Elwood 5566

Every Boy a Black Belt

Posted in Martial Arts, taekwon-do, taekwondo by 노강호 on April 3, 2012

one master to another

Anyone who has lived in Korea will have noticed just how many kids, mostly boys, have black belts in one martial art or another, usually taekwondo, hapkido or komdo. Seeing kids in martial-art uniforms on the street is a daily experience and indeed many of my students come to school in a uniform, because they are either going onto, or coming from a martial-arts lesson, in much the same way as Western kids might wear a track suit. In South Korea, almost every boy and a good many girls are black belts and many are senior dan grades the equivalent of ‘grand master’ (usually 4th and above).

There is a lot of criticism in the west to the promotion of children to dan grades (ie. black belt grades) and it is a topic that, for as long as I can remember, has divided the martial arts community.  The school in which I trained in West Germany, over thirty years ago, and which still teaches today, didn’t promote children to dan grades and there was a strong ethos among the senior grades and instructors that earning a black-belt required both physical and mental maturity.

There is a world of difference between the experience of learning martial-arts in the West and  in Korea. Though there is always variation between schools in any country, I’ve generally found schools in the West to be far stricter in both terms of training and etiquette. Further, general attitudes towards the  ‘black belt’ differs significantly. It is these differences, as well as those concerning the nature of a style or art that shape attitudes towards junior or even infant dan grades.

I’m told by Koreans, that training and etiquette in Korea were much stricter before martial-arts schools became big business and before the development of sport taekwondo as practiced by the dominating style of taekwond0 on the peninsula, namely WTF (World Taekwondo Federation). Indeed, the different ‘spellings’ of taekwondo, namely ‘taekwondo’ and ‘taekwon-do, reflect the division of this art into two factions represented by the WTF and ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation). Currently, most schools in Korea are sport taekwondo schools under the umbrella of the WTF. I’ve yet to meet a Korean martial artist, or instructor, with any knowledge of the historical development of their art and the relationship between traditional taekwon-do (ITF) and sport taekwondo (WTF). And of course, there are other Korean kicking styles including Tangdoo-do and Mooduk-kwan – all closely related to taekwondo historically and aesthetically.

everyone a dan grade

It is difficult to ascertain the extent of change that may have occurred in Korean attitudes and approaches to training partly as we are either dependent on translated articles or first hand-accounts by the few westerners who may have trained here between the 50’s-80’s and who may have glamourised or romanticised their experiences. Discipline and etiquette in the Korean classroom has changed over the last ten years and without doubt changes are mirrored in the taekwondo dojang (training hall). When I trained in a WTF school in Daegu, in 2000-2001, and again in 2003, I remember writing about students being hit on the legs with sticks, and a boy who misbehaved and was put in a headlock until he passed out. However, these were isolated incidents and in general the school was far friendlier and etiquette and training much less regimented than in the  ITF schools back in the UK.

Martial-art schools, and especially WTF taekwondo dojangs, are one of the most common Korean establishments and their presence in terms of buildings, colourful mini-buses which ferry students to their schools and the logos, badges and stripes which personalise WTF uniforms, dominant the landscape. Competition for students is fierce and taekwondo schools are as subject to economic pressures as any other business and like many other businesses, they come and go on a regular basis. My old taekwondo school in Song-so, Daegu, despite being the most popular in the area, closed in 2005. A competitor with a better cartoon character on their fleet of mini-buses, or an additional touch of ‘bling-bling’ by way of a gold embossed lettering on a suit, is enough to cause students to migrate. With the pressures of competition, Korean taekwond0 schools have to be ‘child-friendly.’ ‘Adult friendly’ is rarely a consideration as I’ve never seen Korean adults training or doing anything other than instructing. I know adult classes exist but the predominant market caters for children. Hence, schools personalise the standard WTF dobok (uniform) with an array of piping, badges and designs in a way that is interesting, amusing but at the same time tacky, camp and ‘ballroom’ to the extent that only the sequins are missing. And in cold weather, students often wear long quilted coats, sort of anoraks which carry the schools logo and perhaps a few badges and which are worn not  just to and from the dojang but sometimes worn over the dobok  during training. There is also a custom, not as prevalent today as ten years ago, of wearing a white polar-neck ‘shirt’ under a dobok. Likewise, dojangs are often camped-up with bright colours, manga cartoon characters, stunning logos all of which result in designs more acquainted with kindergartens than gyms.

2nd dan

Like the private academies (hakgwons), taekwondo schools are judged by their results often to the expense of standards. As with English schools, where the ability to pass a test is more important than actually speaking English, the belt is of more importance than the art. Not only must the training be fun and pleasurable, but belts must be passed both with ease and speed. Training in Korea is the quickest way to gain a dan grade and it is easily within the realm of possibility to be wearing a black belt within ten months of putting on a dobok – I’m tempted to say ‘within ten months of first learning how to tie one’s belt’ except that a great number of students, even dan grades, don’t seem to have learnt the correct method. In Germany, where I gained my dan grade in the Chang-hon style of taekwon-do, the journey from white to black took in the region of 4-5 years and above blue belt each belt had to be remained at for 6 months while from red-black to black, the wait was a year.

My school, Song-do Kwan, had originally been owned by a Korean but in the early 1970’s many German dan grades began to break their affiliation with Korean instructors because they were concerned about both the commercialization of the art and the manner in which techniques were often withheld from students in order to maximise potential profits. My school was a two  floor gym, rented by the instructor, Georg Soupidis, and training for five nights a week (and I often trained in two or three sessions an evening),  cost a couple of pounds. It was the cheapest school I ever trained in and as the school had no affiliation and was independent of the ITF, there were neither club nor membership fees. Unlike Korea, most students were adults.

