The History of Taekwon-Do and its founder by Simon Cox
The history of Taekwon-Do is inextricably linked to the life of its founder, Choi Hong Hi – so much so that the one cannot be separated from the other.
General Choi Hong Hi was born on November 9th, 1918 in Hwa Dae, in what is now North Korea. The young Choi studied calligraphy under Han, Il Dong, one of Korea’s foremost exponents of the art. Mr Han was also a master of Taek Kyon, an ancient Korean martial art that emphasises foot fighting, and, concerned at his student’s slight frame, set about teaching him Taek Kyon exercises to build up his body.
Japan had occupied Korea from 1910, and so in 1937, Choi Hong Hi was sent to Japan to study, where he attended preparatory school, high school and then the University of Tokyo. In Kyoto Choi met a fellow Korean, Mr Him, who had learned the Japanese art of Karate. Mr Him trained Choi in this style and in two years he attained the rank of 1st Dan black belt. When he reached his 2nd Dan he began teaching at a YMCA in Tokyo.
These techniques that comprised Karate and Taek Kyun were to be developed by Choi, Hong Hi to form the basis of modern Taekwon-Do.
When World War II broke out Choi, Hong Hi was forced to enlist in the Japanese army and was posted to Pyongyang. There he was involved in a plot to rebel against the Japanese and was implicated as a planner of the Korean Independence Movement. He was placed in prison whilst his case was examined. Whilst in prison he practised and developed his fledgling martial art. He went on to teach it to his cellmate, then his jailer, and eventually large groups of both prisoners and prison staff.
Japan’s defeat in 1945 spared Choi a seven year prison sentence, and on his release he travelled to Seoul where he organised a student soldier’s political party, and in 1946 the newly formed Korean army saw Choi, Hong Hi commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. This was to be the spark that ignited the spread of Taekwon-Do.
He was made company commander in Kwang-Ju and set about formally teaching his then unnamed art to his entire company. He was soon promoted to 1st lieutenant and placed in charge of the Second Infantry Regiment in Tae Jon, where he continued to incorporate Taekwon-Do into the army’s training programme. It was at this post that his martial art first came to the attention of American servicemen, stationed with the Korean army as advisors.
Between 1947 and 1951, Choi was promoted to captain, major, lieutenant colonel, colonel and brigadier general in quick succession. In 1948, he was posted to Seoul as Head of Logistics and became Taekwon-Do instructor for the American Military Police School there, and in 1949 visited the United States for the first time, attending the Fort Riley Ground General School. In 1950, whilst he was still in America, the Korean War broke out.
Choi was appointed Chief of Staff of the First Corps in 1952 and was responsible for briefing General MacArthur during the latter’s visits to Kang Nung during the war. In 1953, at the time of armistice, Choi, Hong Hi was in command of the 5th Infantry Division.
1953 was a momentous year for Choi. He authored the new South Korea’s first authoritative book on military intelligence, and he created and trained the crack 29th Infantry Division at Cheju Island, where Taekwon-Do in the military flourished. He also established the Oh Do Kwan (Gym of My Way), where he trained instructors for the entire military and also developed his modified Taek Kyon and Karate techniques into the modern system of Taekwon-Do, with the help of Mr. Nam Tae Hi, in 1954. Towards the end of 1954 he created the Chung Do Kwan (Gym of the Blue Wave), the largest civilian gym in South Korea, and was promoted again, to major general.
1955, though, saw the most important event in the development of Taekwon-Do. A special board was formed that included leading master instructors, historians, and prominent leaders of society, to decide upon a name for this new martial art. A number of names were submitted, and on the 11th of April, the board summoned by General Choi decided upon his suggested name of Taekwon-Do. “Tae” = “jumping” or “to smash with the foot”, “Kwon” = “fist”, “Do” = “art”, or “way”: it is generally accepted as “The art of hand and foot”. This single unified name replaced the many different and confusing terms that had been circulating at the time such as Tang Soo Do, Gong Soo Do, Taek Kyon, Kwon Bup, etc. 11th April 1955 is officially recognised as the birth of Taekwon-Do.
In 1959, Taekwon-Do spread out of Korea for the first time. General Choi and 19 of his students toured the Far East giving demonstrations and displays. Many of these students went on to move out of Korea and set up schools around the world.
When he returned to Korea, General Choi was appointed Head of Army Intelligence as well as command of the Combat Armed Command. As such, Taekwon-Do spread throughout the armed forces of Korea, as well as those American forces stationed there under his operational command.
In 1965 General Choi led a goodwill mission to West Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United-Arab Republic, Malaysia, and Singapore to demonstrate Taekwon-Do. By this time Taekwon-Do was practised all over Korea by military and civilians alike, and it was on this tour that Taekwon-Do was first referred to as the national sport of Korea. On the 22nd of March 1966, the International Taekwon-Do Federation was formed with associations in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, West Germany, the United States, Turkey, Italy, Arab Republic of Egypt and Korea.
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s General Choi travelled the world giving demonstrations of Taekwon-Do with his hand-picked team of black belts including Kong Young II, Park Jong Soo, Rhee Ki Ha, Pak Sun Jae and Choi Chang Keun, setting up new ITF national headquarters wherever they went. Taekwon-Do was brought to the UK by Grand Master Rhee, Ki Ha in 1967.
In 1974, the first ever World Taekwon-Do Championships was held in Montreal, Canada, and in 1980 the first European Championships were held in London, after the All Europe Taekwon-Do Federation (AETF) had been founded in Oslo, Norway, the previous year.
At 8:35pm on the 15th of June 2002, General Choi succumbed to his lengthy battle with illness and passed away. He had devoted the years between 1955 and 2002 tirelessly working to spread, promote and teach Taekwon-Do around the world, giving seminars and conducting demonstrations, even developing a 15-volume encyclopaedia that encapsulates every aspect of his martial art. It is thanks to his vision and hard work that Taekwon-Do is what it is today.