In the opening chapters of Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Son discusses some of the history of Asian martial arts in general, and an awkwardly self-serving history of Tae Kwon Do in particular. He also explains the philosophy and fundamentals of Tae Kwon Do so the English-speaking public understands that Tae Kwon Do is not about sensational fight scenes or breaking boards and bricks with their hands and feet. While it is true that fighting and breaking demonstrate the power, speed and athleticism that can be generated by the human body with Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Son stresses that there is arduous study and practice behind these abilities. To become proficient in Tae Kwon Do, students must learn the fundamentals and apply them in concert. For Grandmaster Son, Tae Kwon Do is both an athletic and artistic endeavor. It shares characteristics with other popular sports such as boxing, pole vaulting, and swimming. It also shares qualities commonly associated with the fine arts. Like any artist, the student of Tae Kwon Do practices to improve his skills, knowing full well that perfection can never be achieved, mastering the mechanics of the art to apply them to the best of his ability.
The next seven chapters of Grandmaster Son’s classic text about Korean Karate, or Tae Kwon Do, describe the training in his classes in New York, and earlier in Korea at the powerful and influential Chung Do Kwan, the historical first kwan where he was Master Instructor for approximately nine years. These chapters, which are the bulk of Grandmaster Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do, describe warm up exercises, basic techniques, forms, three step sparring, practical self-defense applications, free sparring, additional exercises and finally the breaking of objects, a typical curriculum for many Tae Kwon Do schools yet today. Grandmaster Son himself illustrates the physical aspects of Tae Kwon Do in the thousand plus photographs throughout the book, unlike the introductory chapters, which have no photographs.
The fundamental hard work described by Grandmaster Son in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do begins, as any training session should, with warm-up exercises to avoid injury, each performed in a specific way with a specific purpose and in a specific order. Grandmaster Son’s warm-up exercises are deceptively simple6, but they improve stamina; loosen and strengthen the knees; loosen and stimulate circulation in the legs; strengthen the shoulders and midsection, both front and back; build up the abdominal and back muscles; and improve balance. The 12 simple exercises which accomplish so much involve deep knee bends, massaging of the upper thighs, a series of foot lifts, body twists, waist bends, back stretches, toe touches, and neck stretches, generally performed in three to five repetitions each. “Students find that after a year or so of these simple neck exercises, their shirts seem to have shrunk, particularly around the neck,” writes Grandmaster Son.
At least the first nine warm-up exercises are simple. The final three exercises are more challenging for beginners. They loosen and stretch the entire body. The tenth exercise is a prone, or straight-leg, sit-up where students don’t just reach to their toes but past them. The eleventh exercise likewise starts from a prone position, but instead of sit-ups, students lift their legs up over their heads and touch the toes of both feet to the floor. The twelfth exercise is a variation of the eleventh; students alternate touching the toes of each foot to the floor above their heads. “The student will probably not be able to do these exercises…right off,” notes Grandmaster Son. “But after a few months, the exercises become easy, and the student realizes he has better control over his body and is making progress.” These last warm-ups, like the first nine, are performed in just three to five repetitions.
These “simple” warm-up exercises, however, do more than prepare students for the rigors of each individual class. It also prepares them for future practice and development. “In the longer run,” writes Grandmaster Son, “the exercises are for the purpose of making the student more supple so he can command his body to make the movements necessary to support the various attacks and blocks he must make in free fighting. Suppleness also allows quick motions to be made,,” Grandmaster Son further notes. “It does not cause speed, but it allows speed. If the student is stiff, speed is impossible. Therefore it behooves the student to apply himself to the preliminary exercises because they are for more than the immediate purpose of just getting him ready for one lesson.” Students and instructors even today will do well to heed Grandmaster Son’s suggestion and perform warm-ups as diligently as other activities in their classes.
After warming-up, students are ready to practice the basic stances, strikes, kicks and blocks.The basics are few in Grandmaster Son’s Tae Kwon Do7. There are four basic stances: basic stance, front stance, back stance and horse stance. There are three basic strikes: punch, reverse punch and knife-hand. Basic blocks include low block, knife-hand block, rising block, double-arm block and single-arm block. The basic kicks are the front kick, side kick and roundhouse kick. These basics are not unfamiliar. Today’s students will recognize basic stance as choon bi or jun bi in Korean (reminder: Grandmaster Son does not use Korean terminology in this book except for Kwon Go). Students of the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) will recognize Grandmaster Son’s horse stance as sitting stance. Many readers will know Grandmaster Son’s double-arm block as a reinforced outward block. Grandmaster Son’s roundhouse kick, however, is executed with the ball of the foot, the toes pulled back like a front kick. Many students may not be familiar with the round kick as taught by Grandmaster Son, particularly those who practice sport Tae Kwon Do and/or have been taught to use the top of the foot or instep with a round kick.