Training for kids in Korea is great with plenty of tumbling, running and jumping and there is no doubt it is energetic and aerobic but from both my training, and classes I’ve observed, there is little explanation of or focus on the intricacies of technique and a total lack of focus on power. And often, towards the end of a class, kids allowed to play ball or tag games.

In most Korean dojangs the instructors aren’t just senior dan grades, they are grand masters, and often senior ones. In my first Korean school, the chief instructor was a seventh dan and his assistants both fifth dans. In the UK, in all but wing-chun kung fu, I’ve only ever trained under 1st-4th dans and most have been 1st or 2nd dans. As a student in a Korean school, and certainly as a foreigner, you can expect your grand-master to give you some personal training. Generally, the relationship between instructors and students is less formal than in the UK and the respect afforded a senior grand-master is really  no different to that afforded a teacher, professor or even an adult in general. This contrasts starkly to my experience of ITF in the UK where senior dan grades, even junior ones, were treated like royalty.

3rd dan

I don’t want to generalise about UK training, because variation always exists but the ITF were particularly strict. Western oriental etiquette seems to over do the significance of bowing to the dojang, instructors and other practitioners maybe because it is not part of our culture and from my experience and observation, you are likely to both bow more reverently and more often in a British taekwondo school than in a Korean one.  The Western dojang seems to be more hallowed a space than it is in Korea perhaps because of the fact it is often a manky church or school hall. The increased deference to the area is meant to elevate its status to the point you forget that the bit of carrot stuck to your trouser leg is a remnant of the pensioners’ lunch meeting held earlier that day. Likewise, the status of ‘black-belt’ is of more significance though I think this has declined since the 1970’s and 80’s. Certainly, in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, dan grades were revered and while you might not have humbled yourself before them, you treated them with respect. As for grand-masters, when I was at grading sessions in the presence of Master Rhee Ki Ha (9th dan), head of the  UKTA, you were not allowed to speak to him or approach him.

(1965)the first TKD book to be published in the English, before the ITF, WTF or black piping

The UKTA tightly controlled the design of uniforms and regimented to the centimeter the location of the obligatory badges. ITF taekwon-do, certainly in the UK, has been both thoroughly commercialised and, like many other styles, turned into a sort of medieval guild which at one and the same time protects its own brand, claims superiority over all others, and promotes the importance of its higher ranks. These developments at times conflict from Choi’s original vision which appeared in the first book to be published on taekewon-do, in English, in 1965. Taekwon-do: The Art of Self-Defence,  not only included the  Chang-hon style patterns which form the backbone of the school, but the five Japanese Heian kata (Pinan-平安). Choi suggested that the skills required for yellow belt could be transmitted by a yellow belt to a white belt and there is the general assumption that once equipped with a black belt, one is able to teach.  As both a business and martial-arts organisation, the ITF has been highly successful but the training and membership have never been cheap.

I trained with three ITF schools in the UK and never really felt comfortable in any of them. One had a training regime that was horribly brutal and the 2nd dan instructor would regularly order an assistant-instructor, who happened to be a member of the British ITF team, to kick students from other styles out the gym’s double doors. The preamble to a training session included 200 front leg rising kicks. The school had 8 students, all male, all under 30. Meanwhile, in the same town I was training in a Shotokan school that had 60 members, the eldest of whom was a woman of 67. In another school in London, under a Korean 2nd dan, students were only taught techniques required for belts with all other techniques being ‘banned.’

a 4th dan

When it comes to junior dan grades, your opinion on their credibility is probably going to be based on the values you associate with your particular style. WTF taekwondo is a sport and though it produces some fantastic martial artists, the day-to-day nuts and bolts of a Korean WTF class is churning out a flurry of successive spinning kicks. In the competition arena power and technique are sacrificed to speed. Apart from in the practice of patterns, I don’t think my classes in WTF ever included hand techniques and indeed the WTF fighting rules have turned the hands and arms into vestigial organs which hang limply at the sides. Even styles which are not renowned for kicking ban head kicks because of their potential danger but the WTF allows head kicks, even the largely uncontrollable spinning and axe kicks, while banning hand to head techniques. For an art where the feet should be superior to the hands, this isn’t a very good advertisement for kicking potential. Further, as it is good strategy to ‘box’ a kicker and kick a ‘boxer,’ the WTF style fails to fully develop or raise awareness of both the importance of a good guard (against hand to head attacks) and effective offensive handwork strategy. Every style has limitations but I feel that if ITF taekwon-do were to die out and WTF dominant, much of the essence of taekwon-do would be lost. Naturally, a style is only as good as the person practising it, and there are excellent martial artists in all styles, but I cannot avoid concluding that the emphasis on sport severely weakens taekwondo as a martial art.

fantastic stretch and technique - 4th dan

With the objects of tournament competition as the orgainising features of WTF taekwondo, there is nothing wrong with junior dan grades. The lithe-light, supple bodies of children are able to unleash a blur of fascinating footwork which is equal to, if not better than that of many adults. Some of the grand masters I teach in school, and I teach several a day, are able to kick with as much stretch and beauty as the likes of Bill Wallace but in terms of power, they are totally lacking.

the famous 'Superfoot' Bill Wallace, an incredibly powerful technician. Dan grade? No idea...

And what age is too young to have a black belt or to be a grand master? The youngest 4th dan I’ve met so far has been 7! Does a child or infant grand master deserve the same respect and admiration as an adult senior grade? Does mental maturity have anything to do with black-belt qualities?

