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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Tae Kwon Do Rhetoric is a Thing...Really!

Hello everyone and welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse, your one stop shop for martial arts studies content with an emphasis on Taekwondo and rhetoric. Last week I shared a few different posts and stories that have been circulating around the MA Studies social media platforms, so be sure to check that out.

Before I start with this week's topic, I want to share a conference report from a gathering in Trier that I mentioned in last week's post. The always charming Paul Bowman shared this write up from the Fighting – Knowledge – Bodies. Historical Perspectives on Fighting Practices conference on the Martial Arts Studies Blog so please enjoy!

So, this week, I feel I need to answer a challenge that was thrown down by my colleague Liz Ricketts. Last weekend I had the distinct opportunity to roast Ms. Ricketts for her belated 35th birthday celebration and, well, it was quite a bit of fun because Liz is pretty easy to make fun of (and to love!). Anyway, in typical roast fashion, Liz got to say her piece to all her guests at the end of the evening. To me, she had a few choice words, but one thing she was emphatic about was that my area of research was "made up."

Here's a secret: it totally is!

Stop trying to make Tae Kwon Do a rhetoric...

I say that, of course, insomuch as any academic investigation is invented. But Liz actually meant that there's no such thing as "Tae Kwon Do rhetoric" and, to that, I say nay.

Note: I'm well aware of the trend in my discipline where aspiring graduate students simply tack the word "rhetoric" onto any subject that interests them (rhetoric of craft beer, rhetoric of World of Warcraft, cat rhetoric...I bet it wouldn't be difficult to find an academic journal article featuring all of those topics). To some degree, that is what I've done by declaring that my dissertation will investigate rhetorical elements inherent in Tae Kwon Do. But, there are some key differences here that I feel need to be highlighted so that people outside my discipline (like the lovely Liz Ricketts) can see that I'm not just a starry-eyed grad student who's had one too many glasses of wine at a conference.

So today I'm going to share some of my freshly scanned data from the Tae Kwon Do manuals I'll be analyzing in my dissertation in an attempt to provide an early glimpse at my study. Before I do that though, let's go over some main points to help my non-rhetoric scholars out there.

1. Rhetoric Is...

Well this is awkward...rhetoric is...uhhh...

Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is "the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion." In a nutshell, this means that rhetoric was historically described as an analytical skill. However, if someone wants to be a skilled orator, writer, or communicator in any way, they must analyze these "available means" in order to craft their message effectively to accomplish a particular purpose for a specific audience. In this way, rhetoric has long been described simply as the "art of persuasion." So what does it mean when we describe something as "rhetorical"? By these definitions, it would assume that the thing being described possess some persuasive elements or attempts to persuade. But, sometimes, persuasion isn't as direct as we might think. For example, a car commercial persuades audiences pretty directly to buy a new vehicle. A sidewalk, on the other hand, simply suggests to pedestrians that they should keep off the grass. Both are rhetorical, but they might not both be equally described as persuasive. For this reason, I'm a proponent of Wayne Booth's (2004) definition of rhetoric:

“the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another”

This allows scholars to discuss a broader array of "resources" and "effects" as rhetorical. Suddenly artifacts like music, art, and architecture can be considered rhetorical even if they aren't directly persuasive. For example, a skyscraper is a large, looming presence, potentially intimidating. It could definitely produce a type of fear or hesitation in the junior executive trying to make their way up the sixth floor, but it doesn't actively persuade them to work harder, be more cautious, keep their head down, quit their job, etc.

Of course, you might have noticed that Booth's definition explicitly mentions human beings and my two examples have involved a sidewalk and a large building...this is a different discussion for a different day, but, for now, I'll say a couple things. First, you could consider the objects mentioned above as artifacts of human labor and, therefore, a way that a human being is producing an effect on another. But, there are some scholars who do interesting philosophical work in object-oriented ontology (OOO) who ask questions about whether or not things have agency (see how this is a larger discussion for later?) And what about that cat rhetoric? One of my favorite scholars of rhetoric, Debra Hawhee, is fascinated with animals and animal rhetoric. Don't believe me? Check out her book Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw.

This is all to say that even though Booth's definition is more broad than others, it too has it's limitations. The main reason I like it is because it allows for non-discursive performances (like dance, for example) to be understood not simply as evocative, but as rhetorical.

2. Every Culture Has It

Here's a battle that a large collective of scholars have been fighting for decades. Just because the word rhetoric comes from ancient Greek and just because we, for so often, used Aristotle's definition to describe it, does not mean that rhetoric is a Greek invention. More importantly, the concepts of communicating effectively, producing effects on an audience for a particular purpose, or teaching students the importance of understanding the ethics of discourse appear in every culture...this is a human invention.

