Choi Hong-Hi was born November 9, 1918, in the northernmost region of what is now part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
He is said to have trained in Taekkyeon (a historical Korean kicking martial art and game, somewhat similar to modern day Capoeira) under Han Il Dong. He also studied Shotokan Karate in Japan under Gichin Funakoshi, up to second-degree black belt.
Choi Hong-Hi is known as the founder and grandmaster of ITF Taekwondo, and his distinctions include second-degree Shotokan black belt, general of the Korean army, and veteran of the Japanese military.
Modern Taekwondo is typically represented by two schools, World Taekwondo (WT) and the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). The ITF identifies Choi Hong-Hi as their founder and the patriarch of Taekwondo. The WT considers him an important figure, but not ultimately responsible for the development of the modern sport. The association and later disassociation of Hong-Hi with Taekwondo lineages is complex yet of great interest to both parties alike.
This legend has been considered as a Rebellion Tale due to its overarching theme and message of fighting against the Japanese occupation, and later developing a martial art seen as being uniquely Korean.
After his escape from a Japanese prison, where he taught his guards a mix of Taekkyeon and Karate, Hong-Hi journeyed south to Seoul. Here he enlisted in the newly formed Korean military. It didn’t take long for his skills in martial arts and his experience leading Korean independence movements to gain him a promotion to lieutenant. This position gave him a springboard from which to launch his new system, then named Tang Soo Do.
In 1955, a panel of military advisors, martial arts masters, and historians met to unify the various styles of Korean martial arts under the umbrella of Hong-Hi’s newly created system. With the general at the helm and his supporters at his side, the council decided on the name Tae Kwon Do, meaning “the way of fists and feet.”
Choi Hong-Hi and other leaders of what would later become known as “The Pyongyang Incident” were held for extended periods of time under Japanese orders. There are also several firsthand accounts confirming that Hong-Hi ended up teaching many of the prisoners and guards martial arts, and that they transformed part of the detention center into a gymnasium.1
While Hong-Hi claimed that he worked on developing (and teaching) a mix of Karate and Taekkyeon during his incarceration and the surrounding years, he later retracted his own words in a remarkably damning interview.
Hong-Hi stated: “There was nothing to Taekkyeon. Nothing more than a few of these kinds of foot moves” (he then demonstrated a couple of simple kicking motions).2
In the same interview, Hong-Hi also discussed how any attempts in the early days to link his martial arts practices to Taekkyeon would have ended up in rebellion from his students. He also identified how the lineage of Japanese Karate was the only aspect that gave their training legitimacy with respect to the martial arts.3
This casts doubt on both Taekkyeon being an inspiration for Taekwondo, but also upon the historical use of the system as a martial art entirely. Some scholars have even gone as far to suggest that the modern incarnation of Taekkyeon developed because of Taekwondo’s popularity rather than vice versa, and that it was essentially reborn from its imagined use.4 Techniques such as jumping back kicks, which were later adapted from Taekwondo back into the modern practice of Taekkyeon,5 provide further evidence for this conclusion.
The training Hong-Hi had supposedly undertaken in Shotokan prior to his imprisonment is also dubious. At the time, there was only one Korean in Japan recorded to have been promoted to the level of second-degree black belt.6
As a foreigner training in the country, it is highly doubtful that Hong-Hi would have been able to reach this rank in only five years, let alone the two which he claims. The theory that he may have embellished his own training is supported by the testimonial of Nam Tae-Hi, who stated that he rarely saw Hong-Hi practice martial arts at all.7
Tae-Hi however, was highly skilled and also came from a Shotokan background. Although the only records discussing his use of fighting skills for self-defense in the military are from his own interviews and recollection, leaving them ultimately unverified. Tae-Hi’s ongoing push for Taekwondo to be recognized as an efficient, practical system rather than a sport, lends his tale some credibility.8
While Hong-Hi obviously went through great hardships and found solace and pride in his training in martial arts, most tales of his skills as a fighter are relatively unfounded. Some suggest he was not even a particularly competent martial artist and was promoted to an honorary fourth-degree black belt only due to his military position.9 From my own experiences in Taekwondo and research conducted in writing this book, this seems plausible.10
As a result of the above, it may be worth considering that other key figures of Taekwondo’s development (such as Nam Tae-Hi) are equally, if not more, deserving of the reverence bestowed upon Hong-Hi for their contributions to the system.