One unique feature of Grandmaster Son’s training is the Six Step, a prescribed combination of six basic blows and attacks which introduce students to the problems of attacking and ending attacks in a position that is relatively invulnerable yet suited for mounting another attack if necessary. One might call this Six Step a short form or mini pattern. Starting at basic stance, or ready position, students step back with their right foot into back stance and execute a reinforced knife-hand block with their left hand, their right fist about three inches from the left elbow. Next, students step forward with the right foot into a front stance and execute a high punch with the right hand. For the third step, students execute a left foot side kick (students will know this as a rear leg or turn side kick) to the front, ending in a proper front stance with the fists held in a normal fighting position in front of the body. The fourth step is a roundhouse kick with the right foot, ending again in a front stance, hands in a normal fighting position. Fifth, students execute a left roundhouse kick and assume a front stance once more, hands again in a normal fighting position. The final step is to step forward into a right front stance and execute a high punch with the right hand, ending with a bark (kihap). Unfortunately, no photographs illustrate Grandmaster Son’s Six Step.
The most important thing Grandmaster Son wants students to remember about the basic techniques is to practice them diligently and well. Grandmaster Son directs students to perform the basic techniques ten times each. However, Grandmaster Son notes “that a good workout can be achieved with four [repetitions]…It depends on how much thought and how much effort go into each movement. In order to get full benefit from each class or training period, the student must focus everything he has on each movement. One well-focused punch is worth a hundred or a thousand or an infinite number of unfocused punches…We have found that the students who think and focus on every movement in every training period are the ones who progress most quickly.” To many of today’s students, especially those who practice sport Tae Kwon Do, this philosophy may seem quaint and counter-productive because it does not build endurance or stamina needed for continuous sport sparring. Readers, however, should remember the philosophy taught at the Chung Do Kwan, although Grandmaster Son does not explicitly voice it here: One punch, or one kick, fight finished. The purpose of Grandmaster Son’s art is to end a fight quickly, not to prolong it. For his art, there is no purpose in useless or excessive repetition. Thus, ten good, conscientious repetitions is more than enough for Grandmaster Son.
TEN GOOD, CONSCIENTIOUS REPETITIONS IS MORE THAN ENOUGH FOR GRANDMASTER SON.
Chapter 6, at more than 150 pages long, is the longest chapter in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do. In Chapter 6, Grandmaster Son deftly defines forms for readers and masterfully iinstructs readers how to perform them. “Forms,” writes Grandmaster Son, “are stylized sequences of attacks and blocks of varying degrees of difficulty…Each position is specific; there is only one right way to do it.” Here, Grandmaster Son once again compares Tae Kwon Do to art. “Actually, doing Tae Kwon Do forms is not entirely dissimilar to the ballet,” he writes. In this chapter, Grandmaster Son underscores that, like any artistic endeavor, no form can be done perfectly: every form can always be done “more precisely, faster, with better focus, and so on.”
Learning any form requires five separate disciplines, according to Grandmaster Son. Students must first learn accuracy of movement, to make all the correct motions in the correct sequence to finish in the terminal position. Then students must learn to make his movements fast, and then to make them strong. Students must also learn how to focus each movement to generate power, and to be balanced at all times while executing the motions. A sixth discipline, however, might be added to this list, since Grandmaster Son spends an entire paragraph on it: relaxation. “It is worth repeating,” Grandmaster Son points out, “that strong movements do not involve gritting the teeth, waggling the head, or hunching the shoulders…In Tae Kwon Do, we learn to concentrate power, to focus it, without the added histrionics…not from winding them all up in knots…Tension not only depreciates the effectiveness of attacks and blocks, but, in the case of the forms, it spoils the appearance of the form as well.”
However, Grandmaster Son cautions, “Forms are not just some corollary dance having no real significance to the Tae Kwon Do student but are integral to the whole process of learning.” How well students perform their patterns, Grandmaster Son further explains, is often a good measure how well they can apply what they have learned in a fight. Forms teach students how to combine techniques into sequences which become habitual. Students also learn to create combinations with an infinite number of possibilities. Learning and practicing forms diligently, students also learn to deliver swift, precise, powerful blows on target. Instructors can also judge the progress of their students by watching them practice their forms, Grandmaster Son notes. “To illustrate this point for your own satisfaction, watch carefully a black belt do his forms and then a lower belt do his: see if you can tell any difference in the speed, power, focus, precision and balance between the two.” Grandmaster Son’s insights apply yet today to traditional and sport Tae Kwon Do patterns, regardless of affiliation.
