History and principles of Taekkyon, Korea’s ancient folk martial art
Taekkyon is a traditional bare-hand martial art developed by the Korean people and is recognized as the original form of bare-hand martial arts in Korea.
Before the 6th century, Taekkyon was practiced by the ruling classes and from the 9th to 12th century, became very popular, even among the common people. According to the Koryusa, a Korean history book written in the 15th century, Taekkyon was widely encouraged and practiced by everyone from the king himself to farmers. This trend continued until the early Chosun Dynasty.
(Above is the “Dae kwae do”(대쾌도, 大快圖). Painted in 1846 by renowned Hyesan Yu Suk (유숙, 劉淑). It shows Ssireum above and Taekkyeon below. The right Taekkyon player wears a coat called “Dopo” and ties their clothes together in order to have more freedom of motion. A Dopo was only worn by scholars (Seonbi, 선비). Soldiers are watching the games as well as ordinary people (Sangmin, 상민) which can be identified by their clothes (white hanbok) and behaviour. For instance, one of the lower class men at the left turned up his trouser legs, which was not considered good manners by the upper classes. Located in Museum of University of Seoul.)
As the society moved toward a system that encouraged education and literary pursuits and discouraged military pursuits, the practice of Taekkyon declined. By the 13 century, Taekkyon was considered a folk custom rather than an actively practiced martial art.
During the Japanese colonial period, Taekkyon was banned and nearly vanished. Fortunately Song Duk-ki (1893-1987) preserved the art and handed it down to modern day Koreans. After the independence of Korea, the practice of Taekkyon became considerably less popular than the practice of Japanese based arts. The establishment of Taekwondo after the Korean War and its subsequent popularity served to further overshadow the practice of Taekkyon.
Taekkyon began to rise in popularity again in the early 1980s. It was designated by the government as Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76 on June 1, 1983 owing to the extensive efforts by Shin Han-seung (1928-1987), who learned Taekkyon from Song Duk-ki. After the death of both masters, Lee Yong-bok, who learned Taekkyon from these two masters in 1984, established the Korea Traditional Taekkyon Institute to revive Taekkyon. Through his efforts, a resurgence in Taekkyon practice resulted and on June 30, 1985, the first Taekkyon game in 80 years took place in Kooduk stadium located in Pusan.
On Jan. 1, 1991, the Korea Taekkyon Association was established and on Nov. 30, 1998, Taekkyon became an official member of the National Sports Council for All. On Feb. 2, 2001, the Korea Taekkyon Association entered officially into the Korea Sports Council and Taekkyon (under the auspices of the Korea Taekkyon Association) has been approved as a specialty sport by the Korea Sports Council. The Korea Taekkyon Association now has clubs and schools throughout Korea and supports more than 160 institutions, 110 university circles and 120 citizens’ clubs. It also has about 10 nationwide Taekkyon championship games every year.
Kyolryon Taekkyon is also called Kyolryontae. It was a folk custom in which villagers were divided into two groups. Until the end of Chosun Dynasty, the citizens of Seoul divided themselves in a western group, called Woodae, and an eastern group, called Araedae, to play. On Tano day (the 15th day of the 5th lunar month), the two groups gathered in a large field at dusk and began to play.
First, children matched up. This was usually called Aeki-Taekkyon. Afterwards, the adults played. Of these people, the people with lower skills took turns first and those with higher skills followed. The winner of each match could choose any new challenger. In this manner, the matches became more exciting and interesting as they progressed. The winner of the final match was called An-mageum Chang-sa, which means the best player. No award was given to the winner, but he was celebrated as a hero by both teams.
To win a match, the player has to take his opponent down by throwing or kicking the opponent’s head. The loser has to tap the ground with the palm of his hand to admit that he has lost. The playing ground was usually made by laying two straw mats. People also played on sandy grounds or on grass. This game was banned by the Japanese police during the Colonial period and later vanished.
The practice of Kyolryon Taekkyon was been revived by Lee, Yong-bok (Chairman of Korea Traditional Taekkyon Institute) in 1995 at Kyongbok palace with a large scale competition and has been demonstrated regularly on Tano day (15th day of Lunar month May) since that time.
Taekyyon is often referred to as being similar to Taekwondo, but in fact there are many differences, not only in appearance but also in the principles of techniques as well as the methods of competition.
Taekkyon movements derive strength from the rhythmical movement and harmony of the lower body and torso, emphasizing bent knees and a limber waist. Techniques often thrust at the opponent’s face and body, or attack their legs to take them down. There is also an emphasis on pulling or pushing the opponents’ legs to take them down as a defense against kicks.
In Taekkyon matches, the rules dictate that the two fighters should step one of their feet in front of the other, continuously changing stance to avoid leg attacks from the opponent. This rule creates a unique Taekkyon step and is a characteristic of sport Taekkyon.
A slight change in the application of sport Taekkyon techniques can create deadly kicks and strikes, particularly when these techniques are delivered to the opponent’s vital areas. During a match, however, hitting the vital parts is strictly prohibited. Combat-style Taekkyon is taught separately from sport Taekkyon.
Taekkyon does not rely on defensive techniques. When attacked, practitioners do not defend but rather attack the opponent in response. Practitioners are taught to measure their response to the level of the attack to avoid unnecessarily harming the attacker.
This philosophy is derived from the characteristics of Korean culture, a combined culture of the warlike northern horse-riding people and the cooperative southern agricultural people. Taekkyon contains a philosophy of living and prospering together in harmony, so that it can contribute to the peace and welfare of the human race.
Taekkyeon contains many kinds of techniques, including hand and leg techniques as well as joint locks, throws and head butts. The whole body is used in each movement. Taekkyeon teaches a great variety of kicks, especially low kicks, knees, jumps. The basic steps are geometric and at the core of all advanced movement. All movements are natural to the human body.
The movements of Taekkyon are fluid with the practitioners constantly moving. One of its most striking characteristics is the motion called gumsil or ogeum jil: It is a constant bending and stretching of one’s knees, giving the art a dance-like appearance. This motion is also used in the Korea mask dance talchum, so both arts look similar in a way. Taekkeyon does not make use of abrupt knee motions. The principles and methods used to extend the kick put more emphasis on grace and alignment for whole-body strength, as with the arm motions.
In competition, the players must use a foot work called pumbalkki (품밟기) which looks like a dance. The meaning of pumbalkki is “to step the pum”. Pum refers to the triangular look of the hanja 品, as pumbalkki has a triangular form as well. The hanja pum means “level” or “goods”, but it is used only because of its shape, not because of its meaning.
There are evolving forms in Taekkyeon. One form can be performed many different ways with its variations over the basic ten-year training period. The curriculum is adjustable within the traditional system. Masters may create their own personalized approach for teaching the basic Taekkyeon system.
Taekkyeon uses high, medium and low kicks. Sweeps with straight forward low kicks using the ball of the foot and the heel and flowing crescent-like high kicks. There are many kicks that move the leg outward from the middle, which is called gyeot chagi, and inward from the outside using the side of the heels and the side of the feet. The art also uses tricks like inward trips, wall-jumping, fake-outs, tempo, and slide-stepping. The art is also like a dance in which the fighter constantly changes stance from left to right by stepping forward and backwards with arms up and ready to guard, blending arm movements with leg.
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