What would you say if I told you that there was a martial art more authentically Korean than Taekwondo?

That it is the only martial art officially recognized by the Korean government as one of the nation’s Important Intangible Cultural Assets (重要無形文化財/중요무형문화재)?

That, despite its many centuries of local Korean history and current and growing fame, was quickly overtaken by the Japanese-influenced TKD soon after World War II because only a handful of masters were left at the time? [1]

If you were anything like me before I began researching this article, ignorant head filled with visions of overseas dojang (道场/도장) trumpeting “Korean TKD,” “Korean Taekwondo,” or just “Taekwondo” next to a logo inevitably emblazoned with Korea’s signature blue-and-red taeguk; students at universities all over Korea donning dobok (道服/도복) and kicking their way to innumerable gold medals every year; or crowds of cheering Korean spectators celebrating the induction of TKD into the pantheon of Olympic sports in 1988, you might get angry at me for telling you such an absurd and insulting lie.

But you, dear reader, would be wrong.

Indeed, Korea does have a martial art with a longer and more native Korean history than Taekwondo. In fact, TKD was not developed until the 1950’s—that’s right, after most of your grandmas were born—after a profusion of Japanese-taught Korean martial artists finally shed the yoke of their Japanese occupiers and began applying their newfound freedom to adapting personal skills largely based on Shotokan Karate into something more distinctly Korean [1]. Hence the martial art that the world mistakenly equates with Korea, a sport that only saw its official founding in the very significant year 1945 with the opening of an academy in Seoul [2].

But don’t despair! There exists a non-Taekwondo, and more wholly Korean, martial art named Taekkyeon (택견), a name that nonetheless sounds similar enough to its more well-known love child with karate to be mildly confusing. In fact, when I was first told the topic of this article I mistakenly assumed that “Taekkyeon” was just a local moniker for Taekwondo and started gearing up to integrate some historical research with personal experience into an informative article for the fellow martial arts enthusiast.

But I, dear reader, was wrong.

Taekkyeon is about as far from Taekwondo as Krav Maga is from Chinese Nanquan. It is more like performance Capoeira, with its soft, swift movements and non-emphasis on damaging contact, than the harder and more kung fu-like TKD, applied to hard-hitting and painful contact sparring and stylized, powerful forms. But unlike most manifestations of Capoeira, it is a fully contact sport, generally applied not to impressive performances but direct competition between two fighters striving to best each other with inflicting the minimum possible damage.

In fact, as suggested by the instructor in this video by I Dig Culture, losing control and accidentally hitting one’s competitor with anything more intrusive than a feathery touch, or interacting in an illegal way like grabbing clothes, is grounds for lost points or even expulsion from a match. Given the great lengths to which practitioners must then go to avoid these penalties, Taekkyeon might be considered an uncommonly peaceful art, more peaceful than even strictly performative wushu, in which group sparring sets are, in theory, executed with the utmost control and thus minimum danger, but contact is still a common and painful reality (just ask my former college Wushu team—our forearms looked like neglected bananas for five weeks a year as we practiced for our biggest annual campus demo).

And yet a closer glance at this sport might leave one questioning whether it is really all that pacifistic. After all, it was reportedly taught to the armies of Silla with the intent to give them an edge against Japanese pirates [2]. Moreover, while the largest proportion of a Taekkyeon competition seems devoted to ominous circling and dance-like feints, a quick Internet Youtube search in either Korean or English will provide ample footage (har, har) of belted competitors landing swift kicks on each other’s legs, ribs, or even heads [3], or some significant degree of aggressive grappling with the hands [4]. As with any sport or art, then, it seems fair to say that the character of the Taekkyeon depends on the will and skill of those executing it.

International wushu superstar Li Lianjie, known to most as Jet Li, once said, “The best, best martial art is a smile.” [5] But even when a smile fails and one doesn’t quite feel up to escalating to full-on blows, training in the swift, agile, and highly controlled Taekkyeon might just come in handy—if only to bluff, skip, and leap out of a bad situation. Or just deliver a swift kick to the face.

 

This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange. 

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