Eddie Paradise: A Treatise on the Korean Martial Arts

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The shouts, the cries; ringing in the ears, padded heads and gloves kissing each other in rainstorm precision. Wood, bricks and occasional unlucky bones get broken with dreams and careers. It's just another night on any taekwando or hapkido fight-floor. Exhilarating, breathtaking and all in Korean. This is what the world sees any time it wants an eyeful of martial arts from the Land of Morning Calm and it's all bullshit. I've been commissioned by the Korean Ministry of Tourism to write the truth about martial arts in the land I've called home these three merciless years. I write from the subways, mountains, church parking lots and back alleys of what goes down. People, get ready.

The only truth that must be truly grasped is that the women run the show, as above, so below. Bringers of life, mothers of children and skilled fighters the like of which would make most ninjas hand in their headbands. They're started young. As young girls they learn the basics of the broad hand swipe while drawing out their long vowel sounds. This is the template from which their entire fighting system is based. There are subtle refinements with the passage of time, but the ghost of these playground scraps will become the backbone of their fighting style and the social order of their daily lives. Don't be fooled for a second, my waigookin friends, this shit is going down at all times.

The training period for this fighting style lasts as long as she is unmarried and childless. Should a Korean female not fulfill these requirements, she cannot progress as a warrior. A society such as this requires procreation to bolster its numbers against the coming invasion against barbarian pirates who are coming from across the sea. This was all explained to me one night in hushed tones over an inordinate amount of hot sake. The rituals by which the process is signified summed up in the phrase “One hair is cut, another grows.” When I pressed my source for more details, they immediately clammed up. Damned inscrutable people, this lot. On the day her first child is born, her training in Ajummahdo (trans. “The way of the ajummah, or married woman”) begins.

Training for the young ajummahs is the responsibility of the Apartment Council, an order of warriors as fierce and deadly as your local Women's Institute, which is no idle boast. Our local Canadian desk was inundated with threatening emails when circulating rumors of a story that would blow the lid of that institution's bizarre and sadistic hazing rituals were going to be brought to light but that's another story. This Apartment Council runs the show and every office-tel and grey-brick nightmare complex has one. They decide who gets in, what gets done and where to put the bodies when the smoke clears. Tales of Suyu Samsung #14 vs. Mia Daewoo #443 still send a chill down the collective spine whenever veterans get together to recount those few, bloody days in October of 2003. Make no mistake, these ladies are the last people you want to cross.

No beginning warrior worth their salt goes into battle without their armor. No more than one hundred days after the birth of their first child, the newly made ajummah is taken to that hall of changes, the hair salon and she is equipped with her first perm. Like the Celts of olden Europe, hair is often dyed to strike fear into the hearts of foes, giving the ajummah an often handy psychological edge. This impenetrable hair-do is both an indispensable piece of protective gear and a devastating blunt instrument of pain. The hardness of the coiffure itself is a product of a special compound of mountain plants which have to be harvested at a very specific time of the year known as Chuseok. Under great secrecy, I myself saw a 2X4 wielded by a powerful warrior broken over a woman's new perm which was completely undented. It was an awesome sight and brought to mind the words of (then Jon) Bon Jovi, “Believe in the power of your hair, and it'll never let you down.” A head butt attack from an ajummah who is well-versed in the Way is a truly devastating sight, and definitely not for the squeamish.

A true warrior's weapons are forged out of common use and necessity and thus we have the mountain-stick. From its humble origins as a fallen tree branch, it has become an essential for all practitioners of the Way. Ajummahdo has a grueling training regime with regards to the use of the mountain stick. Weekend expeditions to Korea's many mountainous regions play an essential role in any warrior's training. The broad swipes learned in the schoolyard become deft flicks that sever flesh and bone, the movements seemingly effortless. In fact, all beginning students are only furnished with the more modern titanium model after successfully completing the Test of the Mountains, a 3-hour written exam. The newer models of mountain-stick feature a pointed end which also makes it a handy stabbing weapon. It has been said that a true student of Ajummahdo can feed a family of four for a week equipped only with a stick and 2 pieces of kimchi.

A quick word about kimchi, Korea's national side-dish. In addition to its many health and healing properties (it is often used with seaweed paper to patch the wounds of injured comrades), it is also one of the ajummah's most feared weapons. Recent studies have shown that two grams of battle kimchi, properly aged, will do the same amount of explosive damage as 1 kilogram of C-4. Foreign readers of this piece need not be alarmed as battle kimchi is never served to guests as that would be an atrocious breach of etiquette. No, battle kimchi is used only in times of most dire warfare. The act “digging up the pots” is a parallel to the Mafia's “going to the mattresses.” Should you hear this idiom being uttered, it would be wise to leave that area very quickly.

The mountains are also where the ajummah-in-training is given her first visor and her first suit of black full-body armor. Regarding the visor: This tinted piece of “plastic” keep out even more sunlight. When used in combination with the cloth face mask, an ajummah is able to strike undetected then sink back into a crowd. Innocent-looking enough on its own, the visor holds a chilling secret. It is actually made of forged steel, folded multiple times then stretched so thin as to give the appearance of being made of plastic. After the metal cools, it is honed to an icy sharpness. A well-placed visor attack can decapitate an opponent in one swipe. Remember friends, nothing hides blood like black.

