Taegeuk Poomsae: Childrens Taekwondo?

Although the post below (writen by guest author Ørjan Nilsen, 2nd Dan WTF Taekwondo), relates to WTF Taekwondo, much of can equally apply to other martial arts especially Karate. In Taekwondo, Karate and even Kung Fu, many original applications have been dumbed down and misunderstood by the mainstream practitioners. In this interesting and informative article, Ørjan answers many of the criticism levelled at WTF Taekwondo’s early Poomsae (patterns/forms/kata).

The Taegeuk series of Poomsae are the basic patterns used to grade through the coloured belts and as Ørjan points out are often referred to as “children’s Taekwondo”. To any Karateka reading this, doesn’t that sound familiar? The same has often been said of our Heian/Pinan series of Kata.

I will confess that I have been guilty in the past of some of making some of the criticism that Ørjan addresses, but his article below has made me think again. I hope you all enjoy this article and that it changes your outlook as it has mine.

So . . . . . . over th Ørjan:


When asked about the charachteristics of Taegeuk poomsae, most WTF exponents or people with passing knowledge of the forms will probably describe them as: “simple”, “frequent use of high stances”, “boring”, and many will perhaps even say that they are for children.

The Taegeuk forms were made in the early to mid seventies. According to “The Taegeuk Cipher” (by Simon John O`Neill) they were introduced in 1972 to replace the earlier Palgwe forms. The motivation for making the Taegeuk patterns is stated to be part politically motivated (since not all the original School/Kwan was represented by the forms comittee that were responsible for the Palgwe and WTF black belt forms), and partially because the Palgwe had too obvious Karate influences. No matter what their motivations were, they were designed specifically for color belts training and they have a very clear progress of difficulty.

Maybe the clear progress of difficulty and that they were designed for color belts (as stated in most official WTF/Kukki Taekwondo writings) coupled with the three first patterns great use of short/high walking stance is the reasons why many people will say they are for children.

This article will hopefully show the readers that the Taegeuk are more than merely “childrens Taekwondo” and that the techniques they contain can be used as effective self defence once they are fully understood.

The high/short walking stance (Ap seogi in Korean):

The first three patterns favor the use of Ap seogi. Ap seogi is excecuted by moving one foot one walking step distance in front of the other. The front foot is pointing directly forward, the back foot is pointing about 30 degrees outward. The legs are straightned and the weight distributuion is 50% on each leg. Your whole body is facing the front (ap seogi means front stance in English).

This stance is often ridiculed by other stylists because it lacks power and beacuse it is too unstable to be used in a fight. They are somewhat correct if you look at the stance just as a single unit and not as a part of the whole picture. The Ap seogi stance is perhaps the most natural stance used in the martial arts since this is the stance we use everyday for moving (walking). In patterns training we are told that the legs should be straight (at least in the end-portion of the stance) but if you bend your knees just a little and keep your hands high (boxing guard) tuck in your chin, you will be in a typical “Boxing stance”. Actually because of the stances naturality; variations on the Ap seogi is used by most combat sports in one way or another all around the world. It is hard not to use it since as previous stated it is the stance humans use most often to move around. Where it lacks in stability and power it makes up for speed and mobility.

Taekwondo Ap Seogi
Figure 1 Ap seogi used in Gumdo. (Source: masterjosetorres.com)
Taekwondo Ap Seogi 1
Figure 2: Ap sogi used in boxing (Source: James E Homans, New American Encyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information)

In the last five forms in the Taegeuk pattern set the Ap seogi is almost not used at all. They use more “long forward front stance” (Ap Koobi), back stance (Dwit koobi), Cat stance (Beom seogi) in stead. So to make the assumption that the whole set uses short front stance (Ap seogi) and that the stance is impractical, and so the whole pattern set is impractical is in the writers own view flawed.

The pulling hand (“Ben son” in Korean, “Hiki te” in Japanese).

The pulling hand is the hand not obviously doing anything in the form and is retracted to the hip while the other hand is excecuting “blocks”, “punches” or “strikes”. We share this method of moving the hands with both Japanese and Okinawan styles of Karate and some styles of Chinese Quanfa. In the Taegeuk forms set however almost all hand techniques are excecuted making use of this method. This makes the forms look simplistic and basic, and most “official” applications does not help either. Most show applications with no practial explanation for the hand on the hip. Ask most instructors and they will gladly give you empty and shallow explanations like “more power”, “tradition” etc not going into details as to why would anyone place one hand on their hip and not protect their head instead.

