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Korean martial art kicks it way back to popularity

Just as tae kwon do is set to become an official Olympic sport in Sydney next year, Korea's supposedly ancient martial art is getting a rival.

But it's not the hybrid called "Tae-Bo," a combination of tae kwon do, boxing, and aerobics promoted in the US on television infomercials.

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Proponents of a game called "taek kyon" claim this is Korea's true martial art, dismissing tae kwon do as a child of Japanese karate (developed during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea, they say). Enthusiasts call it half combat sport, half folk dance.

Replaying a scene that is centuries old, two men in baggy clothes mount a stage at an exhibition match and circle each other with lightfooted prancing steps. The two opponents face off and begin swaying to and fro. Suddenly, in a blur of kicks, one sends the other through the air and sliding across the mat. Point.

Once an endangered sport

The origins of either taek kyon or tae kwon do may be lost in the past. But in the gyms of Seoul these days, taek kyon is hot. Grandmaster Lee Young Bok says taek kyon nearly became extinct. When he met 91-year-old Song Kuk Ki in 1983, Mr. Song was one of two living masters. Both masters died in 1987 and Mr. Lee picked up their torch, promoting and popularizing the sport. Only 10 people practiced back then, and "just five did it well," says Lee. Today 160,000 compete in South Korea, although few, if any, do abroad.

"Whether you're a man, woman, or child, you can easily pick it up. There are no difficult techniques," says Lee.

A player tries to pick up on the rhythm of his opponent. Taek kyon's "pushing kick" looks aggressive but "it doesn't hurt at all," says Lee Dong Joon, an instructor. His partner, dusting himself off, nods unconvincingly.

"The purpose isn't to knock down one's opponent absolutely, but to provoke one's opponent so you can grow together," says Lee Young Bok.

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The rules stipulate never to injure each other, to avoid striking vital parts, and to hold one's opponent's head when throwing him. "It's suppressed competition. When deer want a female, they spar ... the result is to make [each other stronger] and have stronger offspring," says Lee.

Without the bone-jarring, joint-wrecking moves of other martial arts, taek kyon is also easier on the body. Friendly competitions and village tournaments date back to 6th-century Korea, Lee says.

Along with tae kwon do, which South Korea's army still learns "even in this era of guns," Lee adds, taek kyon cultivates "mental patience, strength, and courage." Practiced by commoners in public places, taek kyon was made illegal early this century by Japanese colonial rulers who wished to stamp out Korean culture. According to taek kyon practitioners, many Koreans went to study in Japan and this is when tae kwon do emerged.

"Tae kwon do is quite obviously based on karate. And if you look at karate, it's very closely based on southern Chinese kung fu, and so on," says Andrew Salmon, a British student of martial arts in Seoul. Taek kyon "doesn't really look like any other martial art I've ever seen," he says.

Pride in the culture

Taek kyon reemerged only after Korean society stabilized with a middle class interested in preserving traditional culture. Tae kwon do loyalists say both forms have their roots in ancient Korea, noting that Koreans added the kicking style to tae kwon do. (Taek kyon means "leg hitting" and Tae kwon do means "foot-and-fist method".) No martial art is an island, they note.

Meanwhile, in the US, Tae-Bo exercise videos have racked up millions in sales since their debut last fall.

But purists will still complain. Comparing it to trendy multi-function sport utility vehicles, tae kwon do expert Steve Capener thinks Tae-Bo is silly. "Americans try to get everything into one egg roll," he says.

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