If the values of your art or style believe power to be an important facet, then junior dan grades are as incapacitated in this field, by virtue of their physical and mental development, as are prepubescent ballet dancers in the performance of adult ballet. This is no slur on their ability, it is simply that they do not yet have at their disposal, the tools to be powerful.

Creative Commons License
©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Advertisements

Doboks Galore – Photo Diary

Posted in Martial Arts, Photo diary, video clips by 노강호 on March 4, 2012

I feel quite at home among taekwondo and martial arts clothing. With twenty years experience of taekwon-do, I got to the stage I could go shopping in a supermarket in the UK or Germany, in a ‘dobok’ and not feel out-of-place. I find something quite ‘homely’ about the various uniforms you see on Korea streets and in schools and again this is probably because I was also fifteen years in the British army. Wherever you go in Korea, uniforms are part of the scenery and one of the most popular is the taekwondo ‘dobok.’

2001: Boys in summer komdo (kendo) uniforms with the baggy pants, playing an arcade game

2001: Two komdo boys in summer dress. One carries a bamboo 'shinai' (don't know the Korean term for this)

2001. Hapkido boys in summer uniform. This school is still training ten years later.

flying side kick

A couple of taekwondo boys resting. WTF 'dobok' are always blinged to the max!

one of my younger students demonstrates his front kick

Jay is a third degree black-belt (WTF). This is a fantastic side kick!

Some older taekwondo boys on a wet morning in the monsoon season

Jay performing a side kick

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

A Gully of Urine and Discarded Cigarette Ends – Vacation Finished!

Posted in customs, Diary notes, Korean children by 노강호 on March 1, 2012

Vacation fashion – the shaggy perm

These past few weeks I’ve experienced the naughtiest behaviour many Korean kids, especially boys, get up to. I live in an area of one and two room accommodations close to a university and sandwiched between high rises on three sides. One-rooms are basically studio type accommodation for one person which range from spacious and comfortable to poky and claustrophobic. Two-rooms are the same but have two bedrooms. The bathroom is always an additional room even if a one-room and often, though not always, so is the kitchen. Usually there is an enclosed veranda bordering the ‘rooms’ and in which you can hang washing, store items and is often the best location for a washing machine.  The enclosed veranda provides an excellent insulation in the winter as it effectively produces an enormous form of double glazing. I’ve lived in most of the variations. The worst was in Cheonan and though it was clean and pleasant, it was on the ground floor and as usual, there were bars on the windows. Worse however, was that the kitchen was in the bedroom area and it was small, small enough so that I could sit on my bed and prepare meals. Indeed, I could do everything either sat at my bed or by taking one-step. A ‘one-step’ would have been a far better description for this type of accommodation.

A small table pulled out from the kitchen unit alongside the bed so that I could prepare food and eat from the comfort of my bed, ideal for invalids and the infirm. Then, by standing and taking one small step, I could wash dishes and cook. For several years I was always embarrassed to say I lived in a ‘one-room’ because it sounds so much like a dingy UK bedsit but I’ve learnt there is great variation in size and comfort. My first two-room, in 2000, for example, had no air-conditioning; ten years ago air-con wasn’t a standard part of a teacher’s accommodation contract and we weren’t even supplied with a fan. My current one room is quite large and probably four times the size of my ‘one-step’ room in Cheonan. I suppose the worst thing about such accommodation, and purely based on my experience, is the lack of any view. Ground floors feel like prison cells due to the barred windows and very often the only glimpse of life beyond is that of the adjacent building’s wall. And of course, the outer windows of one rooms are generally frosted so even if you have a view it’s obstructed by this and the mosquito screen.

the alleyways around my one-room

Around and between the tightly packed one-rooms/two rooms in the area in which I live, are a maze of small passage ways. These provide access to down pipes, gas pipes and air conditioning units rather than a means of walking from one place to another. For nimble and athletic school boys however, capable of climbing over the walls which separate them, they are perfect recesses to hide from the adult world. For most of the year these passages are void of life but during vacation month they are frequently visited by groups of lads up to the Korean equivalent of ‘no good.’

a myriad of hidden recesses

So, this afternoon, March 1st, a national holiday (삼일) marking the earliest public display of resistance to the Japanese occupation which took place on March 1st 1919, the last gaggle of school boys huddle on their haunches under my kitchen window to commit some of the naughtiest acts possible for Korean teenagers. The first of these is smoking which is always accompanied by dribbling spit onto the pavement. This act has a sort of fashion to it and spit is rarely spat out but dribbled with an accompanying intense interest and fascination practiced by the performer. Next comes the pissing, which two boys do against the wall of my building. This is naughty but it’s not an altogether uncommon site in public. The third offence is their noise, boisterous and lively, but too loud! After the cigarette session, they run around a little playing chase and wrestling, almost deliriously happy. One of them throws a stone, not at a window or another person, but simply on the floor. Then I am spotted! There are a few seconds when they freeze, rather like a pack of wolves, in this case toothless, and stare in my direction, sniffing the air, motionless and silent. Then, without any discussion, they are gone. I am still able to hear their chattering and laughing but from a passage I can’t see. Their final offence is in the litter left from the visit, cigarette ends and a discarded packet. However, Koreans litter with impunity and this is only deemed an offence by foreigners. For school boys, such behaviour is about  the closest Koreans come to being hoodlums or delinquents.

Today is the last day of the long winter and spring vacation, two holidays interrupted by a few days school, which preceded the start of the new academic year. Of course, nothing is ever quite as it seems in Korea and despite the fact students have a school vacation, most attend the private academies in the afternoon and evenings or school academic camps.  High school students have hardly any vacation and attend academies on the weekend.

