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 might 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 affluent 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 send 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 connections were key for success in those days as they are today (although 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

The mystery years: 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 training hall) 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 handful 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 traveled to Japan to study. He even remembers running into Lee Won Kuk while at university but they never studied Karate together though.

There is a blank spot in what Lee did in the time between he finished his studies in Chuo University and the time he came back to Korea. He did say in interviews that he traveled around a little and visited both Okinawa and trained with several masters there, and that he traveled to Japanese Occupied Shanghai and Honan province (that in China:) ) where he studied Quan Fa with different instructors and masters there. Weather he traveled there helping the Japanese Government with some unknown assignments 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. Whether 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” but Chung is translated as Blue, Do as way or art and Kwan to school or institute. I can not see where the “wave” came from? Maybe it should be “Blue Way School” (Blue might imply water?). I am no expert in Korean but I know a little (enough to wonder where “Wave” came from anyway) so do not take my word for it:-)

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 exercises 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
  • 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

Chung Do Kwan was extremely successful and counted about 5 000 students in 1947. The dictator of Korea at the time Syng Man Rhee send 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 yielded 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 calligraphy and acupuncture until his untimely death in 2003.

The legacy

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.