Did taekwondo have a robust close quarters combat system and eventually lose this ability? Some will say when taekwondo was closer to Shotokan Karate the answer is yes.
You may be surprised to learn that there are actually more hand techniques in taekwondo than leg strikes. Pages 162 – 163 of Tedeschi’s book lists them: 62 hand and elbow strikes (combined) compared to 48 kicks (standing, jumping, and from the ground).
Since achieving my 1st dan in taekwondo back in 2008 I have studied three close quarters systems. A formal Chin Na program, Praying Mantis Kung Fu (all ranges but ground), and my current hybrid system that has elements of Wing Chun, not to mention elements from other close quarters arts.
So over the weekend I reviewed a few of the higher taekwondo forms including Taegeuk Pal Jang. I reached a point in the form that reminded me of something I am learning in bastardized Wing Chin: bong sau. We’ll come back to bong sau in a second. First the form:
(at 45 seconds)
The sequence I’m referring to is the knife edge block at 45 seconds followed by a reverse elbow and backfist. In bastardized Wing Chun we spend a lot of time with an arm deflection called bong sau. From bong you trap the deflected arm with your free hand and then backfist. Here’s bong sau. Note at 1:49 the bong sau and at 1:54 he grabs with the opposite hand. The only thing he does not do is the backfist.
I’ve had two runs in taekwondo and something that every instructor said is this: “Every block is also a strike.” I get that. Still, if you look at the Pal Jang video that reverse elbow could also be re-interpreted as a soft block (or bong) followed by a grab and backfist!
Related: During taekwondo run number one I had an instructor tell me that many devastating techniques are still in taekwondo, you just have to look for them. Years later after asking why we don’t practice low kicks I was told by another instructor that “if you can kick high you can kick low.”
I’m sorry but it’s been my experience that having to look for the devastating techniques on your own generally does not work. An example of this problem would be one of the few times I got to practice low kicks with one of my later taekwondo instructors. At first we struggled to just get the low kick right. As the drilled progressed we adjusted, however, our kicks started to slowly creep up–this due to years of practicing kicks that were midsection or higher! We were conditioned to kick high and it showed. I am certain that this same conditioning for mostly medium to long range combat would show up in a bad way, when trying to tease out close quarter techniques on the street.
Yes, I know that many taekwondo schools incorporate close quarter elements from systems like hapkido, judo, and traditional karate. In fact, my last school did. Still, I can’t help but wonder why much of the form bunkai is not practiced. Or, perhaps, the correct answer is no longer practiced or never was?
One last thing: Go back to the Pal Jang video and look at the grab and uppercut that starts at 16 seconds. Look how stylized the technique is for show. Also note how slow it is. In Mantis forms we practiced all sorts of grabs or traps that were followed by a long fist upper cut (i.e. basically shoots out more than a regular uppercut). The difference is that we actually mimicked the grab, did it at full speed, and also practiced the technique again in two person fighting sets. In every demonstration of Pal Jang that I’ve ever seen the grab is demonstrated with closed fists. That is, you don’t mimic the actual grab and just proceed as if you already have grabbed the attacker.
There are some things in the Taeguek forms that make good sense. However, since becoming somewhat of a martial arts gypsy, there are just as many things that make me scratch my head. Perhaps bunkai still exists in those schools that practice the older forms? I just don’t know.