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Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Karate’s Niju Kun and Its Influence on Taekwon-Do

A while back, I theorized that taekwon-do’s student oath may have been heavily influenced by the dojo kun, a set of five training hall rules used by many karate clubs. Since then, I’ve been stewing on another karate list.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate, put together a list he called the niju kun. The term translates to “twenty precepts” or “twenty instructions.” It’s a list of vague instructions for both karate and for life in general, apparently culled from his various writings.

Take a read through his list:

  1. Karate-do begins and ends with bowing.
  2. There is no first strike in karate.
  3. Karate stands on the side of justice.
  4. First know yourself, then know others.
  5. Mentality over technique.
  6. The heart must be set free.
  7. Calamity springs from carelessness.
  8. Karate goes beyond the dojo.
  9. Karate is a lifelong pursuit.
  10. Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.
  11. Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state.
  12. Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.
  13. Make adjustments according to your opponent.
  14. The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength).
  15. Think of hands and feet as swords.
  16. When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies.
  17. Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally.
  18. Perform prescribed sets of techniques exactly; actual combat is another matter.
  19. Do not forget the employment of withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique.
  20. Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way.

Unlike the dojo kun, the niju kun doesn’t have one particular equivalent in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do. But I can’t be the only one who feels like it has some similarities to General Choi’s writings.

For example, don’t precepts 17-19 sound a little like the training secrets of taekwon-do?

Students should keep in mind the following secrets:

  1. To study the theory of power thoroughly.
  2. To understand the purpose and method of each movement clearly.
  3. To bring the action of eyes, hands, feet and breath into one single coordinated action.
  4. To choose the appropriate attacking tool for each vital spot.
  5. To become familiar with the correct angle and distance for attack and defence.
  6. Keep both the arms and legs bent slightly while movement is in motion.
  7. All movements must begin with a backward motion with very few exceptions. However, once the movement is in motion it should not be stopped before reaching the target.
  8. To create sine wave during the movement by utilizing the knee spring.
  9. To exhale briefly at the moment of each blow except a connecting motion.

And the more general precepts bear at least a passing resemblance to General Choi’s lists about moral culture. For example:

  1. Man may occupy two positions in a life time (sic)
  2. Greed is insatiable
  3. Be humble
  4. Self-criticism
  5. Be soft
  6. Respect of elders
  7. Respect the rights of others
  8. Be just
  9. Be frugal
  10. Be discreet
  11. Let your actions speak for yourself
  12. Develop peace of mind
  13. Be of firm mind
  14. Be devoted

And then there are the points for instructors and students to observe within their relationship. Most of these don’t bear a strong resemblance to the niju kun, but there are lines like this: “Never tire of learning. A good student can learn anywhere, any time. This is the secret of knowledge.”

I get the impression that these sorts of moral and philosophical prescriptions are somewhat common among East Asian cultures (at least within the martial arts). But I can’t help but think that General Choi’s lists were something more than run-of-the-mill Korean musings. I get the impression he felt that to make taekwon-do a proper martial art, he needed teachings similar to those of Funakoshi and other karate masters.

Consider this: many of the taekwon-do pioneers studied karate in the years leading up to World War II. At the time, Funakoshi was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) name in Japanese karate, and many of the TKD pioneers studied his Shotokan system. He had a lot of influence and played a huge role in shaping karate on mainland Japan. His system essentially became the basic template for all other styles of karate. Funakoshi also first published his niju kun in 1938 (the year General Choi started his karate training), although the individual pieces had been written as early as 1890. The niju kun is still a popular list today, the timing was right, and Choi would have seen Shotokan as the way that martial arts are supposed to be. Why wouldn’t he use Funakoshi’s philosophy as a foundation for his own?

If General Choi could see the way ahead, it seems like he was able to do it by standing on the shoulders of a giant. Figuratively speaking of course…  Funakoshi was not a big man.