A few years back, a highly respected master instructor visited my school, senior students in tow, with the express purpose of engaging in mutual training. This was his first exposure to our location and, on observing the traditional décor and appointments that flesh out our physical space, he stoutly asked, “What’s with all the Korean stuff?”
Somewhat taken aback, I inquired as to what he meant. Apparently, in his dojang, if that is what he referred to it as, aside from an American flag, there were no rice paper scrolls adorned with hangul calligraphy, meditation cushions, Kukkiwon certifications, photographs of Korean grandmasters, incense holders, references made to Asian ethical standards intended to govern unbridled technique, and totems of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophy. Beyond that, I came to discover that the use of Korean nomenclature for corresponding techniques used at our institute were summarily replaced by those in English at his facility. Moreover, many regulations deemed common in the classical martial arts were also obfuscated in favor of a less formalized atmosphere.
Now, my colleague has been practicing the Korean martial art and world sport of taekwondo for almost forty years under the guidance of the very same grandmaster that I train with and pay allegiance to. So I knew that his comment was not based on disrespect or ignorance of the historical record. Rather, it seemed to stem from a willful lack of understanding and reverence for the customs, personalities, traditions, institutions, ritual, pedigree and history that bundle together to create the truly unique Korean cultural treasure that is traditional taekwondo.
Afterward, I meditated extensively on this incident and decided I could not completely fault this very capable master for taking a stand of this sort. While I could not imagine propagating a disconnect between what my instructors and I teach at the Chosun Taekwondo Academy and its distinctly Korean roots, I attempted to appreciate how others, my colleague included, benignly could.
As I construe it, the outright refusal to acknowledge the relevance of cultural recognition between the art of taekwondo and its country of origin is often based on disillusionment and politics – disillusionment often grounded on the expectations and chemistry that exist between Korean masters and their American counterparts, compounded by the politics surrounding individuals, ideas and organizations that support vastly contrasting worldviews within the global martial arts community.
Take the Kukkiwon for instance, an institution solidly rooted in taekwondo history. Just now it is surrounded once again in a whirlwind of controversy somewhat instigated by the takeover of its operations by a Korean government official rather than a practicing martial artist. Some, here and abroad, voice their concern as to how this incident will impact the extension of impartiality towards foreign governing bodies. Others wonder if Olympic training methods will, going forward, exclusively favor Korean nationals and furthermore obviate the traditional aspect of the art. Then there are those who may choose not to subsidize, through Kukkiwon dan promotion test fees, a government they perceive as being insensitive and possibly corrupt.
And even now, decades later, many taekwondoists remain at odds reconciling General Choi Hong Hi’s decision to align the International Taekwon-Do Federation with the dictatorial regime in North Korea. Yet politics, in relation to varying points of view, is a necessary evil; it is the grease of change, or, more correctly, it is defined as who gets what, when, where and how. In the mechanizations of the real-world, political manipulation is unavoidable; even when it comes to something as potentially virtuous as taekwondo.
Same with expectations; unfamiliar with long-standing customs regarding the principle of seniority superimposed on Asian society by Confucian ideology for example, many Western martial artists recoil at the thought of subjugating themselves to Korean masters, either consciously or unconsciously thinking, “Why should I bow to you? What have you done for me lately?” Unfortunately, these observations are frequently misshapen by the fact that a vast majority of Korean instructors simply have difficulty voicing their unique philosophical perspectives due to language barriers and not because of a calculated reluctance to share their hard-earned knowledge i
n general. Frequently, just the opposite is true.
Metaphorically speaking, most Westerners would agree that it would be difficult at best to realistically describe and appreciate baseball without going to a game, cheering for a team, eating a hotdog, then drinking in the visuals of the floodlights and turf, the pinstripes and the crowd. Without a doubt, the experience of being present at the stadium is significantly more meaningful than tuning in on the radio. This illustration represents a microcosm of the taekwondo experience vis-a-vis “all the Korean stuff”.
It is true: a cloud of nationalistic influence hovers over all forms of taekwondo regardless of whether a particular style is aligned with the WTF, ITF, ATA or GBTA based on pride in competition, cultural prejudice and, in the case of the Korean people, a desire to recapture a golden past wrapped in innovation and honor that was virtually eradicated during the Japanese Occupation from 1910 to 1945. And for each competing nation in the Olympics, for each individual national governing body, that nationalistic fervor is understandable. Yet, after the smoke clears, it is absolutely essential, at least in my estimation, to remember where the roots of taekwondo lie and that is in a nation, roughly the size of Indiana, with mountains masked in swirling mists that rush to meet the sky. That country, along with all its traditions, customs, symbolism and politics, is Korea – land of the morning clam.
So, for my part, I feel that “all the Korean stuff” regardless of misguided expectations or politics, is an integral component of taekwondo, inseparable from physical training and paramount to a comprehensive understanding of the culture and philosophy from which the traditional Korean martial art was spawned. In fact, the more I visit Korea to train and immerse myself in Asian culture, the more I realize that, in many ways, we really are worlds apart. Yet, rather than attempt to rationalize these disparities in Western terms and choose to ignore them, it is of far greater value to transform these societal contradictions into a vehicle for enhancing ones martial arts experience overall while paying tribute to a vibrant and ancient way of life. In many ways, it is a separate reality; it is the Taegeuk, the Eum/Yang, an ultimate resolution of the dichotomy of opposites.