Learning is Endless

The Basics are the Advanced Techniques

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Many of you are aware that I have been critical of TKD and how it is promoted and taught. I believe that this is the source of much confusion for those who study it. I proposed a question on a forum about some these concerns and was thrilled that I received responses from two noted TKD masters and historians.

MR. George Vitale and Mr. Rick Clark have studied and taught TKD all over the world. What follows has been edited lightly for the sake of clarity:

Richard Conceicao I have a question concerning the learning experience that one receives on a short trip to Korea. I have spoken to many who have made this journey, and have always received mixed reviews.

Leaving out the fun of the cultural experience which I can fully understand, do people really feel that they are learning high level techniques that they would never have gotten anywhere else?

I have formed the opinion from this feedback that while there is much emphasis on sparring, form execution (but never application!), and somewhat basic kicking and punching.

This was on my mind once again, while reading this month’s TTKD where a discussion of self-defense moves were demonstrated. I certainly do not wish any disparagement of the author or participants in any way– I do not know the context or intent of either.

What struck me was the basic simplicity of what was demonstrated. In each case a credit was given to the Korean instructor who presented them with the respective technique.

Is this representative of the level of instruction that is common to those who have learned in Korea? Perhaps the limited time available for those on a tour limits what is available?

Rick Clark I was stationed in Korea for a year in the 70’s. In my opinion while I was around some very good instructors they would have been juniors to my Korean instructors back in the USA.

I have not been back to Korea since then so things may have changed a bit. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion we have some of the best here in the USA, esp the old school instructors.

They trained many Americans and for a variety of reasons it would take too long to go into I see no reason to think those instructors have an equally high skill and knowledge level.

Yes going to Korea is a good learning experience, but to expect to gain some “secret” technique or high level of skill in a few weeks or even a few months is not realistic.

Richard Conceicao Having studied under one of the original Korean masters who came to this country, my initial thought is to agree with your assessment, at least in the kind of TKD that I grew up with. I wonder if the changes that the Koreans have made in the art–especially the sporting aspect, is reflective of what the “tourist” gets now.

I am trying to be careful not to judgmental because I think that it should reflect certain things that may consider less important

Rick Clark Richard Conceicao not to put anyone down but for me the modern Olympic TKD is not what I am talking about. I have no interest that type of TKD. 

Richard Conceicao me either but I feel I can’t let that be my sole criteria. The demonstrated techniques I referenced appeared terribly simplistic to me but may be perfect for those whose experience is primarily sporting, as I said, I didn’t know the context.

George Vitale Ok I have trained, studied at seminars and taught in both halves of Korea. My very 1st experience was back in 1989. Now I have also trained, studied at seminars seminars and taught at many other places around the world. I can assure you that the cultural experience in Korea obviously can NOT be beat. But training there leaves much to be desired, as it can be very touristy! In NK you can get great training under top notch ITF instructors. In SK we had a very difficult time finding a serious DoJang to film at, as most were catering to children and were more babysitting than TKD. However I believe for Olympic sparring training, there are some really great training opportunities at the elite TKD programs at the leading Universities. 🇰🇷

Richard Conceicao ok, I accept all this feedback (hopefully not because it appears to support my original opinion) but I have a further question:

Richard Conceicao Why is it that the Korean masters seem so unwilling to provide reasonable applications to the forms that they themselves created? I, of course, am most familiar with the Kukki and MDK forms as they were the ones I learned.
My experience has been that whatever explanations were provided were very basic win the k/b/p mode or in some cases ridiculous.
Sometimes the creators were alive, and still there were no explanations. The rest of the TKD world (including me) has been left to come up with our own.

Rick Clark Richard Conceicao It’s really simple. The new forms were created from the older Pinan/Heian Kata of Japan and Korea. The instructors I had back in the 60’s and 70’s did not have good explanations for the movement, only practice hard and long and you will understand. I was young and dumb and took that as a good answer.

