13 September 2011

Early Influences on Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do was established when a group of Kwan merged together under the umbrella term Tae Kwon Do. The word Kwan 관 / 館 is a Korean word that literally means house, building, hall, gymnasium or school, but has the connotative meaning of a family or clan—a martial art clan; i.e. a group of martial artists that share the same culture, philosophy and technique. In the 1940s the original five Kwan were established: Song Moo Kwan, Chung Do Kwan, Moo Do Kwan, Chang Moo Kwan, and Jidokwan. In the 1950s a further four Kwan were established: Han Moo Kwan, Oh Do Kwan, Kang Duk Won and Jung Do Kwan. (See this French website for a quick overview of how the nine Kwan fit together.)

By looking at what martial arts were practiced in these original Kwan and/or by their founders we can get a good idea as to which martial arts contributed to what are the actual roots of this modern Korean martial art known as Taekwon-Do. The umbrella name Tae Kwon Do was accepted in 1955, and the official Korea Taekwondo Association was first established in 1959/60 and finally affirmed in 1965. To complete this exercise our focus will be on looking at the martial arts practised in these Kwan by 1960; in other words, those martial arts that contributed to “original Tae Kwon Do.” Taekwon-Do has changed dramatically since 1960; however, our aim here is not to see how Taekwon-Do had turned out, but merely to see what the original ingredients for Taekwon-Do were.

Song Moo Kwan founder Roh Byung Jick is said to have practiced as a child techniques that he saw practiced at local Buddhist temples. It is uncertain what exactly the martial art was that was practiced at these temples. Later in life Roh went to Japan to study where he practiced Shotokan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi.


Chung Do Kwan founder Lee Won Kyeok secretly practised Taekkyeon as a child. Later he also went to Japan to study and practised Shotokan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi. He claimed to have also traveled to China were he practised Kung Fu. It is uncertain what style of Kung Fu he had practised; he was however the first to use the term Tang Soo Do (Chinese-Hand-Way) for his style. However, Tang Soo is the Korean rendition of Kara-Te or Karate. The original forms practised by the Chung Do Kwan was the Pyong-Ahn forms, which are basically the Pinan kata from Okinawa that were used in Shotokan Karate under the name Heian.


Moon Duk Kwan was founded by Hwang Kee. He supposedly studied Taekkyeon by himself as a boy by copying a Taekkyeon expert he saw in his neighborhood; however, he didn't have any formal training in Taekkyeon. As a railway worker he often travelled to Manchuria (China) where he practised Kung Fu. In 1957 a librarian from Korea National University in Seoul gave him access to the Muye Dobo Tongji, an ancient Korean martial art manuscript. From this he extrapolated Soo Bahk, an old Korean form of combat. Because Hwang Kee did not want to unify into the new Taekwon-Do system, it is uncertain how much his martial art knowledge contributed to what became early Taekwon-Do.


Chang Moo Kwan was founded by Yoon Byung In who had studied Kung Fu (Baji Quan known as Balji Kwon in Korean) in Manchuria under a Mongolian instructor. He also practised Shudokan Karate in Japan with Kanken Toyama.


Jido Kwan founder Chun Sang Sup practiced Shotokan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi in Japan. Although he called his style Kong Soo Do, it was basically just Karate. Chun Sang Sup was also close friends with Yoon Byung In (Chang Moo Kwan) and frequently trained with him. They sometimes travelled to Manchuria together where they practised in Kung Fu, probably Baji Quan. The Jido Kwan also had Judo ties. (It was the first gym to teach Judo in Korea.)

Han Moo Kwan founder Lee Kyo Yoon was originally a student of Chun Sang Sup (Jido Kwan). His style was most probably based on Shotokan Karate with some Kung Fu influence and may have included some Judo.

Oh Do Kwan was founded by General Choi Hong Hi (known as the “Father of Taekwon-Do” and Nam Tae Hi (Choi's “Right-Hand Man”). General Choi practiced in some Taekkyeon as a child and later studied Shotokan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi while at university in Japan. The Oh Do Kwan system was used in the South Korean military. Most of the military instructors that taught the Oh Do Kwan system was originally from the Chung Do Kwan, including Nam Tae Hi.

