Thursday, 23 January 2014

Honoring the Pioneers of Taekwondo; Ro Byong Jik

A while back I started writing a series of posts on the pioneers of Taekwondo. So far I have written one on Lee Won Kuk who founded the Chung Do Kwan, Hwang Kee who founded the Moo Duk Kwan and a commentary on Choi Hong Hi`s Theory of Power (Choi Hon Hi co-founded the Oh Do Kwan). There is a great deal of material on these three individuals as they were important throughout Taekwondo`s history or maintained a great deal of followers after the Kwan-merger in the early 70s in Korea. I am not saying that Ro Byong Jik is not one of them, but I generally find less material on him and the school he founded (The Song Moo Kwan) when compared to the Oh Do Kwan, Moo Duk Kwan and the Chung Do Kwan and their founders. I want to contribute with one post here so people can learn a little more on this Taekwondo pioneer who was an important factor in early Taekwondo history.
Image Source

The beginning:

As with all stories I think it is best to start with the beginning. Ro Byong Jik was born in the summer of 1919 in a place called Kaesung in what is now North Korea. He was the fourth child of his family and he got a tough start in life with  the fact that he had a very frail health as a child. Because of his frail health he had to start his education one year later than what was normal at the time. Most likely when he was about 12 years old.

It is known in Song Moo Kwan circles that Ro was very drawn to the martial arts while he grew up in Korea, but he did not receive any formal training in the native arts at that time. His interest did likely influence him when developing his Kwan in that he too focused more on kicking than what was the norm in the style he himself ended up studying. Also the interest explains why he started practising when he did got the chance.

Around 1936 he was sent to Japan to receive higher education, something many Koreans from wealthy and afluent families did at the time.

Training in Japan:

Many biographies on Ro states he started Chuo University in Tokyo Japan in 1936. Eric Madis points out however that this is highly unlikely given that he would have finished his 8 year of education in 5 years to get this done. It is more likely according to Eric Madis that he moved to Japan in 1936 to start prepetory school and then start at Chuo University a little later. No matter when he did start at Chuo University he did start there and got his degree at the university.

While studying at Chuo Univeristy he started training what was to become Shotokan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi and his son and protogè Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi. Ro could be counted as a first generation Japanese Karate student since he started out this early. The training he received is very different than what was to become shotokan after world war 2 and this would later impact how the early training would become in Song Moo Kwan. The art was allready evolving from the Okinawan Te and on its way to become the distinctive Shotokan that we know today, but there were many things still part of training that today is not recognized as typical Shotokan. The Makkiwara or Kwon Go was and still is a key ingredient, and likewise the focus on strikes over grappling. The difference in training was that the stances and techniques still retained their Okinawan form (as evidenced in pictures of Gichin Funakoshi from the era), there was a lot of suplementary training going on as was customary in Okinawan Te as well as a lot of grappling was still taught allthough it was not the main focus of the training. This is evidenced in Funakoshi`s writings from the era where he among other things shows detailed and greatly sophisticated applications to his forms that people today claim he did not know.

Ro Byong Jik raised through the ranks and earned his Shodan (Korean; Chodan) or 1st degree Black belt before returning to Korea in 1944. I want to point out that at this time the rank system was very new so please do not fall into the trap of viewing this through our modern lense. Just because 1 degree black belt is nothing special today does not mean that it was a low belt in the 30s-40s. On the contrary getting a black belt then was a greater deal than what it is today.

Founding his own Kwan in Korea:

When was Song Moo Kwan founded? That is not an easy question to answer. While Ro studdied in Japan he did come home in his hollidays and when he did come home to Korea it is reported that he taught those who asked him to. Most accounts of the Song Moo Kwan says it was founded in 1944 and a few accounts even suggests that Song Moo Kwan was the first Kwan that was founded even preceeding Chung Do Kwan. It does not matter wether it was the first or second Kwan that was founded what matters is that it was one of the earliest Kwan`s that was founded in Korea.

Ro had some difficulties in establishing his Kwan in the beginning. He first taught in his hollidays as I wrote above but in 1944 he opened his first attempt at a archery club in his hometown. This first attempt at a Martial Arts School taught mainly children and youngsters. The reason for this is that Korea was still ruled by the Japanese and the Japanese had intensified their recroutment to the Japanese army. To avvoid being forced to fight for the Japanese many Koreans hid themselves at this time. It was a very tough time for Korea and the focus for the people were surviving.