The long holiday period, spanning about seven weeks, allows elementary and middle school students to truly let their hair down. In academies they are often tired from playing lengthy sessions of video games or watching TV until the early hours of the morning and dyed hair, painted nails, earrings and perms are all tolerated. After seven weeks the shorts back and sides of many lads have been groomed into more lengthy and fashionable styles and I’ve even noticed boys tossing their head to flick hair out of their eyes, in a manner reminiscent of Justin Bieber.  It’s all been tolerated, even encouraged, that is until today. I’m sparing a thought for the thousands of kids who will be washing out the dye, getting their haircut and scrubbing their nails clean as they prepare for school in the morning. My fitness center will be void of  the peer groups of teenage boys and girls whose chatter and laughter have accompanied my training sessions for the last two months.  Going back to school in the UK, after the summer vacation, was always depressing but the respite of a week’s half term holiday was at the most only ever about six weeks away.  With the obsessive and intense nature of Korean education and the next vacation laying far in the distance amidst the screaming memis’ song of summer, the end of the spring vacation, the beginning of a long, long  haul marked by a chain of exams and the relentless daily trudge from one academy to another, must be especially gloomy.

a gulley of urine, cigarette ends and a discarded cigarette packet mark the remains of the long vacation

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Patriotic Taekwon-do and Sam Il – (Bathhouse Ballads March 2011)

Korean Teenagers’ Wacky World of ‘Vacation’ Fashions – (Bathhouse Ballads July 2010)

‘Be strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful’ – Keiko Fukuda

Posted in Martial Arts, taekwon-do by 노강호 on February 13, 2012

Keiko Fukuda

”This was my life…I chose to live judo over marriage.’ Says the aged Keiko Fukuda as tears begin to fall down her face. This clip of a documentary in the making is incredibly intense and moving. Born in 1913, Fukuda, the highest ranking woman judo-ka, is also the last surviving student of Kano Jigoro, founder of judo. Fukuda’s personal motto is ‘be strong, be gentle, be beautiful,’ and there is no doubt she epitomizes such virtues.

In today’s world, where everyone on the internet is a master of something and so many individuals derive pleasure from condemning the efforts of others, Fukuda’s gentleness, her humility are a reminder, perhaps a relic of a reminder, that there is more to martial arts than simply defeating an opponent. Perhaps my assumptions are an idealization,  a fabrication derived from a fascination with the oriental that anyone training in the 1970’s will recall, but when I began taekwon-do, in 1977, there was a real sense among many practitioners and teachers, that qualities such as perseverance, determination, courage, humility and respect were equally, if not of greater importance than simply bashing an opponent.

I remember an excellent book on Karate by C.W Nichols, (Moving Zen) which recounted a westerner’s experience learning Karate in Japan in the late 60’s or early 70’s. In his school,  a student had just been promoted to first degree black belt and shortly after was made to fight one black belt after another until he fell to the ground from exhaustion. When the instructor was asked why the new black belt was being treated in this manner, he replied that, when a nail sticks out from the wood, you bang it back into place. Yes, it’s harsh, but in life sometimes there is more to learn from defeat than there is from victory.  There are bad people in every walk of life but in my first martial arts school, all the dan grades were role models, they were all gentle, all strong and in their own way, all were beautiful.

A book that teaches you the stuff omitted in many martial arts school and styles

While the movie clip of Keiko Fukuda is inspirational to genuine martial artists, regardless of their rank or ability, the comments that followed the Youtube clip demonstrated how either many people don’t understand the breadth and complexity of martial arts, or simply inhabit a completely different mindset. Kata, for example can never be mastered because perfection is beyond grasping. The goal of kata is to better your spirit in the pursuit of a perfection that cannot be acquired. And they miss the myriad of skills which pursuing martial arts encompass, precision of technique, the art of teaching, power, character, timing, rhythm, strategy, focus, beauty, the moving Zen!  When it comes to learning a martial art, a good teacher is of far greater value than a competition champion who can’t teach.

I would have thought that any expert in their field who  had dedicated their life to some pursuit, in this case over 70 years, who had risen to the top of their field before many of us were even born, would be an ideal candidate to hold in unreserved reverence but no, the internet provides the perfect anonymity for every armchair expert to promote their own ignorance. Sadly, instead of a celebration of effort and achievement,  much of the response to the Fukuda clip was a litany of criticism. Yes, Fukuda is old, and of course she cannot defeat a younger, less experienced even untrained assailant and there are probably thousands of kiddies who could push her in the gutter!  Of course you could easily mug her or knock her over and of course she is frail! She’s 90 years of age! But let’s not be too serious, how can anyone who lashes out at the abilities, mental or physical, of a little 90-year-old woman be taken seriously. Perhaps the proliferation of martial arts as sport, as solely competition and sometimes savagery have led us in the wrong direction and if so it is the likes of frail Fukuda who remind that we’re missing part of the picture.

Suddenly I am reminded of that cringy scene in the opening of Way of the Dragon, where Bruce Lee, a Shaolin monk, scolds a  young student for kicking without ’emotional content.’ ‘It’s like pointing a finger at the moon,’ he tells the boy. ‘Don’t focus on the finger or you’ll fail to see all the heavenly glory.’  Suddenly, the scene is a lot less cringy!

