The Form IS the Textbook

by John MillerDSCN0435

“Why do you spend so much time on forms?” This is a question students (or their parents) ask from time to time. That a school spends a lot of time on forms is also a criticism frequently leveled at martial arts schools in online reviews. It is valid to ask why forms are emphasized; too often students may be given the impression “learn this form if you want to test” without understanding why they are learning the form.

To provide some background on the discussion of forms, I will briefly review my history with Tae Kwon Do. When I joined the Mountain Academy several years ago, it was as a blue belt with a fair amount of work to do to certify my rank. I originally began studying Tae Kwon Do in 1986 studied with Master Lee in Belleville, IL; at that school the ITF forms were used. In 1989 the Air Force moved me to Colorado Springs, and I began studying under the instruction of Master Chae; at this school the Taegeuk forms were used for instruction. In the mid 90s, I relocated to Littleton where I eventually began studying under Master Bulla (while wondering how many times I would earn the same set of belt ranks). Master Bulla’s school taught the same Tang Soo Do forms used at the Mountain Academy, though with some subtle differences in certain forms.

As a white belt, I have learned three different sets of forms. In Master Lee’s school, I learned four direction punch and Chon Ji. In Master Chae’s school, I learned Taegeuk Il Jang. In Master Bulla’s school I learned Kee Cho Hyung Il Boo (Ech Chan Cho Bu) and Kee Cho Hyung Ee Boo (Ech Chan E Bu). If I were to perform each of these forms, there would be no recognizable similarity between them.

Compare the techniques used in each of these forms (from this point on I will use terms used in our school, even though ITF/WTF may have different names for certain techniques):

  ITF Taegeuk Tang Soo Do
hand (blocking) techniques 4D punch: down block

Chon Ji: down block, inside-outside block

down block, outside-inside block, up block E.C. Cho Bu: down block

E.C. E Bu: down block, up block

hand (striking) techniques 4D punch: middle punch

Chon Ji: middle punch

middle punch E.C. Cho Bu: low punch

E.C. E Bu: high punch

foot (kicking) techniques none front snap kick none
stances 4D punch: walking stance (a shortened front stance, but note that some ITF schools today may eliminate walking stance in favor of front stance)

Chon Ji: walking stance, back stance

front stance front stance

Aside from the obvious differences in techniques used in the forms, there is also a difference in “conventions” in the forms. ITF forms today teach students to practice a “sine wave” motion (fluidly raising and lowering the body between steps to generate more power in blocks and strikes). This motion is not part of the Taegeuk or Tang Soo Do forms. The ITF forms teach students to begin blocks from a position midway up the body. The Taegeuk forms teach students to begin blocks with both hands in a sort of “cup and saucer” position. Tang Soo Do forms teach students to cover their core before beginning the block. The ITF forms (as I learned them) teach students to return a blocking arm to a “neutral” (middle punch) position after completing the block and before stepping into the next move; the Taegeuk and Tang Soo Do forms leave the blocking arm in blocking position when beginning to step into the next move.

With this many differences between the beginner forms for three different styles that all claim to be Tae Kwon Do, the casual observer can be forgiven for wondering whether the forms are simply a hoop to be jumped through in order to test for the next belt rank.

Before debunking this notion of “form as checkbox,” let me draw an analogy from the field of phonics and reading education. Consider for a moment the alphabet song. Most children will learn this song early in the process of learning to read. Does the song by itself teach them to read? Clearly not. But it does equip the beginning reader with a number of extremely valuable tools:

  • it teaches the beginning reader the name of every letter in the alphabet,
  • it teaches the beginning reader the ordering of letters in the alphabet (which becomes very important a few years later as that reader begins to learn dictionary skills),
  • it begins to teach the reader phonics, as the names of most letters incorporate the sound those letters make.

Aside from this memory aide, a beginning reader will also work with some sort of reading primers. Each successive primer will build on the previous ones by adding new elements (new phonics rules, new vocabulary). Such a set of primers does not really exist in martial arts (yet), since drawings will often be ambiguous on stance or transitions from one static position to the next, while text descriptions will be astronomically more confusing. The lack of a good written notation was the impetus for my black belt paper (a written notation to document forms in a textbook), which eventually led me to the (in hindsight obvious) conclusion that the form IS the textbook.