Kang Duk Kwan was founded by two Chang Moo Kwan students, Hong Jong Pyo and Park Chul Hee. It is accepted that their style was not much different from Chang Moo Kwan: Kung Fu (Baji Quan) and Shudokan Karate.

Jung Do Kwan was founded by Young Woo Lee, a former student of Chung Do Kwan. It is accepted that their style was not much different from Chung Do Kwan: Mostly Shotokan Karate with some Taekkyeon and Kung Fu incluence.

From this list we can get a good idea of the original influences on what became known as Taekwon-Do. The strongest influence was undoubtedly Shotokan Karate. Other influences were Taekkyeon and Kung Fu, probably Baji Quan. We can expand this list by looking at the “Original Twelve Taekwon-Do Masters.” This group was put together by the Korea Taekwon-Do Association in 1960 to promote Taekwon-Do. Apart from their training in Taekwon-Do under the leadership of General Choi Hong Hi and Nam Tae Hi, some of them were also versed in western boxing, Judo, and gymnastics. It is also believed that General Choi Hong Hi incorporated Hapkido (at the time probably Hapki-Yusul) into the system to expand the self-defence arsenal. General Choi Hong Hi who was the first person to write a book on Taekwon-Do and later also the ITF Encyclopaedia had the strongest influence in standardizing the original syllabus that was used by the Korea Taekwon-Do Association, therefore his martial art experience in Taekkyeon and Shotokan Karate is the be considered the most influential, particularly as far as ITF Taekwon-Do, of which he was the founder and first president, is concerned. Also strongly influential on ITF Taekwon-Do were the original instructors that were mostly from the Chung Do Kwan. Again Taekkyeon and Shotokan Karate are the major influences, along with some Kung Fu.


Regarding ITF Taekwon-Do, which is my primary style and the main topic on this blog, I stand by my view that Shotokan Karate and Taekkyeon are the two main roots. Other noteworthy influences of which we can observe some technical material in ITF Taekwon-Do are Western Boxing, Judo, Hapki-Yoosool and maybe some Kung Fu.

6 comments:

Ymar Sakar said...

This is why I don't like the effects of centralized control. All these groups would have been better served to remain independent and continue doing whatever they wanted to do. Instead, attempting to forcibly combine them just led to problems that reduced training quality.

There's always some guy on YA talking about unifying martial arts in America so that the government or "somebody else" can license people for this or not, and that's probably about as good an idea as a Totalitarian command economy is for the benefit of Americans.

SooShimKwan said...

Unfortunately there are many power hungry people out there.

Ymar Sakar said...

One of the problems with being in a federation, whether it is aikido or the ATA in the US, is that the "standard of quality" cuts both ways like a sword. You can cut the enemy with it, but you can also cut yourself with it. (and given the number of people in the US who buy sharp swords lacking any training or even bio mechanical awareness of their own bodies, accidents tend to be rather high if you go by word of mouth) Low standard organizations like the ATA will actually forcibly decrease a franchise school's quality. If an instructor wants to focus on 5 kata until yudansha rank, he isn't allowed. He must conform to the 13 or 15 katas taught by the official curriculum, else his ATA franchise is pulled and he is fined for breach of contract or some such. That is an egregious example of a limitation on the ability to choose, but other stories are less severe but still very numerous in scope.

When everybody's boat floats on the same level, that's only because those whose boat was floating higher were forced to come down to the ground. An unorganized, chaotic, field where only results provide social status and evaluation, allows both excellence and poor training to co-exist. An organization, however, naturally has a standard and raises the low and reduces the high. If it comes about that an organization has mostly raised the standards and capabilities of the dojos under its command, then it is deemed a necessary reform or change. But that's not the reality this world lives in any more, if it ever did.

Obata Toshishiro even, I heard, separated from the aikido organization he was originally apart of. Because that organization or federation was becoming too interested in "rank" and thus tolerating a much higher rate of injury than Obata was himself prepared to stomach simply to promote people faster. Thus he's out of there now. Why didn't he stay? Because that organization determined his own student's rank and promotions, and that influence couldn't just be ignored. The fact that it couldn't be ignored meant that centralized function had too much power yet wasn't providing a benefit worth the power given to it.

