Tomorrow, as I’ve said before on the blog, I will be competing in Poomsae and Olympic Sparring at the Ahn Classic in Mason, OH.  Recently I’ve been reflecting on the meaning and import of poomsae (forms) in Taekwondo and in the martial arts in general.  I, unlike some (perhaps most famously Bruce Lee), love forms practice, and try to make it a habit to devote at least a little time to working on forms every time I train.  Forms can express the artistic and (potentially) the philosophical aspects of the martial arts, when done in a certain manner.  I think of forms in much the same way I think of another revered art: calligraphy.  One learns words that one uses throughout one’s life, but in giving them form one expresess one’s inner life, one’s thoughts, emotions, and ultimately one’s dynamic journey through life.  This is what gives calligraphy such life.  No single painted character is similar to any other.  Each painted form has its own life, tells its own story, one greater and more complex than the word printed on the page alone, even though this too imparts its meaning to the significance of the artwork as a whole.

Poomsae and the forms of other martial arts, at their best, should be like calligraphy.  We perform routine movements we’ve learned and internalized, and through which we express the techniques of our martial art, but there is far more to forms than this.  Criticizing forms practice on the grounds Bruce Lee and others have criticized it misses the point, it misunderstands the essence and the significance of the practice, the art, of forms, what forms can be at their best.  Bruce Lee and others in the same spirit criticize forms practice from the standpoint of self-defense and fighting.  They argue that learning patterns will not translate into improved skill in fighting, and can actually only serve to get in the way of one’s improvement as a fighter.  In fighting (and more controlled fighting situations such as sparring), one’s movement must be more spontaneous and situationally relevant.  One reacts to the movements of one’s opponent, moves efficiently and uniquely so as to exploit his or her weaknesses,  following the natural patterns of action and response, always attempting to break one’s opponent’s rhythm and avoid falling into a rhythm of one’s own, that results in predictability.  Insofar as forms practice is concered with set patterns and rhythms in technique, opponents of forms practice argue that not only is it insufficient to prepare one for actual fighting situations, in its tendency to reinforce rhytmic thought it could lead one to get stuck in rhythms in one’s fighting.

From a fighting/sparring/self-defense perspective, I completely agree with this.  However, I do not see the significance of forms practice as consisting in its connection to actual fighting, any more than I see the significance of calligraphy as consisting in imparting information to the reader through the words painted on the page.  To look at a calligraphy painting and only see the words and their meanings is to wildly miss the point.  A calligrapher does not paint a character simply to express information through words, any more than a dancer leaps from one part of the stage to another as a form of transportation.  The artist of forms (in distinction from the general practitioner of forms) does not practice the forms simply as a method of fighting or as training for fighting.  The artist of forms tells a story with his or her movements, he or she creates a space and, like the dancer, expresses thoughts, emotions, and narrative through his or her body.  Forms give one a chance to create, to manifest one’s original mind in fluid movement.  It is one of the highest forms of art.  I strive in my forms practice (and tomorrow in competition) to tell my own story.  I aim to endow my movements with meaning, describing my own journey, including the life of the mind and martial arts, as well as illustrating how the two meet and can compliment one another.  Of course, because my movements are still clumsy and I haven’t come anywhere close to the pinnacle of skill, my attempt at performing the art of poomsae will likely be awkward and incomplete, and I probably will not be completely successful at expressing the thoughts and emotions I intend to or telling the story I intend to.  I see my performance tomorrow, however, as a first step in refining my skill in the art of poomsae, so that one day I might perfectly express myself.

One of the things I love about the martial arts is that there are two complimentary yet oppositional aspects to them, mirroring a similar divide in human life.  There is the cold, logical, practical aspect of combat, which is expressed in self-defense and sparring, and there is the personal, expressive, artistic aspect of martial arts, manifest in the practice of forms.  The struggle between these two aspects of human nature, which some (famously Nietzsche) have called the Apollonian and Dionysian, is a central part of the story of human existence (mine is one way of understanding this distinction).  Reason and passion, science and art, two sides of the fundamental yin and yang of human existence, without which we can never hope to thrive.  Uniting the two is especially important today, as our society seems to move away from the view that the Dionysian, the artistic, the sublime, has any use in our lives.  In the United States, funding is regularly slashed to arts organizations and departments in the arts and humanities in our universities, while funding for certain kinds scientific research and design as well as subsidies for corporations thrive and even increase.  We, as a culture, are beginning to decide that the arts are unimportant, and that material production and technological innovation are the keys to living thriving human lives.  But this is badly mistaken.  How can one live a life of significance given material goals alone?  We are not machines, and we will inevitably find that the life devoid of art and creative expression, like the life devoid of reflection and inner examination, is not a human life at all.  Just as the industrial revolution played a major role in the rise of the modern sense of alienation and angst at the center of existentialism, our current turn away from arts and toward “efficiency” and material production as primary will have broad reaching and terrible results.

In poomsae, the expression of one’s inner life and the creation of significance through art is fused with the logical practicality of combat movements, bringing about a whole, the symbol of the complete and thriving human life.  Thus, while I love sparring as an expression of technique and skill in combat sport, I also love poomsae as an expression of thoughts, emotions, and personal narrative, as art.  In addition to learning the forms of taekwondo, I study the forms of other schools of martial arts, as offering different means for expression that I can use to compliment the methods and patterns of taekwondo poomsae.  The smallest details are important in the performance, down to facial expression, the exact folds in one’s dobok (uniform), the way one’s belt hangs, the movement and placement of one’s toes and fingers, the trimming and shape of one’s hair.  I don’t know how I will fare tomorrow in poomsae competition (or in sparring).  But for me, it is not about victory or defeat, or whether the judges appreciate my attempt at creating a meaningful piece of performance art.  Rather, it is about the creation and demonstration of the art itself.  If I can come anywhere close to expressing what I intend to in my performance tomorrow, I will consider it a success, with the aim of one day being able to perfectly express my story and thoughts, such that all who witness my performance will know, and more importantly, understand.


This is magnificent.  I love Gordon Liu’s work.  He is a master at telling a story through martial arts movement, and the music compliments this form perfectly.  I aspire to this level of mastery.  Look at his expressions, shifts of rhythm, transitions between hard and soft, circular and angular!  Brilliant!  I feel energized every time I watch this.  I think people often forget or overlook the amazing artistry expressed in kung fu films, focusing instead on the camp.  My favorite comment on the youtube page for this video, by the way:  “this guy is obviously the fuckin man.”

A little bit spastic for my taste, but I think this guy performs the form really well.  He loosens up a bit toward the end and really nails it the last few moves (you can see the tension early on).  The best thing about this, though, is that I think he does an excellent job in expression and narrative.