Which leads back to the subject of this article. The forms function as a primer when teaching a martial art. When considering that many martial arts originated at a time when literacy was not widespread, and especially in a part of the world where writing was logographic rather than phonic, the usefulness of forms as a textbook becomes obvious. The forms of Tang Soo Do are grouped into sets, and each set serves a particular purpose. The first three forms a student learns in our school form are the Kee Cho Hyung. “The Kee Cho Hyung is structured so that beginners can practice basic techniques as a coherent linked exercise.[1]”

Different schools will teach different sets of forms for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason will be the historical lineage of the school. The Mountain Academy’s lineage is traced from Grand Master Rankin through Grand Master Vernon Foster and Grand Master Kyung Won Ahn to Grand Master Hwang Kee, the founder of Moo Duk Kwan. Grand Master Kee himself was influenced by his study of Soo Bahk and Tae Kyun (traditional Korean martial arts), Kung Fu, and Okinawan karate, as well as the Muye Dobo Tongji (a book on Korean military science of the 18th and 19th centuries).

From this background, Grand Master Kee developed and selected the Tang Soo Do forms to teach students in a particular fashion. He developed the Kee Cho forms to provide students with a linked set of basic techniques that could be easily remembered and repeated. He adapted the Pyung Ahn forms (both with roots in Okinawan and Japanese karate) to gradually add additional techniques to those practiced by students. Bassai (“Storming the Fortress,” with equivalents across multiple martial arts) teaches the use of strong blocks and fast strikes (hence its Tang Soo Do designation as the Cobra form). These are the core forms that take the Tang Soo Do student through to the midnight blue or black belt.

Grand Master Kee incorporated the Naihanji forms (of possible Chinese origin with heavy Okinawan influence) as advanced forms, generally taught at red or black belt level (at the Mountain Academy, they are taught as the first three black belt forms). Grand Master Kee assigned the horse to represent these forms (the straddle or horse stance is a key element of these forms); at the Mountain Academy these are referred to as the bridge forms, because the motion of the form resembles a defender fighting with back pressed against a bridge railing. Grand Master Kee also added other animal forms, each with a different emphasis such as speed or power. In later years, Grand Master Kee added the Chil Sung (seven stars) and Yuk Ro (six paths) forms.

Each of these sets of forms serve an important purpose for the student. For illustration we will pick apart Ech Chan Cho Bu, the first form taught at the Mountain Academy. This form incorporates one stance (front stance), two hand techniques (down block and low punch), and four stance transitions (advancing front stance, 90 degree turn, 180 degree turn, and 270 degree turn). That is seven foundational elements so far. In addition, there are a few other elements that the student should begin to learn in this form: covering the core at the beginning of a block, punching “from the chamber,” sliding the foot in a semi-circle (half-mooning) when advancing, and proper posture. What purpose do each of these elements serve?

Some elements (block, punch) in the form are technique, pure and simple. The down block will be used in a variety of situations, from blocking low punches or kicks to breaking various holds an opponent may have. The usefulness of the punch is, I hope, readily apparent. So what makes the form a better way to practice these techniques than basics in isolation? There is a deeper wisdom in placing these two techniques together in the very first form than might be readily apparent, either by design or by serendipity. The down block and the low punch are very different techniques, but for the beginner it is often difficult to distinguish them. There are three common mistakes the beginner makes:

  • throwing a punch instead of a downblock (or vice versa),
  • bad punching technique (instead of punching straight out from the chamber to the centerline of the body, the student first brings the punching hand across the body to the centerline and then punches out from the centerline,),
  • bad positioning on the punch (the punch is executed from the chamber but is positioned over the knee instead of on the body centerline).

Including both these techniques in the very first form a student learns offers an opportunity to emphasize the difference between Tang Soo Do blocks and Tang Soo Do punches. This is an element of the first form which could perhaps be more heavily emphasized than it currently is.

Why emphasize front stance when we teach students to spar from a fighting stance? The answer is that not every element in a form is intended to teach a fighting technique. Front stances, back stances, and horse stances are used in forms to strengthen leg muscles. This is important for developing stable stances when fighting, and in later development of kicking techniques (rather like the alphabet song being used to teach letter ordering; not important for learning to read, but very important for dictionary skills learned later). Each of the three stances works a different set of muscle groups; when working with one of these formal stances the rule for the student should be “if your legs aren’t sore, you’re doing it wrong.”

What about posture? A good stable stance is hugely important when sparring or when defending yourself. Part of this is proper placement of feet in a stance, but a big part of this is keeping the trunk upright. Leaning forward or backward places the student in a position to be pushed off-balance. For the colored belt student, front stance techniques also mean that the hips and shoulders should be square to the target. At this level, students are being taught to generate power in techniques by the combination of punching from the chamber and timing their technique to hit the target at the same time their foot hits the ground when stepping forward. At higher ranks, students will be taught to generate power in their techniques from their legs and hips (or in ITF from the use of sine wave motion), but for the colored belt student hips and shoulders should be square to the target; the forms emphasize this.

