Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Lee Won Kuk the original Taekwondo Pioneer?

Lee Won Kuk
The headline might seem strange if you are reading this as a Kukkiwon Taekwondo student. In mainstream dogma Taekwondo is thousands of years old with little to no foreign (non Korean) influences. Taekwondo according to Kukkiwon Textbook is a hybrid of native Korean martial arts wich has been fused together and developed through science in later years.

I do not support this view of history, BUT I do understand why that view was developed and spread through the world. I have read up on newer Korean history and have an idea of how difficult the world of the "true" pioneers of Taekwondo was.

Lately I have been doing my own small contribution to set things straight. Our beloved martial art Taekwondo was developed largely out of foreign martial arts but with small influences (directly or indirectly) from native Korean arts. Those who has actually studied Taekwondo history will agree that modern Taekwondo was developed in the period 1940s untill today. In the main stream history the 1940s and the founding of the various "Kwan" (martial arts schools) marks the beginning of the "modern" Taekwondo.

One way of looking at Kukkiwon`s view of Taekwondo history is to view the term "Taekwondo" as a generic term of martial arts and not as a name of the modern specific martial art that goes by that name. In earlier days the term Taekwondo was used as a generic term of martial arts in literature of the Taekwondo pioneers as we migh call Chuan Fa for Chinese Boxing or Chinese Karate.. Anyway this post is not really about Kukkiwons view on Taekwondo history but rather to tell the tale of Lee Won Kuk as the first man who started what would eventually be known as Taekwondo. You see Lee Won Kuk was the founder of the first "Kwan" or martial school in modern times! Often in the mainstream history texts he is treated as Choi Hong Hi, Hwang Kee and the rest with a short sentence or two referencing the fact that he founded the Chung Do Kwan in 1944.

The Beginning:
Lee Won Kuk was born into a rather wealthy or at least afluent family in 1907. Little is known about his younger days except that he moved to Japan in 1926 for his higher education. This was rather commonplace in Japanese occupied Korea. Wealthy families sendt their young ones to Japan for higher education so they could have a head start in Japanese Occupied Korea. Knowing the language and making important conncetions were key for success in those days as they are today (allthough at that time and place it was obviously Japanese language and connections but the same principle applies to all points of time but I digress).

The start of Taekwondo; Lee Won Kuk`s training in Japan:
Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi
Around 1930 Lee Won Kuk started Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan (Chuo is Japanese for "Central"). Here he majored in "Law" and more importantly for us he started training in Chuo University Karate club under Gichin Funakoshi and Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi. This actually make Lee Won Kuk one of the earliest Karate students even by Japanese standards!. Gichin Funakoshi founder of Shotokan Karate oversaw the Dojo (Dojang or traininghall) but it was Gichin Funakoshi`s protogè and favorite son "Gigo" who did most of the day to day instructing. There are discussions regarding what rank he obtained while training in Tokyo but it is generally believed in Taekwondo circles to be 4th Dan as Lee himself said he had obtained the highest rank obtainable for a student at the time he moved back to Korea in 1944. The highest rank given by Funakoshi to a handfull of students at that period of time was 4th Dan. As a side note, Ryo Bin Jik founder of Song Moo Kwan attended the same University and practised Karate at the same Dojo when he travelled to Japan to study. He even remembers running into Lee Won Kuk while at university but they never studied Karate together though.

The mystery years:
There is a blank spot in what Lee did in the time between he finished his studdies in Chuo University and the time he came back to Korea. He did say in interviews that he travelled around a little and visited both Okinawa and trained with several masters there, and that he travelled to Japanese Occupied Shanghai and Honan province (thats in China:) ) where he studdied Quan Fa with different instructors and masters there. Wether he travelled there helping the Japanese Goverment with some unknown assigments or on his own free will is unknown, but he must have done something right because he was later given permission to start up his own martial arts school in Korea.

The start of Taekwondo; Opening of the first martial arts school in Korea
In 1944 Lee Won Kuk moved back to the still Japanese Occupied Korea and worked in the Chosun Railway Company (later renamed Ministry of Transportation in 1945). Here he met Hwang Kee (I wrote his story in my last post). That year he asked permission from the Japanese rulers to start a martial arts school that could teach Martial Arts to Korean people. He had to ask 3 times before given permission but this was a great deal back then as there was previously a ban on teaching and training martial arts in Korea. A ban set by the Japanese rulers to prevent rebellion. Wether this ban is actually a modern myth or not I do not know at this time but there were no previous martial arts schools or Kwan at that time so there might be some truth to it, and the fact that Lee had to ask permission three times before being allowed to open his own school also certainly supports the belief of a ban like that.

