History | Reviews | Tae Kwon Do/Tang Soo Do/Hapkido

Review: A Killing Art – The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do

I have to confess that I haven’t read this book, though I would like to when I get the chance.  My brother-in-law, Martin who is a 2nd Dan TKD has read it and has highly recommended it.  Then I saw a review on my friend Bob Patterson’s Striking Thoughts blog, so I thought I would copy it here for my TKD readers.

It is along similar lines to Shotokan’s Secrets, by Dr Bruce Clayton, which is the only book that I’ve ever finished and then read again almost straight away.  Both books explore the history behind the arts in question and expose many of the so called “truths” behind the “official history” of these arts.  I do believe that it is helpful to get behind the myths of the art and get to the truth.  It helps give a bit more of an all round understanding and appreciation of the art(s) that we practice.

As with Karate (which at one stage deliberately sought to hide it’s Chinese influences) so some in TaeKwonDo have hidden some its history.  In particular, that it was mainly based on Shotokan Karate with hardly any influence from ancient Korean martial arts as is often claimed.  It’s all in the marketing and there is an element of this in every style.  Whereas Shotokan’s Secret revealed how Funakoshi and other Okinawan masters had been economical with the truth of Karate, so General Choi and other Korean masters have been economical with the truth of TaeKwonDo’s past.

The way I look at it is that our arts today are what they are.  Whether they come from Japan, Okinawa, ancient China, ancient Korea or Disneyland, the arts are still what they are.  They will not be any different just because you discover that they had different influences to what you have been told.  Besides, understanding the actual influences go a good way to understanding the full potential of the art.

Anyway, here below is Bob Patterson’s review from his Striking Thoughts blog:
(Note:  The Striking Thoughts blog has since closed).

Alex Gillis is a university instructor, journalist and author of A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. He has studied the art for 25 years in both ITF and WTF styles. Much like many of us who have studied Tae Kwon Do, he has heard fantastic stories of Tae Kwon Do from his instructors and other Taekwondoists. In this book Gillis grants us access to interviews and information from the early pioneers of the art. Along the way he also debunks a lot of the fantastic claims and dubious history that surrounds Tae Kwon Do.

Simple fact: Tae Kwon Do is not thousands of years old nor did it spring from the Hwrang warriors. Rather, it’s a derivative of Shotokan Karate that Choi originally learned while in Japan during the 1940′s. Nor, for that matter, is Choi the sole inventor of Tae Kwon Do.  We have the art of Tae Kwon Do because of a poker game. The young and hot-tempered Choi Hong-Hi lost all his money on a game of poker and enraged a local wrestler by throwing a bottle of ink at 

The books starts before the Second World War when Korea was occupied by the Japanese and Choi was a young man ready to set off to Japan to complete his education. From there we follow the story of Tae Kwon Do from Choi’s experiences of WW II, to the Korean civil war to the war waged between the ITF and WTF Taekwondo organizations. No political detail is spared as we learn how far Choi would go to keep control of his beloved ITF.  Along the way we also learn how pioneers like Jhoon Rhee and others helped to develop the art.him.  This loss forced Choi to flee his village and later learn karate.

Alex Gillis has written a biography of Tae Kwon Do and a gripping thriller that’s as worthy of a movie as the story of Ip Man! Included are Choi’s brushes with death and his involvement with the Korean CIA. What is also quite disappointing is the shear corruption and greed associated with Tae Kwon Do. As Gillis notes: “I am stuck on the path of Courtesy, which instructors in small gyms around the world know well but which is largely ignored by Tae Kwon Do’s leaders.”

The history of Tae Kwon Do is rightly titled ‘A Killing Art’ because it was created at a time when the martial art was used on the battle fields of Korea and Vietnam by the U.S. and South Korean military. This book is essential reading for karate players and taekwondoists and should be mandatory reading for both ITF and WTF styles.

This book is available on Amazon, just click on the image below.

Disclosure:  The link above is an affiliate link, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.  

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you Diego, that’s a very extensive reply! 🙂

    Before Karate became known as “Empty Hand” it was known as “China Hand”. The “Empty” and “China” both being pronounced the same way in Japanese (much the same as different words in English sometimes have different meaning but the same pronunciation – eg: too, to, two).
    If you show the kanji for The Way of China Hand to a Japanese he will pronounce it “Kara-Te-Do”. Show the same kanji to a Korean, he will pronounce it “Tang-Soo-Do”.

    Notwithstanding your comments about the overlap between martial arts around the region and indeed the world, Tang Soo Do was also nick-named “Korean Karate” and was largely based on Karate to extent of having the same basic movements as well as the same patterns/kata. To this day, the kata/patterns are performed in a different style but still recognisably the same.

    To pick up on some of your comments; “He understood (in his own words) that Koreans needed their own martial art”.
    I can see why. Having a martial art in the 1950’s that is perceived as being Japanese would not be good for marketing in Korea when memories of Japanese atrocities from WWII were still fresh. Also, to market it across the world; why would people go to learn a Korean version of what is largely a Japanese art rather than going to source and learning a Japanese art in Japan!!

    So TKD had to be given it’s own identity to make it different from Karate for marketing reasons as well as Korea trying to rebuild it’s national identity and pride after decades of occupation.

    As for “He improved the technique of Karate”, sorry, but being a Karateka I can’t let you get away with that one 😉
    Every martial art claims to be the best. If you didn’t think you’re martial was the best, you go and change to the one that you did think was best. And any martial art is going to claim an improvement over it’s predecessor or there wouldn’t be much point changing!

