For most of their history, the martial arts have existed as oral traditions. Only a few well-known texts predate the twentieth century.
Over the past hundred years, as printed martial arts material has become more common, most of the publications have been informal manuals or technical guides. From the small subset of books on subjects other than technique, most concern the martial arts of China and Japan, at least in the even smaller subset of books translated into or written in English. Since there are few books in English about Korean martial traditions, most instruction on scholarly subjects—historical, philosophical, cultural, and biographical—continues to be transmitted orally from teacher to student.
For many of us, this probably seems natural and appropriate, since the technical training that forms the heart of our practice is also taught this way. A teacher may—after noticing something that needs attention, or perhaps as a reward for an exceptionally productive workout—invite students to gather and hear a story about one of the people, places, or ideas that shaped the school. Often these anecdotes may have the flavor of a “fireside chat” that strengthens the connection to tradition, and to each other, for the students and instructors who share the moment.
This has certainly been the case in River Valley Taekwondo, as it was in all of the schools where I’ve studied. Knowledge of our history and values came from stories my teachers told, which they heard from their teachers, and so on. In carrying forward the traditions of our school, I retell the same stories in as close to the same words as I can recall.
The Five Tenets As I Learned Them
When I started studying Jidokwan in 1989, my teacher said that our school had five tenets:
- Love of Country
- Respect the Elder
- Protect the Younger
- Friendship among Peers
- Justice through Power
That first school was in a shared room on a college campus, so we couldn’t furnish it like a traditional training hall. It was different when I trained in Vermont with Jeffrey Waller in the years leading up to my first black belt test: a wooden plank painted with the Five Tenets stood in the front of our dojang. Each of the tenets was represented by a single Hanja character. It was modeled after a similar board displayed in the Oakland dojang of Choi Bong Young in the 1960s-70s. 1
The transmission of the characters and meaning of the Five Tenets seems to have been remarkably consistent throughout our line of Jidokwan schools, across the United States and spanning the decades of the 1970s through the present. Every teacher I’ve spoken with has shared the same understanding, and they’ve been an unchanging guide to our practice during that time.
A Different Interpretation
Although our school opened in 1997, we didn’t have a fluent Korean speaker among our students until 2016. Her arrival coincided almost perfectly with the opening of our home dojang in Florence. I asked her for help in getting a digital version of the characters in the Oakland dojang so we could have a similar banner in our Taekwondo school.
Although she reads and writes Korean fluently, she sought her father’s help in translating the Hanja, 2 which is studied mainly in academic settings and isn’t used for signs, newspapers, books, and most other printed matter in Korea today. He sent a digital file with the characters we requested, thoughtfully adding some advice about the translation of certain characters. 3 This alternate version read:
- Loyalty to Country [ed: “Loyalty” instead of “Love”]
- Honor/Respect Your Parents [“Parents” instead of “Elder”]
- Friendship among Peers [as the Third Tenet, rather than the Fourth]
- Love Widely [replacing the concept of “Protect the Younger”]
- Practice Justice [“Practice” instead of “through Power”]
Under this interpretation of the Five Tenets, all but “Friendship among Peers” have subtle differences in connotation, one familiar concept is removed, and a new one is added.
Investigating the Translation
Unsure of what to make of these differences in language, I described the situation to my wife, who has a master’s degree in Chinese literature. She offered an interesting perspective: unlike English words like “freedom” or “love” or “wisdom” that have a distinct and obvious meaning by themselves, individual Chinese characters don’t usually function that way. Instead they appear paired with other characters, which modify and clarify their meaning. It’s a fundamental differences in the way the two languages function, on the most basic linguistic level. A word like “loyalty” in English would be joined by another character, like “country” or “family” or “school” in everyday Chinese usage. To a typical reader, a single character in isolation would feel odd and ambiguous, as if an important piece of its meaning were missing. She added that when individual characters do appear alone, as we sometimes see them in calligraphic poetry, the possibility of multiple interpretations becomes an intentional component of the meaning.
Consulting a Chinese dictionary to sharpen the meaning of each character, she came up with:
- Filial Piety
In this photo of the dictionary’s page on Loyalty (zhōng), notice that each character has a core concept, but the definition also includes examples of one or more characters it’s typically paired with for context and to complete its meaning.
With this linguistic insight, my next step was to consult Mr. Sean Owen, my teacher and the ranking Master of our school.
Refining Our Understanding
In the popular culture, martial arts Masters are often portrayed as paternalistic authority figures; gruff military types; monks or mystics with mysterious wisdom; wily old street fighters; or some combination of these stereotypes. Mr. Owen isn’t much like any of those things. He’s approachable, warm, sympathetic, and Real. Even though all this is true, it’s always a little daunting to broach potentially controversial topics with a respected authority figure. Since neither of us speaks or writes Chinese or Korean, I filled him in on what I’d learned. Turns out this one was easy:
“That may well be the right translation,” he said, “but Mr. Choi always stressed the idea of protecting the younger. It was one of the most important ideas he talked about. In our regular workouts from day to day, he probably talked about that more than the rest of the tenets combined.” 4
“But if the translation’s right,” I said, “our Tenets don’t actually talk about the concept of ‘Protect the Younger.’ What should I do about that?”
“If that’s what it means, it’s what it means. Just make sure you keep the idea of Protect the Younger in there somewhere, because it’s not as important in every school, but it sure is in ours.”