FORMS ARE NOT JUST SOME COROLLARY DANCE HAVING NO REAL SIGNIFICANCE TO THE TAE KWON DO STUDENT BUT ARE INTEGRAL TO THE WHOLE PROCESS OF LEARNING.
The bulk of Chapter 6 instructs students in the nine forms required for testing up to 1st gup at Grandmaster Son’s dojang: Kuk Mu I, Kuk Mu II, Pyong An I, Pyong An II, Pyong An III, Pyong An IV, Pyong An V, Chul Gi I, and Pal Sek. As noted previously in Part 1, these forms reveal the lineage of Grandmaster Son’s Tae Kwon Do. Grandmaster Son himself developed the first two forms in the curriculum, Kuk Mu I and Kuk Mu II, to train the Korean military. The remaining seven forms are borrowed from Okinawa-te back through Won Kuk Lee, founder of the Chung Do Kwan, to Gichin Funakoshi, master of Okinawa-te and founder of Shotokan Karate.
Grandmaster Son presents the forms in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do in significant detail, illustrated with photographs and foot placement diagrams, which are fairly commonplace in other classic books about Tae Kwon Do. Grandmaster Son himself demonstrates each movement of the forms described in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do. The attentive student, with the help of a diligent instructor, should be reasonably able to learn the nine forms in this book from the text, photographs and diagrams.
Grandmaster Son’s presentation, however, offers two features which may be unique to Tae Kwon Do books of this vintage, or in general. In addition to describing and portraying the movements in the forms, Grandmaster Son also explains and demonstrates the applications of various techniques in each form, which helps students better understand how the patterns prepare them for real situations. For example, in Pyong An I, Grandmaster Son writes,
“FIGURES 27.11 THROUGH 27.16A ILLUSTRATE THE FOURTH POSITION OF PYONG AN I. ACTUALLY, WHAT THIS REPRESENTS IS AN ACTION DESIGNED TO FREE THE RIGHT HAND FROM THE GRIP OF AN OPPONENT AROUND THE WRIST(FIGURES 27.10 THROUGH 27.13 IN WHICH AN OPPONENT IS, IN FACT, GRABBING THE WRIST). THE GRABBED HAND, THE RIGHT HAND IN THIS CASE, IS PULLED SHARPLY DOWN AND BACK TOWARD THE BODY AT ARM’S LENGTH TO WRENCH IT FREE FROM THE OPPONENT’S GRASP (FIGURES 27.10 AND 27.14). THEN THE RIGHT FIST IS ROTATED AT ARM’S LENGTH IN A CLOCKWISE ARC BRINGING IT DOWN INTO A HORIZONTAL POSITION WITH THE FIST VERTICAL.”
Grandmaster Son’s text, with the related photographs and foot diagrams, offers more holistic information about forms than is typically found in most books about Tae Kwon Do. This unique characteristic should pique the interest of advanced students and seasoned instructors alike. It is unfortunate that present authors do not understand the benefit of including the applications alongside forms (perhaps it is that they themselves may not know the applications).
Another unique feature of the forms as Grandmaster Son presents them is that Grandmaster Son assigns not only a count but a duration to each form. For example, Kuk Mu I has 20 movements and should be completed in 20 seconds. Pyong Ahn IV, however, involves 21 positions and should take 30 seconds to perform. The duration feature in particular helps students pace themselves as they execute each movement. They can identify when they perform too quickly or too slowly. This feature may be unique only to Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do.
In contrast to many other books about the forms of Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Son never discusses the meanings or history of any of the forms in the book. For those things, students must look elsewhere. One such reference is Hwang Kee’s Tang Soo Do: Soo Bahk Do. The Chinese characters for Pyung Ahn mean well-balanced, calm and peaceful (Pyung), and “safe, confident and comfortable (Ahn). Grandmaster Hwang Kee, founder of the Moo Duk Kwan, one of the original nine kwans in Korea, has written, “By completely mastering the Pyong Ahn forms, one can develop a feeling of ‘Pyong Ahn’ (peace and confidence) in…mind and body regardless of situation.” Although further discussion of the Pyong Ahn forms is a different subject entirely, readers shuld note that the names of the Pyong Ahn patterns are written using Chinese characters, which may be meaningful to the general history of Asian martial arts, as noted previously in this article.
