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A HISTORY OF TAEKWONDO

by Dakin Burdick copyright: 1990


Taekwondo instructors often recount the history of their art in rather vague terms. Describing it as a combination of Tae Kyon kicks and Karate strikes, they still refer to Taekwondo as a martial art that is "thousands of years old." While the supposed antiquity of the art is quite useful in squelching innovation by the lower ranks, it is also quite false. Taekwondo is actually only about 40 years old, and for a good portion of that time, it was simply an imitation of Shotokan karate. The youth of Taekwondo as we know it can be demonstrated through a discussion of Korean history since its occupation by Korea in 1905.

For better or worse, twentieth century Korean martial artists have been greatly influenced by the Japanese. By 1900, Koreans had lost interest in their native martial arts but after the Japanese occupation of Korea, Japanese educational curricula was imposed on all Korean schools. This meant that all Korean boys were taught the sportive forms of Judo and Kendo while in school.

However, this training came to an abrupt end in 1909, when the Japanese banned the practice of any fighting arts in Korea.

The Japanese ban on the martial arts was not able to suppress their practice completely. Yeon Hee Park believes the ban even "sparked a renewed growth of Subak" in the buddhist temples, a traditional place of refuge for out-of-favor warriors, both in Korea and Japan. It was in 1906 that Duk Ki Song, at the age of thirteen, began learning Tae Kyon from Hue Lim. Hong Hi Choi writes that Tae Kyon was also "secretly practiced" and "passed on to a handful of students" by men like Han Il Dong and Duk Ki Song. It was under Han Il Dong in the 1930s that Choi, the future "Father of Taekwondo," began his martial arts instruction (Dong was Choi's calligraphy instructor, and began teaching Tae Kyon to Choi because the youth was so frail).

Another student of the outlawed arts was Hwang Kee, the future founder of Tang Soo Do. Kee "mastered" Tae Kyon and Soo Bak Do in 1936 (at the age of 22). He then travelled to Northern China where he studied the "T'ang method," and from that time until 1945, he worked to combine the two styles.

The ban on the martial arts was obviously not entirely effective, and eventually the Japanese lifted the ban to fulfill military requirements during World War II. Judo and Juken-jutsu (bayonet art) began to be taught in 1941, and by 1943 Karate and Kung-fu were also officially introduced to Koreans. All of these arts enjoyed widespread popularity.

Hong Hi Choi, the future "father of Taekwondo," was meanwhile busy learning Shotokan Karate. To further his education, he was sent to Kyotoo in 1937, where he met Mr. Kim, a Korean instructor of Shotokan Karate. After two years of "concentrated training," Choi gained his 1st Dan. He then went on to the University of Tokyo where he continued his training and gained his 2nd Dan, after which he taught Shotokan Karate at the Tokyo YMCA. When the Second World War began, Choi was "forced to enlist in the Japanese army."

After Korea's liberation in 1945, the native arts of Tae Kyon and Subak resurfaced. Among the other styles that surfaced at this time were Bang Soo Do, Kong Soo Do ("Way of the Empty Hand"), Kwon Bop, Tae Soo Do ("Way of the Foot and Hand"), and Tang Soo Do ("Way of the Tang Hand").

The Japanese occupation of Korea had obviously renewed Korean interest in the martial arts, and several kwans ("schools") quickly opened in Seoul. The first to open was the Chung Do Kwan (a.k.a. Chong Do Kwan, "Gym of the Blue Wave"), which was founded by Won Kook Lee in 1945 in Yong Chun, Seoul. The Moo Duk Kwan was founded later that year by Hwang Kee, who taught an art he eventually named Tang Soo Do ("Way of the Chinese Hand"). The third school was the Yun Moo Kwan, founded by Sup Chun Sang (a.k.a. Sup Jun Sang). The Chang Moo Kwan was founded by Yun Pyung (a.k.a. In Yoon Byung) at a YMCA in 1946, and was followed quickly by the Chi Do Kwan, founded by Yon Kue Pyang.