Chung Do Hwe (Hwe means association, union, or organisation, later "Hwe" would be changed into "Kwan") was founded in 1944. Chung Do Kwan is often translated into "Blue wave school or "Blue wave institute". Chung is translated as Blue, "Do" in Chung Do Kwan is not the same as "Do" in Taekwondo. They are both written and pronounced the same in Korean Hangul (도) but they have different "Hanja" characters. The Do in Chung Do Kwan means wave.

The training in Chung Do Hwe (later Chung Do Kwan) reflected in many ways the training Lee Won Kuk had received in Tokyo and emphasised proper techniques (basics), forms or patterns (the same as those practised in Shotokan and in the same teaching order) and the usage of Kwon Go/Dallyon Joo/Makkiwara/Striking post/board as well as rudimentary weight excercises and one and three step sparring. In many ways Chung Do Kwan was the "Kukkiwon Taekwondo Prototype". Many of the "top dogs" or higher ranking masters in modern Taekwondo has his roots in Chung Do Kwan. In an interview Lee Won Kuk listed the following techniques as the core of Chung Do Kwan:

  • punch
  • spear-hand
  • palm
  • knife-hand
  • inner ridge-hand (between thumb and forefinger)
  • twin fingers
  • single finger
  • back fist
  • tiger fist
The kicking techniques consisted of:
  • front kick
  • side kick
  • round kick
  • back kick and these were aimed at various levels of the body  
Political intrigues:
Son Duk Sung
became the 2nd
Master of
Chung Do Kwan
Chung Do Kwan was extremly successfull and counted about 5 000 students in 1947. The dictator of Korea at the time Syng Man Rhee sendt the leader of the national police to Lee Won Kuk in 1947 to ask Lee to enroll his entire association with its 5 000 members into his political party. Lee refused and said in a later interview that he feared that his students and Chung Do Kwan would be used as "muscle" against the "President`s" opposition. He stood fast when others would have yealded because of his principles and strong will as well as his quest for justice and democracy. I admire Lee Won  Kuk for this, but the end result was that Syng Man Rhee accused Lee for being "pro Japanese" and imprisoned not only him but his whole family. I do not know if Lee ever really was "Pro Japanese" but he must have stood on good ground with them as he did get the permission to start Chung Do Kwan in the first place. Lee and his family was finally freed in 1950 and he took his family and moved back to Japan as political refugees shortly thereafter. Son Duk Sung assumed leadership of Chung Do Hwe in 1951 and renamed it Chung Do Kwan.

The aftermath:
After living in Japan for several years Lee and his family relocated to the United States in 1976 on invitation from the U.S Army General Westmoreland who had studied martial arts under Lee during the Vietnamese War in the 1960s. Here he taught Martial Arts, practised caligraphy and accupuncture untill his untimely death in 2003.

The legacy:

Author practising "modern"
Lee Won Kuk started a "wave" of martial arts institutes when he opened Chung Do Kwan in 1944. Soon many others followed and the foundation for "our" Taekwondo was set. His students are now the leaders of modern Kukkiwon Taekwondo and representatives from this school along with representatives from the other schools of early Taekwondo developed the Palgwe, Taegeuk and Judanja (Black belt) Poomsae of Kukkiwon Taekwondo. Some circles of Taekwondo credit Lee Won Kuk as the unofficial "founder of Taekwondo". He never claimed to be Taekwondo`s founder himself, but as you can see both by his life story and through his students he did set a part of Kukkiwon`s foundation when he developed Chung Do Kwan.


  1. I have been at Chung Do Kwam for many years, some of the techniques of the list are not touched (2 with hands) .I think there is not interest to teach BUNKAI (japanese word for kata or forms appications)or or WKL did not learn it,or his first students did not.. So if you begin to practise and 5 years after you are the head of an organisation I think you did not have enough time to learn all about it

    1. Well how much he learned and how much he managed to teach before moving to Japan and then to USA we can only speculate. But he did make a great foundation as it is still possible to learn Taekwondo as a martial art and not just martial sport even today in 2015 :-) Bunkai (or Boonhae as we are KMA stylists) does not seem to have been taught in any formalized way beyond "Block kick punch" applications, but if I understand your comment correctly where you say "2 with hands" you are referring to the hand on the hip? If so while Son Duk Sung (2nd Kwanjang of Chung Do Kwan) did write about the hand on the hip according to (my personal opinion faulty) newtonian science he did show numerous applications in his books from self defense and step sparring where both hands are in use. Knife hand strike to the neck while pulling the opponents arm out of the way toward his hip is one example I have posted on my blog before :-) )

      The fact that they had limited training time just makes the legacy they left behind all that more impressive in my own opinion :-)

    2. The legacy of Chung Do Kwan is so much richer than it is being represented. My eyes were opened when I studied Okinawan Bunkai for the forms used in CDK. And also when I read how Shotokan was "watered down" in order to make it palatable for high school official to approve practice in school. Personally, I prefer to call CDK "Korean Karate" rather than Tae Kwon Do. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference. But I believe it to be accurate.