In modern sport Taekwondo we seem to have lost the knowledge of the purpose behind “the pulling hand” (Ben son). The easiest way to find the “original” meaning is to look at the sources of Taekwondo and how they used the technique. Unfortunatly mainstream Karate has also evolved into a long range combat sport so they to often do not know why they put their hand on their hip in a practical point of view. Fortunatly we still have the writings of the Karate pioners and we also have the Chinese styles of Quan fa who also uses the pulling hand to give us hints as to why the pulling hand motion is so frequently used in our modern patterns. In his book “Karate-Do Kyohan the master text” by Gichin Funakoshi founder of Shotokan Karate he states: “Hiki te: grasp the opponents fist and attack while pulling him inward. His balance broken, the effectiveness of his attack is lost and that of the counterattack is enhanced”. He also makes frequent remarks later in the book on the explenations of Kata to always envision that you are grasping and pulling your attackers limb when using Hiki te.

This is of course a very short explenation but he touches on many of the primary reasons as to the pulling hand:

  • Awareness and intuitive control of your opponents wherabouts.
    Grabing the opponent gives you greater control of his motions, increases your sense as to what he is doing, and makes it easier for the adrenaline filled brain to localaise the opponent and so will increase your ability to strike the opponent.
  • Breaks the opponents balance.
    By grabbing your opponent and pulling and twisting his limb at the same time breaks his balance and puts him on the defencive. The human brain is conditioned to always keeping the bodies balance a first priority, so as long as the opponent is off balance he is also not likely to attack you.
  • Tactical advantage.
    Grabbing and pulling in the opponents arm will open him up for strikes that will be difficult to defend against.
  • Increases power of your attack (or counterattack if you used it defensivly)
    A car that chrases into a parked car 30 miles an hour will make a big bang. To cars going front to front on each other, both doing 30 miles an hour will make a bigger bang. The same principle is at work with the pulling hand coupled with a punch or strike. If you drag your opponent onto the punch/strike it will hurt him more than if you punched him while he was retreating og standing relativly still. This is probably the source of the “because it gives more power” explenation so popular today.

If you look at the Chinese styles you can learn that the pulling hand is actually a very nasty technique in its own right. Grabbing and twisting sensitive parts of your opponents body can be very effective. Grabbing and twisting your opponents hair, ear, testicles, or digging in under the collarbone are all very painfull techniques. And if you (or should I say your opponent) has not had enough yet you can also seize his throat, grabbing, pulling and twisting. This is just a few applications for the pulling hand, but as you can see there is a lot of practical reasons for including this in the patterns, and the great number of its use in the Taegeuk set does not make the Taegeuk set “basic” or for children, on the controrary it makes a greater depth to the forms instead. There is an interesting article in the newest edition of Jissen magazine that can be downloaded on www.iainabernethy.com on the other uses for the pulling hand.

The Taegeuk forms consists primarely of “basic motions”.

This sentiment is true. If you compare the Taegeuk forms to older Karate Kata, Quan fa quan, Chang Hon Tul/Hyung the Taegeuk forms do seem simple and using a narrower and more basic technique base than its predecessors. But how do we grade basic and advanced tecniques today? These days most people look at techniques that are ellaborate and somewhat difficult to perform to be graded advanced not taking into account the practical application of the technique. Basic techniques are the ones we can perform with relativly little training. For example most will say that a simple front kick is a basic technique, while a tornado kick is an advanced technique. Most people are drawn to the “advanced” since we often think “advanced” means better. We grade the techniques purely on an aesthetic point of view. But should not self defence techniques be as simple as possible? From a self defence perspective the scale is turned upside down since in self defence the only focus is on applications and how well they can be applied. To them simplicity is good, because they need to keep things simple so the techniques can be performed in an adrenaline rushed state. Using the pulling hand as described earlier coupled with the strikes will also increase the effectiveness of the techniques and make the forms a lot more practical and effective for self defence. We are now far far away from what most people will say is a childrens art.

