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
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.