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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Dissertation Update: My Back Hurts

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Hello and welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse--the one-stop-shop for all your Tae Kwon Do rhetoric needs. If you missed last week's Veteran's Day post about the Joys of Kicking, be sure to give that a look-see for a lot of fun photos and videos.

This week, I promised to update everyone about my dissertation work. Why did I promise this? Is it because I have swaths of fans eagerly awaiting my scholarship to hit the thesis/dissertation section of the library? No. It's because I work best with deadlines and milestones and check-ins etc. So, what I'm saying is, I promised this update to force myself to have something to update you about!

And--good news!--I do.

But I'm going to start with story time before I get into any of that boring academic talk...

The year was 2007--I was a junior in high school and testing for my first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. This was a long, grueling test of not only physical stamina, strength, and technique, but of mental and emotional fortitude as well. You've likely seen some of my slightly-embarrassing old school videos where I broke a cinder slab, performed four of the Taegeuk pumsae in a rather...unorthodox way, or where I sparred two people at once. These tasks were challenging, but they don't fully encapsulate what it means to transition into the ranks of a black belt.

One of the tasks I remember especially well was a kind of oral presentation. I was asked to interpret the symbolism of the Korean flag for the audience of spectators present. I remember explaining the red and blue (hong and chong) parts of the center circle as representing the interconnection of opposing forces and how this symbol taught us to strive for balance in our lives. As examples of these forces I pointed out the four trigrams on the flag, symbols corresponding to heaven, earth, fire, and water. Finally, I explained that the white background was a symbol of purity that could only be achieved by the combination of all these many polarities, much like white light represents all the colors in the visible spectrum.

The South Korean Flag

When I finished, everyone nodded and clapped, and I felt like I had learned something about the world and the people in it through my years of practicing in that gym--not just the secrets of kicking a pad really, really hard.

After I passed my test and celebrated, my dad gave me a very special gift. At the time, of course, being 17 and all, I didn't realize how important it would become, but, that's life. He presented me with a book, a first edition copy of Richard Chun's Tae Kwon Do (1976). Dad explained to me that it was his Tae Kwon Do "training bible" in those lonely months out in California when he was a young man. He told me that the book featured all the palgwe forms and other valuable technical information and so much more. At the time, like an idiot, I remember thinking "well, that's great, but I can probably find all that on the internet if I want to..." I smiled, thanked him for what I assumed was mostly a ceremonial gift, admired the inscription he wrote on the dusk jacket, and put the book away.

The book that kept me on my path

It wouldn't be until years later, a time when I needed some guidance to relocate my particular martial arts path, that I actually had the bright idea to read the book. When I did, something amazing happened. I realized, for the first time in a long time, that there was SO MUCH I didn't know about Tae Kwon Do. This was exciting. Specifically when I came across those funny looking trigram symbols again, the ones I had spoken so eloquently about during my 1st Dan test. It was because of Chun's manuals (1977. 1982) that I finally understood that there were eight of these symbols (not just the four on the flag) and each one of them corresponded to the forms I had learned. What's more, I came to understand that those forms and those symbols had philosophical lessons packed into them about how to think of my martial arts, how to think of myself, how to behave in society, and how to make the world a better place.

If it weren't for Chun's books--if it weren't for my Dad--I may have lost touch with Tae Kwon Do forever.

But I didn't. Instead, for the past year or so, I've been doing extensive research trying to learn as much as I can about those trigrams, where they come from, how they became associated with Tae Kwon Do, and what it means to train one's body and mind to incorporate their philosophical meaning into everyday life.

And here we are--my dissertation.

For my study, I have selected a sample of seven different Tae Kwon Do training manuals like the one that led me here, all detailing the Taegeuk pumsae and their connection to the eight trigrams originally described in the ancient Chinese classic, the I-Ching This past weekend, I was pouring over these manuals, taking notes, and typing up my analysis of how each manual describes each form, the underlying philosophy, and how a practioner is supposed to "embody" that philosophy. It's taking longer than I thought (I made it about halfway through form 4 of 8) but, that's ok. This semester has been pretty hectic because of the job market so I'm just happy to have finally broken through the barrier of the blank page--I'm happy to report that I should meet my self-imposed deadline of having a draft of chapter 4 submitted by my birthday (Turkey Day Eve!).