The Taegeuk forms use a great number of unrealistic “blocks” (Makki).

If you look at the motions labeled “blocks” purely as static defencive techniques just like they are most often seen in most official applications then yes, the blocks are unrealistic. In the “Kukkiwon Textbook” p. 197 (2006 edition) it says: “most Taekwondo makki techniques are designed to hurt the opponent in the course of defending oneself… Therefore, makki techniques must be trained hard so that they may function equally as offensive techniques”.

The English verb “To Block” conjures up a mental image of a defender lifting his hand to passivly hinder a strike to land. The Kukkiwon textbook`s definition gives the reader a whole new picture. The Makki techniques of Taekwondo is meant to actually hurt the attacker, and if trained hard and well they can work as well as offensive techniques to defeat an opponent? Unfortunatly most official applications do support the first scenario where the defender just hinders the attackers strike, and not the second one where the defender hinders the attack and at the same time defeats (or at least hurts) the opponent by hurting his limbs.

It is also important to bear in mind our idea of what an attack actually is. Different holds or grabs to secure and open an opponent up for a strike or barrage of strikes is equally an attack as the actual strike itself. Therefore some of the makki techniques of Taekwondo are designed to hurt the opponent and free yourself at the same time.

Some makki techniques are used for other “attacks”, such as pushes, repeated poking in the stomach/chest and the wild gesticulations often performed by an enraged person. The pushing, poking, gesturing (like shaking a fist or pointing a finger up in your face) is often seen just before the fight kicks off. Taekwondo share roots with both Okinawan Karate and Chinese Quan fa and they all focus on civillian self defence. Therefore it is logical that the techniques of Taekwondo deals with disposing of opponents/attackers before they become a real threat.

Then you have the makki techniques that actually are holds for opening up the opponents vital points. Some in forms of simple joint locks. One personal favorite is Keumgang momtong makki seen in most martial arts. This does not work well as a block but it works great as an opener for the vital points under the arm.

The simplest way to find effective applications to the forms is actually to forget the name of the technique and look at the whole motion. As previously stated the pulling hand or ben son is often just as important as what most people look at as the actual technique. Also it is important to think outside the “tournament fighting/duelling fightning” and start to think of self defence techniques instead.

Maybe the Taegeuk forms were designed for children and colored belt trainees, and most official writings from the Kukkiwon and the WTF will support this, but if you research the forms you will find so much more than just a childrens martial dance rutine.

Lee Kyu-Hyong (9th Dan) in his latest book entitled “What is Taekwondo Poomsae?” makes numerous claims that all of the Taekwondo forms (and therefore also the Taegeuk set) were indeed designed purely for fighting. Quotes like: “Poomsae training primarily aims to learn the face to face fighting in the actual field to protect oneself in an emergency”, and “Poomsae does not intend to look beautiful to others, or show off, but it is thoroughly for a fight” shows that patterns training should indeed be more than just a shallow performance art.

I hope you found this article informative and that you now can look at the Taegeuk pattern set (or any other pattern) and see more than just the surface. Does it matter why we ended up with the Taegeuk forms? Does it matter to whom they were designed for? What matters is that we are now training them and we should try our best to make the most of what we do have.

Recomended reading:

  • All the books by Iain Abernethy
  • Simon John O`Neill`s book The Taegeuk Cipher
  • Stuart Anslow`s book Chang Hon Taekwondo Hae Sul
  • Mathew Sylvester`s book Practical Taekwondo
  • The Kukkiwon Textbook
  • Lee Kyu-Hyong`s book What is Taekwondo Poomsae


Ørjan Nilsen, 2nd Dan in Kukki/WTF Taekwondo from Norway, has practised Taekwondo since January 2000. His training has taken him to Korea many times, competing in World Taekwondo Hanmadang 2006 and 2007, and World Taekwondo Culture Expo 2007. He also studied Taekwondo for one year (2007-2008) at Chosun University in Gwangju, Korea. He is currently practising and teaching tradtional Taekwondo at Bergen Vest Taekwondo Dojang in Norway. He is also the author behind the Taekwondo Blog; “Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings” which can be found at www.jungdokwan-taekwondo.blogspot.com