Lee Won Kuk (founder of the Chung Do Kwan) remembers in an interview that during the last year of the war (1944-1945) Ro worked as a police man in Seoul. I do not know but I imagine working as a police man at this timeperiod would grant Ro a lot of "practical" experience when it comes to hand to hand fighting. Again I would like to point out that the last statement is just me reading between the lines of history and it is purely speculation on my part.

Ro and Lee Won Kuk had as I mentioned before not only attended the same university, but they had also had the same Karate teachers while practising Karate in Japan. Perhaps this fact explains that Lee went out of his way so that Ro was granted an instructors status at that time (1944-45) so that Ro could legally teach martial arts.

After WW2 Ro moved back to his home city (Kaesung) and established a new dojang there in May 1946 which he called the Song Moo Kwan. This Dojang was his second attempt at founding his own school, but like the first one it did not succeed. The reasons for this is often atributed to the fact that the size of the city Kaesung at the time was not big enough to support enough students, as well as the harsh living conditions at the time. When people are trying to survive their interest in Martial Arts has a tendency to wane.

Song Moo Kwan has a few different translations and meanings. I believe Ro made the name to have the different meanings so I will give these translations and meanings here:

Song has multiple meanings:

  1. It is the pronunciation of the character representing the pine tree, known in Korea for its strength, flexibility and deep green color.
  2. It also referred to Ro’s birthplace Kaesong, called Songdo when it was the capital of the ancient Koryo Dynasty. 
  3. It is also a reference to Ro’s prior training in Shotokan, which is pronounced “songdokwan” in Korean. 
Moo is the pronunciation of the character meaning “martial” and kwan means “institute”. 

Ro called his art Tang Soo Do at this time but he would later in the 1950s use the more "modern" term Kong Soo Do. Tang reference the Tang dynasty in China and Soo means hand, and Do means "The Way". This gives the meaning "The way of the China Hand". In Okinawa they called their art Tote or Tode which is their way of pronouncing Tang Soo. Kong means "empty" as in "Empty hand" the popular name that Gichin Funakoshi made mainstream for Karate. Both Tode can also be read as Karate in Japan.

During the Korean war (1950-53) Ro like many other Korean Citizens fled to Pusan. In the last months of the war he and several other Korean Martial Arts instructors started discussing the possibility of an organisation that could unify and set standards for the Korean Martial Arts. Nothing concrete came out of these talks but this could very well be one of the "sparks" that later resulted in the later Taekwondo Associations. When the war was over in 1953 Ro moved to Seoul and started his third Dojang and this one endured.

Training in the Song Moo Kwan:

Training in the Song Moo Kwan was very strict and tough. Ro was a strict instructor of "the old school" and he was known to make his students practise in freezing temperatures in the cold of winter as well as make them endure the scorching temperatures in the heat of summer. The training also mirrored Ro`s training in the early Shotokan in that he made use of different training equipment now thought to be unique to only Okinawan Karate. His students had to practise with various weights as well as strike the Kwon Go (Makkiwara) a lot just as a warm up before the practise even started.
Family Tree

He demanded high quality basic techniques, put a lot of emphasis on the practise of "Hyung" (Korean pronounciation of "Kata") as well as formal sparring (the one step, two step and three step sparring still part of Traditional Taekwondo) and free sparring. Free sparring however were strictly reserved for those of 4th geup (today a red belt or brown belt depending on your belt system) and if any lower grades were caught free sparring Ro would become angry and keep the whole Dojang responsible according to one of his early students. This contrasts the modern way of teaching Taekwondo where many people get thrown in to the deep end and start free sparring as white or yellow belts.

Ro used the weight training and the Kwon Go (Makkiwara) extensivly in his own training and was known as a powerfull puncher and kicker from his students.

The Hyung that was practised in the early Song Moo Kwan was directly imported from Shotokan Karate, so for those interested in these forms just look to Shotokan. Later Ro would start implementing Choi Hong Hi`s forms (those who are practised in ITF today) so depending on when you practised there you would learn a different set of forms.