Why am I stressing this? Because, until very recently, scholars of historical rhetorics or teachers of "Classical" rhetoric usually only focused on Greek and Roman texts. This happened so much that generations of scholars developed a tacit belief that rhetoric did not exist outside of these places. This implicit belief led to overt racism over time as encapsulated in Orientalist phrases like "neither Africa nor Asia to this day has produced a rhetoric" (Murphy 1983). This is, of course, problematic. Thankfully, scholars like Xing Lu have developed entire careers from trying to correct these kinds of limiting remarks. Her monograph Rhetoric in Ancient China (1998) was one of the first, comprehensive texts describing Ancient Chinese rhetorical traditions that existed in tandem with those of the Ancient Greeks. Her work, and the work of many others studying non-Western rhetorics, have resulted in scholarly groups like the American Society for the History of Rhetoric to launch exciting new, open-access page of teaching resources designed to help continue diversify the field. The first sample module has been provided by none other than Xing Lu herself. I, for one, am excited to use it to help craft a graduate level syllabus.

So why is this important to Liz's question about "Tae Kwon Do Rhetoric"? Because, as you know, Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art, one that owes much of its techniques to Japanese athletic traditions and its philosophical underpinnings to Chinese ideologies. These non-Western cultures all have their own beliefs about what we in the West would call "rhetoric" and those beliefs are inherent in the ways Tae Kwon Do is taught and performed. But there's a missing piece here, isn't there? At first, when discussing rhetoric, it can be quite easy to see how texts or speeches can evoke meaning or persuade, but how can bodies be rhetorical?

3. Rhetorics can be Embodied Through Practice

I found the best answers to the question above in Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts (2004). This book looks back at the way ancient Greek athletic training was inseparable from rhetorical training...partly because these different forms of education occurred in the same space. For example, a wrestler had just as much to learn about kairos, the Greek concept of opportune timing, as the aspiring orator. The concept remains the same, an audience is more susceptible to a particular tactic (whether a leg sweep or an emotional appeal) at a particular time or occasion. Learning this lesson mentally is one thing, but to incorporate a sense of opportune timing into the physical body is a different kind of information retention. So, naturally, if Hawhee could make such a compelling argument about the physical uptake of Western rhetorical concepts in Ancient Greek athletic practices, I thought, "hey! Why can't I do that with less familiar rhetorical concepts and less familiar Eastern athletic practices?"

The simple answer is this: I can, but I shouldn't expect that anyone will accept the argument at first blush. Or second.

What I've learned so far in this project is that I have a long way to lead my readers before I can give them new information. Take this blog entry for example. I just wanted to share some pictures of Tae Kwon Do manuals. Instead, I find myself providing a spark notes version of my dissertation that many of you are likely bored of by now.

Speakign of a spark notes version of how martial arts can be rhetorical, check out Tiny Tiger Lecture Episode 1 for a refresher :)

That said, let's get on with the pictures, shall we?

4. A Kick is Never Just a Kick

Finally, after hanging out with the wonderful group of interdisciplinary scholars that make up the Martial Arts Studies community, I came to understand that there are people all over the world interested in the "deeper meaning" of martial arts. In my case, I happen to be one of the few interested in the cross-section of rhetoric and martial arts, but that's a good thing. Simply put, I borrow my understanding of "Daoist rhetorics" from scholars like Xing Lu and Steven Combs (2006) and apply this knowledge much in the same way Hawhee did to historical bodies. So, what I'm looking at in my dissertation is a set of seven Tae Kwon Do manuals from 1975-2013. Particularly, I'm looking at the way the Taegeuk forms are discussed in each text to see if there are places where there's clear evidence of what I might call Daoist commonplaces. To give you a better understanding of what these commonplaces or topoi look like here's a nifty table I made a while back to give some examples:

So when looking at the language in these Tae Kwon Do manuals, I'm especially interested in the ways in which the forms are described as exercises designed to help a practitioner become more attuned to nature, harmonious with other living things, able to remain content in a seemingly paradoxical context etc. Ultimately, my hypothesis is this: if Daoist rhetorics promote the development of a particular type of person/citizen, then Daoist practices are designed to help practitioners embody Daosit rhetorics. So what I'm really looking for in these scans is evidence that Tae Kwon Do can be considered a Daoist practice, one which actively encourages a type of rhetorical uptake, one which transforms a person's full body (heart, mind, spirit, physique, etc) into something more closely akin to what the Daosit rhetorical tradition would describe as virtuous.

From the dust jacket of the first English language Tae Kwon Do textbook featuring the Taegeuk forms (1975)

It's evident in all manuals, even those older this, that Tae Kwon Do training was conceived of as this kind of transformative art. Here, the text simply mentions "Oriental values" that will help steer the world away from "moral decline."