Creative Commons License
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Soothing a Sore Crack

Posted in Bathhouse, Health care by 노강호 on October 19, 2011

I’ve never been into the habit of taking a used Italy towel from one of the bathhouse trash bins. However, if I don’t have one, which I usually do, most of my Korean friends think nothing of it. This is by no means an isolated habit and I regularly see individuals tramping about bins in search of the abrasive Italy towel, a razor or a squirt of residue from a shampoo sachet. However, no Korean would dream of using someone’s discarded toothbrush – at least not for cleaning their teeth.

nothing communal goes near the face

Bathhouse trash bins aren’t as gross as they sound and usually consist of two plastic laundry-type baskets at the end of each row of showers, one for towels and the other for rubbish such as shampoo sachets, razors and the like.  As they are regularly emptied, one is spared having to root through them and usually the bin only ever contains a few items. I suppose if you’re used to using a communal bars of soap, the use of a discarded Italy towel is no big deal. I don’t mind my friends using one on my back but communal soap and secondhand Italy towels go nowhere near my face.

I’ve been practicing taekwon-do after a ten-year break and one unexpected teething problem is cracked heels from pivoting on the ‘tatami’ mat floor of the training hall. Anyone who has had a cracked heel will appreciate that even though they are small and may not bleed, they are irritatingly painful. My training regime has been going well and there was no way I was going to be halted by a couple tiny fissures. I awoke one morning and almost as I was opening my eyes, had the solution. I’ve no idea where the idea originated  but  it was already rooted in the forefront of my brain as my eyes adjusted to the morning light. The remedy was obvious – super-glue. Doing a quick Google on its medical uses, it would seem my idea is far from novel, though no doubt foolish. Indeed, I read numerous articles, all from the USA, where basic medical aid starts at an inflated level and quality is dependent on how much you are prepared to pay, where super-glue is used to bond lacerations all with the intent of circumnavigating the hefty expense of a visit to a hospital. As I’m not living in the USA, and I’m not daft enough to squirt bond into an open wound, I nonetheless used the remedy to seal my crack and the result was excellent. Next day I was back training, unhindered.

a few drops did the trick – naturally, not recommended!

A week or so later, I’m sat in the bathhouse and noticed a guy sat next to me scraping the hard skin on his heels with a razor. Let me tell you, I tried it when I got home. First you need to soak your feet for around an hour by which time the skin is soft enough for the razor to manage. At home and in the bathhouse I use one of those expensive ‘super’ blades, the type that have several cutting edges and a psychedelic strip impregnated with aloe-vera. I used an old blade which although dull on my face, retained enough sharpness to slice through the rough skin around the crack with ease. I imagine you’d only get one foot shave from an old razor as the process seriously dulls the cutting sharpness and skin gets stuck between the blades. However, it was an effective if not a potentially expensive misuse of decent razor blades.

Solution – a bit of tramping in the bins to find discarded blades which I can use after a lengthy soaking, poolside. Every basket had a couple of razors and I even  found two ‘super’-blades which fitted the model I have.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Patriotic Taekwon-do – Dan Gun Hyong (단군형)

Posted in History, patriotic Taekwon-do, taekwon-do by 노강호 on March 10, 2011

The Tomb of Dan Gun near Pyongyang, North Korea (authenticity disputed)

 

ITF TKD

Dan Gun (단군) is the second pattern (형) of the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) and is used to promote beginners to yellow belt. Dan-Gun Wang-geom (단군왕검) is the legendary founder of Korea who is associated with the founding of the first Korean kingdom, the Gojoseon in 2333 BC. The origins of Dan Gun (pronounced more like ‘Dan Goon’), are steeped in rich myths involving bears and tigers. Dan Gun’s lineage was heavenly and his father had descended to Earth via Baekdu-san (백두산, 白頭山), a volcanic mountain on the borders between North and South Korea. Baekdu is a common destination for school trips and family outings and is especially beautiful as the caldera is occupied by Heaven Lake. Dan Gun was himself born from a woman who had originally been a bear and ascended the throne to form the Gojoseon Kingdom,  near Pyongyang.

 

Heaven Lake, Baekdu Mountain, where Dan Gun's father ascended to Earth

 

the man himself

The ITF pattern Dan Gun builds on the foundations laid by the first pattern ch’eon-ji-hyeong (천지형 – Heaven and Earth – ie, the creation). Dan Gun is the only ITF pattern where all strikes are to head height representing Dan Gun climbing a mountain. The pattern operates on the diagram, 工, this being the hanja character (장인 – 공 – labour: workman) which is an important radical conveying the concept of  labour and work and is often present in characters associated with scholars, study,building, achievement, production and examination.

Dan Gun

DAN GUN HYONG (ITF) DEMONSTRATION

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Five Second Hanja (11) Unify – Tong-il (통일)

Posted in Five Second Hanja (Theme), Korean language, taekwon-do by 노강호 on December 11, 2010

Okay, it’s more complicated, but one of my favourite character combinations, and of significant importance in South Korea is, ”Tong-il.’ ‘Tong’ is the character for ‘govern,’ rule’; ‘unite’, ‘all’ while the single stroke on the right, is the character for, ‘one.’  Combined, they mean ”unification which naturally, is an emotive subject on the peninsula.

tong-il

‘Tong-il’ is also the 24th,  and final pattern (tul, hyong) of the ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) system.

Simply highlighting some of the important and simpler characters. For information on stroke order, radicals and the two elements of a character (spoken – meaning), I suggest you obtain a dictionary such as; A Guide to Korean Characters.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Korean Language – Project in the Process

Posted in Korean language by 노강호 on October 13, 2010

 

you might find it... then again you might not

I am no authority on the Korean language, in fact, despite my study, when I generally speak Korean, Koreans look at me in dumbstruck confusion. I’m sure the experience is common.

