Tae Kwon Do: A *Killing* Art?

Striking Thoughts has this post, “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do”–and TDA Training has this post, “Should You Care About Your Style’s Politics?”  Both articles stem from this book, A Killing Art:  The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, by Alex Gillis. When you get a chance read both articles (ST’s and TDA’s), because they are presenting different takes on Gillis’ book. Striking Thoughts simply gives a brief synopsis of the book, while TDA (short for Teodoro Defensive Arts) is posing the question of whether or not the politics matter. I am going to give a third view of this subject. But first, the gist of Gillis’ book:

Alex Gillis is presenting the complete history of the Korean fighting art from a biographical point of view, as opposed to the seductive story that TKD was passed down from generation to generation through lines of Hwarang warriors since ancient times. Actually, TKD was General Choi’s creation after studying Shotokan Karate in Japan, and then modifying it because of tournaments and the desire to distinguish it from its Japanese mother art. There is more to the story, such as the political stories and the business side of the art and the unification of the various factions. However, I have not read the book, but I recently saw a copy at the library and I think I will indulge the next time I go back.

Almost all martial arts were made for combat. They are not all true to that original purpose, because time change and people change. Sometimes, as with kung fu and san shou–the change is for the better. Other times, as with kung fu and the sport of wu shu–the change makes it worse. But that also depends on who is judging:  Has anyone ever seen old footage of kung fu practicioners of old performing forms? Well, they are much better today than they were even 50 years ago. Even some of the fighting styles have improved. However, many have lost that part of their arts because of modern times. Tae Kwon Do is no different. The Olympic style of fighting has vastly improved Tae Kwon Do kicking skills, but at the same time many TKD schools (I might even dare to say “most”) have lost all their fighting spirit altogether.

What happened?

Money. In the days of old, TKD masters were more concerned with bragging rights than anything else. Perhaps there was money to be made off of being the best school in town, but the driving force behind a lot of the instruction in the old days was wanting to out do the competition. When Tae Kwon Do arrived to America, one man single handedly helped TKD explode into the limelight and gain thousands of students:  Jhoon Rhee. I don’t know if this is in the book, but GM Rhee teamed up with Nicolas Cokinos of Art Linkletter Dance Studios and developed the format used today by martial arts schools everywhere. So, singlehandedly, Grandmaster Rhee changed the style makeup of styles on the American martial arts scene, as well as how we did business.

And we arrive at the death of Tae Kwon Do.

When Tae Kwon Do became mass marketed as a commodity, it became easily accesible to everyone. It was affordable, available on every corner, easy to learn, and easy to achieve rank. Classes could not sustain a profitable level of enrollment if classes were too difficult. Students would not stay in the art very long if they trained too long without some tangible benefit (like a new belt). They needed to have new “stuff” to learn frequently, or students would get bored, so instructors had to introduce new forms, new techniques, and new things like “martial ballet/musical forms” and weapons. Teachers also had to keep up with the times by getting a case of oh-we-have-that-too:  Numbchucks, Chinese swords, ground fighting, boxing/kickboxing, Israeli-like self defense, Samurai swords, sweating to the oldies, day care, clowns and birthday parties…. oh, we have that too!

Question. When was the last time you saw a TKD school owner with a 3rd degree black belt? Isn’t it strange that we have so many 8th and 9th degree masters? Yes, because you don’t want to learn from an inexperienced Black Belter! You want to study with a real, true-blue, bonafide 8th degree grandmaster! Oh, we have that too…

Schools moved out of the hole-in-the-wall and into shopping centers and malls. They got bigger, plusher, and got full-time staff with vacation pay, insurance and benefits. With amenities, you couldn’t afford to turn away students–hell, Tae Kwon Do is for everyone! So, you say you have a four year old? A three year old? Yes ma’am, we have a class for him too! (AKA “oh we have that too!”) Little Johnnie has been doing this stuff since he was 5 years old, so at the ripe old age of 7, Kwang Jang Nim (Grandmaster) tests him for and awards him a Black Belt. That’s right, your local TKD school will slap a Black Belt on a frigging DOG if you are willing to pay the testing fee. We all know that one of the tenets of Tae Kwon Do is Self Esteem, so of course Kwang Jang Nim won’t fail a student and scar that poor pup for life…

And you wonder why the phrase “Tae Kwon Do, the KILLING art” sounds so strange.

I think I just heard a snicker. Okay Mc Guro, look in the mirror. After all, you are practicing Arnis, the ultimate add-on art, right? What has FMA become, other than the perfect add-on for the Tae Kwon Do guys? Hell, at least the Kwang Jang Nim will make you study for two years and take TEN belt exams and spar for your Black Belt… What is required for a Black Belt/Teaching certificate for Filipino Martial Arts? Attend 10 whole seminars? Buy all ten DVDs? Omg, you actually got smacked on the hand doing that sticky patty cake drill? And this art is so deadly you can’t actually spar with it! Yeah, we have that too. I think I will write a book, called “A Killing Art:  The Untold History of the Filipino Martial Arts”, because we aren’t much different than Tae Kwon Do in that sense. I live in Sacramento, where FMA is taught at almost every martial arts school in the phone book. We are 40 miles from the mecca of FMA–Stockton, California–where Grandmaster Dan Inosanto made his trips to learn directly from the grandmasters themselves. The home of Serrada Eskrima, De Cuerdas, Bahala Na. We are 100 miles drive from Cacoy Canete, the grandmaster of Doce Pares Eskrima. Ten years ago, we had the sons of both Remy Presas and Ernesto Presas living with a 45 minute trip of our town–plus the great, unmatched Sonny Umpaad. Then there were two full-time FMA schools–my own, plus Nito and Nilo’s Doce Pares–in addition to Fred Lazo in Vallejo and Max Pallen. All this authentic FMA and the main source of FMA learning my town has always been seminars and seminar-trained FMA teachers. Something’s wrong. At one time, I offered FMA 7 days a week, and visitors to my school still asked the question, “When will you put on another seminar?” They would rather learn by crash course, than actually study with a teacher full time.

But all this commercialization and watered-down art does not negate the power of FMA. We are still the most dangerous art out there. No other style teaches, at its core–how to kill the opponent. Nor does any art deal with the subject of how to stop a man from killing you. Not how to get out of a headlock. Not how to stop a spin hook kick. Not how to deal with the sucker punch. But how to stop a man hell-bent on cutting your throat. That characteristic is still present even in the most sissified FMA class (between the dancing around triangles and patty cake), and Ronald McGuro and his antics can’t take that away. I have long said, that before you dog out Tae Kwon Do as a style, let me introduce you to a few TKD fighters who will destroy you–and there are plenty. Tae Kwon Do, like the FMAs, Kung Fu, and many other styles, at its core is a killing art. Don’t forget that.

And to answer the question posed by Nathan Teodoro (over at TDA)–whether or not your style’s politics matter–is this simple:  It doesn’t matter when you are learning the basics of the art. But when you want to ascend to the higher levels of the art or become a more serious student of the art, martial arts politics could affect whether you are successful or not. In other words, yes it does.

Perhaps we will have a second installment of this subject. Thank you for visiting my blog.