After forms, the next subject in Grandmaster Son’s curriculum is three step sparring, which consists of simple attacks, simple blocks and counterattacks. Unlike forms, three step sparring gives students the opportunity to learn the habit of keeping their eyes on their opponent while they are being attacked and to experiment with new attacks and improve their Tae Kwon Do. The purpose of three step sparring is to develop practical attacks for free-style fighting. Sometimes students will develop attacks that would seem to be useful, only to find that they are unable to use them in free style fighting while the opportunity exists. However, the student should not be discouraged. “If he keeps thinking about it and looking for the opportunity to use it,” Grandmaster Son writes, “one day he will find that, without being conscious of it, he has used his new technique and it has become a part of his repertoire. This is the way Tae Kwon Do works,” he adds.
Readers may already be familiar with three step sparring in some flavor. Two students face and bow to each other, then one student steps back, usually with the right foot, into a front stance and executes a low block with the left hand. This student then kihaps to signal that he or she is ready to attack. The other student, when he or she is ready to defend, likewise kihaps and the three step begins. The attacking student steps forward into a front stance and executes a punch to the face but does not make contact. At the same time, the defending student steps back with the right foot into a back stance and executes a knife-hand block with the back of his left hand (for safety), riding the attacking wrist out and down for about a foot. This sequence is repeated twice more. On the third attack, the defender follows up with an attack, which at its most basic is simply a punch to the face. When the three step is completed, the students return to basic or ready stance, and swap roles, continuing back and forth across the dojang. The attacks should not be hurried, no more than one per second, two seconds is even better, notes Grandmaster Son.
Although three step sparring is intended to encourage students to experiment, Grandmaster Son provides 16 examples illustrated with photographs. Grandmaster Son’s partner for the three steps and practical applications found in the next chapter is his co-author, Robert J. Clark. In these scenarios, Grandmaster Son introduces advanced blocks and advanced and potentially deadly responses. One series demonstrates a counterattack with a four-knuckle strike to the throat. Another demonstrates blocking upward with the palm heel of the hand as well as a palm heel to the underside of the chin to finish. Yet another illustrates a two-finger counterattack to the eyes. Still another demonstrates a front leg sweep with the hand and, after the takedown, a punch to the face. Others illustrate an x-block and foot sweep blocks (more familiar as inward crescent kicks) along with side kick and round kick counterattacks. Advanced students are likely to enjoy trying the three steps discussed by Grandmaster Kim to discover if any are effective for them. One thing to remember: some of these techniques are intended to be crippling or deadly, and are to be used only in three step sparring practice or, if necessary, for street defense. As for one step sparring, they are the same as three step sparring, but without the first two attacks, notes Grandmaster Son, and are intended for advanced students.
While students should be able to apply what they learn from three step sparring, Grandmaster Son includes a chapter about practical applications to defend against situations which might occur. Grandmaster Son explains and demonstrates 20 self-defense applications against guns, knives, bear hugs, lapel grabs, hair grabs, wrist grabs, rear chokes, side chokes and clubs. Grandmaster Son’s one-strike-one-kick-fight-over approach is realized in these practical applications. A knife-hand block to the wrist has a “fifty-fifty chance that the blow will break the attacker’s wrist,” Grandmaster Son writes, or a similar strike to the collarbone, side of the neck or temple will “disable the opponent…if it does not kill him,” he adds. “Such a blow delivered full force to the temple of the attacker would probably kill him.” When under attack, “the situation simply does not offer any chances after the first one,” notes Grandmaster Son.
In the 20 applications, Grandmaster Son attacks the eyes, ribs, temple, throat, neck, groin, and joints with finger thrusts, four-knuckle punches, palm strikes, knife-hand strikes, hammer fists, knees, roundhouse kicks, side kicks and front kicks. None of the techniques are complicated; many rely on simple motor skills learned by students during training. Some of the techniques, Grandmaster Son notes, are applications of identical or similar movements from the Pyong Ahn forms. Although some of the targets are vital points, Grandmaster Son does not discuss the effects of striking vital points in any detail. He assumes readers will understand the results of striking the points illustrated in the techniques.
Grandmaster Son stresses that defense against attacks rely on the basic principles of Tae Kwon Do, not formulated plans or specific techniques. Successful execution depends on executing a counterattack faster than thought. There is no time to talk to oneself and devise a plan. “It is thus that the Tae Kwon Do itself, rather than the particular plan, is the more important element in meeting attacks,” Grandmaster Son writes. There can be no hesitation. “All of the counterattacker’s movements must be done with lightning speed, perfect precision, perfect focus, perfect balance, complete accuracy and great power.” Grandmaster Son expects students to experiment and build on these practical applications using their knowledge of the basic principles of Tae Kwon Do.
