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Taekkyon: A Martial Arts Comeback
Direct descendant to the Korean fighting traditions of subak and ssirum
Colin Moore (Colin89)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-10-19 11:01 (KST)   
©2007 Colin Moore
There's a small dirt and stone courtyard barely into Insadong, a bustling stretch of traditional eateries and craft shops in Seoul. You'll find it shortly after breaking off the main road by Tapgol Park, nudged just behind a well-known artist's kiosk.

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As for as the nearby batting cage, don't be concerned. It's still far enough away that you're not likely to hear the pings and tings of aluminum smacking cowhide, just the sounds of drums and legs cutting through the air. If you didn't know it was a martial art, you might mistake Taekkyon for an elegant dance with intermittent flurries of harshness. Part grace, part head rattling kicks, it has something for everyone.

Taekkyon exists as a direct descendant to the elder fighting traditions of subak and ssirum, and its features resemble both. Ssirum is often described as Korean sumo wrestling, at least by non-Koreans. You've seen the footage. Two fighters latch onto each other via a sash that wraps around their opponent's waist and upper leg. When they're given the signal they thrash like conjoined twins that just can't take another day, attempting to force each other down within a circular ring of sand.

Any ground contact above the knee will take the win. It favors grappling and wrestling techniques over blows of any kind, other than the one resulting from a losing body smacking the ground.

Taekkyon is sometimes regarded as a passive form of competition compared to martial arts that regularly use offensive punching and hand strikes, such as karate or ninjutsu. No knee strikes are allowed, and although head butts are traditionally in the repertoire, it runs counter to the current philosophy of non-injury. But it doesn't mean no one is breaking a sweat. As with ssirum, the path to victory is achieved by putting your opponent down, with one notable option: a kick to the head.

©2007 N. Sthankiya
©2007 N. Sthankiya
©2007 N. Sthankiya
Kim Byung-koo has that comfortable quality, like a father who's paid his dues and now sits back with a quiet sense of satisfaction. Even as he pulls up a plastic stool to answer a few questions, I wonder how a man this at ease could be capable of removing my head from its shoulders. He's here to help put on the demonstration event, but also to watch over one of the competing teams.

"About 100,000 people do taekkyon in Korea," I'm told through Young-joo, a photographer doing double duty as translator. Kim learned from his father at an early age, then in middle school was introduced to the man who would shape his involvement in the sport, Song Dok-ki. Subak split into the two sub-arts of taekkyon and yusul early into the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Taekkyon adopted the kicks and strikes while yusul became more the grappling sport.

Even before this, however, subak was having its problems. It was banned to all but military use when gambling controversies beat its reputation back during the Goryeo period (936-1392). Later, Korea's adoption of Neo-Confucianism ideals further grounded the appeal of these arts, finding themselves at odds with the moral and social attitudes of the day. With the 1910 Japanese occupation of the peninsula, one would wonder whether it would ever resurface.

As a possible tool for revolution, taekkyon, was considered too threatening and it moved even further underground. Song Dok-ki is credited with the sports' transition into modern times. The decades following Korea's independence in 1945 gave both Song and his student, Shin Han-seung, an awaited opportunity. Resurgence. Shin was responsible for taekkyon's recognition as "Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76," a honorific designation also given to the Salpuri folk dance. In turn Shin's student, Lee Yong-bok, established the Korean Traditional Taekkyon Institute in the mid 80s. Both Song and Shin passed away in 1987, Song was 94.

"It shows the Korean spirit," Kim says with a relaxed look of pride.

"Taekkyon is a sport but it can be a play, a dance, and a martial art. It's a type of Korean social culture, like singing and drinking and dancing. It's for the individual but also for the audience."

The mood says as much. Behind the battleground and the crowd, the competitors are hanging out. A few use the time to limber up, others talk and share a smile or a yawn. Even the few that do have their game face on seem entirely approachable.

"In Korea, you can't make money doing this. In China, maybe they can, but not here."

He arcs his arms and explains the curved fighting techniques of Chinese martial arts, the straight armed Japanese method, and that of Korean taekkyon. He says it holds to neither.

"You can hit the face, and legs. You can't grab the clothes, but on the skin, yes."

Traditional taekkyon contains more techniques than the ones that will be shown here. It's obvious from those warming up though that the trademark fluidity is there, the continuous dance like movements, the shifting hand and foot positions, and the floaty footwork. A staple of taekkyon is the low kick. Fighters attempt to dislocate their opponents from the mat through blows to their shins, knees, and lower legs, which are visibly padded. But padding can only offer so much protection from a leg sweep.

In true Korean fashion, things are slapped together quickly. It's a musty courtyard one minute and a minor sporting event the next. A large open tent for officials and event organizers sits at one end. Between it and the crowd is the fighting mat, a 20 x 30 foot foam base bearing a thick pinkish square in the center. It outlines the fighting boundaries.

