Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

TKD Students: You’re Doing More Karate Than You Think

Does this look familiar?

Find any similarities to Won-Hyo?

How about this one?

Dan-Gun, perhaps?

Or this one?


It turns out that many of taekwon-do’s colour belt patterns have a lot in common with the colour belt kata from karate, beyond just the techniques. (From what I can tell so far, the black belt patterns use sequences from some kata, but don’t relate as directly.)

In many karate styles, like Shotokan, the kata are grouped in related series. The first two series in Shotokan are Taikyoku (six extremely related kata—it seems that many clubs don’t practice all six) and Heian (five related kata). The Taikyoku are based on the Heian kata, and are essentially simplified versions that are easier to learn. If you look at both of these series, you can see many similarities to most of the patterns up to Toi-Gye, and even a few techniques from higher patterns.

As you probably know, taekwon-do grew out of karate. General Choi practiced Shotokan, and many of the other TKD pioneers also practiced karate in the first half of the 20th century. They took what they knew and developed a new, but similar art. What I didn’t realize is that they would keep the patterns as similar as they did.

One of the reasons that taekwon-do came about was that General Choi (and probably other Korean instructors as well) didn’t want to continue teaching a Japanese art. Because of the colonial history between the two countries that ended with World War II, the Koreans wanted to shrug off the stigma of a Japanese art and create something uniquely their own. To do this, Choi and his instructors modified the karate techniques and created new patterns.

Despite the modified techniques, it’s still pretty easy to see the parallels between taekwon-do and karate. But while the techniques within the patterns are similar, I always assumed that the sequences of moves would be very different. In some cases, at least, this isn’t true.

I’m glad I was wrong

Perhaps we could accuse the TKD pioneers of ripping off existing kata, but I’m glad they did. Because it turns out that the sequences of the techniques could be just as important as the techniques themselves.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, patterns techniques might not be useless after all. A few creative karate practitioners have cleverly reverse-engineered many of the kata to find that maybe (just maybe) they’re more practical than previously thought. The possible applications for the kata techniques include throws, locks, takedowns, sweeps and a host of other ways to use the movements that are very different from how we’re normally taught.

The thing is, sometimes the potential value of a kata is showcased by the sequences of movements, not by the individual techniques. Instead of just throwing a strike, for example, you could grab an opponent’s wrist, strike him, take him to the ground and strike him again.

Based on the information in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do, General Choi and his early followers didn’t know about these alternate applications for the patterns techniques. So they likely wouldn’t have considered the importance of the sequences. I can’t blame them. Many of the kata have been around for hundreds of years, or are directly based on other kata that have been around that long. If the kata were ever meant to have practical applications, they’ve largely been lost. Those clever karate practitioners I mentioned earlier are only making well-educated guesses at what the meaning behind the kata techniques could be. But those guesses are pointing to the idea that the sequences of techniques matter.

If those sequences are different in taekwon-do patterns than they are in the kfarate kata, then we may not get the same value that’s contained within the kata. I’m glad we can at least come close.

On the other hand, having new sequences to play with might just open up a whole new world of possibilities…


Homepage photo link CC logo Christopher Furniss

  • Frank DeCorte

    Very interesting article. I noticed a lot of similarities between the Pinans (shito Ryu) and Heians (Shotokan) I studied on the one side, and the Chan Hong Hyungs I am studying now. My Shito Ryu teachers would always teach me the individual techniques and sequences plus elementary applications first, and only after I grasped these they would put everything together in the form. That also makes it easier for me to understand the Hyungs. Great article! Thanks!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I bet you’ve got a great perspective on how the Pinans/Heians relate to the TKD patterns, having studied both. I just focused on the Pinans/Heians and Taikyokus here, but the similarities extend to other kata as well (just less explicit). You may have seen that yourself. Naihanchi/Tekki, for example, has some similarities to Po-Eun and its waving kick is used in Yoo-Sin.