1. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about how you began training in martial arts, and what path led you to practise traditional taekwondo?
I loved martial arts before I began martial arts.
At the time, it wasn’t difficult for me to fall in love with the idea to learn a martial art considering all the Bruce Lee movie re-runs on television and so many of my classmates practicing one martial art or other. Our teenage illusions of grandeur gave us all a momentum that made nothing else seem more interesting. Making some inquiries, a classmate offered to introduce me to his ‘Master,’ and not knowing any better, I took a leap of faith and was led into this strange new world.
So in 1983, I started training against my parent’s wishes. From what little was told to me, the style I was practicing was called ‘Ninjado,’ and it started in the late 60s comprising content from various Chinese styles and Hapkido. I must admit the name still causes me some embarrassment.
Irrespective of the raised eyebrows and the constant ninja jibes, my instructor Master Tony was generous with his time and provided excellent all-round training. The skills I learned were appropriate for my age, and no one can fault him for the rigorous and very reasonably charged classes.
Several years after I earned my black belt and right after my stint in the army, I left Asia to attend university in the United States. It didn’t take long before I visited the SMU Martial Arts Club in Dallas Texas and the varied group of black belts from the American Karate and Taekwondo Organisation (A-KaTo), then known as Southwest Taekwondo Association. This was my introduction to Taekwondo and its Chang Hon patterns.
2. Can you explain the difference between the traditional style of taekwondo you practise and modern ITF/WTF (chang hon/kukkiwon) taekwondo? Do you identify more with this Korean style, or the Japanese/karate style from which taekwondo developed?
From what has been told to me by A-KaTo GM Keith Yates, A-KaTo’s Taekwondo was brought over from Korea in 1955 via the auspices of Tang Soo Do practitioner GM Jhoon Rhee. Note and compare this time period with the military martial arts demonstration for South Korean President Syngman Rhee in 1952, historically significant for Taekwondo as President Rhee who would then ask for all troops to be trained in that martial art, and the subsequent accepting of Taekwondo as the official name of that style in 1955. GM Jhoon Rhee’s early Taekwondo export, still used by A-KaTo, continued to be practiced in the Southwest USA separate from the Taekwondo further refined by the ITF and WTF organisations.
So where global Taekwondo embarked on rapid fire expansion, A-KaTo black belts continued early Taekwondo’s close ties with Karate, often cross training with Karate instructors and practicing Shotokan forms for their black belt gradings. In fact, you would be hard pressed to tell apart an A-KaTo Taekwondo practitioner from a Karate-ka, all of whom are clothed in traditional fold-over white Karate gis and whom practice ‘Taekwondo’ basics in a manner that Funakoshi Sensei, Father of Modern Karate, would be proud of.
To generalise, Traditional Taekwondo as practiced by A-KaTo stylists, favours keeping a low centre of gravity (COG) and engaging in combat at close and medium range distances. Like Karate, hands and legs are used inter-changeably, though basic kicks are mostly preferred. Most modern ITF/WTF Taekwondo favour a higher COG to engage the opponent at mid to long range distances. Legs are modern Taekwondo’s preferred weapon, though hand strikes are involved at end-points and never over-shadow sophisticated kicking techniques.
Traditional Taekwondo however is not Karate, and does show subtle variances. Take for instance the upper block. A-KaTo black belts can be seen folding higher for more coverage, tend to use the back hand to deflect oncoming strikes, and may have more than one ‘flight path’ for the blocking forearm to bypass the opponent’s coverage. All of these are pragmatic modifications to increase protection and to effectively strike a non-compliant opponent.
Coming back to the comparison, my style is ‘Traditional Taekwondo,’ but the word ‘traditional’ is used different from the greater martial arts community. ‘Traditional’ to me does not communicate a predilection for rigorous training drills, nor the usage of an unchanging official training syllabus, nor the creation of a student population so fearful of my demi-god status they quake before the ground I walk on. Traditional Taekwondo to me is the essence of Taekwondo as it was handed to me by my A-KaTo instructor Shodai Bryan Robbins. My use of ‘traditional’ simply values the version exported out of Korea during the mid 1950s. This version of Taekwondo is unique in that it is a focal point for both Japanese stylistic influences and improvements for use as a training program by the South Korean military.
