The Kwans of Taekwondo

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					The Kwans of Taekwondo by Stevie Simkin At the heart of the history of taekwondo is a paradox: while some say that the roots of taekwondo can be traced back deep into the mists of time, at the same time the taekwondo that is practised around the world in the new millennium is less than sixty years old. Taekwondo’s official history – and, more importantly, its identity as a specifically Korean martial art, is distinctly modern. What we can gather of the practice of the martial arts in Korea before the nineteenth century, at least, suggests that they were very derivative of Chinese forms. The two recognisably distinct Korean forms before the beginning of the twentieth century are ssirum (a form of wrestling) and taekyon (a form based around swinging kicks, leg sweeps and traps). Taekyon (Literally, “stopping shoulder”) looks to the uninitiated more like a dance than a fighting form (in this way, it resembles the art of capoeira, which has has gained attention in the UK recently via clips of its practitioners in action during continuity announcements on BBC 1), and it now bears only a tangential relationship to modern takewondo. Although elements of takeyon can be traced in modern taekwondo (in particular, the emphasis on non-linear kicks such as the roundhouse, crescent and axe kick), the major influence on taekwondo actually came about as a result of the Japanese occupation, from 1910 until the end of the second world war. Before the martial arts were banned by the Japanese authorities, kendo and judo were part of the curriculum in Korean schools. More importantly, several of the founding fathers of modern taekwondo trained in Japan in different forms of karatedo – in particular, Hong Hi Choi, later to become known as the founding father of the Korean art, went to Japan in 1938, earned his second dan in karatedo at Tokyo University, finally returning to Korea after the war. The liberation of Korea from Japan was a monumental event in the cultural life of the nation, but the legacy of so many years of colonialisation does not fall away easily. In terms of the martial arts, the Japanese forms persisted, and for our purposes the most important of these is kongsudo, the direct Korean translation of karatedo (“way of the empty hand”), which evolved gradually into the separate arts of tangsudo (“way of the Tang hand”, a reference to the Tang dynasty) and taesudo (“way of the smashing-kick and fist”), which was finally renamed taekwondo (“way of the hand and fist”) in the 1960s.

An understanding of taekwondo as it is currently codified and practiced is best understood by a study of the establishment of the five main schools of taekwondo that emerged after the Second World War, especially between 1945 and 1947. Mudokkwan was established by Kee Hwang in November 1945. Hwang drew on his knowledge of both Chinese and Japanese martial forms for his "martial virtue hall" (the literal translation of Mudokkwan). Hwang is believed to have had an association with Gogen Yamaguchi, the founder of Japanese Goju-ryu Karatedo, and it is certainly the Japanese influence that is dominant in Mudokkwan poomse, although some have noted that the more advanced forms show a Chinese influence in both form and name, such as Jangkwon ("long fist"). Chon Sang Sop founded Yonmugwan, the School of Martial Training, in Seoul in the same year Kee Hwang founded Mudokkwan. Again, the chief influence was Japanese – this time, Shotokan karate-do. It classified its style as kongsudo (“empty hand”). Yun I Pyong’s School of the Fist Method, Kwonboptojang, as its name suggests, placed a great emphasis on hand techniques (it was later renamed Jidokwan). Jidokwan’s debt to Japanese forms is reflected not only in its techniques: its shotokan and judo influences are clear from its symbol, which depicts two circles, with the outer ring depicting the pattern of the kodokan judo emblem, and the central circle of the shotokan emblem revealed when the upper circle is removed. Jidokwan became known for its emphasis on kyorugi (sparring), and its exponents dominated the South Korean sparring competitions in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, it is also responsible, in all probability, for the invention of the axe kick, thanks to one of its most famous exponents Sang Chul Lee: Master Lee apparently developed the technique to take advantage of the fact that, topping six feet, he was taller than most of his opponents: his axe kick was frequently used to devastating effect, and he retired undefeated after winning thirteen national championships. Meanwhile, Songmugwan (School of the Pine Tree) was again more strongly rooted in karate-do. Its more unusual name reflects something that underpins all modern takewondo, which is an understanding of different techniques, combinations and, in particular, poomse (forms) in relation to the natural world. The pine has a place in Korean culture as a symbol of faithfulness, loyalty, long life, respect, and happiness. The symbol thus incorporates many of the fundamental philosophical principles of taekwondo.