In reality I don’t believe Funakoshi taught any good applications to the kata. And Funakoshi was the instructor on some of the early heads of the Kwan. Won Kuk Lee who started Chung Do Kwan and which I trace my TKD from. I studied a bit with Son Duk Son who was the 2nd headmaster of Chung Do Kwan and student of Won Kuk Lee. I was never taught any deep dark secrets by him, nor do I think he had them to teach. My primary instructor was directly under Son Duk Son and he did not teach any deep meaning to Hyung and his self-defense techniques were basic.

My point is how can a modern day instructor who developed a form teach a deeper meaning to a form when they probably were not taught forms have deeper meaning. I have been practicing Chulgi/Naihanchi/Teki for over 25 years almost exclusively and still do not feel I know the full ins and outs of that form. I am not ready to move onto another form at this point in time. Yes, I practice a couple of other forms, but not to the extent of Chulgi. I certainly do not claim mastery of this form, but I do have a rather good knowledge of the form.

Richard Conceicao thank you for reinforcing what I have come to believe is the case

George Vitale Richard Conceicao I agree with Rick Clark’s conclusions. The Koreans looked at it as K/B/P. From my research the early training in Korea was basic, rudimentary moves. There was little communication between instructors and students. Asking questions was frowned upon. The evolution from karate to TKD in Korea was later centered around new sports rules created in part to be different from Karate, which was tainted by the connection to Japan.

Rick Clark George Vitale I agree with you that TKD was very basic. When I started TKD in the USA it was about 1964 or 65. That would have made the TKD I was taught about 20 years old. My instructor was a 5th dan. At that time I did not give much thought to the history of TKD and how long it had been taught in Korea. I was young and naive. The Koreans did not tell the history much or rather they embellished history quite a bit. It was an ancient Korean art coming from Tae Kyun, Kwon Bup, Tae Soo Do, etc., practiced by the Hwyrang. They did not advertise the Kwan were only opened about 20 years before. Or that they went from young white belts to a 5th dan in 20 years or less. Less in a lot of cases because some of the instructors came to the USA in less than 20 years of the founding of the Kwan.

In the case of the Kwan I was associated with (Chung Do Kwan). Son Duk Son came to the USA in 1963 which made is time in TKD as 18 years. Before 1945 the Japanese were still in control of Korea and TKD was not taught. Some say Lee stated to teach in 1944 so that would add only 1 year to the age of Chung Do Kwan. Trying to make a long story short, Lee moved to Japan in 1950. So the time he would have taught in Korea would have been from 1944 or 1945 that would have been 5 or 6 years he actually taught.

When I was in Korea you could progress from white belt to 1st dan in one year. 2 years would put you at 2nd dan (total 3 years), and 3 years more to 3rd dan (total 6 years). Today it seems normal for it to take at least 3 years to go from white to 1st dan (perhaps a little more or less depending). That would put Son Duk Son around the 3rd or 2nd degree level by today’s standards.

Resources were limited in the early years. There were only a few books published, no video, and Black Belt magazine. I started Judo about 1962 and that gives me about 58 years in the martial arts. I have had the good fortune to train under a number of very good instructors and the ability to cross train. Spend a year in Korea, and in my time in the military train in clubs in different parts of the country.

I am not unique, there are a number of old guys like me in the USA, and other countries other than Korea. Some with a bit more training others with a bit less. All of us have double or triple the amount of time in the martial arts as the younger generation of Supper Dupper Universal Grand Masters. So when you ask a question about getting some kind of special training in Korea I sort of smile.

Go to Korea to gain some cultural appreciation of the country. Visit historic sights. Enjoy some very good food. Get a bit of training in Korea. But don’t expect to get better training in Korea than you can find in the USA or other countries. IF FOR NO OTHER REASON than how much information could be transmitted and understood in a short period of time? Then if there was some super-secret information or techniques do you think an instructor in Korea would pass out such info to strangers like candy because they came to visit for a week or two?