Such reasoning allows me to seek value from systems which had an impact Taekwondo’s early formation. This does not mean haphazardly collecting tricks here and there. It does mean however that I am not opposed to the value we can draw from our Karate cousins. While the rest of the Taekwondo world has chosen a path of progression, I have chosen one of regression. For me it is not an issue of nationalistic origin, Taekwondo is Korean; my interest lies with the original work and impetus to produce Taekwondo. What a waste to lose that snapshot and its ties to a rich historical tapestry of martial art knowledge.
3. Taekwondo in Australia is quite homogenised compared to the myriad styles and variations in America. Is the traditional taekwondo style you practise popular there?
Early Taekwondo formulated by General Choi Hong Hi in the 1950s and likewise promoted by A-KaTo runs through a dozen or so schools in the Southwest of the USA. Aside from A-KaTo, there are several hundred other schools teaching this approach within the region. I am told by GM Keith Yates that for the upcoming U.S. Karate Championships to be held this upcoming July in Texas almost half of the 600+ competitors will perform one of the Chang Hon forms.
The myriad styles you mention may come about as the generic term ‘American Karate’ or ‘American Taekwondo’ is used liberally to describe not only Taekwondo but also Karate, kick boxing, and some enterprising ‘self defence’ systems.
The homogenisation of Taekwondo as you indicated in Australia is possibly not dissimilar to what is happening everywhere else around the world. Modern Taekwondo after all is a global vehicle driven by ITF and WTF organisations. In fact, a student of mine who recently visited Korea couldn’t find anything other than WTF studios. The closest he came to Chang Hon was seeing a youth in a back alleyway practicing our Won Hyo pattern.
Compared to the immense number of ITF or WTF studios, I’d say ‘Traditional Taekwondo’ groups practicing early Chang Hon and those ‘Classical Taekwondo’ groups practicing Pyung Ahn forms are just holding the fort. Though not insignificant and in no way a dying breed, Traditional Taekwondo is not in a position to take the world by storm.
4. When did you first develop an interest in investigating the bunkai for the Chang Hon forms? How have you studied this and what have you learnt?
After starting a school in 2000 and putting my instructor’s hat on, I soon realised I was unhappy with the structure of the syllabus I inherited. The problem I had was that none of the forms, basic techniques, ‘self defence’ or other training drills seemed to be work together; it wasn’t a real ‘program’. Looking to take on what Bruce Lee must have referred to as the “classical mess,” I decided that I needed to understand where my place was in the grand scheme of things, and then to create a workable training program for my school.
To verbalise my issues and to gather my discoveries, I started writing a book called ‘Fighting Heaven and Earth.’ My aim was to identify the relevance and unique personality of Taekwondo, and to legitimise Taekwondo’s training program.
I was still unconvinced that I had finished the job even after completing the manuscript. I had taken a year to finish the project, had a book that won high praise from international instructors, created order in my universe and legitimised my style. Yet, without further work to flesh out techniques and applications, the book would just be a clever coaching manual with a limited shelf life. So I went back to the drawing board used my core ideas to re-architect my entire beginner training program.
My work since has been to form a complete training program using Taekwondo patterns at its core structure. This simply means that all drills that are included in the syllabus are associated with each pattern the student learns. These skill-appropriate lessons also anticipate learning issues and lead to a more confortable progression through the ranks.
Despite knowing I will be judged by my peers when I depart from the status quo, I have noticed a few benefits which have galvanised my confidence and my determination:
1. Beginner-level patterns have fewer techniques, forcing beginners to practice those techniques and their variations over and over again. This repetition and application creates brilliant technical quality.
2. The syllabus requirements are easy to remember as they drawn directly from each pattern; even my youngest student is capable of remembering all past requirements with ease.
3. What I call ‘event horizons,’ or the various instances during which coloured belts get their ‘aha’ moments and a resulting leap in performance tends to occur earlier than they occurred on the old training system, and they occur with at more predictable junctures during their time on the ‘new’ syllabus.
To conclude, each pattern helps me focus on issues to improve my students’ combative and self defence effectiveness. When the students go through their "aha" moments, and were able to reflect on the cumulative knowledge I’ve sought to include throughout their lessons, they were filled with excitement, and just loved how it all fitted together.
5. Does much of your study involve looking at the Shotokan forms from which they derived? Is it easy to find the similarity between the two?