Over the rest of the conversation, Mr. Owen concluded that we should revise our understanding of the Five Tenets to read:
- Loyalty to Country
- Respect the Elder
- Friendship among Peers
- Love Widely
- Practice Justice
This new standard is very close to, but not identical to, the translation provided by our student’s Korean father. Look to future blog posts for clarification about the nuances. Another conclusion of this conversation was that we should treat the concept of Protect the Younger as inseparable from our understanding of the Second Tenet. In receiving respect, the Elder incurs an obligation to be worthy by guiding and protecting the Younger, who offers it. When we think about practicing Respect the Elder, and when instructors in our school talk about this Tenet with our students, we should consider the two concepts in tandem.
Learning from the Process of Revision
Reflecting on this entire incident, from beginning to resolution, I see two additional lessons:
- it’s possible and necessary to respect both truth and tradition
- good leaders demonstrate humility and flexibility
If you read enough books about the martial arts, you’ll notice two themes that often seem to be in opposition. The first is “respect tradition” and the second is “find the best way and discard the rest.” Schools that honor their roots and historical practice tend to be strongly conservative in their curriculum, protocols, and teaching methods. The Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, a venerable Japanese sword style described extensively in Dave Lowry’s books, is an example of a school with a reputation for changing very little since its founding in the 16th century. 5 On the other hand, we have modernist practitioners with varying degrees of respect for traditional approaches—famous examples ranging from Bruce Lee’s and his art of Jeet Kune Do 6 to the “mixed martial arts” ring fighters of today.
Our Taekwondo school leans distinctly toward the former approach. Its goal is to preserve the vision of Choi Bong Young’s style of Jidokwan as closely as reasonably possible. Yet as anyone who has played the “telephone” game 7 knows, it’s extraordinarily difficult to preserve concepts flawlessly after much repetition and the passage of time. We act as faithful stewards to a vision of a special martial tradition, which is important to us. At the same time, when we are confronted with an alternate and credible Truth that conflicts with the knowledge we’ve received, we have an obligation to evaluate and reconcile it with our received knowledge. Failing to do this could result in a stale and tired school at best, and in canonizing false ideas at worst.
In an information-saturated world, it takes judgment to recognize which new ideas are worth paying attention to. As head instructor at River Valley Taekwondo, it’s my job to provide “quality assurance” for new ideas. Since our school is toward the traditional end of the spectrum, I realize that most new ideas won’t become core teaching, interesting though they may be. In many of these cases, our school follows the guidance of most traditional schools, something along the lines of “If something doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s probably not the traditional technique that needs to be changed. . . it’s your perspective and understanding.” Much as a precocious child might think “all the grown-ups are fools! only I know what’s really going on!” many of us have (what seem to us as) brilliant innovations all the time. “That just doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t it be better this way?” we think. After years of training and additional understanding, many of these insights turn out to have been superficial or misguided. We realize this only after we see the fundamental concept behind the tradition, which was there all along.
Some new information, however, is worth addressing, and after research and discussion, Mr. Owen concluded that the new translation falls into this category. This brings me back to the second point, above: I noted how immediately and effortlessly he assimilated new information into a deeply-established tradition.
We can probably all think of many examples of people in positions of power—teachers in school, minor government officials, spiritual leaders, political leaders—who are defensive or authoritarian when their policies are questioned. I saw no trace of ego attachment or “tradition for tradition’s sake” in his thinking. It was more like: now we know this, so we should adjust in this way. This is how a living school values and protects its old ways but also bends when it should.
1 This board was painted by Andrew Benioff, a longtime friend and training partner of my teacher, Jeffrey Waller. Andrew holds the rank of Yi Dan (second degree black belt) in our school and Ni Dan in Aikido (the Japanese term for second degree black belt). After Jeff’s death in 2005, this board passed into the care of Robert Hale, where it remains today.
2 Hanja is the ancient, formal method of writing Korean. Its characters are derived from, and usually identical to, those used in written Chinese. Although the characters are the same, the spoken words sound totally different. This caused many problems—linguistic, cultural, political—leading to the development of a new writing system, Hangul, during the mid-fifteenth century. Japan also based its written language on Chinese characters but has used different linguistic approaches to adapt the writing system to its spoken language.
3 Thanks to our Korean speaking student and her father for providing the digital characters and a precise translation of the Five Tenets. As an interesting side note, it’s worth mentioning that her father trained in the Jidokwan style in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) during his youth. While we’re at it, thanks to Julie Tuman for her insights about interpreting Chinese writing and to Andrew Benioff for his thoughts on martial arts protocols.
4 This squared with stories I’d heard from others who’d studied with Mr. Choi, including a number strangers who’d reached out to me after finding our school’s website through Google searches for Choi Bong Young. A few core themes showed up again and again, and examples of him sticking up for the newer and weaker students in the dojang were some of the most reliable elements in their tales of training.
5 Read about the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu in Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai and Persimmon Wind: A Martial Artist’s Journey in Japan.
6 Read The Tao of Jeet Kune Do for an example of a nontraditional, modernist, “scientific” approach to martial arts technique. Note that although Lee’s system was highly personal, it was more respectful of traditional martial arts roots than many of these modernist systems.
7 This game is known by many different names (appropriately enough) but all variations follow the same mechanism. One member of a group thinks up a 2-3 sentence saying, then whispers it to another member of the group. The second person whispers it to the next, trying to remember the words as perfectly as possible, and so on, until everyone in the group has heard, then retransmitted, the phrase. The last person recites the phrase aloud, which is inevitably radically different from the original version—hilarity ensues! This is, of course, a perfect metaphor for how any oral tradition evolves slowly (or quickly) over time and generations of teachers.