Both native arts and Japanese forms gained in popularity. The Korean Yudo Association was formed in September of 1945 and early in 1946, Tae Kyon instructors began teaching the troops in Kwang Ju. In 1946-47, Hong Hi Choi (now 1st Lt. of the Korean Army's 2nd Infantry Regt.) taught martial arts to both Koreans and Americans stationed at Tae-Jon.

Following his release from prison and commission in the Korean Army, Hong Hi Choi rapidly rose through the ranks, possibly aided by his martial arts experience. In 1948, Maj. Choi became the martial arts instructor for the American Military Police School in Seoul and in 1949, Col. Choi visited the Ft. Riley Ground General School in Kansas, where he gave a public demonstration of Korean karate.

The Korean arts received increased attention with the beginning of the Korean War. Pres. Syngman Rhee watched a thirty minute demonstration by Korean masters in 1952 and was so impressed with Tae Hi Nam's breaking demonstration (he broke 13 roofing tiles), that he questioned Hong Hi Choi about the arts. Pres. Rhee then ordered all soldiers to receive training in the art. Various units distinguished themselves, including the Korean 29th Infantry Division (formed on Che Ju Island in 1953), which was responsible for all Tae Kyon training in the Korean Army, and the Black Tigers, an elite unit involved in espionage missions behind enemy lines (they also occassionally performed assassinations).

After the war, three more kwans appeared. In 1953-1954, Gae Byang Yun founded the Ji Do Kwan (a.k.a. Jee Do Kwan), Byung Chik Ro founded the Song Moo Kwan (a.k.a. Sang Moo Kwan), and Hong Hi Choi founded the Oh Do Kwan ("Gym of My Way") with the help of Tae Hi Nam.

Unification of the Korean arts was slow. The first step came when a conference of masters assembled on Apr. 11, 1955, to organize the Korean arts and merge the kwan. The name chosen for this unified art was Tae Soo Do, although this was changed in 1957 to "Taekwon-Do," a name suggested by Hong Hi Choi for its similarity to Tae Kyon. The Korean Taekwon-do Association (KTA) was founded on Sept. 14, 1961, with Hong Hi Choi as the President, but the Chi Do Kwan Association seceded. The Chung Do Kwan, "the largest civilian gym in Korea," also remained aloof and developed the Korean Soo Bahk Do Association into a rival of the KTA. The Korean government stepped into the fray in 1962 when it recognized all black belts certified by the KTA, causing many martial artists to return to that organization.

Korea quickly began to export its new martial art under the direction of Maj. Gen. Choi. In 1959, Choi toured the Far East with his top nineteen black belts. In that same year, he published his first work on Taekwondo, entitled Taekwon-Do Guidelines. In 1962, South Vietnamese troops requested to be taught Taekwondo, so Tae Hi Nam and three other instructors were sent from the Oh Do Kwan to teach fifty soldiers from various branches of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. Two instructors returned to Korea after six months, but Nam and Seung Kyu Kim stayed a full year, returning on Dec. 24, 1963. Taekwondo entered Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong in 1962-1963 and in 1964, Chong Lee introduced Taekwondo to Canada. In 1965, Choi led a goodwill Taekwondo mission to West Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Singapore and in 1966, Park Jong Soo introduced Taekwondo to the Netherlands. By 1972, Taekwondo had been exported to fifty foreign nations.

Unfortunately, Choi's leadership of the KTA was lost in 1966. A goodwill trip to North Korea by a Taekwondo demonstration team caused Choi "to fall from grace in the eyes of the South Korean government." He resigned as the President of the KTA in 1966 and founded the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) on Mar. 22. He then moved the ITF headquarters to Canada.

