CHOI, Hong-hi (November 1918 – June 2002), also known as General Choi, was a South Korean army general and martial artist who is in many circles regarded as the “Founder of Taekwondo.” Choi is arguably the most controversial figure in taekwondo history.
- In ITF-style taekwondo, Choi is widely celebrated as the founder of taekwondo.
- In Kukkiwon/WTF-style taekwondo however, Choi’s contributions to taekwondo history are somewhat more downplayed.
When writing about the history of modern taekwondo, the two major styles of taekwondo (ITF and Kukkiwon/WTF) tell the story rather differently. Most WTF sources do not explicitly say that Choi did anything dishonorable (though that it sometimes intimated); instead they merely downplay his role.
Context of the Controversy: The Cold War Edit
One reason it’s difficult to tell the story of General Choi is because of the political context of the times. Taekwondo was developed during the most intense period of the Cold War.
- China was, of course, a communist country at that time (and still is, though it has undergone many economic reforms in recent decades).
- Likewise, North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union and by China, was (and still is) also a communist country at that time. Recall that during the Cold War, in the days of McCarthyism, being called Communist was a severe accusation not just in the U.S. but in many other parts of the world as well.
- Japan had just been defeated in World War II, ending five decades of cruel imperialistic practices in Asia. As just one example, during Japan’s 35 year occupation of Korea, Japan forced hundreds of thousands of young Korean women (“Comfort Women”) to serve as sexual slaves for members of the Japanese Imperial Army. In the early days of the Cold War, despite Japan’s post-war reforms, Korea’s memory of Japanese Imperial cruelty was still bitterly fresh.
- South Korea, though it flirted occasionally with modern liberal democracy, was primarily a military dictatorship for almost forty years, from about the early 1950s until 1987. During the Cold War, South Korea was nominally an ally of the United States, but only because South Korea was staunchly anti-Communist at a time when Communism was seen in the West as the world’s greatest threat to peace and stability.
In other words, from the standpoint of international relations in that part of the world, there were no “good guys” among the nations surrounding Korea at the time of the invention of taekwondo. That part of the world was a mixed bag of communism, dictatorships, and too-recent imperialism.
In this context, we have General Choi, a man who made it his life’s passion to invent a new, uniquely Korean martial art (taekwondo) and promote its adoption worldwide. In order for Choi to succeed, he would need both funding and political support.
- If he sought funding or support from North Korea, he’d be branded a Communist, which at that time in South Korea (and elsewhere) was viewed as traitorous, illegal and severely punishable.
- To seek funding from South Korea, he’d have to at least tacitly support a military dictatorship.
If fact, the South Korean government itself did want to promote taekwondo worldwide:
- Promoting taekwondo as a new international sport would lend much needed credibility to South Korea on the international stage.
- And also, by some counts, the Korean version of the CIA (called the KCIA) sought to use the many taekwondo schools around the world to pursue its own covert agendas.
To be fair, one could make a strong argument that Choi was caught between a rock and a hard place. His own agenda (promoting his version of taekwondo worldwide) required funding and political support, but the only sources of major funding and political support available were from either a communist government or a military dictatorship. By all accounts, Choi did at least explore the possibility of accepting support from North Korea (going so far as to travel there during the height of the Cold War); that alone would tarnish him as a traitor for those who at the time were staunchly anti-Communist.
From the standpoint of the South Korean government (then still a military dictatorship) the solution to this problem was to develop an entirely new form of taekwondo that was independent of Choi. The new form of taekwondo is what we now call Kukkiwon-style (or WTF-style) taekwondo. The style of taekwondo that Choi himself had already successfully spread around the world (despite the many obstacles) is what we now call ITF-style taekwondo.
Now in the 21st Century, when both South Korea and Japan have been liberal democracies and good Western-allies for decades, when even China has adopted many free market principles and trades freely and extensively with the U.S. and the West, it is perhaps difficult to remember that the nascent years of taekwondo were played out in a world that was very different from the world we live in today. It is impossible to appreciate the life or accomplishments of General Choi without keeping that in mind. It is also difficult to know – fifty years later – how much of what is said about Choi is true, and how much is conjecture. Any student of taekwondo history, however, has to acknowledge that Choi’s early contributions to taekwondo and to the adoption of taekwondo worldwide were extremely significant.
- Read about the Japanese occupation of Korea on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korea_under_Japanese_rule
- Read about Comfort Women on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfort_women
- Read about the Cold War history of South Korea (including its military dictatorships) on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_South_Korea
- Read about the KCIA on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KCIA
- For a detailed and extremely well-researched account of this period, see "A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do" by Alex Gillis
Choi was born on 9 November 1918 in Hwa Dae, Myŏngch'ŏn county, in what is now North Korea, which at that time was under Japanese rule. At age 15, Choi's father sent him to study calligraphy under Han Il Dong, who was also said to be "a master of Taek Kyon, the ancient Korean art of foot fighting."
