Role of Ship Sam Seh in the Art

The Ship Sam Seh was an integral part of the evolution of the art of Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan. The Ship Sam Seh is a systematic approach to the art of Tae Kuk Kwon, teaching self defense theory through the practice of Hyung. Within the Tae Kuk Kwon hyung, you can find all of the points of Ship Sam Seh. It’s important to note that Ship Sam Seh philosophy goes beyond physical training and includes Weh Gong, Neh Gong, and Shim Gong aspects. The scope of this article will look primarily at the Weh Gong application of Ship Sam Seh and how it affected the evolution of Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan in Hyung and Dae Ryun practice. First, we examine the history of Ship Sam Seh.

Historical Context

Ship_Sam_SehThroughout all of history, man has tried to understand the workings of the universe and his relationship with both Heaven and Earth. One of the earliest texts dedicated to the study of nature and the relationship between the elements is the I Ching 易經 (Ju Yuk in Korean). The I Ching represents the world via 64 sets of of six lines each called hexagrams (卦 gwe). The Solid line —– represents Yang and a broken line — — represents Um. The interactions between the solid lines (yang) and the broken lines (um) were represented by the Um and Yang symbol, called Tae Kuk (太極), meaning Grand Ultimate. I equate the teachings of I Ching to simply mean Um/Yang Philosophy.

In ancient Korea, the traditional Um/Yang symbol had three distinct sections instead of two: heaven, earth and human. These people deduced that whenever two forces opposed one another one of two things would happen: one force would
dominate the other, thus one would be superior and the other inferior; or the two forces would be equal, becoming neutral. They examined how the forces of Um and Yang impacted Humanity. This is the essence of I Ching. Everything around us has an opposite: hot and cold, high and low, summer and winter, fire and water. Um energy is soft, yielding and passive. Yang is hard, aggressive and active. Striking a balance between Um and Yang energies would result in Tae Guk or Grand Ultimate. Tae Guk is a state of neutrality where perfect harmony exists. Energies naturally flow from yang to um and back to yang effortlessly. Neither force dominates the other.

Western minds think in a linear fashion with a beginning and multiple steps leading to an end. Conversely, Eastern thought can be illustrated better by a circle. There is neither a beginning nor an end but a circle filled with a number of phases, each leading in both directions to another. An example that can be found in both Western and Eastern culture is the concept of the “circle of life”. Initially, you may think of life as a straight line beginning with birth (yang) and ending in death (um). However, after we die, our bodies return to the earth and give nutrients to the soil to produce more life (yang), which will eventually produce more death (um). This endless circle is an example of how nature is constantly flowing from Yang to Um energy.

Daoism and the martial arts

This Um/Yang philosophy can be found in many aspect of Korean culture from the way that they eat, build a home, divinate, or even fight (kwon bup). The variation of Um/Yang philosophy that correlates with kwon bup is known as Ship Sam Seh (13 Principles/Influences/Postures), though the application is much more holistic than mere “fist techniques” (8).

Most scholars agree that the martial arts from Japan, Okinawa, and Korea all stem from China. Where there may be documentation of Chinese martial arts beginning before the Shaolin Temple, we can agree that Shaolin is the most famous. There is also some evidence that shows that the indigineous Korean martial art Soo Bahk was created in isolation of Chinese influence. While that may or may not be true, Hwang Kee, Chang Shi Ja received most of his formal training in China and was heavily influenced by Chinese styles such as So Rim Jang Kwon and Tae Kuk Kwon. As a result, to better understand the impact of Ship Sam Seh on our Art, it’s important for us to take a look into Chinese martial arts.

As early as the first centuries BC, physicians would recommend calisthenic exercises called “daoyin” (導引), which translates to “guiding and pulling.” These were used to both cure and prevent disease and focused on both body movement and breathing techniques. These would strengthen your body and provide rejuvenation by stimulating meridians and improving Ki (氣), or vital energy. An old Zhuangzi quote demonstrates the effectiveness of daoyin:

To pant, to puff, to hail, to sip, to spit out the old breath and draw in the new, practicing bear-hangings and bird-stretchings, longevity his only concern–such is the life favored by the scholar who practices daoyin, the man who nourishes his body, who hopes to live to be as old as Pengzu, for more than eight hundred years.1” 

At the Shaolin Temple and elsewhere, martial arts training was coupled with daoyin exercises for longevity. Some of these exercises are still practiced by Soo Bahk Do practitioners today and can be found in Hwang Kee, Chang Shi Ja’s Volume I textbook. The first is Moo Pahl Dan Kuhm (八段錦) more commonly known in the martial arts community as Ba Duan Jin, which means 8 level brocade or silk2. The second is Yuk Keun Kyung (易筋經), more commonly known as Yi Jin Jing, translated to Changing Tendons Classic3 . The prior is used to stretch the body while the former is used to strengthen the body. Both circulate Ki, open the meridians, and utilize Um/Yang philosophy. Over time, these Neh Gong exercises became commonplace and the martial arts broadened from a strictly military or self defense focus, to a total wellness system for self defense, internal health, and mental well-being. It’s important to note that Ship Sam Seh has much more than mere martial application, but was primarily used for increased longevity. The Song of Ship Sam Seh asks the question: “What is the main purpose of the martial arts?” The following verse gives the answer: “Rejuvenation and prolonging of life beyond the normal span.”

