As an exponent of mainly Wado karate for the last 5 years I’ve got used to the comparatively few kata within the syllabus. There are five Pinan and ten senior kata, although this can vary to eleven or twelve under some associations. ITF Taekwondo has 24 tul (or poomsae or hyeong) which seems a lot to take in as a white belt as they all loom above you.
What’s interesting is that there are some striking similarities between the structure and execution of the ITF patterns and those of their karate cousins.
I’ve blogged before about the similarities between Shotokan Heian and Wado Pinan, the differences are often quite subtle to the observer but complex to the transitioning practitioner, they are differences in stance and in application.
Between tkd and karate there are fundamental parallels that can’t be argued away, the embusen (or footprint) for example; of the first few patterns is like a capital H on it’s side (two techniques to the left, two to the right, three down the middle, repeat), a familiar karate kata pattern. But it doesn’t stop there.
Is it coincidence that the pattern Do San has so many similarities with the kata Pinan (or Heian) Sandan? The knifehand, followed by a grab, tuck and turn movement and ending with a fist strike is extremely similar to Sandan. The opening of Won Hyo and the opening of Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan) are again, very similar. This is both a help and hindrance to the karateka, who has to maintain similar but distinct moves in the mind and cannot rely on muscle memory. Whilst the patterns I’ve learnt so far (Chon-Ji, Dan-Gun, Do-San, Won-Hyo, Yul-Gok and Joong-Gun) haven’t yet impeded on my senior wado kata in any way, they have made me have to concentrate much more on my Pinan. This is apposite reminders that as black belts we should, but perhaps do not, practice these basic kata every day.
Followers of the founder General Choi can tell you the names of each pattern refer to a great Korean of history and the number of moves relates in some way to their life (their age at death etc.) and this may be true, but there is some suggestion that taekwondo has inherited and reformed the traditional karate kata, and then retconned the provenance to fit the Korean model. Look more closely at the 3rd, 4th and 5th patterns.
Sandan Do San
Yondan Won Hyo
Godan Yul Gok
Coincidence? You decide.
Something I am struggling to adopt (although it does make the patterns easier) is the one-technique, one move approach. If you’re used to watching karate kata your first thought watching tkd is “man, these guys are slow”. But this is how taekwondo patterns are performed. Precision and a defined start and finish for each technique is of course critical in any art, but I feel the tkders overdo it a little. There is very little grace to the tul. It is, like everything in taekwondo, a demonstration of power. There are some techniques that are taught as a double technique (the first of these in chon-ji where a low block segues into a rising block) but these are still done deliberately with a one-two count. Even at a senior level where the black belts have mastered acceleration, the higher degree patterns tend to have a one-second technique, one-second pause rhythm which feels alien to the karateka. Think of Seishan (Hangetsu) or Kushanku (Kanku Dai) where the pace rises and falls, there is a story to the kata, a journey and a true imaginary opponent. In taekwondo you just don’t get that feeling, and as someone who loves forms I think this is a huge loss.
The comparatively recent deliberate design of taekwondo (developed in the 1950s) versus the organic and sprawling growth of indigenous Okinawan karate over several hundred years has provided one of my favourite elements of tul. That is, they get progressively harder each time in a very deliberate and planned way. Karate does this with Pinans but then the senior kata vary wildly. Is Bassai really a more difficult kata than Kushanku? Does Jion really need a greater knowledge than Naihanchi? This is something I have always struggled with in karate, the order of kata does not seem to make sense to me. In ITF Taekwondo the hardest pattern is generally accepted to be So-San, a 5th degree pattern with 72 moves, but I am still wondering if it is the hardest technically or just because you have to remember the order of that many techniques. It will certainly be a while before I have to worry about that - I will soon begin to learn my seventh pattern Toi-Gye (37 moves) so I only have another seventeen to go!