Power comes from the people in an organization, where most people think power comes from the CEO because the leader is the one seen in public to wield it. People give a leader power in return for the leader providing mutual gain and benefit in return. It is not a one way street, although the Japanese definitely saw loyalty as a one way street. When a dojo cannot raise its standard of training by providing power to an organization above it, then there is no point to giving that organization the power of that dojo, the fees, or the time of its students.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Thanks for a thorough and honest assessment of the roots of taekwondo. I spent a year in shotokan and two years in Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do back in the late sixties, early seventies, and it always seemed to me that the Moo Duk Kwon I studied then was basically shotokan on high kick steroids -- with some tweaks to the movements in what were basically the same forms thrown in. My guess is that the reasons for the variations that produced taekwondo, both in its early version as a group of styles of Korean karate and its later as a codified national martial art, were 1) the desire to differentiate from a foreign influence and 2) the proximity of Korea to northern China (since northern Chinese kung fu is typically more acrobatic and reliant on high kicking). Southern Chinese kung fu generally makes use of lower stances and kicks and emphasizes hand technique. So it can hardly be surprising that the Koreans, in the north, picked up the northern kung fu influences and proceeded to refine them on a shotokan platform to develop their own distinct martial art.

In the early 1970's I left taekwondo entirely and began studying with a reclusive Korean martial artist who was still teaching the old Yun Mu Kwan style of Korean karate (which became jidokwan and then was rolled up with the other kwans into the new national art of taekwondo). My teacher had been interacting for some time with the New York Chinese martial arts community and his methods were changing even when I got there so that the style of Yun Mu Kwan he was teaching, while he still called it karate (in the generic sense of that term) had begun to show many affinities with the southern kung fu systems then prevalent in New York's Chinatown. Most importantly, though, were his studies with Yang style tai chi ch'uan master Cheng Man-Ching, then one of the premier tai chi exponents in the U.S. It was his involvement with tai chi that most definitively changed the tone and approach of his teaching.

Although he called the style "Yun Mu Kwan" the entire time I was with him, it had long since ceased to look anything like the original Korean version of shotokan which it was back in Korea in the early days and which my teacher had learned there in his youth. He never signed onto the Korean effort to unify all Korean based styles into taekwondo and he even gave up the emphasis on high kicking and board breaking that had originally been part of his teaching methods.

In the end, I got my black belt with him and never felt a need to look back. One doesn't need lineage or organizations to define or validate one's training. The only thing that's important is what it does for you and what you can do with it. Still, I retain an abiding interest in the many styles and their histories so thanks again for this piece of yours on the roots of taekwondo.

SooShimKwan said...

"One doesn't need lineage or organizations to define or validate one's training."

I very much agree with you on this. Sometimes it is helpful, though, if for instance your aim is tournaments, in which case an organization can provide tournament opportunities and the like -- but as my instructor always said, a belt is useful to keep your pants up!

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Yes, indeed, organizations can be valuable in the sense you indicate. I sometimes miss the fact that my teacher was such a lone wolf that he left us with no affiliations through which to find others with whom to study and share the art he taught.

There are still some people around practicing or teaching his style but it is very uneven. Many of the active representatives today seem to me to be missing, or to have lost, something important that he was teaching. Moreover, he left no real successor behind, no one actively promulgating the methods he taught. Of course, those methods weren't so unique when you think about it.

His was a tai chi karate, you might say, the traditional karate moves recast in terms of Yang tai chi principles. They are certainly not unique to his teaching though. You can find the same methods in many places including among many tai chi practitioners -- and not merely Yang stylists. In his later years my teacher took to calling his style a kung fu system though I was never comfortable with that, when I learned of it, since it isn't any sort of classical style of kung fu.

But he'd always said that he aimed to take karate back to its classical roots, beyond the kinds of styles that had grown up in Okinawa and Japan and were subsequently planted in his own native land, Korea. So perhaps, at least in that sense, one could speak of his system as classical, I suppose.

But he left no formal organization at his death, only two officially designated successors, neither of whom chose to continue to teach the methods our teacher developed. So, in a sense, his style died with him.

An organization of colleagues, which could be useful in various ways, as you suggest, might have been nice. Though, as we both recognize I see, in the end it's not about organizations but about what you get and carried with you from the training.