Anyone can easily find information online prompting comparison between Shotokan katas and ITF Chang Hon forms. There are indeed similarities between the two styles as Shotokan kata ‘source information’ is dispersed throughout a great many Chang Hon patterns. These similarities are even more pronounced when you look at Chang Hon performed by Traditional Taekwondo students.
In my study of patterns, I have looked closely at how a number of our forms compare with Shotokan Heian and older katas. Digging further into this rich resource, one will eventually encounter official ‘bunkai’ (applications) associated with these Shotokan kata. It is at this point, and I say this with immense respect to my Karate brothers, you’ll need to suspend disbelief when you look at the effectiveness of the bunkai proffered. In my opinion, some Karate bunkai have close-to-zero street value for your average martial arts student. Shotokan doesn’t contain all the answers!
So while I have no problem drawing inspiration and borrowing from Shotokan teaching, and I have done so previously; I don’t believe that Taekwondo’s value is derived from it being a facsimile of Shotokan Karate. In fact, Taekwondo benefits from being dissimilar to rigid and non-adaptive Shotokan practices. Having this mindset, my discussions with a highly regarded Shotokan author and online friend, have shown how the combative perspective from Traditional Taekwondo can add value when applied to the analysis of Shotokan kata.
Similarities will be ever-present, but it is in differences are where each art finds its finest (or worst) hour. As for my own investment of time, I continue to keep myself open to reviewing as much from Karate as I can. Chang Hon Taekwondo, however, occupies most of what little time I can spare.
6. I notice you also practise the pyong-an (heian) formset. Do you do these in more of a karate style, or more like modern tang soo do clubs?
The Pyung-ahn (Okinawan ‘Pinan’) formset is what Korean Karate or ‘Classical’ Taekwondo stylists practice, and what Shotokan stylists now call their five Heian katas. No, I don’t practice the Pyung-ahn formset. I do however practice older Shotokan kata Balseck (Japanese ‘Basai’), Chulgi (Japanese ‘Tekki’), and Sip-soo (Japanese ‘Jitte’). If readers are interested to see these and other Traditional Taekwondo forms, you can purchase ‘A History of Korean Karate in America’ DVD off www.akato.org.
These three kata are leftover from our Tang Soo Do lineage and were transmitted before Gen Choi purged them from Taekwondo. At certain instances through these kata, I have chosen to express some techniques ‘Karate’ style to suit my syllabus. While I am not in the business of modifying kata for the sake of change, freedom of expression is always an instructor’s prerogative.
It’s hard to say whether our practice is more similar to Shotokan Karate or to modern Tang Soo Do. We owe our existence to the auspices of a Tang Soo Do practitioner. However, we often cross train with karate-kas. And then there are people like me who have modified parts of the kata – either back to a previous version or breaking away from how everyone else does it.
I’m getting cross-eyed by looking too closely at this.
7. A lot of taekwondo people don’t really like to discuss taekwondo’s Japanese roots (and many don’t even know about them! If I read another history that begins ‘Taekwondo is an ancient Korean martial art that dates back thousands of years’…). Do you find this an impediment to learning about taekwondo’s history and influences?
From my readings, I understand that Taekwondo Founder General Choi Hong Hi was a qualified Shotokan black belt instructor; his rank of 2nd dan being a high achievement indeed at the time. It is also generally understood that details of either his Shotokan training or early Taekyon background are not available to those searching for them online.
What we can be sure of is that the Korean Armed Forces were formed in 1945, and General Choi played an influential role promoting ‘Taekyon’ martial art training to a small group of soldiers. Then in 1952, during a military demonstration featuring a segment which displayed Korean martial skills, President Syngman Rhee was so impressed with what he saw he ordered all his soldiers to receive training in the martial arts. Whether it was from 1952 or from before then, we can be sure of three facts: 1) Jhoon Rhee brought a mostly complete set of Taekwondo patterns to the States in 1955, 2) Shotokan source material is prevalent through a good many of those Taekwondo patterns, and 3) Taekwondo patterns hardly resemble the flowing Taekyon patterns as currently accessible off www.youtube.com.
Frankly, I don’t see how these facts can justify the great number of websites pointing to a Taekwondo history dating back thousands of years. But then I don’t see many Taekwondo instructors greatly interested in looking to deeply at historical influences, and for good reason. When I first embarked on my own pattern research, to merely document the techniques and possible applications for all patterns to black took me 6 months, a ten tabbed spreadsheet, and a very forgiving wife.