DEFENSE AGAINST ATTACKS RELY ON THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF TAE KWON DO, NOT FORMULATED PLANS OR SPECIFIC TECHNIQUES.
Although the practical applications seem to fulfill the ultimate objective of the art of Tae Kwon Do – “Self-protection against any attack at any time under any conditions,” according to Grandmaster Son – they do not. Neither does free-style fighting, or sparring. “Free-style fighting is a substitute,” he argues, “But, since one cannot practice the unexpected, the random occasion when one is attacked in the street, the nearest thing to it is free-style fighting…wherein the opponent presents a series of unexpected attacks and situations which must be dealt with then and there without rehearsals and without premeditation,” Grandmaster Son observes “…therefore it must be a part of every period of instruction for every Tae Kwon Do student above the white belt level.” Students, however, should remember the most important difference between free-style fighting and street fighting. “The distinction,” writes Grandmaster Son, “…is perhaps best exemplified by the attitude toward the fallen opponent. In free-style fighting, one steps back and lets the opponent get to his feet. In the street, one makes sure he cannot get to his feet.”
Grandmaster Son admits that it is impossible to tell someone how to free-style fight, and in one stroke again compares Tae Kwon Do to other arts and sports. “Being an art, [Tae Kwon Do] is…not capable of being defined exactly or taught as a predetermined routine,” he writes.
“No more can one be taught precisely how to free-style than one can be taught how to be a great painter or concert violinist or how to hit 61 home runs or run 100 yards in 9.1 seconds…It is possible to teach the basic do’s and do not’s…But neither for the Tae Kwon Doist nor for the violinist is it possible to tell the student how to express himself through his particular medium…The details can be taught. But the whole, the entire way an individual puts all this together and fights, is an expression of his own personality and his own physical equipment.”
Despite the difficulties of teaching students how to spar, Grandmaster Son nevertheless offers several pages of sage advice – observations, do’s and don’ts – about free-style sparring. No sparring at white belt, although white belts should watch free-style fighting carefully. Light contact while striking and blocking the body and limbs, but no contact to the head or groin. Feet in an approximate back stance, hands made into fists about chin high, the lead hand extended well out in front of the body, the rear hand held away from the face. Use right and left stance about equally to avoid becoming dependent on either stance. To fight a taller opponent, hold the lead hand higher, shorter opponent, lower. Immediately counterattack after blocking. Step back and cover immediately after attacking. The attacker is most vulnerable the instant following an attack. A side kick directed to the head is easy to evade. Beginners will relax after blocking and leave themselves vulnerable. A jump kick should be evaded and countered on the way down, before the opponent can regain sure footing. A jump kick can be intercepted by stepping in and attacking before the kick is launched. It is best to evade a blow, even if it can be blocked. It is bad to both stand still and dance around like a golden-gloves boxer. Stay a little off the centerline of the opponent. Move out of focus at the instant the opponent is about to attack. Avoid developing idiosyncrasies or tics which telegraph impending attack. Watch for idiosyncrasies and tics in the opponent. Do not be too eager to attack. Although it is impossible to tell students how to free-style fight, students can learn to apply the principles of Tae Kwon Do to free-style fighting according to their unique personality and capabilities, Grandmaster Son notes.
While Tae Kwon Do is good for both sexes and all ages, Grandmaster Son comments on the fairer gender and free-style fighting. In particular, Grandmaster Son suggests that, through their interactions during training, and perhaps during free-style fighting specifically, women learn bad habits because men treat them like women. Although men may be chivalrous gentlemen in the dojang, the result does more harm than good for women. “Women know from direct experience that the men with whom they do their free-style fighting will not hit them anywhere, even lightly on the body or on the limbs,” Grandmaster Son observes. As a result, women tend to attack without defending themselves. “It is most difficult to instil in the mind of a woman Tae Kwon Doist that an attacker on the street will not be as generous as her free-style fighting partner,” Grandmaster Son continues. “A woman must learn, as much as any other Tae Kwon Doist, that she can make attacks only so long as she…does not unduly expose herself to a counterattack…[which is] not an uncommon error among Tae Kwon Doists.” Grandmaster Son is, perhaps, ahead of his time to suggest that women should be treated the same as any man in the dojang, so that women learn to defend themselves as capably as men. Forty-five years later, instructors today continue to reconcile this dilemma with young ladies and women in their dojangs. On one hand, society in general expects young ladies and women to be treated with courtesy and respect; everyone knows it is impolite to hit or kick a woman in particular. On the other hand, effective training knows no gender.