Tae Kuk Kwon and Ship Sam Seh 

The Ship Sam Seh is broken down into two components, each a representation of Um/Yang Philosophy: Pal Gwe or 8 Forces/Directions and Oh Haeng, or 5 Energies/Elements. They were used as fundamental principle of Tae Kuk Kwon. Though the creator of Tae Kuk Kwon is unknown, many attribute Chang San Feng (張三豐), or Jang Sam Bong in Korean, as thefounder4. In his treatise, the Tae Kuk Kwon Kyung (太極拳經), he introduces Ship Sam Seh5: Peng, Lu, Chi, An,Ts’ai, Lieh, Chou, and K’are equated to the Eight Trigrams.

The first four are the cardinal directions; Ch’ien [South; Heaven],
K’un [North; Earth],
K’an [West; Water], and
Li [East; Fire].
The second four are the four corners:
Sun [Southwest; Wind],
Chen [Northeast; Thunder],
Tui [Southeast; Lake], and
Ken [Northwest; Mountain].
Advance (Chin), Withdraw (T’ui),
Look Left (Tso Ku), Look Right (Yu Pan), and Central Equilibrium (Chung Ting)
are equated to the five elements:
Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth
All together these are termed the Thirteen Postures

Having an understanding of Ship Sam Seh philosophy will teach you how to react to neutralize an attack. If someone attacks high (yang), then counter low (um). If your opponent has a strong straight line (yang), then side-step off of his line (um). There are, however, more strategies than merely Um and Yang. You have only scratched the surface of the possibilities. The Pal Gwe and the Oh Haeng are derivatives of Um/Yang, each having an Um or Yang characteristic, but each is also distinct with its own set of unique attributes.

Pal Gwe

The Pal Gwe, or 8 forces, are connected to the 8 directions on a compass. This shows your positioning in space and the ability to move in the 8 directions by stepping, hopping, lunging, etc. Without stepping, you can also use Pal Gwe on the way you move your mass. This is done by moving your waist: Left, Right, Forward, Backward, Up, Down, Clockwise, Counter clockwise.

Besides physical direction (yang), each Gwe has a specific strategy or technique (um) associated with it that applies directly to dae ryun. Many of the indiviual techniques and strategies can also be found in the Yuk Ro and Chil Sung Hyung. The Sa Jung, or four principle directions, are considered “Yang” and are more aggressive and should be used when there is a greater distance between you and your opponent. The intent of these strategies may include exposing vulnerabilities for counter attacking, redirecting the energy of an attack, creating distance from your opponent, or disrupting your opponent’s center and rendering him off-balance. The table below lists the Sa Jung.

Translation Korean Hanja Gwe Meaning Energy
Ward off Pong Ward off by disrupting center of gravity. Heaven
Roll Back Ri circular, yielding motion Earth
Press Jeh Press or squeeze offensively. Fire
Push Ahn Push with the palms. Water

The Sa Wu, or intermediary directions, are “Um” in nature and are designed for in-close fighting. In-close fighting has a new set of challenges and opportunities. You can trap, grab, or pull a limb as a counter measure or even as an attack. You can also strike, create distance, or disrupt your opponent’s center. Table 2 lists the Sa Wu.

Korean Hanja Gwe Meaning Energy
Pull Down Chae Grabbing energy, usually followed by a pull. Wind
Split Yul Splits from striking energy Thunder
Elbow Ju Elbow Striking Lake
Shoulder Ko Striking with the full body Mountain

Oh Haeng 

Just as the Um and Yang philosophy was an ancient way of explaining nature, the Oh Haeng was a further attempt to explain more complex forces of nature. The Oh Haeng, or 5 Elements/Energies include: Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth. Each element produces a unique energy (Ki) that can be cultivated for Kwon Bup and for health.