What about covering the core when beginning a block? Tang Soo Do teaches a formalism of a large motion of the blocking arm, moving from low to high form up blocks and inside-outside blocks, moving from high to low when performing down blocks, and in a large circular motion for outside-inside blocks. ITF and the Taegeuk forms have their own different formalism for beginning blocks. In a real fight a defender would not want to move into the core covered position before throwing a block; the opponent would have completed their attack before the defender could throw the block. The use of the core covered position sets the student up for failure in the real world (although the core covered position does serve a blocking function itself), so it must be used for something else in the Tang Soo Do forms. Once again, it can be viewed as a method of exercising the muscles and teaching the generation of power. For the colored belt ranks, power is often generated through motion.

There is thus a good deal going on in even the most basic of the Moo Duk Kwan forms. When you consider everything that makes up a form, it should be apparent that “good enough” is not good enough. Each new form contains the new elements that are being emphasized for a particular rank. The form serves the same kind of purpose a primer in reading would serve: you practice the new techniques (learn to read the new words) while continuing to review the older techniques (continuing to use older words). In contrast, practicing a new technique in isolation (as we do in basics) is analogous to practicing spelling; it will teach you to spell the word but it will not teach you how to use it in the appropriate context.

Thus we come full circle. The form IS the textbook. It combines the basic elements that are appropriate for the student at each particular level in a sequence that can be learned and repeated. It places those elements in a context (rather than leaving them in isolation), teaching the student how to smoothly transition between various techniques. It remains valuable to the more advanced student, who returns to it to consider the proper application of power throughout the form. And to the instructor it is a foundational reference for the core of our art.

A Parenthetic Aside

(a not-so-brief lesson on the Korean writing systems – worth three semester hours at your local college or university):

What’s up with all these different names for the same form anyway? Is the form called Ech Chan E Bu, Kee Cho Hyung Ee Boo, or what? Who’s right and who’s wrong?

Prior to the 1440s, Korean was written using Hanja, characters borrowed from Chinese and used with Korean pronunciations. Chinese is a logographic language (each character represents a syllable and a concept), meaning that several thousand characters must be known for one to be literate. In the 1440s, Sejong the Great pushed for a reform to written Korean, to make literacy more widespread outside the aristocracy. The result was an alphabet that would eventually be called Hangul; a phonetic system for writing Korean in the same way the Latin alphabet is used to write western languages.

Despite being a very well designed phonetic system, Hangul faced a number of obstacles to its adoption. It was opposed early on by the educated classes, who saw Hanja as the only legitimate writing system. In the early 16th century Hangul was suppressed by King Yeonsan-gun, who was angry that commoners mocked his despotic rule with posters written in Hangul. Although it returned to use in the late 16th century, it still fell short of its goal of widespread literacy among the general population. It was not until 1894 that the government of Korea began to standardize the use of Hangul, and that effort ended in 1910 with the Japanese occupation and annexation of Korea. During the Japanese occupation, several colonial revisions were made to the Hangul alphabet, until the Japanese took steps banning the Korean language between 1938 and 1941.

Hangul returned to use in Korea after 1946. By the 1950s, the practice of mixing Hanja and Hangul in writing was disappearing in the south, and had been outlawed in the north. Throughout the 20th century there were a number of changes to the alphabet, eliminating obsolete letters and adding new ones for better distinction or to support (foreign language) loanwords to Korean. There was also a significant evolution in the system of spelling (this began prior to the 20th century, and was partly based on the question of whether words should be spelled phonetically or based on their roots). In some sense, this puts Korean written with Hangul characters at about the same place as English in 1755 when Samuel Johnson published the first modern English dictionary; a standard is emerging but there are still technical differences in the very recent past between different ways of writing words (a more complete discussion of those differences would be needlessly technical).

The problem of spelling is further complicated by the idea of romanization – the process of rendering a language using the Latin alphabet. There are three systems widely used today to transcribe Korean syllables in the Latin alphabet. McCune-Reischauer (developed in 1937) was widely adopted and modified to represent spoken Korean as a phonetic system. Yale (developed in 1942) is a system used principally by linguists, as it tries to retain certain technical elements of the language. Revised Romanization (adopted in 2000) is the official romanization standard of the South Korean government.

A comparison of MR and RR romanization quickly illustrates how different the same terms may appear, even when not accounting for differences in accent or dialect. How a Korean term is rendered in English is going to depend upon who did the transcribing and what their goal was. Below are three terms used by our school, with common American spellings first, and then the McCune-Reischauer and Revised Romanization spellings.

Common American spelling Revised Romanization McCune-Reischauer
Tae Kwon Do Taegwondo T’aegwŏndo
Moo Duk Kwan Mu Deok Gwan Mu Dŏk Kwan
Tang Soo Do Dangsudo Tangsudo

So, if the question is:

“Is it Ech Chan E Bu, Kee Cho Hyung Ee Boo, Kicho Hyeong Ee Bu, or something else altogether?”

the answer is:

“All of the above.”