Throughout Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Son frequently refers to gymnasiums as training areas for Tae Kwon Do. Gymnasiums, no doubt, imply large open spaces for learning Tae Kwon Do, especially for practicing forms, learning practical applications, and free-sparring, but Grandmaster Son’s use of the word gymnasiums also implies the use of equipment and other exercises not specific to the classroom curriculum of Tae Kwon Do. Chapter 10 specifically addresses the use of equipment, i.e. weights, a Kwon Go and a heavy bag, and other exercises and activities, such as breaking, that are just as important to the student of Tae Kwon Do as standard classroom curriculum of warm ups, forms, application and sparring.
Questions about weights and weight lifting are common among students considering supplementary exercises, notes Grandmaster Son. Grandmaster Son, however, wisely cautions students to choose the right kinds of weight exercises that will benefit their Tae Kwon Do. “Weight lifting develops very impressive-looking muscles to be sure,” Grandmaster Son agrees, “but those muscles are not always useful for sports requiring quick and supple movements. The essence of Tae Kwon Do is speed and suppleness. Therefore,” he writes, “…the usual weight-lifting program is not suitable for the Tae Kwon Doist.” Nevertheless, the use of weights, in specific bulk with specific movement, “will build up the right muscles in the right way,” asserts Grandmaster Son. Specifically, men should use small five-pound dumbbells, and women three-pound dumbells, in approximately 18 exercises demonstrated by Grandmaster Son through a series of nearly 40 photographs. “The factor of speed ought to be given some attention in doing the exercises illustrated,” Grandmaster Son points out. “If these exercises are done smartly, quick reactions and quick motions will be established.” However, he notes, “To use weights heavier than those we recommend will not produce the desired results. They will build muscles but not speed and suppleness.”
Along with the prescribed weight program and classroom training, Grandmaster Son also recommends exercising and practicing out of doors at least two or three days a week throughout the year. The proper attire for outdoor work is old clothes, not Tae Kwon Do uniforms, which would draw attention, Grandmaster Son reminds us. Grandmaster Son’s demanding outdoor workout begins with “road work, running or jogging several miles a day…then doing forty of each of the basic attacks, blocks and kicks, followed by each form appropriate to [students’] belt levels at least once; then at least twenty side kicks with each foot full force against a tree and twenty roundhouse kicks as high as possible and with full force against the tree; and finally an extensive set of loosening exercises.” For Grandmaster Son, outdoor workouts and indoor training are both necessary to achieve proper physical conditioning for Tae Kwon Do.
“Something about exercising outdoors adds strength,” Grandmaster Son explains. “The first thing the Tae Kwon Doist notices when he moves outdoors is that his attacks and blocks seem much less strong than they do inside where he can hear the uniform snap against his arm or leg when he makes a fast move.” Perhaps readers will have experienced this sensation Grandmaster Son describes. It is profound and humbling, especially for advanced ranks, who have long grown accustomed to the tactile snapping of their uniforms. Although Grandmaster Son does not say it, the result of this weakened sensation in students is greater effort to regain the lost perception of speed and power. Exercising outdoors in every season also “separates the real Tae Kwon Doists from the dilettantes,” reasons Grandmaster Son. “Jogging a mile and a half into an icy wind in several feet of snow not only builds the legs, it also builds resolve. Then, six months later when the humidity is near 90 and the temperature is past 90, it takes just as much resolve to pursue the same regimen of exercises…as it did in the winter.”
The practice of kicking trees, or other solid objects, is likewise important to developing strength, power and accuracy. “If the student can kick with all his strength a solid object which does not move, a kick to the midsection of a human adversary certainly ought not to offer any problems,” explains Grandmaster Son. Whereas the object of kicking in the classroom is to perfect technique and increase height and speed, the purpose of kicking solid objects during outdoor workouts is accuracy: accuracy at the moment of focus, exactly when contact is made; and accuracy in directing kicks to the intended target. Once more, Grandmaster Son directs students to choose a spot the size of a U.S. dime to hit with their round and side kicks. “Thus,” Grandmaster Son writes, “when the student is kicking the tree or the brick wall, his focus ought to be complete, both laterally and longitudinally, right on target.” Kicking solid objects also strengthens and develops the ability to absorb shock in the legs, acknowledges Grandmaster Son.