    3. Can anyone tell me where the tradition of strict non-contact sparring came from? Also where the tradition of judging forms almost exclusively by speed at the expense of all else in CDK?

    4. Jeff the label "Karate" "Korean Karate" and "Tae Kwon Do" depends on how you define them. For me traditional Taekwondo is a system formalized in Korea (check for Chung Do Kwan), used Korean Language in their terminology (Check for Chung Do Kwan), used all pillars of Taekwondo during training and study; Basics, Forms, Sparring, Self defense and Breaking (Check for Chung Do Kwan) and Calls itself Taekwondo (2nd Kwanjangnim Son Duk Sung called it Taekwondo so again Check for Chung Do Kwan). But calling it Korean Karate is understandable and when you look at how People in general look at taewondo today it might even be better understood by the general Public than calling it "Taekwondo".

      The tradition of strict non contact sparring is likely something Lee Won Kuk took home from early Shotokan. Funakoshi despised the sport Version of free sparring but it seems like he did ocasionally grudgedly let People do non contact sparring (but I might also be very wrong here).

      The tradition of judging forms based on speed seems to have happened only in some parts of Chung Do Kwan after Son Duk Sung. Son Duk Sung did do the forms faster than Funakoshi based on the 1958 book by Funakoshi and 1968 book of Son Duk Sung where both Write how long it should take to Complete a form Son Duk Sung consistently Writes Shorter time than Funakoshi. After Son Duk Sung died some or at least one of his students started teaching forms in my opinion too fast, and at least a lot faster than the estimated times that Son Duk Sung himself wrote in his two books.

      Not much of an answer Jeff, but at least I hope it gave you "something" :-)

    5. From 2000 - 2009 forms at Grand Master Duk Sung Son's schools did get faster. Sometimes compromising stances for speed.
      Forms in the mid 70's thru the 90's were much slower, true to form.

    6. Thanks for the comment and sharing Master Bob. I really appreciate getting the chance to learn more from the people who were there:-)

  2. I am a 3rd Dan in CDK. My instructor brought me down to Poughkeepsie, NY on Wednesdays to train directly under GM Son. He was elderly and had suffered a stroke some years earlier, but he was still very powerful. He would stop people who were going too fast and let the whole class know that this was Tae Kwon Do, not dance. I even saw him reject 2 testers for 1st Dan because they were not strong enough and too fast. Since his passing I have seen many of the area schools increase the speed, and in my opinion, sloppiness of their forms. I try to slow my students down, telling them that speed is just a natural acquisition with familiarity and power, focus on the power. My students consistently do well in tournaments and receive many compliments from fellow practitioners. I believe that the idea of speeding up the forms came from juniors trying to keep up with the masters, who were far more familiar with the form, and did not take into consideration the power of mimicry.

    1. Thanks for you comment Ted :-D It makes me very happy to hear that GM Son himself corrected those who practised their forms too fast. I love his books.

  3. Lee Won Kuk = true father of taekwondo. Choi Hong Hi betrayed his student and Son Duk Sung by luring the main CDK students away with military power and influence with dictatorial president Rhee. Choi Hong Hi even tried to get Sung's junior Nam Tae Hi to give him a 6th dan- instead her rescinded his honorary 4th dan and published it in a public newspaper. Choi Hong Hi began referring to himself as the founder of taekwondo when he was junior to both taeknowdo father Lee and his student GM Sung- the truth is the truth. Respect to Choi Hong Hi for working hard and establishing the Oh do kwan and the ITF BUT he is NOT the father or soul founder of taekwondo- he was one of several who pushed hard for the taekwondo name so he deserves credit. The father title is best reserved for the father of taekwondo Lee Won Kuk and other great taekwondo founders like Ryo Bin Jik the founder of Song Moo Kwan.

  4. I am currently writing a book on the historical forms of Korean Martial Arts. Does anyone know the first curriculum of forms used in CKD? I have been looking and researching everywhere, and can only seem to find bits and pieces. Thank you!

    1. Look to the two books by Son Duk Sung and Robert J. Clark. They have included the Kuk-Mu forms which I doubt was present in Chung Du Kwan but it shows many of the forms:-)

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