Taekkyon Master Do Ki Hyun is one of the leading teachers of the style, the original indigenous martial art of Korea. Taekkyon is a unique martial art which has strong ties to dance. The practitioner steps rhythmically in a triangular pattern and the legs are the preferred weapon. After training one evening I met with Master Do in his office to ask him some questions about this little known martial art.
Many people know about modern Korean martial arts such as Taekwondo and Hapkido, but can you introduce traditional Korean martial arts.
There are many kinds of martial arts in Korea, but Taekkyon and Ssireum are the very traditional martial arts from a very long ago. They didn’t change almost anything, just teachers taught their students and passed them down. But the other martial arts changed a lot, the main reason being the period of Japanese occupation. So these arts were heavily influenced by Japan. Taekkyon has not changed. Why? Because during the occupation, Taekkyon was banned. Also after the Japanese occupation, Korean people didn’t like Taekkyon any more because it looks like dancing. So afterwards it was not very popular. But in 1983, the Korean government recognised Taekkyon as a National Treasure.
Can you tell us about the characteristics of Korean Martial Arts
Martial arts characteristics are exactly the same as their countrys characteristic. For example Chinese culture is very colourful, Chinese like red and yellow. Also Chinese like things which are very technical and graceful. You can see this in the design of Chinese roofs. Also if you watch Chinese opera, the actors have very colourful faces and clothes, their movements are very graceful and technical. And so, Chinese martial arts are very graceful and technical.
Now Japanese style is very strong and quick. If you look at Japanese roofs, they are very straight and simple. So Japanese martial arts is very quick, strong and simple. Japanese like white and black, whereas Chinese like red and yellow and different colours. Japanese like everything simple and systematic. Now if you watch Kabuki, Japanese opera, it is very simple and strong.
Now Korean. If you look, Korea is in the middle of China and Japan, both geographically and culturally. And so if you look at Korean roofs, the design is somewhere in the middle, being slightly curved. Now if you want to understand Korean culture, you have to understand Naturalism. A very long time ago, Korea had many gods. Gods for the trees, or water, or rocks. Everywhere had its own god. Like Shamanism. So Korean people considered to live the best life, we should live naturally. So our martial arts are very natural and comfortable. Long time ago in Korea, when martial artists would have a demonstration, if it was very graceful like China, or very powerful like Japan, Korean people would dislike it. However if other people saw Korean martial arts, they would think it is very strange. Is this a martial art? What is he doing?
My next question is regarding the link between Taekkyon and dance
That is not just Taekkyon, almost all martial arts are related to dance. If you look at Chinese martial arts, you can see similarities to Chinese opera. Also Japanese martial arts and Kabuki. Dance and martial arts always have a relationship. Due to the same cultural background, some Chinese guy might dance sometimes, but he might train martial arts too. Also even in Africa, for example, the Masaai people are famous for their jumping dance. But when they fight it looks similar. So every countries dance and martial arts are intertwined.
Could you tell us about your teacher, Song Duk Ki
He was born in 1893 and died in 1987, at 95 years old. When I met him in 1982 he was 89 years old. At that time he was still very strong and healthy. He didn’t have any school or academy, just he lived alone. Already his wife had died before I met him, and he didn’t have any children. He had a small house, but every morning he would wake up and go to the retirement home. I went there to meet him and told him “I want to learn Taekkyon”, so we trained in the garden. He wrote the Chinese character 品 on the ground and told me to step around this character. I asked him how and he showed me the stepping method. Everyday we would practice this.
I learnt from him privately, at that time hardly anybody knew about Taekkyon. At that time I was a Taekwondo player, and had read in a book that “Taekwondo came from Taekkyon”. I asked around for this Taekkyon and eventually found a magazine article introducing Song Duk Ki, saying he is almost 90, but is still very strong due to training Taekkyon. So I searched around and luckily found that he lived right near my university, which was Yonsei University. He lived just 2 subway stops away from me.