No, I don’t think the superficial placing of Taekwondo to practices predating Christianity is the main impediment to learning about Taekwondo’s history. The main problem I see is the nonchalant cutting and pasting of the same preamble time and time again. Taekwondo practitioners the world over are just not investing the time to research, discuss or document their martial art.
From my vantage point, the massive evolution of Taekwondo since the early 1960s makes a study of Taekwondo’s background history and early influences largely unnecessary for anyone other than a ‘Traditional Taekwondo’ student. The study of Taekwondo progression in the last 40 years, both as a sportive and self defence system, is much more compelling for a modern Taekwondo student. Modern Taekwondo practitioners should look at maintaining the forward momentum they are on, and taking some thought leadership in regard to this art.
8. How is the bunkai incorporated into your training syllabus? Do you teach other self-defence techniques, or is it all centred around the forms?
The importance of Taekwondo patterns cannot be overstated in my school. The patterns form a complete training program, containing strategic combative lessons, defensive and offensive applications, and variations for drills. These are skill appropriate, helping students progress on their beginning martial art journey.
Other schools differentiate between regular practice and self-defence techniques; ‘self defence’ sometimes referring to hand locks or close quarter combat or ground work. As most of these are contained within my syllabus, I don’t refer to them separately as self defence drills.
When I do decide to have a self defence session, I break from the syllabus and include such things as situation awareness, decision-making, deception, and makeshift weapon techniques. These are typically not covered by our regular practice, and are based mostly on research and work I have done from 1991-2003 in regard to women’s self defence and rape prevention.
9. Have you found much interest in your bunkai study from any ITF instructors/practitioners? Are there any other instructors you discuss these kinds of ideas with?
By and large, I try to keep to myself; but the truth is that when I have reached out over the years, I have met outstanding people who so happen to be martial art experts. I have gained immensely from developing such online relationships and following up by meeting and training with these online friends during my travels.
Indeed there is a small group of high ranking martial art instructors and authors that I frequently reach out to. I have maintained a good deal of dialog through emails and the occasional telephone conversations with them. Not always do we all see eye to eye, but this is unsurprising for the depth and breadth of issues discussed.
A Taekwondo instructor I consider my closest peer and friend is Sabumnin Stuart Anslow of Rayners Lane UK, Founder of IAOMAS, and author of the monumental book ‘Ch’ang Hon Taekwondo Hae Sul – Real Applications to the ITF Patterns.’ Stuart, ex-ITF and now a Ch’ang Hon stylist, is one of the most knowledgeable instructors I have met, and he truly keeps me honest - it’s rare to get constructive criticism from another practitioner, especially one not from the organisation you initially began training with.
I have had excellent high-level discussions with Shihan Dr Bruce Clayton of Mariposa, California, author of ‘Shotokan’s Secret – The Hidden Truth Behind Karate’s Fighting Origins’. The book provides unparalleled insight through historical research into Okinawan and Japanese hard style martial arts, and it remains an inspiring force for me. Dr Clayton has an expansive by-invitation-only forum and we have exchanged thoughts on a good many technical issues.
I owe a lifetime of gratitude to my senior instructors A-KaTo Grandmaster Keith Yates author of the new book ‘Complete Guide to American Karate and Tae Kwon Do’, Gendai Bushi Dojo Shodai Bryan Robbins, Renbudo Shihan Mike Proctor, A-KaTo Sensei Paul Hinkley, and Molum Combat Arts Association Sifu Tim White. Every email response I receive is treasured; it’s also nice to know these amazing gentlemen don’t think I’m a crackpot.
As for sharing information, I think the work I do on my online forum and more recently on my blog is all part of professional development. Opening yourself up like this is an invitation for harsh and sometimes unfair criticism, but if you’re not prepared to get your nose bloodied, you won’t get to learn some really good constructive lessons.
10. When did you establish your club in WA? How many students are you teaching there?
I started a small training group as a corporate inter-department activity in mid 2000. Since then we have only accepted adult students from inquiries off our website; the minimum age for entry being 14yo. The club has always had about 6 students in all and remains non-commercial till this present day.
Given that I have a rather open-door policy, I have accepted martial art students from other styles and where appropriate invite them to wear their current rank until they grade to their next rank with me. Through the years, I have had students with a wide range of expertise from WTF Taekwondo, ITF Taekwondo, Wado-ryu Karate, Shotokan Karate, Goju-ryu Karate, and Shaolin Kung Fu.