Element Energy Season Color Virtue Emotion Organ
Water Soo Ki Winter Black Respect Fear Kidneys
Wood Mok Ki Sprint Green Kindness Anger Liver
Fire Hwa ki Summer Red Trust Envy Heart
Metal Kum Ki Fall White Honesty Sadness Lungs
Earth Ji Ki Yellow Golden Rule Worry Spleen

The 5 Elements demonstrate two important cycles in nature: the creative cycle and the destructive cycle. Creation occurs in the following order: Water is needed to grow wood, wood ignites to create fire, fire burns the wood which creates ash (earth), metal is extracted from the earth, and water condenses and forms on metal. You can use the creation cycle in many ways:

FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalance_02_plain.svgRespect > Kindness > Trust > Openness > Honesty > Respect Fear > Anger > Envy > Worry > Sadness > Fear 

The destructive cycle is equally as intuitive:  Water smothers a fireFire melts metalMetal chops wood. Wood breaks up the earthEarth muddies water.  The destructive cycle also holds true:

Respect  >  Trust  >  Honesty  >  Kindness  >  Openness  >  Respect

Fear        >  Envy   >  Sadness  >  Anger      >  Worry        >  Fear

Within the context of Kwon Bup (fist fighting), each element has unique attributes and can be sub-divided by Um (internal) and Yang (external).  The Oh Bo are the 5 Steps—Advance, Retreat, Right, Left, Center—and refers only to direction of movement.  In traditional Ship Sam Seh, the 8 Postures are combined with the 5 Steps so Pong (ward off) could be performed by stepping forward, back, twisting right, twisting left, and maintaining your center.

The internal strategies, called Oh Mal, are much more telling:  Listen, Connect, Adhere, Redirect and Yield.  Table 4 summarizes the Oh Mal.

Element External Internal Meaning
Fire Jin—Advance Chum Listen Hands—Listen with your whole body.
Water Toe—Retreat Yeon Connect with your opponent.  Literally means “Chariots in a row”.  Control your opponent.
Wood Koe–Move Left Jum Adhere, stick to your opponents (sticky hands).
Metal Ban–Move Right Soo Follow and lead as you adhere.  Take control.
Earth Jung– Centered Bujuhang Following

The O Mal, or 5 Strategies, seem to be  a set of ordered instructions on how to face an opponent effectively. Many of these strategies can be found intertwined in the Song of Ship Sam Seh–though the Song of Ship Sam Seh does not discuss Ship Sam Seh directly. The first step is to have good shi sun and “pay attention to the slightest change from full to empty.”  Listening hands has to do with reading your opponent based on his eyes, body movement, stance and breath.  Once you begin to read your opponent, then you try and connect with him.  “Surprising things will happen when you meet your opponent.”  Move in harmony with your opponent so that you move as one entity.  “Pay attention to the slightest change from full to empty”.  This is the beginning of controlling your opponent.

Once you have gained a connection with your opponent, you must maintain it by adhering to him.  This can be done physically through an exercise called “sticky hands” or it could be a mu sang exercise where you maintain a harmonious connection with your partner.  Learn to follow or lead your opponent without aggression.  You will begin to control your opponent without any effort (following) as a result of this connection.  Each strategy seamlessly prepares you for the next strategy.  Unlike the rest of the Oh Haeng and Pal Gwe groupings, these strategies are to be used simultaneously.

The O Mal can be better explained by Yang Ch’eng-fu’s writing of 1930 called Yang Family Forty Chapters:

“Sticking means lifting and raising high; adhering means clinging and attachment; connecting means giving up yourself and not separating from the opponent; and following means that I respond to my opponent’s movements.”

The principles of Ship Sam Seh that we have discussed thus far have been neatly packaged into a single form called Tae Kuk Kwon. Tae Kuk is the name for the Um/Yang symbol and Kwon translates to “fist”, or the fist fighting style of Um and Yang. Within the hyung, Pal Gwe and Oh Haeng are expressed. By practicing Tae Kuk Kwon Hyung, one can begin to understand the sparring principles of Tae Kuk Kwon. This same pattern can be found today in Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan through hyung practice.

Soo Bahk Do & Ship Sam Seh

Soo Bahk Do also has a set of Hyung that we use as guiding principles into our art. These are the hyung created by Hwang Kee, Chang Shi Ja called Chil Sung Hyung, Yuk Ro Hyung, and Hwa Sun Hyung. It’s also interesting to note that there is another set called Ship Dan Kuhm that are not widely practiced.

After practicing the hyung, we extrapolate sparring concepts and apply them to Ja Yu Dae Ryun. Modern-day examples include Hwa Kuk Jang Kap Kwon and Peet Cha Gi. Even today, we are in the process of evolution as the USA TAC define a new way of sparring at the US National Festival that better demonstrates our philosophy of Um/Yang, connection, and unique Soo Bahk Do technique. This new sparring format better aligns with the principles we learn in our unique hyung.