When naming the system, it is clear that Hong-Hi used the term Taekwondo in a linguistic attempt to further the idea of it being an indigenous Korean martial art (i.e., Taekkyeon) and probably utilized the typically Japanese suffix “Do” to make the system comparable to Japanese styles of Karate-Do, Kendo, Judo, and others. Regardless of this, most scholars concur that the naming of Taekwondo was one of several steps taken to invent a tradition that could be seen as being independent from its Japanese predecessors, despite virtually zero physical differences (in the early days at least).11
As Hong-Hi’s claims of his early Taekkyeon influences became better known, tenuous historical ties were then pulled up to link the system to ancient Korean peoples and practices (such as the Hwarang, an alleged warrior class, who in reality were teenage aristocrats who performed songs, dances, and shamanism).12
Finally, spinning and flying kicks—which were likely not practiced by Hong-Hi during the period—were also later incorporated into the system on his instruction.13 Although the reasons for these inclusions are purely speculative, it is likely that they were threefold. First, they served the purpose of impressing observers of the new martial art; second, they assisted in further differentiating Taekwondo from its Karate origins; and finally, they provided yet more “evidence” of Taekwondo’s ancient links with Taekkyeon.
Functions of the Legend
Largely thanks to the credibility Hong-Hi earned from his time in prison camps and his military background, he was positioned to develop a system of “indigenous” Korean martial arts.
Early Taekwondo was also exceptionally marketed and promoted, even though it was essentially an invented tradition.
Through legends such as those related in this chapter, by incorporating aspects of Korean history into the names of the forms and including high kicks and the game-like approaches of Taekkyeon, Hong-Hi and his people did truly create a unique Korean martial art—just not one with the ancient links that he claimed!
1 Gillis, A. (2016). A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. ECW Press. p.31
2 Taken from an interview with Choi in 2001. See Capener, S. (2016). “The Making of a Modern Myth: Inventing a Tradition for Taekwondo.” Korea Journal 56(1): 61–92. https://doi. org/10.25024/kj.2016.56.1.61 p. 69.
3 Capener (2016).
4 Cho, S., Moenig, U., and Nam, D. (2012). “The Available Evidence Regarding T’AEKKYŎN and Its Portrayal as a ‘Traditional Korean Martial Art.’” Acta Koreana 15(2): 341–368. https://doi.org/10.18399/acta.2012.15.2.004.
5 Capener. (2016). p. 69.
6 International Taekwondo Federation. General Choi Hong- Hi–International Taekwondo Federation. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2021, from https://www.itf-tkd.org/general- choi-hong-hi/. p. 2.
7 Gillis. (2016). p. 27.
8 Gillis. (2016). p. 45.
9 Moenig, U. (2013). “The Influence of Korean Nationalism on the Formational Process of Taekwŏndo in South Korea.” Archiv Orientalni. p. 334.
10 During research for this book I was unable to find any footage of Choi performing a solid/powerful technique. This is a suspicious absence given the quantity of Taekwondo demonstrations and seminars he led over the years.
11 Bowman, P. (2016). “Making Martial Arts History Matter.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 33(9): 915–933. https://doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2016.1212842. p. 3.
12 Capener. (2016). p. 75. 13 Gillis. (2016). p. 70.
The above is based upon excerpts from Legendary Masters of the Martial Arts: Unraveling Fact from Fiction, by Augustus John Roe, Publication Date October 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399626.