Talk about my school would not be complete without mentioning the amazing network we have created in the last few years. Through my association with the International Alliance of Martial Arts Schools I am happy to be friends with Kancho Nenad Djurdjevic from the Wu Wei Dao Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts. I’d be remiss in not mentioning my friend Terry Bridgeman, a Savate instructor who is an absolute treasure and whom I met off the Western Australia Martial Arts Instructors Association. Last, but not least is Choy Lay Fatt Sifu Vincent Cordeiro, a real gentleman who leads by example and is a model of what I hope to be.
11. Do you also teach Aiki-jujutsu? If so, is it taught with taekwondo, or separately?
As part of the ‘black belts train free’ policy at the SMU Martial Arts Club, attending the Aiki class after our Taekwondo session didn’t cost me anything. I spent nearly 4 years practicing Aiki, and learned some mind-blowing hand locking, break falling and throwing skills.
Aiki made my own bag of tricks more complete, but later proved to be a major source of frustration when I tried to include basic Aiki techniques as a module within my ‘hard style’ syllabus. Intermediate students ended up being able to perform the requisite Aiki techniques well enough for their gradings, but weren’t able to take these techniques any further.
Nowadays, a cut down list of hand-locking and breakfalling techniques are still included through my coloured belt program. Unlike previously, I make sure these soft skills are incorporated into the entire training system. Fewer Aiki techniques are featured, but are practiced more often as part of the skills required of all students. Also, ‘Aiki’ skills are taken directly from technique sequences within Taekwondo patterns; they do not form a separate or arbitrary ‘aiki module’ as I originally tried to do. It’s therefore not difficult for me to identify them as indigenous to Taekwondo.
While teaching hand locks means that I ultimately bring forth knowledge from my time with the Gendai Bushi Dojo, I officially do not teach Aiki-jujutsu nor Aikido. The fact that my picture is still displayed on their website and that my teaching certificate indicates exposure to Aiki-jujutsu merely attests to my teacher’s generosity and his faith in me.
12. You’re obviously quite a prolific blogger, and your school’s forum is quite active. How have you found the Internet useful in studying and teaching martial arts?
I started my http://traditionaltaekwondo.blogspot.com blog end of last year to capture practice-based information on Traditional Taekwondo. I made sure to post soon after each training session, discussing in detail one of the techniques covered during the session. Over a period of nine months, the blog has now enough content to adequately cover the first four of our patterns. The blog is currently ranking highly for several search terms and attracts about 1800 visits a month.
I think a well-structured blog and an online forum are excellent tools to support on-going physical martial arts training. It’s typically difficult to impart theoretical knowledge during class. Blogs allow instructors to gather their thoughts, reach out to their current and future students, and encourage questions or discussions. Creating an online resource allows generations of students to learn from an easily accessible wealth of knowledge. Beyond just being an information asset for your school, the Taekwondo world needs instructors and senior students who can reflect on their training, document Taekwondo specific content, and work on verbalising concepts and key ideas.
Be aware however that it is easy to get jaded in an industry typically clouded by massive egos, self-righteousness, politicking and commercialism. You might find those who seem to be on the path but who might mislead you with their own tunnel vision. In online relationships, as in life, be careful of your step and tread carefully.
As for my blog, I try to write non-authoritatively and am happy to field discussion from all corners. Creating a casual blog has allowed me to meet some fantastic individuals online. More than that an online network of resources has helped this martial artist of 24 years increase his motivation for hard training. I highly recommend all martial artists cast their own net and reach out to like-minded and inspirational individuals online.
- Australasian Taekwondo Magazine HRGB's Photo Shoot and Slideshow
- Post on Interview at Mokuren Dojo
- Post on Interview at TDA Training
- Texas Karate History
From the Blue Wave Taekwondo School on Chung Do Kwan Training in Osan Airforce Base 1963-1964
And from Colin's Traditional Taekwondo Blog, This Day in History 1991 Welcomes the Token Asian Black Belt to SMU Martial Arts Club ... Come Get Some, Baby
ps. A related post referencing this interview is at A Short and Ugly Historical Explanation of Karate, Taekwondo and Kenpo
Joong Do Kwan Chung Sah Nim
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