One piece of particularly specialized equipment recommended by Grandmaster Son in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do is the Kwon Go, also known as a makiwara in Japanese, or striking or forging post. (Incidentally, Kwon Go is the only Korean term used in the whole of Grandmaster Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do.) At its simplest, a Kwon Go or makiwara is a board or boards fastened vertically in some solid manner and padded on one side with straw, fabric or other material to minimize injury. The famous photograph on the cover of Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do depicts Grandmaster Son striking just such a makiwara. Grandmaster Son’s description of a Kwon Go differs from General Choi’s first book, Tae Kwon Do: The Art of Self-Defence, the first published book about Tae Kwon Do, which describes a single thick board tapered at the top and buried in the ground.8 In comparison, Grandmaster Son’s Kwon Go uses four common boards and can be mounted indoors in most dojangs:
“The Kwon Go consists of a cloth covered, six-sided prism with rectangular faces about a foot long, six to eight inches wide, and about two inches thick. Inside, the padding to make the thickness is either stiff sponge material or tightly packed rags or string wound in such manner that it will fill the prism. The prism is mounted so it is about three and a half to four feet above the floor. It is mounted so that there will be a little spring to it but not much. The spring is not essential, but it is desirable. The mounting can be on a board as wide as the punching pad and half-an-inch thick and reinforced by a similar board running upwards for about seven-eighths the length of the first mounting board, a third similar boarding running three-quarters up the length of the original one, and a fourth one running halfway up. The vertical mounting boards must be securely fastened to the floor as with two angle irons so they will not give as blows are struck on the pad.”
Grandmaster Son, however, does not include any diagrams or other measurements to illustrate how to make the pad or fasten the boards. The only photographs show a finished Kwon Go and demonstrate how students use it with a back fist, knifehand attack, and punch. Readers may note that Grandmaster Son mentions Kwon Go training in relation to the hands, likely because the Kwon Go would not survive powerful strikes with the feet.
To develop side kicks, front kicks, elbow strikes, punches and any other attacks the student of Tae Kwon Do may use, Grandmaster Son recommends a large canvas bag commonly found in boxing gyms and familiar to most readers. While boxers simply punch the canvas bag, however, Grandmaster Son recommends that students of Tae Kwon Do kick the bag as it is swung to improve the strength and timing of their kicks and attacks. “It takes a good kick to stop the heavy bag in mid-swing, but it improves accuracy and timing,” Grandmaster Son notes.
Although the breaking of objects has been sensationalized by Hollywood, breaking pieces of wood, bricks and other objects is an important part of the art of Tae Kwon Do since its founding. Of course, Grandmaster Son cautions, “It is not an end in itself but it provides a datum so the student can see tangible evidence of the power he is able to generate…Spectators can [also] understand seeing objects broken…they can see and understand for themselves that a blow which can break a brick or a series of pieces of wood could do serious damage to a human.” According to Grandmaster Son, “All exhibitions for the public ought to include breaking techniques,” a strategy well-known to the pioneering masters of Tae Kwon Do: During a demonstration for South Korean President Syngham Rhee in 1954, Nam Tae Hi broke 13 clay roof tiles, each three-fourths of an inch thick, with a punch; following the demonstration, President Rhee ordered General Choi to teach the martial art which had been exhibited to the Republic of Korea’s Army. The rest is history. Demonstrations for the next two decades introduced the Korean martial art to the world. Most instructors today would still agree with Grandmaster Son: all public exhibitions should include breaking techniques.
In Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Son discusses breaking with a punch and a roundhouse kick, noting the importance of focus, balance and Newton’s Third Law. The punch and roundhouse kick are illustrated in photographs of Grandmaster Son breaking four one-inch boards with each technique. The photograph of the punch was taken at the moment of focus, similar to the famous cover photo discussed previously. Grandmaster Son points out the moment of focus in the photo: “The muscles of the upper body and the neck are all drawn taught at the instant of impact, which is the best possible illustration of the concept of focus, a concept difficult to describe and more difficult to depict.” For the photo of the round kick, Grandmaster Son points out the importance of balance before, during and after the technique, and the application of Newton’s Third Law of action and reaction, how the upper body is pulled into the kick.
Grandmaster Son also discusses the importance of proper holding and setup, which is every bit as important as technique, focus and balance. In both photographs of Grandmaster Son breaking with the punch and roundhouse kick, the boards are held by two stout men. “A very important factor in these breaking techniques,” Grandmaster Son acknowledges, “is that the object to be broken is not moved with the impact of the blow. If the object is moved back by the force of the blow…there is considerably less chance of having the object actually break.” An alternative method to set up to break is to mount the object to be broken across the space between two proper stable and solid supports and striking straight downward toward the floor. Although any technique which can be suitably directed downward can be used to break in this manner, Grandmaster Son cautions “that the striker must be careful that his hand does not go through the object to be broken too fast and damage itself on the floor underneath.” People, Grandmaster Son acknowledges, make this unfortunate and painful mistake.