Organising the different Kwan into what was to become Taekwondo:

Ro Byong Jik was instumental in developing the organisation that would unify and set standards for the Korean Martial Arts. First in May 1953 he helped found the Korean Kong Soo Do Association and served as its executive director. The organisation did not survice however but in 1959 he was part of founding the Korean Taekwondo Association and this time served as a vice president. In 1961 the organisation was renamed the Korean Tae Soo Do Association. Tae Soo Do being a mix between the more popular older names (Tang Soo and Kong Soo Do) and the new name championed by Choi Hong Hi. It was changed back yet again to Korean Taekwondo Association a few years later. Ro also served as president of the KTA in 1966-67 and was an advisor to the World Taekwondo Association (Song Moo Kwan).

While he was a very diplomatic individual, changing the name of his art numerous times to keep the peace, implementing new forms sets etc he did hold on to the traditional ways of basic techniques and teachings. This contrasted the goals of the newer generations of instructors however who wanted to stress the sport aspect more, and over time Ro`s influence waned, as did the other pioneers who tried to keep the old ways. The Foundation these pioneers set was very solid though so even today in 2014 we can still enjoy Taekwondo as an holistic traditional martial art if you can find the right instructor or put the time needed to develop in this direction after learning sport taekwondo yourself. Many older techniques characteristic of self defense are still part of the Kukkiwon system for instance. We still follow the traditional framework laid down by these pioneers and we still have philosophy as a major part of traditional Taekwondo.

(Grandmaster Ro Hee Sang demonstrates a technique on the right to a class in Korea 1965) 

Ro Byong Jik`s son Ro Hee Sang moved to the United States in 1976 and founded the World Song Moo Kwan Association to preserve his fathers legacy, explaining that while most Kwan has dissapeared over the years (or rather been unified into Kukki Taekwondo), Song Moo Kwan has a strong presence in the USA. This is also the case with Chung Do Kwan, as its second Kwanjang (leader) moved to USA, and Moo Duk Kwan as Hwang Kee also moved to the USA. Chang Moo Kwan lives through Kim Soo`s Chayon Ryu and these Kwan also have a (compared to the vast number of Kukkiwon Affiliated Dojang) a small presence in Korea.

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  1. I am a student of Grand Master Kim Soo's and I enjoyed your article. I am curious about your own training and teachers. I have looked a little around the net but wasn't able to find out too much. Your name sounds Norwegian to me, but I'm a yank and everything sounds foreign to me ;-) My teacher said that this article is a "well-written true story of Korean TKD" and it was he that wanted more information about you.

    1. Hi Ragnar and thank you for your kind comment (and your teachers kind comment).

      I am Norwegian as my name implies (you are quite correct) and I study Taekwondo at Bergen Vest Taekwondo Dojang. My primary teachers are Grandmaster Cho Woon Sup and Master Erling Oppedal.

      I have also travelled to train and study in Korea about 10 times (each trip lasting about a month) and I have also lived 1 year (2007) in Korea and studdied Taekwondo there in Gwangju. I practised Olympic sparring with the Kyurigi team and Poomsae with Grandmaster Yoon while studdying there.

      I have practised Taekwondo for 13 years and I am currently a 2nd Dan. I hope that answers your teachers questions:-) I can be contacted through if you or your teacher wishes to know more:-)

  2. Another great article. It's interesting to read more about the "lower profile" Kwan founders. Do you have any more planned?

    1. Thanks for your feedback Simon, and to answer your question I have several under way. Wriing about them also teach me a great deal about them. I have started a little on the founder of yun moo kwan. I have had some interesting email exchanges with dr george vitale that has had me reevaluate what I know/knew. My goal is to make atleast one post on each kwan founder and then we will see where my writing takes me:-)

  3. hey is that the email that works? it seems the other one doesn't (or you no longer look at it, or even have me listed as spam).


    You will find the accurate history of Song Moo Kwan on our website. We are trying to reconnect those of SMK lineage to the only person promoted to 10th Dan by SGM Byung Jick Ro, SGM Joon Pyo Choi. We're hoping to connect with those 1st and 2nd generation students of SGM Ro.