REPOST: THE Korean martial art (not what you think!)

6 Dec

UNESCO has added the first martial art ever to its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. China has long pushed for the inclusion of “Shaolin kung fu” but the bid failed in the 12th hour. The martial art to be added is not Japanese either, neither Karate nor Judo (the latter which Japan itself has pushed for inclusion). It is a Korean marital art. More to the point, its inclusion on the UNESCO list would make it THE Korean martial art. However, it’s an art many in the Western world has never heard of, an art called TaekKyun.

In the Western world, Koran martial art = Taekwondo, but the real story is a bit more complex. The inclusion of TaekKyun on the UNSECO list prompted an article in the Korea Times (“Han Guk Il Bo”) which I personally found fascinating. When I was doing Taekwondo, the issue of Japanese (read Karate) influence on the art was taboo to discuss but always pretty obvious. The average person could see the same stances, the same strikes, the same blocks. In my case, my Taekwondo teacher taught us the “original Moo Duk Kwan forms” which were Karate Kata (Heian, Tekki, Bassai, etc). Even the “Korean forms” which came along, the “Palgwe”, looked like re-hashes of the Heian kata.

The Korean instructors insisted that Taekwondo descended from ancient Korean martial arts, but the stories never were more than “legends” and it was an established fact that the last living taekkyun master, Song Duk-ki, had no relationship with any of the original Taekwondo schools. Taekwondo strived to be more “Korean”. Despite practicing kata (forms) based upon Japanese Karate with few kicking techniques, Taekwondo began to mirror TaekKyun in its emphasis on kicks. Taekwondo masters developed a wide range of thrusting, spinning and jumping kicks.

Again, to discuss any of this openly was TABOO, which is why I was shocked to see it discussed so openly now in the Korea Times. Apparently, and remember that I have been removed from the Korean martial arts community for almost 25 years, this openness is related to a general decline in Taekwondo in Korea itself. Part of this decline is precisely due to the rebirth of TaekKyun.

After the Japanese occupation of Korea, TaekKyun was on shaky legs. By the mid 20th century there was only one living recognized master, Song Duk-ki. But the ancient martial art survived Song’s death in 1987 and his students oversaw the art surging in popularity in the 1990s, mainly on university campuses. It became increasingly obvious, even to the layman’s eyes, that TaekKyun was very different than Taekwondo and it raised questions about Taekwondo’s dubious historical claims. Now, an official designation recognizing taekkyun, not taekwondo, as Korea’s traditional martial art, drives a further nail into Taekwondo’s re-constructed history.

Another point raised by this article I of course also found fascinating. Another factor contributing to the decline of Taekwondo in Korea itself is the ever increasing popularity of Mixed Martial Arts. The modern Korean has experienced growing prosperity making them less hardy, while ever-increasing leisure options create competition for martial arts. Thus, in a dwindling pool of prospective students, Taekwondo has found itself competing with MMA, and losing.

All pretty fascinating stuff to me at least.


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