Throughout the book, Grandmaster Son addresses misconceptions, demonstrates proper technique, and explains why techniques, even the basics, must be done in the prescribed manner. For example, a proper basic stance is not just about how the feet and hands are positioned; the eyes are also important. “To the casual reader,” Grandmaster Son writes, “it might seem irrelevant that the eyes must be ‘strong’ too. It is our experience, however, that the student cannot achieve a strong stance with ‘weak’ eyes, eyes half shut or eyes wandering from place to place,” Grandmaster Son observes. “’Strong’ eyes pull the mind into focus.” In the case of a knife-hand technique, the fingers must be slightly bent to “insure maximum tension in the hand” and to “make the hand more difficult to hold if it is grabbed by an opponent.” Grandmaster Son notes, “If the fingers are perfectly straight, it is not difficult to grab them and hold the hand tightly. If the fingers are slightly bent and the hand is seized…the hand can be pulled loose. Try it,” Grandmaster Son encourages. Early in the book, Grandmaster Son also addresses a popular misconception at the time that Tae Kwon Do requires disfigurement of the body or hands. “Distortion of the members or of the limbs or the body itself is a fable pure and simple,” explains Grandmaster Son. “Among those who have achieved proficiency in the martial arts are doctors, musicians, artists, draftsmen and others whose livelihood depends upon the use of their hands.” These are only a few of the many examples found in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do.
As masterful and insightful the contents of Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do might be, the book is not without its problems. One problem is the reproduction of the photography. Although more than 10009 photos appear in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do, all but one are too small, dark and muddy to discern much detail. Each page measures only 9 in x 7 in, and many photos appear seven or more to a page, making the average photo about 2.5 x 3 inches, the approximate size of a U.S. business card. Some of the low reproduction quality may be due in part to the paper, which is ivory or off-white and somewhat course, although not unusual for a book. A bright smooth paper may have captured greater details in the photographs.
The greater flaw, however, is the placement of photographs and illustrations in relation to the book’s contents. Although the description of a technique may appear on one page and reference photographs and/or illustrations by number, the illustrations and photographs are likely to appear several pages away from the description. For instance, using the example from Pyong An I in Chapter 6, the text which describes the fourth position starts on page 89 and continues at the top of page 94, while the photographs and illustrations that demonstrate the technique appear on pages 93 and 94. The photographs and foot diagrams for the forms in Chapter 6 are helpful, even necessary, to help students learn the forms, but this flaw makes it considerably more difficult for students and readers to comprehend and visualize the techniques. Unfortunately, this organizational flaw plagues the entire book, making it more difficult for students to learn the three step sparring and practical application sequences, not just the forms. Diligent readers will find themselves flipping back and forth between pages as they read, making comprehension more difficult than expected.
Despite these flaws, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do contains a wealth of knowledge and insight into the earliest years of the art which instructors and students can apply yet today, regardless of affiliation. The core fundamentals of Tae Kwon Do described by Grandmaster Son more than 45 years ago – focus, strength, speed, relaxation, ventilation, balance, accuracy, self-control, and hard work – have not changed. A true master, Grandmaster Son explains why techniques must be done in the prescribed manner throughout the book, all the while identifying and addressing many common misconceptions and errors students and readers may encounter.
Written by one of the founding masters present when Tae Kwon Do was named, Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do also unwittingly reveals the Japanese, Okinawan and possibly Chinese origins which cannot be easily explained away. The iconic cover photograph of Grandmaster Son punching the Kwon Go, or makiwara, looks back through the veil of Korea’s occupation period to Japan, and further back still to Okinawa, where the forging post likely originated, while within its pages, Grandmaster Son describes it and demonstrates its use. Likewise, the Pyong An forms described and demonstrated in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do affirm the same Japanese and Okinawan roots, and in all probability reveal even earlier Chinese influences. The characters which represent the Pyong An forms are Chinese. Finally, the Pyong An patterns, originally named Pinan, may have been given the name of the Chinese monk who created them. Despite General Choi’s best efforts, and the efforts of the Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo Federation, to convince the world that Tae Kwon Do evolved from Korean martial arts more than 2,000 years old, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do is a modern artifact which provides powerful clues to the probable foreign origins of the art.