The Chungdokwan movement, generally agreed to be the oldest of the kwans, was founded by Lee Won Kuk, who referred to his style as tangsudo, which means the way of Chinese (Tang dynasty) hand technique, although his teaching was heavily influenced by his own training in forms of karatedo. Chungdokwan translates as the Gym of the Blue Wave – again, the link between taekwondo forms and the natural world is evident; here, the symbol invokes the spirit and vitality of youth. The story goes that Grand Master Lee came up with the name while sitting on a beach one day and watching the waves come in. Reflecting on the waves’ powerful, unstoppable force, it struck him as the perfect way of summing up his own form of taekwondo, and his understanding of its spirit and form. Grand Master Lee was a passionate advocate of Korean independence, despite the fact that before liberation his cooperation with the Japanese aroused the suspicions of many Koreans. From 1946 onwards, Lee worked hard with the police to rid the dangerous districts of Seoul of gangsters, and his school even came to be known as the National Police Headquarters dojang. Anyone with a black belt was given an honorary police badge. Chungdokwan branched out internationally chiefly via the work of Master Duk Kyung Choi, chief instructor at the Chungdokwan studio in Seoul for nine years and many times a Korean national taekwondo champion. Master Choi came to the United States in 1969 and founded a chungdowkan school in Washington, DC. Although many more kwans were established over the next couple of decades, these are the oldest. However, of the later forms, O Do Kwan is particularly noteworthy: it was founded in 1954 by Hong Hi Choi, as an offshoot from Chungdokwan, and it is significant because it was Choi who would play the key role in the formalizing and “branding” of takewondo. In April 1955 at a conference that brought together Kwan masters, practitioners, historians, and promoters of the ancient art of taekyon that the term taekwondo was finally adopted, and the term was coined by General Hong Hi Choi. The name taekwondo found general favour partly because of its closeness to the most ancient “pure” Korean martial art that can be traced – taekyon – and partly because, unlike a number of the earlier names for styles and kwans, it described both hand and foot techniques. However, inevitably, it was not plain sailing from 1955 on. Dissension dogged all attempts to build links and cooperation between the groups, and it was not until September 1961 that the groups finally united under a single banner, the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA), with General Choi, Hong Hi elected as its first president.

Choi’s preoccupation has always been the idea of taekwondo as a martial art rather than as a sport. He was also largely responsible for the export of taekwondo to the west: he found the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) in 1966, and moved its headquarters to Montreal. Although there are isolated instances before the 1960s – notably Jhoon Rhee who in 1956 taught what was probably the first American class in taekwondo while training as a soldier in Texas - the international spread of taekwondo (which is now reported to be the most widely practised martial art in the world) began with in-roads into 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. 1973 saw the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) nationally inaugurated in Korea as the National and Worldwide body for the Korean National Martial Art of Taekwondo, and today it is fair to say there is a degree of rivalry between the ITF and the WTF. In technical terms, the WTF places a greater emphasis on kicking and competition sparring. The WTF is a larger and looser organization than the ITF which places a much higher premium on poomse, is less preoccupied with sparring techniques, and has remained (unlike the freer WTF), pretty much within Choi’s iron grip. Modern taekwondo may be the national Korean sport, but it has come a long way away from the “purest” ancient Korean form of taekyon. However, the fact that it does not have the clean timeline of more ancient oriental martial arts is, in as sense, its greatest asset. Largely free of the dead hand of history, tradition and conservatism, taekwondo can continue to adapt and grow, while retaining always its founding principles of modesty, etiquette, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit. Stevie Simkin, 4/xii/03ANNOTATED LIST OF SOURCES The following sources were the chief references used in compiling this report on the kwans of taekwondo: Excellent timeline, running from 57 B.C. to 1990 A.D.: Encyclopaedia-style reference:

Comprehensive resource for everything you will ever need to know about the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). Particularly good for biography of Hong Hi Choi, etc: Equivlaent of the above for WTF: A useful FAQ on taekwondo history, rather critical of Hong Hi Choi: Good (but less detailed) history, but very good resource for everything from flags and emblems to the meaning of every pattern: Scott Shaw’s hapkido-based Historical Background of the Korean Martial Arts has some useful detail on the complex history of the formulation of taekwondo: For further information on Jidokwan (including more on Sang Chul Lee), see: For more on Songmugwan, see: This exhaustive resource helped me understand more about the specific histories of chungdokwan and Lee Won Kuk:

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