by Phillip Starr
In karate, taekwondo, and various forms of gong-fu, we can easily observe many different types of kicks and you may wonder about where they came from and/or why they were developed. We’ll start at the beginning…

In general, gong-fu styles don’t emphasize a lot of kicking. Many, perhaps most, of them tend to direct their kicks at lower targets, such as the ankles, legs, and groin. This is especially true of southern styles. In the south of China, living conditions were (in the old days) much more crowded than in the north and there was little room for high kicks or jumping and spinning kicks. Fights would erupt in small (and I mean SMALL) alleyways or even on houseboats (which are much smaller than you’re likely to imagine) and maintenance of balance was critical. Moreover, attempting to kick high exposed one to quick counter-attacks, so such techniques were eschewed in the south. In the north, living conditions were less crowded and styles that developed there often included kicks into the body.

Okinawan karate, which was derived from Chinese forms, likewise didn’t emphasize a lot of kicking. Self-defense was the primary consideration. Traditional Okinawan kata featured frontal kicks (never very high) and side kicks…but high side kicks and roundhouse-type kicks weren’t employed because they felt that such movements left the groin open to quick counter-attacks.

Once karate was taken to Japan, things changed. Initially, they practiced kicking in the same way as the Okinawan styles but with the advent of karate as a sport, high kicks became more and more popular…instructors noticed how much audience appeal such techniques garnered and some of them began to have students practice these techniques in sparring. The roundhouse kick, as we know it, was developed during this time (the 1950’s) – by an instructor of the Japan Karate Association – mainly for use in competition. It was very effective.

And the Japanese, being the perfectionists that they are to this day, dug into the mechanical aspects of kicking to see how and why they worked and if improvements could be made. They found that, yes, improvements could be made and they developed very quick and powerful forms of kicking.

When karate was taken to Korea and re-designed as taekwondo, kicks changed even further. In an effort to make taekwondo look different from its Japanese parent, kicks became heavily emphasized and as competitions became more and more popular, newer forms of kicking were developed (primarily for audience appeal). Jumping and spinning kicks became the bread and butter of the Korean methods and many practitioners of taekwondo and tangsoodo developed a very high level of skill with them.

It began in the 1950’s; in the West, practitioners of various martial forms were exposed to other forms and practitioners. Ideas and techniques were compared and ideas exchanged. For instance, practitioners of Japanese forms of karate (many of whom were very competition-oriented) were impressed with the Korean methods of kicking and utilized them within their own styles. Systems began to borrow from each other. This process continues to this day with instructors of various styles and arts providing instruction via seminars.