Now, let's take a step back before I nerd out about Tae Kwon Do philsoophy any further--some of my academic/English teacher/Rhetoric folk readers might be curious to know how an analysis of Tae Kwon Do training manuals fits into our field of study. That's a fair question.

In 2004, Debra Hawhee published a fantastic book called Bodily Arts , and, if you have ever had a graduate class with me, you've heard me talk about how awesome it is, I'm sure. The basic premise of her work is that, in the 21st century, scholars of rhetoric have, in many cases, divorced the classical "art of persuasion" from anything other than writing instruction. Sure, in Communication departments, rhetoric is still understood as a core component of public speaking, but Hawhee suggests that it goes even further, that rhetoric is a fully embodied art and includes elements beyond speech and writing. Her book serves to show that this is not only true today in terms of the digital revolution, but it was always true, even in ancient Greece. She demonstrates this through a wide variety of historical evidence that showcase how athletic practice and training were inextricable from rhetorical education (given that both happened in spaces like the Lyceum and that sports like wrestling and boxing used rhetorical terms like kairos and vice versa). One of her big takeaways was that the Ancient Greeks did not arbitrarily separate the training of the mind and body--instead, they saw them as linked and integral in the process of what she refers to as phusiopoiesis, the art of becoming.

It was when I read her use of that term that I immediately thought of my own martial arts training and the repeated ideas that Tae Kwon Do is a lifelong journey of constantly becoming your best self, that this process is never-ending, etc. And so, naturally, I conjectured that, if Ancient Greek rhetoric was inseparable from Ancient Greek martial arts, then perhaps Asian martial traditions were the same. Perhaps there were ancient rhetorical traditions that existed before or beyond the Greeks that influenced other physical cultures. And you know what? There are.

I came across books like Xing Lu's Rhetoric in Ancient China (1998) and Steven Combs' The Dao of Rhetoric (2006) and realized I was on to something. Understanding Tae Kwon Do as an art designed to reflect Korean Daoism (among other ideological and rhetorical institutions) became much more apparent after reading works like Udo Moenig's Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to Martial Sport. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, where am I in terms of analysis? Well, I'm sure I'll write more about this once I finish the chapter, but here's some new info:

1. Each of the eight taegeuk forms corresponds to one of principles of palgwe (known as the bagua/pakua in Chinese).

2. These eight principles are said to reflect the totality of interconnected polarities on heaven and earth. They each represent dynamic states of change and reinforce the Daoist concept of interconnectedness--what Combs refers to as a "one-world" system.

3. You may be familiar with items 1 and 2 if you've taken a look at my pumsae poetry series, but something new I've discovered is that many of the manual authors describe how the individual techniques of the forms are incorporated to represent the eight principles. For example, form one is symbolized by heaven (the skies) and light. As such, many of the stances are tall and open to mimic the vastness of the open sky. Form 3 is associated with fire and is to be performed in bursts of speedy combinations, mimicking the variety of a flickering flame. Form 6 is symbolized by water and features the only roundhouse kicks and 45 degree angular stances to represent the fluidity of liquid. I'll be sure to write a full breakdown of this as a future post.

4. Each form's symbolic content is designed to be applied to a type of moral or social lesson for the practitioner. One of my favorites is form 4, reminding us to act calmly in the face of fear because, like a thunderstorm, states of anxiety and trepidation are only temporary.

5. Finally, the descriptions of these forms utilize many Daoist rhetorical moves. One of the most common is the explanation of a complex subject through paradox. For example, form 2 is designed to remind us to appear gentle and kind but develop inner strength. To do so, the practitioner is supposed to execute techniques "softly but with force." This may seem like an impossibility, but it reminds us to constantly reflect on our martial arts training and what we intend it to do. It can strengthen our bodies and minds, but it can also be used to harm others. Understanding the multiple possibilities of a single action is one of the cornerstones of Daoist philosophy and it is captured impressively well in these form descriptions.

If this sounds interesting to you, stay tuned for more dissertation updates as we get closer to spring. I will definitely be putting a reader's digest version of my research on this site for those of you less interested in the academic gobbledy-goop.

That's it for now though. Check back next week for something new and exciting :)

Thanks for reading.


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