In 1938, during his high school years, Choi relocated to Japan to study. Just before Choi left Korea for Japan, Choi had a gambling disagreement with a large and intimidating wrestler named Hu, and the possibility of a future confrontation inspired Choi to train in martial arts; in his own words, "I would imagine that these were the techniques I would use to defend myself against the wrestler, Mr. Hu, if he did attempt to carry out his promise to tear me limb from limb when I eventually returned to Korea." In addition to his academic studies, Choi studied Shotokan Karate while in high school and recieved his 1st dan rank under a Korean instructor named Kim Hyun-Soo. Choi then attended to Chuo University in Tokyo where he continued to train in Shotokan Karate, reportedly receiving his 2nd dan rank before graduation. (Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi sometimes taught at Chuo University during this timeframe, so it is commonly believed that Choi probably received at least some instruction from Funakoshi during this time.) Choi graduated from Chuo University in 1943, and taught karate for a short time at the Tokyo YMCA.
Like many young men during the Japanese occupation, Choi was conscripted in October 1943 and forced to serve against his will in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Choi was posted to Pyongynag where he became involved in the Korean Independence Movement. Choi was implicated in a rebellion against his Japanese commanders however and was imprisoned by the Japanese. At the end of World War II, Choi and the other prisoners were of course released. The post-war division of Korea between North and South, however, left Choi unable to return to the land of his birth in the north. Instead, Choi joined the South Korean army in 1946. By 1951 he had been promoted to brigadier general, and by 1954 to major general.
Choi believed that the new South Korean army would benefit greatly from martial arts training. He felt strongly, however, that Korea should develop a uniquely Korean martial art to teach to its troops (rather than teaching Japanese karate to Korean troops). During the Korean War, Choi created an officer training program and an infantry division that provided martial arts instructors to the military. As one of the inventors of taekwondo, much of Choi’s energies during his life were devoted to making taekwondo be distinct from karate in terms of its forms and techniques. Choi was ultimately successful at the widespread adoption of taekwondo in the Korean military, and in fact many U.S. servicemen stationed in Korea first learned taekwondo there before bringing taekwondo back to the U.S.
In 1959 Choi was named President of the Korean Taekwon-do Association (KTA), the organization chartered with bringing the Nine Kwans together to form a common Korean martial art. In 1962, Choi was sent to Malaysia as South Korean ambassador, but after his return to South Korea in 1965 he found life under the South Korean regime so intolerable that by 1972 he finally emigrated to Canada. During the 1960s, Choi and Nam Tae Hi led the original masters of taekwondo in promoting their martial art around the world. In 1966, Choi created the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF). Choi’s first English-language manual, Taekwon-Do (1965), eventually led to the publication of an entire taekwondo encyclopedia on the art in 1985. In 1973, shortly after Choi’s emigration to Canada, the South Korean government promoted the Kukkiwon and subsequently the WTF. From his new home in Canada, Choi continued however to promote ITF-style taekwondo worldwide. He continued in this endeavor throughout the remainder of his life.
Choi died of cancer on 15 June 2002 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Shortly after his death, the ITF split into three separate organizations (see ITF Taekwon-do for an explanation of the split).
Choi is listed in the Taekwondo Hall of Fame with various titles: "Father of Taekwon-Do," "Founder and First President of the International Taekwon-Do Federation," and "Founder of Oh Do Kwan." Choi’s obituary from the 8 August 2002 New York Times reads as follows:
- Gen. Choi Hong Hi, widely acknowledged as the founder of tae kwon do, a martial art that began in Korea and spread rapidly to community centers and storefronts around the United States, died on June 15 in Pyongyang, North Korea. He was 83 and lived in Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.
- General Choi went home to die in Pyongyang after doctors in Canada determined his stomach cancer was inoperable, said Craig Stanley, an assistant to Jung Hwa, the general's son.
- Tae kwon do was developed by General Choi in the 1940's as a combination of a Korean form, taek kyon, and the Japanese discipline karate. It is a method of unarmed combat intended for self-defense that engages the mind and the body.
- General Choi's detractors, including officials in the South Korean government, say that the discipline is merely a repackaging of old Asian martial arts techniques. But even they credit General Choi with the name tae kwon do -- tae, meaning to kick with the foot, kwon, meaning to strike with the fist, and do, meaning art. He came up with it in 1955.
- Choi's biography on Wikipedia
- Choi's biography on the Korean version of Wikipedia http://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/최홍희 (use Chrome browser or Google Translate to read in English)
- "A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do" by Alex Gillis
- Numerous other biographies of Choi are available on the Internet, for example:
- Many videos of Choi are available on YouTube
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