Though we do not practice all of the 8 postures of Tae Kuk Kwon, many of the principles are the same.

Chain of Command

Soo Bahk Do is known for it’s unique Use of Hip and clear understanding of chain of command from your mind, to your waist, elbows/knees, to each weapon on your hand and foot. Today, we reference Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion (F=ma) to explain the concept scientifically, but the application is the same. This principle is integral in Tae Kuk Kwon and is taught side by side with Ship Sam Seh. Jang Sam Bong, the legendary founder of Tae Kuk Kwon wrote a treatise on Tae Kuk Kwon, called the Tae Kuk Kwon Kyung. Within the text, he prefaced his explanation of Ship Sam Seh by explaining chain of command7:

“Let the postures be without breaks or holes, hollows or projections, or discontinuities and continuities of form. The motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers. The feet, legs, and waist must act together simultaneously, so that while stepping forward or back the timing and position are correct. If the timing and position are not correct, the body becomes disordered, and the defect must be sought in the legs and waist.”

Centuries later, The Song of Ship Sam Seh was written that alluded to these same principles with the following quotes:

“The source of the will is in the waist.”
“When the base of the spine is erect, energy rises to the top of the head”

8 Ways of Moving the Huri

Pal Gwe, or the 8 directions, can be likened to the 8 different ways of moving your center: front, back, up, down, right, left, twisting clockwise, twisting counter clockwise. I’ve found that every technique incorporates one or more of these directions. Ahp Cha Gi is primarily front. Dullryo Cha Gi utilizes front and twisting  with the direction depending on which foot is kicking. Hu Gul Choong Dan Soo Do Mahkee includes twisting, back, and down.

Applying Oh Bo (5 Steps) to Soo Bahk Do “postures”

As the mass moves in the 8 various directions using Soo Bahk Do techniques or “postures”, we can also apply the 5 steps. We attack generally by moving forward and defend by moving back. Oftentimes, a better defense is to step left or right into what we call a “sidestep.” The term “bujuhang” is of particular interest because it can mean non-aggression. This is done traditionally by standing your ground and yielding to an attack without necessarily using footwork.

Bujuhang (following without aggression)

Bujuhang is a great way to summarize our philosophy towards sparring. Our blocks are very yielding and receptive in nature. We prefer to receive or redirect energy rather than attempt to stop or destroy it. Our focus on side stepping and creating distance from the attack are ways that we prefer to not oppose a force. A good example of this is the application of Do Mal Shik E Bon against a high attack.

Harmony of Um and Yang (Tae Kuk)

Our sparring is very unique with the purpose of creating harmony with a partner rather than creating conflict. This is a result of moving and responding according to the laws of nature. When one is offensive, the other is defensive. Clashing is discouraged as this creates disharmony by both parties moving offensively simultaneously. As discussed above, our blocks are truly “Um” in nature, receptive rather than aggressive. Most self defense systems portray a defense as an opportunity for offense and the block is done in an aggressive fashion. This is contrary to the laws of Um and Yang. Though our techniques are primarily from Weh Ga Ryu, our philosophy and approach is very Neh Ga Ryu, similar to Tae Kuk Kwon because we follow the same Ship Sam Seh philosophy.

The history of our martial art is richly based in Ship Sam Seh philosophy which centers around the interaction between Um and Yang. The way we move and the way we approach combat is in alignment with Um and Yang. It is clear that Hwang Kee, Chang Shi Ja greatly valued the Ship Sam Seh and its elements can be found scattered throughout the forms he created. As we continue to better understand Ship Sam Seh and how it relates to our training, the art of Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan continues to evolve based on the principles of Ryu Pa.

Works Cited
Much of this article was a result of my personal readings from the publications below as well as conversations with Jang, Dae Kyu, Sa Bom Nim who gave me many insights into the meaning of Ship Sam Seh, Um Yang, and Chil Sung.

1 Meir, Shahar The Shaolin Monastery 2008 p. 137-140

2 Hwang, Kee, Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) 1992 p. 40

3 Hwang, Kee Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) 1992 p. 34-37

4 Wile, Douglas Lost Tai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty 1996 p. 108

5 http://www.scheele.org/lee/classics.html#tccching

6 Wilde, Douglas Lost Tai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty 1996 p. 67

7 Lo/Inn/Amacker/Foe The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan The Literary Tradition 1979 p.20-21

8Segarra, Dan Secrets of Ship Sam Seh p. 6

*The following article was submitted as a part of my O Dan Shim Sa for the Euro Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan™ Technical Advisory Committee. All of information provided here is based on my own personal research and may not align with the official teachings of the US Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan™ Federation.

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