When arriving at the Taekkyon training for the first time, I was impressed. It was hidden down a small street in Insadong; the tourist/culture district of Seoul. The floor was all matted and the schools decor was very traditional. That lesson there happened to be visiting a group of Australian students on a martial arts tour of Korea. I just watched as I didn’t have the proper clothes. The class started with a kind of dance to the Korean folk song Arirang. During the dance, students stepped in rhythm, occasionally striking, kicking or patting their bodies. A couple of good reads for some background on Taekkyon and Korean martial arts are Taekyon: The Korean Martial Art and 5,000 Years of Korean Martial Arts: The Heritage of the Hermit Kingdom Warriors.
The master, Do Ki Hyun, was full of energy and gave me a very positive feeling. I saw him demonstrate sometechniques on one of the students and the crispness and power impressed me. At the end of the class everybody sat down and learnt a basic meditation set. Breathing along with some basic hand motions.
After that I was impressed and decided to sign up the next class. The first thing I had to learn was how to correctly wear the traditional clothing, tieing the knots the right way etc. After a bad attempt at following the warmup, an elder student taught me the first basic, which was shifting the weight from side to side by bending the knee. The difficult thing was not to swing the shoulders while moving. I was left to practice in the mirror for about half an hour. The movement looks simple, but my legs were killing, and then my neck and shoulders became tense. The feeling took me back to my days practicing Qigong; standing on the spot trying to relax, shoulders and neck killing!
Finally relief came, and I was taught how to step. The stepping pattern was like a triangle, bending the knees in a rhythm of three beats. The master explained that Korean music is all based on three beats, and so is Taekkyon. This step, called Pumbalkki, is the beginning and end of Taekkyon training. Just like Ba Gua has circle walking and Xingyi has San Ti Shi, Taekkyon training has Pumbalkki. All techniques, strikes, kicks, blocks or throws, come out of this step, and it dictates the rhythm for the fight.
At the end of class, I went up to the office to talk to Master Do. He had a beautiful collection of antique swords and many relics and paintings on the wall. He seemed very caring about his students, and took an interest in my martial arts training in China, asking what it was like to train there. He explained the traditional Korean way was very informal, and that the movements were comfortable and natural, as opposed to the technicality of Chinese martial arts or the strict nature of Japanese ones.
For the third class, I learnt some basic hand techniques, and did some slaps and palms on the pads. Master Do started to explain some concepts of Taekkyon training to me. He explained that in the beginning, you do the movements very light and naturally, not moving the shoulders. In order to learn to use your whole body power and Ki, you have to first learn to relax and be natural. In Taekkyon, he said, you must conserve power, only use it where its needed. He asked me to hit him and push him and showed me some techniques. His power was amazing… it made me think of a very skilled Taiji or internal practitioner. Soft, but overwhelming. He stated to make fun of Japanese martial arts being very hard and aggressive, saying that is a waste of power. He then added that it’s not that other styles are bad, its just that according to Taekkyon, they go against the Taekkyon theory. He said that of course, other styles would say Taekkyon is wrong. As I am here to learn Taekkyon, he wants me to understand and practice the principles of it, and to be immersed in it. And so that is why he is explaining this to me.
The difficult thing for me is relearning movements in a new way. Although Taekkyon is very different to Chinese martial arts, there are of course similar movements; but the difference is in the details. One thing for starters is learning to be much softer and natural than the aggressive, hard movements of Praying Mantis Kung Fu. I’m slowly making my way through the basics and getting to see the art of Taekkyon, which is a deep and complex martial art. Below is a clip from Chris Crudelli’s series “Mind, Body and Kickass Moves” which shows my Taekkyon teacher in action.
As my year in South Korea comes to an end, I would like to reflect on my experience here. I feel I have gained some small insights into a country which is fairly off the radar to most travellers.
If I look back to my attitude towards Korea, it has changed quite a lot over the last year. I came here after living in Yantai, a small and unpleasant city in North-eastern China. There wasn’t much to do, and so my life consisted of my work and my training. It was less than an hour’s flight to Seoul, the capital of Korea, a huge metropolis of bright lights. My very first experience was the crowded subway which we took to Kyung Hee University, where my girlfriend would study her master’s degree.
