying bunkai be sure that the label does not mislead you. Itsou's changes also resulted in the teaching of kata without its applications. The traditional practice had been to learn the kata and then when it was of a sufficient standard (and the student had gained the master's trust) the applications would then be taught. However, it now became the norm to teach the kata for its own sake and the applications may never be taught (as is sadly still the case in the majority of karate schools today)."
Full article: http://www.iainabernethy.com/articles/article_19.asp