Back in 2000, when I first experienced living in Korea, there was little on the internet either in terms of Korean language, history (other than the Korean War) and culture. Indeed, if you wanted to write Korean on a computer outside Korea, you had to buy Microsoft Proofing Tools. Korean language courses and dictionaries, certainly in the UK, were few and far between. It’s not really surprising, despite my having traveled fairly extensively,  I can put dates to the first four Koreans I met before coming to Korea: Richard Koo, 4th degree Taekwon-do, instructor, Twickenham, London, 1979, Rhee Ki Ha, 8th degree, August 1988,  a student in a British school in 1994 and a student in the Philippines in 1996. My university, which boasted 14% overseas students (in 1989), had no Korean students between 1988-1992 and it was a similar situation in  a subsequent university in London, where I was a ‘live-in,’ hall of residence counselor,  between 1992 and 1996. My house in the UK, only a fifteen minute walk from my original university of study, now boasts a small Korean community and you can even buy kimchi in the campus supermarket.

An early scarcity of anything Korean taught me to record even basic words and I continued this practice up until about 5 years ago. Now, I record only words which are obscure and absent from dictionaries because you can guarantee if you don’t, that when you need them, they’ll have been forgotten. I do exactly the same with hanja. Information in relation to Korea is so new, that dictionaries often contain mistakes, misinformation or simply do not list a word you might be searching. As an example, ‘persimmon,’ ‘peach’ and ‘chili’  appear in most dictionaries but there are there are several different types of each. Persimmon can be bought very sort, soft, hard, and dried and all have different names which are not so easily tracked down.  The problem regularly occurs and though you can ask people to clarify, experience has taught me they too, often make mistakes or simply don’t know the answers.

So, I have decided to place a small dictionary ‘page,’ accessed through my side-bar, to list words that are obscure and/or interesting. Of course, they are a personal list and like anyone else learning Korean, each of us has a batch of words pertinent to our own interests and experiences. However, it can be shared and added to and corrected by anyone who is interested and is prepared to send a comment. Most words I will generally look up in my mediocre dictionary, and will always check in an online dictionary such as Babblefish. However, often words I want translating, are simply not there. I do not intend  this resource to be for anything other than obscure words and words often missing from dictionaries because their is no  direct English equivalent. You can access Interesting and Obscure Korean here.

 

Creative Commons License© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

No Pain no Gain – The Korean Bootcamp

Posted in Comparative, Education, History, Korean children by 노강호 on June 23, 2010

The ebente-tang (야벤트탕). Mugwort (쑥)

As the weather gets hotter I spend increasingly more time in the cold pool than in the e-bente-tang (이벤트탕) which today was scented with mugwort (쑥). In the cold pool  (냉탕) it was so cold I found it difficult swimming underwater but in another few weeks, when we are right into that horrid monsoon, it will be a welcomed sanctuary.

In the cold pool a couple of boys are messing around a little noisily and so some middle-aged man asks them to be quiet. The boys are summoned to attention by the word ‘hakseng’,’ (학생 – student) and simply told to stop mucking about.  A little later they have to be asked again though this time the man raps them on their heads with his knuckles. In pansy Britain that’s assault.

I’m thinking about Daech’eon (대천)  which is on the west coast, not too far from Ch’eonan, and a beautiful stretch of beach. The freshmen boys in my last high school used to visit there in summer just after their end of semester exams. As beautiful as Daech’eon is, I imagine that whenever they are reminded of the place they will tremble and break out in a sweat. For them, Daech’eon was a place where you both met yourself and your limitations, a place from which you returned a different person and  it was feared! In the months leading up to the summer I often heard mention of Daech’eon, always with a mix of  reverence, fear and foreboding.

Kids can learn a lot from a smack around the head and some discomfort and pain. In the west we’ve molly-coddled kids to such an extent they’ve had to invent ‘extreme’ sports in order to make themselves feel alive. Anything potentially dangerous in the playground has been removed and that nasty hard and rough floor replaced with a comforting rubber mat. Of course, there’s nothing ‘extreme’ about their sports other than a scratched knee or bruised shins. ‘Extreme ‘is playing on a playground without the protective rubber floor, getting into the boxing ring or doing some of the more strenuous of martial arts with instructors who take pleasure in grueling sessions. In one taekwondo school I attended in Korea, the instructor put a ‘naughty boy’ in a headlock until the boy’s legs went limp and he flopped to the floor – that’s ‘extreme.’  Back in the UK I’ve trained in schools so strenuous, 200 front rising kicks and 200 hundred sit ups just for a warm up, that membership was limited to less than ten students – that’s ‘extreme.’ My military training was 12 weeks which included  6 weeks at a school of physical training. The day commenced with an eight mile run and the remainder was spent in the gymnasium – that was  ‘extreme.’  Bungee Jumping would freak me out and definitely pump me full of dopamine especially as I’d be terrified the rope would break given my extreme weight. Personally, I see little ‘extreme’ about  such ‘sports’ especially as they are associated with fun and a poncy lemonade, Mountain Dew,  and anyone who aligns their personality with a carbonated corporate  beverage is  gullible and totally un-extreme.

Most kids would think this ‘extreme’

Korean special forces training – ‘extreme’

Facing your own limitations

In order to keep kids in post 16 education Britain, has introduced colleges of football, basketball, dancing, and most likely tiddly-winks. In contemporary teenagers’  jargon, most ‘extreme’ sports as well as the sports offered in sports colleges are ‘gay.’ Most British boys wouldn’t last the day in my last high school and they certainly wouldn’t last if subjected to a real training session. Many of the teenagers in British sports colleges have no idea what it takes to become a professional athlete because the ‘training’ they have been subject to is largely based on making it fun. By sanitizing all unpleasantness and removing all threats, kids are no longer forced to confront their own limitations, let alone attempt to push beyond them and in terms of both sport and academia, most  are still crouched in the starting blocks.