Sponsorship banners give the event an official angle, a sign of hope that taekkyon is attracting more than just public attention. In early 2001, the Korean Taekkyon Association gained approval of the Korea Sports Council to designate it as a specialty athletics.

Every bit helps. The late 19th century boasts no more than a single annual competition, but the K.T.A. now holds up to ten national championships each year with over 200 university and citizen clubs making the sport available to a range of ages. It is out there.

As a cultural or international alternative to taekwondo though, it's still tucked in the shadows. Even for taekwondo though, the more public of subak's children, it took time. Between the time the World Taekwondo Federation was founded and its recognition as a Olympic demonstration sport (in Seoul no less), 15 years had passed. It wouldn't become an official Olympic event for another 12 years, in 2000.

Ten competitors are preparing themselves behind the crowd. The white shirts and sports pants give them away. Overtop they wear a sleeveless jersey in red or blue; a team marker using the colors of the Korean flag. A series of drums shock the blood through its cycle and the competition begins. The two teams approach the mat. Their members cut through the crowd, one at a time.

©2007 N. Sthankiya
First, the red team. They enter carrying a team banner and start to loosen up, swinging body parts into the air as they're being introduced. The blue team enters next. As with ssirum, three judges oversee the match. A head referee moves within the fighting area while the two others are positioned at the edge of the mat at opposite corners.

The competition is modeled after a Korean folk custom, Kyolryontae, practiced annually until the Japanese occupation. On the fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month (ssirum matches were traditionally held on the fifth day) two groups of fighters would meet at dusk.

The younger children would compete first, sometimes being as young as four or five years old. Consider it the opening act. This was called Aegi-Taekkyon.

The adults were next. Of those, the lower skilled athletes were the first to take position on the straw mat (alternatively sand or grass). With each win, a victor would continue, facing challenger after challenger until they were defeated. The last man standing would be the overall match winner, a hell of an argument to fight last. Pan-mageum Chang-sa was the title bestowed upon the champion. It means "best player who drew all the game to an end." Adults of even higher ability followed a similar routine.

The afternoon winds on. The air cools off as much as it can for a Seoul summer while the dragonflies dogfight overhead. It's a subtle change of mood that happens to coincide with the final match.

Young-joo mentions the next two teams are Seoul university rivals. Yonsei vs. Kookmin. If tradition is being followed, the last bout should feature the best of the day's competitors. It's difficult to tell from Kookmin.

The player chosen by Yonsei is more than doing his job. He's no Hulk but he's solid, and capable. The smooth and rhythmical movements are there, as are the use of pushes and thrusts that taekkyon is known for.

His kicks connect where they should, to the padded areas of the body and not his opponent's joints. They impact with authority and the first two challengers are put away quickly. Two flags are lowered. Of the five blue flags that represent the five Kookmin players, three are still at full mast.

By the end, all of one team's flags will be lowered to signify a defeat. Digital scoring... it's so 20th century.

The third match begins after a standard bow. Both of their hands are open faced and move constantly. They shift them in tandem with their feet, which move to alternate the foot facing forward.

In taekkyon, it's a way to keep one's opponent mentally off-balance while avoiding leg attacks. The closet leg moves out of the way, avoiding a strike before it even comes. You can't hit what's not there. Taekkyon is not a defensive prone art. There are no blocks, only preventative sidestepping movements coupled with attack.

Traditionally, the philosophy of taekkyon incorporated the elements of harmony and human welfare. To make use of a more current term, it promotes well-being. Its history stressed the practical purpose of community bonding and self-defense, before it evolved to military use.

In its execution, a taekkyon-style attack is meant to disable one's opponent without causing injuries. One look at this match though, and it's obvious the damage a change in personal philosophy could do. No one's using headgear so the hits have a reality to them. The occasional head snaps.

The Yonsei player soon wins his third victory, and the head referee slashes a fan-shaped wooden baton in the direction of the winning side. It's at least as frantic as a baseball ref's pumping arm, though at no time was it needed to eject a saucy trainer.

On this afternoon, play seemed respectful enough of the players and refs not to require it. There's the odd sigh, maybe a rolling eye in disagreement with a call, but no one gets in a tizzy.

Then play resumes. The kneeling Yonsei team celebrates another win with their teammate. He seemed to be the right choice for their starter, but whether he can go all the way is something else. He's breathing harder now and the bounce in his step has gravity issues. His hair is matted down with sweat, groggy.

From somewhere though he finds the energy to land a backflip. Impressive. No one said tradition and showmanship were mutually exclusive. He seems satisfied with the reaction and gets ready for number four.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Colin Moore

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