Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

About Dobok Squawk

Kevin Cull

I’m Kevin Cull and I’m responsible for this mess

I’ve been practicing Ch’ang Hon (a.k.a. General Choi’s) Taekwon-Do since 2001. I love Taekwon-Do but I also realize that, in many ways, the martial arts are just a silly hobby. I mean, where else do you get to run around in pyjamas and belts that don’t even hold your pants up while screaming at things as you kick them? But, silly or not, I like to learn as much as I can about this art we call Taekwon-Do. That’s why I created Dobok Squawk.

Dobok Squawk is not a place to talk about how awesome TKD is, or to give you my North American-filtered interpretation of proper Korean martial arts culture. You won’t read any articles here like “27 Reasons Why Taekwon-Do is the Best” or “How to Harness Your Chi to Maim Your Opponents Without Touching Them.” Rather, Dobok Squawk is meant to be a place to examine many aspects of TKD in a modern context: both the good and the bad.

Dobok Squawk is for anyone interested in Ch’ang Hon/ITF-style Taekwon-Do, regardless of the organization you belong to. Full disclosure: I don’t know the ins and outs of every TKD organization out there. But hopefully what I say will still be relevant to you, and I know that I will be able to learn from interacting with my readers.

A little about me

I’m currently a 4th degree black belt. I may not be a master, but I like to study the crap out of TKD and I’ve had some knowledgeable teachers.

Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do is definitely the martial art for me, but I also have a little experience with WTF/Kukkiwon TKD, and even a few months each with Shotokan Karate and Judo. I claim zero expertise in any of those other arts.

You should know that sparring is not my forte. It’s not that I’m completely terrible at it, but I’ve certainly never been good enough to hang with the really competitive folks. I wish I was better at it. For that reason, you won’t see a ton of sparring-related articles on here.

My strengths are my knowledge of patterns and fundamental techniques. I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to this stuff, and I like to study the fine details. My patterns are pretty good, if I do say so myself, but I know they would be much better if my complete lack of flexibility didn’t make my kicks look so damn awkward. I’m still working on that.

Despite the shortcomings I’ve told you about, I’m not without my accomplishments. My greatest one is helping to choreograph a pre-arranged sparring routine that went on to win silver at the 2007 ITF world championships in Quebec City, Canada. I competed on the team with an early version of the routine and won gold at the eastern Canadian championships. I had to back out of competition before the nationals and someone took my place. Of course I wish I could have been in the ring at the worlds, but I’m extremely proud of my teammates and how hard they worked.

My outlook on Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do in Korean

I used to have a bit of an old-school philosophy about Taekwon-Do (as much as a 60-ish-year-old martial art can be “old-school”). I came from a club that enforced pretty strict protocol and etiquette rules. Black belts were always to be called “sir” or “ma’am,” regardless of age. Junior belts were to hold the door open for senior belts (often including the car door). At dinner, the black belts started eating before the colour belts and the senior black belts started before the junior ranks. The students paid for the head instructor’s meal. When walking away from a senior belt, the junior took three steps back before turning around.

This is just a short version of the list. I could go on.

Our instructor also fostered an atmosphere of demanding fierce loyalty to him and the club. It felt like the students were there to not only learn from the instructor, but to obey him.

At the time, I was all for this. I believed it was an important part of Taekwon-Do. You might believe it is, too.

I also believed that Taekwon-Do was one, definitive thing. It was a coherent system that contained aspects such as sport, art and effective self-defence.

Since then I’ve changed my mind. I’ve relaxed my stance (no pun intended). I now believe that militaristic, pseudo-Korean practices don’t make Taekwon-Do somehow better. If that’s your cup of tea, that’s OK, but it’s not something that should be forced on people.

I now understand that TKD is many things to many people. Depending on who you ask, it is recreation, sport, hobby, fitness regimen, play time, martial art and esoteric learning exercise. And none of these answers is wrong. Effective self-defence, on the other hand, is often questionable.

I also understand that in the world of Taekwon-Do there is lots to learn, lots to have fun with and lots to fix.

Knowing and believing these things, I created Dobok Squawk as a way to examine the many facets of our art: to learn about them and teach others; to celebrate them without taking them too seriously; and to point out some of the many flaws so they can hopefully be rectified.

About Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do (in a nutshell)

Ch’ang Hon (also written as Chan Hun) Taekwon-Do goes by many names. Most people know it as ITF-style TKD. You may also hear it referred to as General Choi’s TKD, Chon-Ji TKD, traditional TKD or the General’s Original Recipe.

I made that last one up.

Taekwon-Do started its development in the 1940s thanks to General Choi Hong Hi and other pioneers, and got its name in 1955. Choi formed the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) in 1966. Choi’s pen name was “Ch’ang Hon,” meaning “Blue Cottage,” hence the name for the style.

Many people considered Choi difficult to work with, and along the way some of his instructors left him. Other Korean instructors refused to work with him from the beginning. Some of those who left continued to practise a similar style of TKD. Those who refused to work with him developed a somewhat different version that became Kukkiwon-style TKD under the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). This is the style you see in the Olympics.

Kukkiwon and Ch’ang Hon TKD have a number of similarities, but some marked differences as well. The patterns (WTF people call them “forms” or “poomsae”) look very different. For example, Ch’ang Hon practitioners use something called “knee spring” or “sine wave,” which is a particular method of bending the knee to theoretically generate power. This is absent in the Kukkiwon style. The sparring also looks a little different. Kukkiwon-style practitioners wear body armour called a “hogu” and are not allowed to punch to the head. Their sparring is also full-contact in competition. Ch’ang Hon folks, on the other hand, wear foam hand and foot protectors instead of body armour and are allowed to punch to the head. For that reason, you’ll see many more punches in a Ch’ang Hon-style sparring match than in a WTF match. Most Ch’ang Hon organizations also limit their sparring to light contact or semi-contact (although that isn’t always strictly enforced).

General Choi died in 2002 and political rifts soon developed in the ITF. Shortly after his death, there were three organizations claiming to be the true ITF. Other instructors decided they didn’t want to be a part of that political mess and formed their own, smaller organizations.

These smaller organizations were not a new phenomenon. From the ITF’s formation until today, instructors occasionally split away from the ITF and formed their own groups. Others liked Choi’s style of TKD, but did not want to join the ITF, and started their own independent organizations using their own versions of the Ch’ang Hon style.

Despite all these splits, the vast majority of Ch’ang Hon practitioners belong to the three ITFs.

With so many groups out there, there are some noticeable differences in the Taekwon-Do of the various organizations (even the ITFs). However, their styles are similar enough as to be easily recognized as Ch’ang Hon.

Where to go next

Now that you have plenty of background, why not start with “What to read next” in the sidebar for some of my most popular posts, or head to the homepage to see the latest articles? Please feel free to add comments wherever you’d like.