The TV Series ‘Kung Fu’

No Mountain Dew? Brutally Extreme!

Boy crying as he reads letter from home (Link to Rokmccamp.com)

Permeating much of the general life philosophy of Korea, is a belief that through discomfort, even pain, we become stronger. I was aware of this ‘philosophy’ when I first started training in taekwondo in the 1970’s and it is an attitude prevalent throughout the east. In the opening sequences of the 1970’s, Kung Fu, Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) is seen taking the final initiation which marks him as a Shaolin monk, lifting a heavy cauldron of glowing coals between his arms. The cauldron bars his way forward and  in moving  it  the symbols of the Shaolin Temple, the tiger and the dragon, are seared onto his forearms. The initiation is one of pain and marks the transition novice to master, from the hermitage of the monastery to life beyond its confines.  Of course, the initiation, symbols and hot-pot are probably historical baloney but it made excellent TV and encapsulated much of the spirit of the time which included an intense interest in eastern mysticism, the orient and martial arts.

Perseverance (인내)

Team work

In the late 1970’s I remember reports and photos about the Japanese Karate team practicing punching solid surfaces while kneeling on broken glass. The glass must have been ground as anything other would be highly foolish. General Choi’s (최홍희) Taekwon-do ‘bible’  (the first book about taekwondo published in English) advocated training in the snow to develop ones resilience, something still undertaken by Korean soldiers and school kids where  the philosophy of discomfort and pain strengthening the human ‘spirit’ is still alive and kicking.  Indeed, the five tenets of both the  ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) and the WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) include: perseverance (인내), self-control (극기), and indomitable spirit (백절불굴).

A central figure in the history of Taekwon-do,  ignored by the WTF

Korean teenagers often attend trips, organised by schools or private organisations, designed to bond them, develop leadership and strengthen the character and coming from both an ex-military and marital arts background, as much as I dislike macho-militarism, I belief there are some benefits in such pursuits. Without doubt my training in martial arts heightened my mental power and  my ability to ‘tap into’ a superior mental state, now that I no longer train, is severely weakened.  The heightened state of reality, caused by the body being flooded with endorphins, gives rise to a euphoria which can make a lasting impression on the mind and this state, though somewhat perverse to subject ones self to, is rewarding in itself. Confronting ourselves is a revealing experience.

Getting messy hair – ‘extreme’

Part of the economic success of Korea has been attributed to the hard work and discipline of older generations. My closest friend often tells me about his childhood and the constant hunger he faced. His mother used to make dong-dong-ju (a rice wine alcohol) which he carted to the local market to sell. By western standards he is working class and for the ten years I have known him he and his wife have struggled to ensure their son and daughter had a good education and entered a decent university.  For the last five years he has worked in a car factory in Ulsan and lives away from home returning only every second weekend. His wife runs a street pancake stall where she will freeze or sweat, depending on the season. I can think of few individuals back home who work as hard as they do but their experience is one shared by majority of Koreans who were children in the wake of the 1950’s. It is this hardiness which on the one hand is often  attributed to Korean economic success and on the other, to the both the pampering of their children and the occasional desire to provide their children a taste of harshness that might make them better citizens or students.

Korean Kids at a ‘camp’ near Asan

I’ve taught in English schools where you weren’t allowed to shout at children and had to ignore bad language unless aimed at you personally

Knowing your’re alive doesn’t happen very often

Across Korea are various ‘boot’ camps which specialize in providing today’s youth with a taste of hardship. The courses are designed  to  bond, facilitate team work, and develop perseverance and tenacity. Trekking up mountains, standing still for an hour, twice a day, military style discipline and exercises, training in snow, mud, rain or the sea are all common. Some of my middle school students recently went on a trip which involved sleeping on graves in the mountain without any adults – however, how widespread this is I don’t know. Sure, lots of people will see such training as harsh and wicked but for even the most average sports person or averagely talented person, facing your limitations is a common experience.  While many of today’s rich and famous have ascended to stardom by virtue of a mixture of luck and looks, most of us will only achieve great things by guts and determination. As much as I dislike football, Beckham is talented but then he spent many hours hammering balls into goal to hone his skill. Molly-coddling kids and protecting them from facing themselves simply teaches them to be less than mediocre. In addition, discipline subjects children to the will of adults which is no bad thing. I’d rather live in a society where the kids are controlled than in one where they run amok doing exactly as they please.

Link to New York Times article

Indomitable spirit (백절불굴) And it does them good!

It’s only pain!

The British army stopped log  training many years ago and burpees in the mid 1970’s.

All young men are required to undertake 24 months military service and for young boys this kind of training is a taste of things to come. Considering the relationships between North and South Korea, and the fact the war has never officially ending,  conscription is a practical preparation for the unspeakable event. When your country prefers to wage war on distant shores, you can rely on a professional army but when the enemy is on your doorstep such luxuries evaporate.

Circumcision and the freshman summer camp were probably the two most feared events in the lives of  the freshmen in my high school. The morning  the buses rolled up onto the school grounds to cart them off was especially silent, as if an execution were about to be  detailed.  A week later they returned exhausted, sunburnt, bruised and very proud. All the boys were scarred, all had badly friction burned knees  or elbows, there were cuts and bruises and a few  returned with broken legs or arms. Though the boys still had two years of one of the most demanding schools systems in the world to endure, the friction burns, cuts and bruises, like the Shaolin tiger and dragon, were badges of belonging, symbols of esprit de corps. Daech’eon was an intensely private and intimate experience and once recovered, and confined to history, mention of that beach stirred memories and emotions and at such times I felt both an intruder and outsider. In a preface to one of his James Bond novels, Flemming writes: You only live twice; once when you’re born and once when you die. I think the Daech’eon boys, and any other kids who attend such boot camps, have already experienced a second brush with ‘living.’