The same text outlines this process in the following way:

A flow chart of personal progress through training

What's interesting here is that the transformation begins from within with "reflexion." This aligns with the fourth Daoist feature mentioned in my table above in that "knowledge" can come from within, even though in this case the training serves as a kind of catalyst. It's also worth noting that at this period, Tae Kwon Do was still very much an arm of the State. This is clear in that the ultimate "goal" according to the above chart is "patriotism." Looking at examples likes this makes it clear that these texts are not simply proponents of an ancient Daoist philosophy, but rather, that they use Daoist rhetorical appeals to persuade an audience toward a a very different purpose. Being that this is the first English language manual containing the full Taegeuk pumsae set, the purpose could very well be to disguise this "killing art," one thoroughly embroiled with violent espionage and an autocratic government, as a type of new-age path to enlightenment. Of course, even in this form the text doesn't fully relinquish its hold on conservative values.

But when one looks at the language specific to the pumsae themselves, it's easy to see why everybody was kung fu fighting in the 1970's. For today, I just want to compare the way form 2 is described differently in my set of seven.

This is all the description form 2 receives before the technical instruction in the 1975 manual, but it's densely packed. First, note the language in the first line: "applying the principle." This refers, of course, to the eight cosmological signs (the trigrams) known as the bagua/pakua/palgwe. Specifically, it says that this form applies the Tae principle "meaning joyfulness." To define this idea of joyfulness, the text provides a paradox (another feature noted in my table) to explain that joyfulness is the "state in which one's mind is kept firm" while the body "appears gentle." This paradoxical state is then said to be "performed" by using actions that are simultaneously gentle and forceful. These directives are my favorite part of this study because its a place where these Tae Kwon Do texts attempt to give technical instruction for something that they have already told their audience must be learned from within through reflection and meditation. It also lends credence to the fact that inter/intrapersonal skills like confidence or adaptability can be learned and embodied through regimented practice.

A description of form two from Chun 1982

This description follows many of the same genre moves, but communicates a bit more clearly to an English speaking audience and starts to shift the focus slightly toward the more quantifiable, physical results of training, a trend we will see continue throughout the set. Here, Chun chooses to say that the "form" of the Tae principle "represents" joyfulness. This language gets further away from the idea of practitioners applying certain principles through technique. Yet, he aligns physical movements like the front stance and front kick with "learning to move more freely." This phrase could be taken at face value but I think this means "freely" in a metaphorical sense since its connected to the same soft/firm paradox as the previous manual. Additionally, this phrasing is so much more open-ended than the kinds of specific developments Chun points to in the last lines regarding balance and muscle strengthening.

As the manuals move into the 90's, it wasn't uncommon to see descriptions become much briefer like the one below:

Lee 1996, Taekwondo Techniques and Training

This description is only two sentences! They're all so short that the full set nearly fits on a page. The core concept remains here though the wording is quite different: strong mind but cheerful, happy, perhaps playful exterior.

Some other popular texts clearly borrowed from earlier manuals as they have eerily similar phrases indicative of bad translations. The description below features the line "Therefore, smile and virtue will prevail." These construction is lifted verbatim from the description in the 1975 manual featured above.

Interestingly enough, as the Tae Kwon Do textbooks became more modern and sport-oriented in the 2000's, the language of applying Daoist concepts lessened. What still remains even in the most up-to-date manual from the Kukkiwon, however, are detailed descriptions of the Taegeuk and it's history.

Despite images and descriptions like these in such manuals, the descriptions of the forms are almost exclusively technical:

It's hard to read from this scan, but the text says that "Taegeuk 2 Jang symbolizes the "Tae" one of the 8 divination signs which signifies the inner firmness and outer softness." The remainder of the description talks about techniques introduced in this form. So, from 1975 we went from "applying principles" to the forms "representing" certain principles through specific actions, to this concept of the form as a whole "symbolizes" an idea. Clearly, the focus has shifted. As a scholar of rhetoric, I ask questions regarding why this has changed. Is the World Taekwondo Federation trying to forward a new agenda as an institution (yes), are the popular audiences who would participate in Tae Kwon Do different than they were in 1975 (yes), and has the development toward Tae Kwon Do as a combat sport changed the way it needs to be delivered to these audiences (yes).

And if you read my dissertation, you'll get to hear all my wild speculations attempting to answer those questions more fully.

But for now, I'm quite tired. I hope you enjoyed this tour through my research and I hope Liz can finally see now that I didn't invent my research focus any more than she invented postcolonial theory or Irish literature.

Until next time, thank you for reading my work.


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