Grandmaster Joon Pyo Choi Biography: The History of Korean Martial Arts

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Every life form has a skill of self-defense to survive. When life is born, it lives. And to live, it must survive. And to survive it must have a method of self-defense.

The methods of self-defense differ from creature to creature. A tiger, a lion, a monkey, and a cheetah all have their own way of fighting. The higher the level of the animal, the more complex its way of fighting and self-defense.

The human, however, is not born with any hardware. It can not fly. It can not swim. It has no fur to protect it from the cold. Nor does it have any teeth, claw, or scales. When it comes to self-defense, the human seems not so good.

Except that the human has a brain and eyes. Human beings watched the other animals fight, and because of the bigger brain, humans were able to capture the skills of the other animals. But not easily. The hardware just isn't there for a human. So humans had to develop their own hardware.

First there was fire, to cook and to scare the other animals. Then humans made weapons from stone and tree. Their hardware was the sticks they swung and the stones they threw. With these they were able to push over the other animals and even other humans. Except for the lions and the tigers. They didn't worry about the sticks too much!

A stone is like a baseball, and a stick is like a baseball bat. There is not much difference at all. Current sports have evolved from martial arts skills. All the sports we see now are displays of martial arts skills. Only we've added rules. Human beings are born to fight; that is their nature. But fighting and killing in our societies is wasteful, and so we have sports as a symbolic fighting and self-defense. Some sports are more clearly martial than others.

To compete is to explore human nature in a positive way. Games and having fun is what sports are about, but also the practice of martial skills. If an enemy attacks the U.S., perhaps the New York Yankees will lead us with their bats! It is sometimes not easy to recognize that a sport is a martial art, but consider basketball. Five players, one ball with a hoop, using all sorts of skills: feinting motions, rule-breaking, offense and defense, and even cheating. War and sports are both martial arts, both are the same thing.

So, humans develop their martial skills from the beginning of time. In Korea of course, kicking was a common fight skill for many thousands of years. During the Yi Dynasty it was known as Taekkyeon, though it took many different forms. It changed over time. If there was a kicker, then there would be a grabber. If there was a grabber, then there would be a chopper. Then if the sword was coming, there would be a spear. And for the spear, you would use a hook and chain. As time goes, so does the fighting style evolve. At the end of the Yi Dynasty Taekkyeon was 90% kicking. In addition to Taekkyeon, there was the style of wrestling called Ssireum, very similar to Sumo wrestling known in Japan. For armed combat, there were 18 prominent weapons used in Korea: spears, hooks, tridents, bows and arrows, and many types of swords. These 18 weapons, plus Taekkyeon and Ssrirem were Korea martial arts at the time of the Yi Dynasty.

When the Japanese occupied our country, the first thing they did was ban all local martial arts. All the weapons were confiscated. There was no way that the Koreans could practice their martial skills against the Japanese. But at the same time, they brought in their own martial arts: Karate and Gumdo, which is the sword. Also they brought Judo, Akkido, and Jujitsu. These Japanese arts became common, and the Korean arts were forced underground.

Scholars went to Japan during this time to study for higher levels of education. Korea did not have the universities and college that Japan did. Leaders and scholars who went to Japan studied Karate and became black belts. My own teacher, Byung Jick Ro, did this. He too was from northern Korean, from a wealthy family, and went to Japan to study. His teacher was from Okinawa and Byung Jick Ro learned Shotokhan Karate.

When he returned home, he brought back Japanese martial arts and created a Korean martial arts school, known as a Kwan. His became known as Song Moo Kwan, after the name of the city where he was born. Song means pine tree, Moo means martial arts, and Kwan means school. There are five traditional Taekwondo schools: Song Moo Kwan, Chung Do Kwan, Moo Duk Kwan, Chang Moo Kwan, and Yun Moo Kwan.

During the 36 years of Japanese occupation of Korea, this is how martial arts were learned and taught in Korea, all heavily influenced by Japanese martial arts. When the occupation ended, and then the Korean War started, there was much chaos and the teaching of martial arts was limited. But after the war, in the 1950s and 60s, the Japanese techniques started to smear with the traditional Korean techniques. The Japanese Karate that we learned was smashed into the ancient Taekkyeon techniques. In ten years, the methods changed. Kicking became completely different.

Many scholars say that Taekwondo came from Karate. No! 36 years of suppression cannot replace 6000 years of history. Now people understand this, but at the time the general belief was that Taekwondo was just Korean Karate. At that time, we were not sophisticated enough to explain this, but we knew it was not the same. We made it our own, merging it with the ancient arts. There are similarities, of course, such as the self-defense movements, one- and three-steps, but the fundamental kicking style is Korean not Japanese.

When I came to this country, no one knew Taekwondo. Karate however came to this country in the 1950s. A man named Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushinkai, travelled the country, fighting anyone and everyone. He fought the wrestlers first, since pro wrestling was common at that time.

His knife hand was as thick as a rock. He used it to strike down bulls, to knock the horn right from the bull's head, to kill the bull with a single strike. He had that kind of power, and was one of the best fighters in Japan. Only he was Korean. His original name was Choi Yeong-eui, but he left Korea and mastered the Japanese martial arts, beat all their best fighters, and became the first to bring Karate to the United States.

The U.S. media was fascinated by him. They treated him as if he was the hand of god from Japan. Because he studied Karate, Karate became the symbolic word for martial arts in the United States. Not just the Japanese type of martial arts, but all martial arts.

So when I came to this country, no one had any idea what Taekwondo was! Instead of calling it Taekwondo, we called it Korean Karate. No one even knew what a Korean was at that time either. Everyone thought we were from China! Everyone thought Asians were either Japanese or Chinese. So I couldn't teach Taekwondo. No one would know what it was, so I taught Korean Karate or Super Karate. After the students come in, we called it Taekwondo. After they paid money.

And that's how we slowly changed the perception in this country, how we educated this country to know what Taekwondo is, to understand that Karate and Taekwondo are different. Now people know. Taekwondo is an Olympic sport. Taekwondo is the prominent martial art in the world. That is how Korean Karate became Taekwondo!

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