Taekwondo slowly made its way into the United States. In 1946- 1947, Hong Hi Choi taught martial arts to both Koreans and Americans stationed at Tae-Jon. In 1952, Tae Hi Nam was stationed in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and received a lot of publicity when he demonstrated before military troops and the public. In 1959, Maj. Gen. Choi attended a "modern weapon familiarization course" in Texas, and used his extra time to visit several Taekwondo schools there, including Jhoon Rhee's. In June, 1963, Choi hosted a demonstration at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City and four years later, on Nov. 26, 1967, the U.S. Taekwon-do Association was formed. The USTA was superseded in 1974 by the U.S. Taekwon-do Federation (USTF).[] Korean & American Karate:

Until the 1960s, Taekwondo was essentially the same as Shotokan Karate. "The modern karate of Korea," according to Sihak Henry Cho, "with very little influence from tae kyun, was born with the turn of the 20th century when it was imported directly from China and also from Okinawa through Japan." "Tae-kwon do," he claimed, "is identical to Japanese karate.... Some of the Korean public still use the 'karate' pronunciation in conversation." This should not come as a surprise. By the time of the Japanese occupation, Koreans had lost interest in the martial arts. There were few native martial artists left and since they were forced to teach in secret after 1909, they had to restrict the number of students they could accept. At the same time, many Koreans probably went to Japan for an education (like Hong Hi Choi) and returned with some knowledge of either Judo or Shotokan Karate. Thus, by the end of the occupation, Korean martial arts were known by a minority while the Japanese arts were diffused throughout the populace, and especially among those of the upper classes who had had a Japanese education.

When karate was first introduced into the United States, few people noticed a distinction between Japanese and Korean karate. As a result, Korean stylists were often instrumental in the introduction of karate to the United States. For example, Ernest Lieb, USAF, studied karate under Chun Il Sup while stationed in Korea and became the first karate chairman of the AAU and later the President of the American Karate Association. Atlee Chittim is another example. In 1948, he returned from Korea where he had studied Taekwondo, and became affiliated with the USKA. He gave limited instruction at various YMCA's in San Antonio, Texas, and in 1955, he began teaching at San Antonio College, as a brown belt. Some say it was Chittim who sponsored Jhoon Rhee's entry into the United States in 1956. In any event, it was Rhee who later promoted Chittim to black belt. A third example is Allen Steen, karate pioneer in the American Southwest, who started karate under Jhoon Rhee in 1959 at the University of Texas. He earned his black belt in 1962, and in 1963, he promoted his first black belt. In 1966, he was a member of the victorious U.S. National Karate Team in Hawaii. That same year, he won the International Karate Championships in Long Beach, beating Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis.

In 1956, Jhoon Rhee arrived in Texas for military training by the USAF While there, he taught what was possibly the first American class in Taekwondo. He was called back almost immediately to complete a year of active duty in the Korean Army, but he then returned to Texas in late 1957 to attend San Marcos Southwest Texas State College. Rhee explains,

"Well, at that time in San Marcos -- it was a very small city -- nobody ever really heard of karate. But when I demonstrated tae kwon do as a freshman, after that everybody came to my dorm room and they wanted to start a club. And so that's how it all started. Pretty soon, there were about 40 or 50 in the club."

Rhee later transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and taught in an even larger club. Then in 1962, he moved to Washington, D.C. to become a professional instructor. He writes,

"I went to Washington to teach for somebody else. They only had six or seven students. I taught for three or four days and then I had to get out because they wouldn't pay me, couldn't pay me. So 28 days after I arrived (in Washington), I opened my studio. ... I first ran advertisements in Washington newspapers. I advertised in each paper for an open house demonstration. At the open house, we had about 135 people packed into a small room. And right after the demonstration, I think I had 30 students registered. Some people paid right there and more people paid within three days. I think my demonstrations really attracted a lot of people instantly. I don't want to blow my own horn, but I had very unique specialities. I am only five foot five and I jumped about eight feet in the air and broke three boards. ... At that time, I put all belt levels in one class. Now we have all separate classes. I think now the drop-out is less because we make the lessons more interesting, more professional. Now we can give them a more personalized attention. They can really learn, and that I think contributed a great deal."

Jhoon Rhee has remained a major contributor to American karate. In 1966, he hosted his First National Karate Championships in Washington, D.C.