Early on, I felt very positive about Korea, I was keen to explore, and having seen most of the sites of Seoul and nearby places, planned a couple of trips to the far south, to Kyeongju, Jeonju and Jiri-san Mountain. Kyeongju did not disappoint, there was so much to see and do, and it had a lot of history and culture. Jiri-san also, a peaceful mountain with beautiful temples and a lot of small tea shops. You can read more about those in my previous posts. Jeonju, on the other hand, was a slight let down. The guidebooks had told of a beautifully preserved ancient town full of old culture. What I found was a few old buildings amongst some modernly built replicas made into guesthouses and restaurants. Aside from a shop selling traditional handmade paper, there wasn’t really any culture, just stalls selling tourist garbage like beer ice-cream and tacky street food.
After a while of searching for a martial art I wanted to study, I came across Master Do Ki-Hyun and his Taekkyon School (which you can also read about here). There are many martial arts styles in Korea, but most of them are modern creations, some, like Hapkido or Kuk Sul Won, are pretty effective, but others are just New Age bullshit or Mcdojos. However, Taekkyon is one of the few authentic Korean martial arts out there, and is very interesting in how it captures the spirit of the Korean ancestors. The art is based around a game, a match where you either kick the opponent in the head, or throw them to win. Korea was traditionally an agricultural nation, and the people were very peaceful. This is apparent in how Taekkyon techniques are not designed to inflict injury, but only to win the tournament. Violent techniques are frowned upon and movements are performed naturally and effortlessly, with a positive attitude. This a stark contrast to the modern Korean martial arts which have a heavy Japanese influence and a militaristic attitude.
After some time in Korea, the novelty of new things started to wear off, and I began to grow tired of the country. Koreans, as a nationality, are a people with a strong inferiority complex. Somebody once used the phrase “a prawn between two whales”, which I think fits perfectly. For most of its history, Korea has been overshadowed by China, and the Korean kings usually paid tribute to and followed the lead of the Chinese dynasties. Then came the Japanese occupation, which lasted around 100 years. Following that was the Korean War, which essentially led South Korea to become a puppet state to America. Since that time, the country has developed at an incredible rate, and now has a very good economy, high living standards, and is one of the most high tech countries in the world. Korean people have traditionally been a very peaceful people, but a long history of having to answer to the bigger powers has left them with a huge inferiority complex, which they cover up by being incredibly arrogant in their views towards other Asians, such as Chinese or South East Asians. There is a strong sense of Korean people wanting to distance themselves from less developed nations, and latch onto western powers. Modern Korean culture is very Americanised. With things like K-pop, TV soaps and plastic surgery/cosmetics, superficiality and materialism reigns supreme. This, combined with a very strict Confucian system of hierarchy and etiquette has led to a very stressful lifestyle. Everybody is competing with each other and social status as well as physical appearance is everything.
This sense of insecurity is very deeply ingrained in the Korean mindset and not only affects modern society, but traditional cultures too. Most Korean culture originates from China, there is some indigenous culture, but not that much. Koreans are fiercely proud of their culture and don’t take kindly to criticism (which is why parts of this article will make me some enemies!!!). They dispute the origins of many things which came from China. To us westerners it seems petty and unimportant, but imagine if you are a Chinese person living in Korea, and they are constantly telling you chopsticks, soy sauce, Yin and Yang, Chinese medicine, martial arts etc etc all actually originated from Korea not China!
On the flipside, Korean people have a good sense of social awareness, there are many people collecting for charity in the streets and people are willing to give. People are very respectful to old people (although many old people expect the treatment and are very rude, even to people who are kind to them) and often help strangers in the street. It’s one of the few countries in Asia where I have had to bargain or felt I am being overcharged. However, they are a closed people and it is very difficult to enter into their social circles.
As far as food, Korean food is generally either Kimchi or soup, or Kimchi-soup! I do quite like Kimchi however, just not in the doses Koreans serve. I also really enjoy their Samgyeopsal, which is belly-pork that you barbeque yourself. Maekgoli is a thick and sweet rice wine which is excellent too, although the Korean drink of choice, Soju, tastes like watered down vodka. My favourite restaurants in Korea were generally Japanese sushi/sashimi restaurants, which were always affordable and fresh. The Chinese and Italian restaurants were terrible and didn’t resemble at all those great cuisines.
On the whole however, my experiences in Korea have mostly been positive. I didn’t have many expectations, as to be honest, it’s not a country I would have chosen to live in myself. But I learnt a lot, had new experiences and met a lot of new friends. I am grateful for my time here and now I have moved back to China, am looking forward to my next adventure.