To be brutally honest I think instructors who have done a substantial amount of cross training and have then incorporated that information into what they teach will provide students with a more vibrant art. I am of the opinion that if an instructor does not add to the body of knowledge and simply teach what they were taught that art will become stagnant.

George Vitale Rick Clark very good! I am glad you did the math, most never do. It does appear that GM Lee Won-Kuk opened his school in Seoul in September of 1944. But accounts show it only stayed about for a few months, closing and reopening after the liberation of Korea, which took place August 15, 1945. He fled to Japan during the Korean Civil War, which started June 25, 1950, with an all-out assault of Seoul. So virtually everything, including his school stopped operating. But we need to take this back another step. GM Lee studied academically in Japan. While there he also trained in Karate. For how long? How often, how in-depth and how long were the actual training sessions? So here is a young man, who was exposed to some MAs training while living in a foreign country, while also studying in college, including law school, while trying to support himself. He then returns home and eventually starts teaching basic, rudimentary karate for around a period of time that amounts to about 5 years. Was every one of his first students that went onto into to play vital roles in creating TKD, there under his tutelage for all of that approximate 5 year period? I don’t think so! 🇰🇷 (I don’t post this to be derogatory in any manner, but to highlight what actually happened, which to me is amazing, considering what his students accomplished) 🇰🇷

Rick Clark George Vitale I did forget to take into account his time in Japan. But, along with that consideration we need to remember the Japanese were and probably still have a very low opinion of Koreans. I would wonder how much and how in depth Funakoshi would have taught Won Kuk Lee? There may have been some feelings of two outsiders in Japan, one Okinawan and the other Korean.

I am not sure of the rank of Won Kuk Lee when he returned to Korea. I have heard anywhere of 3rd to 5th dan. I am not sure. But, what he brought back was pre JKA Shotokan with Koreanised names.

Richard Conceicao Mr. Clark and Vitale I would like to sincerely thank both of you for this discussion. While it does reinforce opinions that I have held for a long time, it has been both delightful and instructive to have this material laid out in a more factual basis.
Do I have your permission to lightly edit this discussion for clarity and place it on my blog page?

in the future, I would somehow like to have it expanded to an article in the magazine, just to shake up some of the complacency surrounding this subject, but honestly can’t think of a way to do it just now.

In any event, one further question–given the lack of explanation of the techniques in the forms, do instructors or organizations have a responsibility to create them?

I confess that this is something that I have done for my own personal use, and have provided my opinions on them to others.


George Vitale Richard Conceicao I am a big proponent of delving into what have been called the hidden, lost, forgotten or alternative applications. From my personal teaching perspective, we in the ITF seem to focus much more, almost solely on movement and technical correctness, as standardization is paramount from our side. 

Rick Clark Richard Conceicao Do instructors or organizations have a responsibility to create them? HELL NO! If you don’t understand what you are doing why would you have a responsibility to muddy the water more!

Ok, let’s be very clinical here. If you take the old Kwan forms Pyung-Ahn, Balsek, Ship soo, Kung San Kun, Chulgi 1-3, etc., and compare the movements in the various forms in TKD that are “new” Chun-ji etc., Plague, Taekuk, whatever are the movement THAT much different than the movements found in the old form? You might have some added kicks etc. but really the vast majority of the forms are simply “cut and paste” of the old forms.

Re-hash – forms were to be the way to transmit the heart of a system of martial arts to the students. The movements should tell and offer a way to allow students to remember and practice the self-defense techniques of the style. That’s not the case today.

I would argue it should be the responsibility of instructors and organizations to return to the “OLD FORMS” of Kong Soo Do, Tae Soo Do, Kwon Bup, etc. and delve into those for knowledge.

OK if you want to create some gymnastics to compete then create them and make it VERY clear that they are gymnastic routines for competition. But for heaven’s sake make sure you don’t try and tell people that those are the secrets of your art and have hollow meanings!

To paraphrase Funakoshi: if you are simply waving your hands around in the air you might as well be dancing!