Covering 9/10ths of the skin, her body-armor serves to protect her from sunlight (the ajummah's natural enemy), as well as absorbing the force of body blows. The armor, is constructed in such a way that it traps the sun's heat , adding fire damage to strike attacks. Made entirely of nylon, the suit acts as an electrical conduit through which the ajummah draws much of her fighting power. Should you see a group of ajummahs on a mountain rapidly pounding their thighs; run. This advice could well save your life one day. They are charging up for battle. The reason they wear the white cotton gloves is that cotton is the perfect material to release the stored energy at their target. While minor releases of this energy are used to keep children and husbands in line the effects of a fully charged touch attack are staggering. Advanced practitioners of the Way have devised a cruel alchemy whereby they combine the fire of Helios and the power of static into a ball of sky-blue electrical fire which they can actually hurl at an enemy from some some distance (as much as 5 meters, by some studies' estimations). Such an attack is often accompanied with the shouted exclamation, “Hadouken!” which literally translated means “Die screaming, shit-pig!” Those who have faced up to such an attack rarely survive.

So much for outdoor combat. Pointed sticks and electric fire are all very well in the mountain forests, but in the subways of modern Seoul require a little thing called finesse. Priority Number One when boarding any subway is getting in and getting in first. This is where the Art of the Subtle Thumb comes in to play. The careful application of pressure from the warriors thumb to specific pressure points, usually located on the side of her opponent's rib cage, the ajummah can navigate through even the the most crowded subway station with no trouble. If the target is unmoved by the “gentle pressure” approach, a sharp jab will definitely do the trick.

Getting on a crowded subway car (or indeed, any other form of public transport) is tricky enough but what of getting a seat? As always Ajummahdo shows itself to be the truly dynamic martial art by turning even the most thorny problem into an opportunity to evolve and excel. With the rise of urbanization in the late 80's came the advent of the supermarket. This change presented the problem of executing graceful and deadly movement whilst being weighed down. The solution is often credited to a Mrs. Park of Dongdaemun 5-gu, SK #87. She discovered that an object (shopping bag, purse, small child), hurled with sufficient force and authority into a vacant seat effectively claims it. Foolish indeed is the person who would disturb the claim of a warrior who can throw anything with such speed and accuracy.

One of the most practical daily applications of Ajummahdo for its practitioners is its use in the area of raising children, one of their primary societal functions and responsibilities. As a busy individual in a rapidly modernizing world, today's ajummah has less and less time to devote to her children's development and has been thus compelled towards a more efficient model of parenting. With its emphasis on fast movement and subtle strength, Ajummahdo allows her to discipline quickly and effectively. The two most common forms of this discipline take the form of the scold and the head slap. An ajummah scolding is the primary weapon in her arsenal when dealing with intractable or academically lazy children. It is pitched at a specific frequency that sections of the scold can only be heard by small children (ages 0-12) and most dogs. Prolonged scolds are achieved by advanced students who have mastered the art of what is known as “circle breathing,” the ability of breathe in through the nose while simultaneously breathing out through the mouth, a technique hitherto only used by Tibetan throat singers and Winton Marsalis. While at the same time as being psychologically painful, the scold has also been known to cause aural bleeding, a strong deterrent from further irritating her. A scold is often accompanied by the index finger being brought down forcibly pointing at the child who is the object of her ire. This movement causes a wave of force in a process that science has yet to explain. A popular theory suggests that it is a miniature sonic boom which can cause a child's head to snap to attention, even whiplash in extreme cases.

You might well think that upon the advent of becoming a halmuni (“grandmother”), the ajummah would put aside her practice of Ajummahdo and settle down to a more easy pace of life. You would, of course be making the fatal mistake of underestimating the state being a halmuni. It is, in fact, the 36th chamber and don't you forget it. Upon becoming a halmuni, she becomes an adept of Halmunido, the way of the halmuni. Be assured, a deadlier warrior there is none. You will notice that on every subway seats are especially reserved for the elderly. It is often fancied that this is a left over custom from Korea's Confucianism, a product of its Joeson era (1392-1910). It is , in fact, a tribute exacted at the threat of terrible vengeance that would be wreaked should it not be paid.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” While this quotation is most often attributed to Yoda, it was actually first uttered by the Halmunido mistress Kim Jung-Eun in 1394 when she was addressing a group of students in Hanseong. At this stage, a halmuni divests herself of her armor and weapons, adopting simple garb and re-connecting with a more natural way of fighting. The more orthodox practitioners will even go so far as to exclusively wear hanbok; traditional Korean clothing. In losing a little, she gains much. (Side note: It is regrettable that some halmunis do not perform this divestment, combining the powers of the two styles for their own malicious ends. This choice is referred to as the “dark side” of Halmunido. They are to be considered extremely dangerous and should not be approached.) The first natural advantage she gains is the curvature of the spine, induced by years of carrying children on her back, heavy loads on her head and malnutrition. This curvature allows her to clear massive crowds wherever she goes by executing a devastating rolling attack that reminds one of Sonic the Hedgehog in full sprint. In a controlled experiment, scientists were able to calculate that a halmuni under full steam can clear an area of 18 square feet per second owing to a domino effect. It is a deadly irony that only at the time of life when she seems to be wasting physically is she at her most formidable.

As an ajummah, she fought with her titanium mountain-stick, and many foes fell beneath. Now, in the autumnal years, she drags her wooden stick behind her; a training tool now revealed as the superior weapon in the hands of a slower, craftier warrior. In fact, adepts who are greatly advanced will forsake the stick all together in favor of her most basic weapon, her elbows, often referred to as “bone swords.” Sharpened by by time, they are ideal for fighting in close quarters. A swift downward or sideways strike can paralyze, break bones and even kill. Thus, the halmuni will sit any where she damn well pleases. Young people, ignorant of the ancient compact between the older and younger generations will come home with cracked ribs, but much wiser.

Well sportsfans, that's all this reporter has to tell you for the time being. Remember, cede your seat and you'll live through the week. Over and out, up and at 'em.

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