One unique thing was he never told me to train hard. Instead he told me to “just have fun”. When I learnt things like Taekwondo, Hapkido and Kendo before, the teachers were very strict and demanded I train hard. However Song Duk Ki would tell me “ok, have fun, do your Taekkyon and enjoy yourself!” This is very different to other martial arts. Because of this, nowadays, many people don’t realise I am a martial arts teacher, because I am always so happy. Because I usually dress in traditional Korean clothing they think I am maybe an artist or singer, and later they are very surprised to know I am a martial artist!
Did your teacher, Song Duk Ki, ever share his experiences with you about Taekkyon and Korea in the past
Around 1910, Japan occupied Korea up until 1945, then in 1950 was the Korean war. So my teacher had a lot of experience. So when I met him, I had many, many questions. So everytime I met him I asked him so many things! I also called him Halabojae (grandpa), because we were very close. I was also very curious about life in the olden days. He told me around 1910, Taekkyon was very popular in Seoul. My teachers hometown was Sajiguri and another place was called Eujiguri. In Sajiguri were many scholars. These were people who didn’t work and just studied for the imperial examinations. They had failed, but continued to study in the hope they could enter government. So in Eujiguri lived many military people who would protect Seoul. They both practiced Taekkyon and would have a big competition either during Danok festival or Chusok festival. 10 or 15 players from each side would meet to have a big competition. My teacher would often talk about this. Taekkyon was the pride of their village, so these competitions were quite dangerous due to the intense rivalry. My teacher always told me that his team won! There is no record of this, just he told me! So I don’t really know! But after the Japanese occupation the Japanese government banned this. This was not because of the martial arts, the Japanese had guns, they weren’t afraid of martial arts, but it was because of the large gatherings. They feared all the village people gathering together would make some trouble. He told me many things, I met him almost everyday, so many things I cannot remember right now. Anyway, the most important thing is he often told me about these Taekkyon gatherings.
Taekkyon has made a huge come back, which has been nothing short of miraculous. Can you explain a little about the revival
During the Japanese occupation, many Taekkyon players either stopped practicing or died. So after the Japanese occupation very few people knew Taekkyon. I don’t know how many, but my teacher was very famous. So how did my teacher, Master Song, become famous? At that time many Korean people liked Taekwondo, and they had heard that Taekwondo had come from Taekkyon. In trying to find the source, they came across my teacher. Around 1960s, many Taekwondo players were trying to research Taekkyon like this. So he started to become famous. But still, at that time, Korean people didn’t like Taekkyon, so my teacher mostly practiced alone. In 1983, the Korean government recognised Taekkyon as a National Treasure, and then in the 1990s people began to take interest in it. Around this time, Korea started to develop and people began to get richer. Once they had some expendable wealth, they became interested in their own culture and started to seek out Taekkyon. However, even now, few Koreans are interested in Taekkyon.
So my final question, what do you think is the biggest benefit to learning Taekkyon
If you want to just get healthy, all sports are good, swimming, tennis etc. If you want to just be strong, you can practice any martial arts. But regarding Taekkyon specifically, you can come to understand Korean culture and thinking. Yesterday we had a Japanese martial artist visit the school. He told me he was very surprised about the atmosphere here. It was the first time he had seen martial arts practice that was “fun”. In Japan training is very serious. But when he practiced with my students, he was very surprised how strong the students were. In class everybody was so happy and having fun, he didn’t expect them to be so strong. This is best benefit of Taekkyon practice. The mental practice. To have a natural and comfortable mind. Like me, I am always happy. When I meet my students, they are all very happy too. You can see in our school, everybody is very friendly and comfortable. At this time though, we keep our good manners. In Korea we put strong emphasis on manners, but in a natural way. I love that! And lastly, I want to say, Taekkyon you can practice well into old age. Many other sports you cannot do this. But I know Chinese and Korean martial arts, you can continue to practice until you are maybe 80 or more.
Thank you, Master Do, for taking the time to explain a little known, but fascinating martial art, and for sharing your experiences with us!