Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What Lay People Should Know about Karate – Karate Chops, Taekwondo and Chuck Norris

by Zad Datu

Karate Chops
No! Karate people don’t chop wooden boards with their knife-edge hands or give out cat like screeches with long high pitched WOOOO!’s and WAAAAA!’s. Perhaps, certain dojo (training place) in America does resemble that. In fact, it is more likely that the term karate chop itself was coined in America instead of Okinawa, Japan, the birth place of Karate-Do. Perhaps in the west, Karate is often confused with Kung Fu, a general term for Chinese martial arts. Westerners generally seem to have difficulty differentiating one East Asian from another even if they are of a different ethnicity and come from different countries.

I am a karateka (karate practitioner), competitive participant and instructor and often get questions relating to board breaking such as “Which hand do you chop with?”, “How come this knife-edged part of your hand isn’t hardened?”, and “If you don’t chop boards in karate, what the heck do you learn in karate?” A sarcastic and impolite answer, which doesn’t really answer the question that I could give is “In karate, we learn karate. We don’t learn to chop boards. Chopping boards is not karate. Chopping board is chopping a board.” A less sarcastic but ruder answer would be “I learn to fight against people who can fight back. Why would I want to attack an inanimate object? Wood can’t fight back.”

However, for a more polite and agreeable way to explain why we don’t chop boards in karate is to refer to a scene in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, where Just before a sparring bout between Bruce Lee’s character and his opponent, his opponent holds up a wooden board in one hand and punched it with the other and breaks it clean. But then Bruce Lee says “Wood can’t fight back.” Most people would immediately take this in and accept it without argument because Bruce Lee said it. And Bruce Lee is awesome…. Who can’t agree with awesome?

This board chopping tradition has been commercialised by the US of course, especially through their movies – notably the classic Karate Kid movie series – and their culture of changing anything they import into the country. Karate have even been Americanised to hold competitions to break boards and blocks of cements or ice, and call them martial arts. No doubt that the traditional forms still exist in America, but the more commercialised form of karate by the American media are the breaking arts. Also, before the general teenage and young adult western public became fans of martial arts, or basically before Bruce Lee influenced the world, the term karate was used as a generic term to describe martial arts.

Here in Malaysia, karate classes, karateka, karategi (karate uniform) and karate itself are often mistaken for that of taekwondo, especially when it comes to practitioners violently or flimsily punching and mostly kicking, defenceless, inanimate, innocent and harmless very thin and delicate boards made from pieces of dead trees which have been chopped down unnecessarily, and breaking them into two. Even though it is the Taekwondo practitioners who have the convention to perform such demonstrations, it is karate practitioners who are thought to have such a tradition.

So why do I so often irritatingly find people referring to taekwondo instead of karate whenever there is a karate related subject in the vicinity? One reason is because in Malaysia, the martial arts which have dominated the primary school and secondary school market are Silat (a Malay Martial art local to Malaysia and Indonesia) and taekwondo. To be more fair and precise, it is WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) which has the market. Unlike ITF (International Taekwondo Federation), GTF Taekwondo (Global Taekwondo Federation) and karate, WTF Taekwondo has become more of a sport and less of a martial art, some may argue. WTF Taekwondo is much more commercialised, not just in Malaysia but most parts of the world. It is even an Olympic Sport, and karate isn’t.

Another reason is because taekwondo’s uniform also looks very similar to the karategi. To distinguish them, the karategi is plain white and the pattern resembles more of a coat whereas the taekwondo dobok (uniform) pattern resembles more of a long-sleeved T-shirt with v-neck collars, and with the words WTF, ITF or GTF Taekwondo printed on the back. There are also black stripes pattern on the dobok which varies between the federations – commonly on the v-neck. They even have similar syllabus, in terms of basics or kihon (fundamentals in Japanese language), belt ranking and taekwondo’s hyeong is very similar to the kata of karate. Kata are the prescribe form of movements which a karateka has to perform during the grading in order to move up in the belt ranks. The reason for these similarities is because taekwondo has its roots in karate, or more specifically Shotokan Karate, one of the four major styles of karate.

karategi (left) and taekwondo dubok

Karate History and Development of Taekwondo
Karate started in the Ryūkyū Kingdom of the Ryūkyū Islands of what is now Okinawa, Japan. It was a combination of Te, the indigenous fighting arts of Okinawa which translates to hand, practiced amongst the Penchin, a social class in Okinawa comparable to the Samurais of Japan, and Chinese Kung Fu which was introduced to Okinawa in the 14th Century during the tributary relationship between the three kingdoms of Okinawa – Chūzan, Hokuzan and Nanzan, which later unified into the Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1429 which lasted to the 19th Century – and the Ming Dynasty. The resulting martial art became known as Tōde, which translates to “Chinese hands”. This developed further in three villages which by the 18th century developed into three different types of Tōde known as Shuri-Te, Tomari-Te and Naha-Te respectively named after the villages. This later developed into modern styles such as Shōtōkan-ryū, Shitō-ryū Gōjū-ryū and Wadō-ryū, which became known as karate, a homonym of Tōde.