After the Daech’eon camp

Tired

Post dopamine lull

LINKS TO VIDEO CLIPS OF KOREAN TEEN BOOT CAMPS

ITN News Report

Reuters 1

Reuters 2

Nocommenttv

NTDTV

———————————————————————————————————————————–

LINKS TO WRITTEN ARTICLES ON KOREAN BOOT CAMPS

Jjujund. Translation from the Chicago Tribune Sept 2009

Link to ABC News

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Creative Commons License© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Nancying in the Powder Room. Bathhouse Ballads

 

 

A Bathhouse Ballad

In this particular bathhouse (목욕탕) you can sit in the ebente-tang (이벤트탕) and watch the men and boys nancying about in the little ‘powder room’ that are provided in all bathing establishments. This particular ebente-tang doesn’t have any added aromas  or coloured water and you might be forgiven for wondering why indeed it is even called an ‘ebente-tang,’ until the pool starts frothing and chomping quite crazily. The jets of water from inside the pool, should you be unfortunate enough to be sat over  one as it starts and you fart, are powerful enough  to  administer a surprise enema.  As I’m being buffeted by the jacuzzi jets, I’m busily watching  three middle-aged men in the ‘powder room.’  All are stood, independent of each other and two are in straddle stances, or in what martial artists would recognise as a  ‘horse stance.’

 

A 'wushu' version of the 'horse stance'

Traditionally, this stance is used to strengthen the legs and as a position from which to practice  various blocks and strikes. As a combat stance it is redundant as it renders a male a potential gelding should a strike to the groin be forthcoming.  Don’t forget, the men in the ‘powder room’ are totally naked. Rather than blocking and striking, feet rigidly anchored to the ground, both men are drying their  sack and crack with hairdryers. I’m thinking they must have studied at the same school because despite all the variations of horse stance,  both are in identical style, technique and positions. Most likely it’s a taekwondo derived stance as it is much higher than in the Chinese version above yet not as high as the one featuring Bruce Lee (이소룡), below. This version is in-between.

 

이소룡 (Bruce Lee) practicing the sack 'n' crack stance.

The accompanying arm movements are identical: first the dryer is held pointing at the sack ‘n’ tackle before being swung  between the  legs to windy the crack area.  The latest event in the tub, an eruption, has quelled and I’m chuckling to myself as a third man in the  ‘powder room’  demonstrates his technique. Clearly, he has been trained in a totally different school.  After fiddling with one of the big fans on the long dressing table, angling it into the required position, he turns, get into a straddle and bends over, parking his exposed  butt in the fan’s stream.  The technique is very different but the stance is identical to that of the other two men and with head almost touching the floor, the fan is probably capable of drying his sack ‘n’ crack all at the same time.

Jeez, Korean men are such ponces! That’s why I like them. Back in the UK, a room such as this would terrify most westerners not just because you nancy about in it naked, but because the purpose of the room involves preening oneself. Actually, I much prefer the safety of the ebente-tang to watch how different men occupy themselves in this task. I never stay long in the ‘powder room,’ not because I don’t like being naked in front of other men, but because I don’t like being naked in front of myself, and like most ‘powder rooms,’ the walls are covered in mirrors.

All the flaws of being western are magnified in the array of mirrors and bright lights. Our skin tone tends to be more varied; my face is slightly ruddy, my buttocks lily white, my forearms as tanned as any Koreans and my neck brown. The rest of my body is whitey- pink, like a giant maggot. Then there’s the hair; back hair, chest hair, arm hair and leg hair and it’s all different in colour, texture and shape. My arm hair is smooth, my chest hair a little coarser and the hair on my back is somewhat like the hair on the backs of my arms, long and straggly and the sort of hair a neanderthal might have. I can’t stand looking at myself in those mirrors and always find the ‘powder room’ a little stressful.

 

All that hair. Yuk!

I touched on the subject of body hair several months ago, in relation to living in an environment free of carpets. It’s only in this type of environment that you realise just how much hair we shed. I am not especially hairy and I sweep my floor everyday with one of those magical wipes to which hair and fluff adhere. Despite this, I find hair everywhere. I’ve found them in the fridge, freezer and only a few days ago I was eating a slice of water melon when what I thought was a little crack on my plate, was in fact a pubic hair. I’m 54 and have a full head of hair non of which I see anywhere, but pubic hair, chest hair and those unsightly, straggly back of arm and back hairs, get everywhere. Korean bodies are so much nicer, more alike in proportions, colour and apart from having pubes that are long enough to perm and which often seemed to be straight rather than curly, are usually pretty hairless. Hair, its antediluvian and barbaric! As I get older I notice my eyebrows becoming wilder and if I don’t trim them I start to develop antennae. Nasal hair is a bugger but is kept at bay with regular burst from a cigarette lighter. And I dread getting ear hair as that looks especially alien.

 

No hairs in his fridge!

 

In the ‘powder room’ a couple of men and a boy are preening; an old man is methodically combing his hair with a brush from the selection  of brushes and combs which are always available.  I’ve never seen any hairs on brushes and assume they are cleaned regularly and in many ‘power rooms’ are small steam boxes similar to those used in doctors surgeries and dentist, to sanitize such items. A boy is cleaning out his ears with cotton buds (q-tips), an item as standard as towels and soap. On the long dressing tables, there is always a collection of face creams, hair gel and skin brace.   As with everything in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, no two places are exactly alike.