Long after the annexation of Okinawa by Japan and the abolishment of the kingdom in 1879, in 1993, karate became recognised as a Japanese martial art by the Bottoku Kai (Japanese Martial Arts Committee). In 1935, the name karate was officially changed to a homophone meaning "empty hand”, and eventually adding the suffix to imply that the art is also a path of knowledge, hence "the way of the empty hand”, or karate-dō. The reason for these changes are the modernisation of karate and its introduction to Japan, highly credited to the founder of Shōtōkan, Gichin Funakoshi, – amongst Kenwa Mabuni, Chōjun Miyagi, Motobu Chōki, Kanken Tōyama, and Kanbun Uechi. This occurred around the time of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, hence referring to this now Japanese martial art as Chinese became politically incorrect. Karate Okinawan terms have been changed to the Japanese language. Karate also adapted the keikogi (training uniform) and coloured belt ranks, both of which were popularised by and inventions of Jigorō Kanō, founder of Jūdō – an original Japanese martial art. In fact the keikogi and coloured belt ranking system are used by almost all Japanese martial arts.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1990 – 1945), a number of Koreans independently travelled to Japan to study and finding themselves exposed to karate, dominantly Shōtōkan. Some practiced directly under Gichin Funakoshi, earning black belts to return to Korea to open, or schools of modern Korean martial arts, dubbed kwan. Five kwan were formed during and after the occupation, prior to Korean War, and four were formed after the Korean war. These martial arts were initially called Tang Soo Do which is the Korean pronunciation of "Chinese hand way”, referencing karate-dō. On May 25, 1953, these five pre-Korean War kwan formed the Korea Kong Soo Do Association, where Kong Soo Do is the Korean pronunciation of "empty hand way”, referencing karate-dō once again. Due to problems and disagreements relating to standardising of tests and promotion in the organisation, which was the main purpose of the organisation, the organisation failed as the leaders one by one left.

General Choi, the founder of one of the post-Korean War kwan, coined the term coined the term taekwondo, which literally translates to “trample (with the foot) fist way” or “the art of the foot and fist”, and sustained it by having students to yell “Tae Kwon” each time they execute a technique. Due to his close ties with then Korean President, his petition to form a new association called Korea Taekwondo Association was accepted, which included the five original kwan plus General Choi’s kwan, where he became the president of. Although there were different preferences over the name of the association, taekwondo was accepted due to its resemblance to taekkyeon, an ancient Korean martial art.

Due to a period of internal chaos in Korea in 1960, the association collapsed, which led to a formation of a new association called Korea Tae-Soo-Do Association on September 1961. Then, due to further intervening of politics, General Choi was sent to Malaysia as an ambassador in 1962, where he spread the art, while the association remained president-less until a non-martial artist, Che Myung Shin was chosen on December 1962. Taekwon-Do Association of Malaysia was formed in 1963 and was nationally accepted especially after a demonstration at the Merdeka Stadium at the request of then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rhaman. This obviously explains the widespread of Taekwondo over Karate in Malaysia as mentioned earlier, hence the case of mistaken identity of the arts.

Soon after General Choi’s return to Korea in 1965, he was elected as president in which he convinced to rename the association to Korea Taekwondo Association once again. Eventually the five pre-Korean War kwan in addition to the four post-Korean War kwan united on January 8, 1977, recognising the Kukkiwon, what is now the official taekwondo governing organisation established by the South Korean government, as the black belt promotional body for Taekwondo.

Chuck Norris and Kickboxing
Aside for being famous for his appearance the classic fight scene versus Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon and other films, for the Chuck Norris facts, and for his iconic beard, he is also known as a karate practitioner where he fought and won the World Professional MiddleWeight Karate Championships, and held that title until 1974 when he retired undefeated. Firstly, Chuck Norris practiced what is now taekwondo but was then called Tang Soo Do when he was sent to Osan Air Base, South Korea after joining the United States Air Force as an Air Policemen in 1958 – and not Karate. He was even awarded the rank of 8th Degree Black Belt Grand Master Taekwondo in 1997, which is often mistaken that he was the first westerner to achieve so where in fact there were two others before him.

Norris later created his own martial art in 1990 called Chun Kuk Do, which is primarily based on the Tang Soo Do he learnt, Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan. Although Tang Soo Do was used as a general term to refer to modern Korean martial arts near the end of the Japanese occupation which became taekwondo, Tang Soo Do nowadays referrers to marital arts which has its root to this one particular kwan which split from the Korea Taekwondo Association, hence not synonymous to taekwondo. Even though Chun Kuk Do has it’s basis on Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan, his training studio is often referred to as a karate studio as karate was a generic term used to describe East Asian martial arts in the US.

Secondly, the World Professional Karate Championship is a championship held by the Professional Karate Association (PKA) which was formed in the 1970s is a martial art organisation majoring in professional kickboxing – not karate. Aside from the PKA a rival association, the World Kickboxing Association (WKA) is sometimes referred to as World Karate Association, in which the official name is actually World Kickboxing and Karate association. The International Sport Karate Association (ISKA) is another association based in the US regulates karate and kickboxing matches, which was actually the result of promoters of PKA defecting PKA to form ISKA.

What is now known as American kickboxing, invented in the 1970, was then called karate because the primary intention was to create a new sport where karate practitioners in the US could fight with full contact and with rounds like in boxing, unlike the semi-full contact traditional Karate tournaments under the World Karate Federation (WKF). Kickboxing in general also has its roots in Japanese kickboxing, the first combat sport to adopt the name kickboxing in 1966 created by a Japanese boxing promoter Osamu Naguchi and a karate practitioner Tetsuo Yamada. This then which developed into K-1 in 1993.

American kickboxing is also often referred to with the term full contact karate, which should not be mistaken for Kyokushin kaikan, a style of karate which uses full contact sparing founded by a very notable karate master known to fight and kill bulls with his bare hands and a student of Gichin Funakoshi, Masutatsu “Mas” Oyama, who was in fact a Korean living in Japan. The Kyokushin style of karate is arguably less authentic than the other styles of karate as it was founded by a Korean in Japan, whereas other styles were founded in Okinawa by Okinawans, as well as due its difference of emphasis on their fighting method.

Related articles:
What Lay People Should Know about Karate – Peasants or Noblemen?
What Lay People Should Know about Martial Arts and Martial Artist – How are they Defined?
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