    A lot of applications of Karate was lost in the transfer from Okinawa to Japan and much of it got dumbed down. The Japanese made a lot of changes, especially to kata, not really understanding the original application. For example, close quarters strikes and arm locks/breaks become practiced as blocking techniques; even though they don’t work well as blocks under pressure. Books on practical TKD by the likes of Stuart Anslow and Matthew Sylvester look at how to use these “blocking” techniques in a more practical way along with many other movements for TKD patterns.

    General Choi would have probably learnt the dumbed down version Karate. And although a “Scientific guide was introduced for every movement” this would have likely been applied to make movements originally designed as close quarters strikes and locks/breaks work as better “blocks”; which with respect, kind of misses the point a bit.

    Similar has happened in Karate where many kata have been altered to make them more aesthetic and to standardise movements across different katas without really knowing what those movements were for.

    Anyway, thank you for your contribution.

  2. There’s a good number of misconceptions around Tae kwon Do and the way in which is undestood generally, and in particular in US and Europe. However it is good to bring it to debate.

    To begin with, Choi Hong Hi was born in 1918 in Corea, while the country was under japanese rule (it was between 1909 and 1945). In that period Japan had prohibited practicing martial arts, as a measure to control people’s behaviour against daily injustice. By the way, Choi was born with several health problems, and during his early adolescence his father had arranged with a professor of caligraphy (former Taek Kyon practicioner) to spent a few hours a week with Choi to teach him basic exercises, which would improve his health (it did). General Choi Hong Hi refers to this himself, in the basic guide for TKD study, titled ”Tae Kwon Do; the corean martial art of Self Defense (1996)”.

    He also refers, that he visited Japan and learnt Karate Do,in which he was black belt. At the time WWII was ending, Choi was imprisoned in Corea and was released in 1945. He also mentions that he taught Karate in the time he was in jail, to both guards and prisoners. By 1946 the allies defeated Japan, and so Corea was occupied by United States. He joined the new corean armed forces, and actually had a impressive militar career. Some proof includes meeting General D. Mac Arthur and being in charge of a Division in the island of Kwang Ju (1953), reaching the rank of General in 1954.

    He did this while in search for a new martial art. He understood (in his own words) that Koreans needed their own martial art. He improved the technique of Karate and Taek Kyon, and added new techniques as well. Scientific guide was introduced for every movement and all those movements not matching these principles, were eliminated. Also the TKD was to fulfill the requirements of a self defense martial art (it was not meant as sport, and, although it was Choi’s desire to extend TKD all over the world, initially the first students were both corean and american soldiers stationed in South Corea). He eventually funded Tae Kwon Do in April 11, 1955 in an event in which the highest authorities were present. TKD still is, 60 years later, the most popular martial art of the world, with over 60 million practicants.

    As about the origins of TKD, and if it was purely corean or not, Choi Hong Hi explains in his book (there’s a chapter called Origins and development of Martial arts), that if a country called himself inventor of martial arts , it would be like discussing who’s the country that invented fire for the first time. The discussion is beyond proof, as some techniques which undoubtly are realted to modern martial arts, are as old as human history. A simple idea is that from the very beginning the humans needed to defend themselves from both other men or from animals, and that’s basically how martial arts are created, all as an answer to protection (a need, simply). The book mentions, for instance, the significance of China’s history for the whole Asian culture, as a posible answer to the origin of martial arts, but that ”it does not mean, that martial arts were created there either”.

    In Choi’s book, we find that around 2.000 b.C. there was a form of combat in Japan similar or equal to Sumo, and that the art of Palgwae was originated round the same date in China and prefectioned 1.000 years later in other dinasty. And so many other examples (Sireum was also practiced in ancient Corea, and it was a form of training for military round VI century). In that book, also its mentioned proofs that tells us that in ancient Egypt there was a form of combat similar to modern Boxing, and for instance, in Platon’s books (which survived) mentions Skiamacchia, an exercise to perfection the art of Pancratium which was a combat with hands similar to boxing.

    Other interesting story is that, round VI Century, Corea was divided in 3 kingdoms (Silla, Gogureo and BaeK Je), explaining that constantly Silla was invaded and that, this fact prompted the story of Hwa Rang, a group of aristocratic youngmen fighting for their kingdom (Silla). These lasted until IX century or so. The Hwa Rang warriors are compared there to Japan’s Samurai warriors, and actually Hwa Rang is older as it was formed in 600 and it had an effective form of combat without weapons (they also used bows, horses and spades, all which are part of the Samurai’s weaponry). This is not a small detail, as many modern martial arts use ancient weapons, such as Aikido, Ninjutsu and Karate itself (in Japan), Hankumdo in Corea, Kendo, etc. It is really old these techniques and to think they come from Japan or China purely, is also wrong.

    So to conclude what that chapter says, is that each martial art has more to do with the nationality of the creator, than with the line of with a single origin from which all the rest come. T.K.D. is not a form of Karate, therefore.

    Krav Maga was formed as an answer to Israel’s IDF of a military self defense method, and there it is. In any course of Krav Maga you will find, kicks that are the same as used in TKD such as front kick… and is that an imitation? No. It’s just a self defense method in which were selected the techniques they considered best. One would judge, if all is the same or not, or if one martial art is better than another in particular. Another example: BJJ is not created in Brazil, but in feudal Japan, round 1.800 when these techniques were used by warriors. That a Japanese master went to Brazil, and taught some brazilians, and these formed a martial art with that same knowledge, is another thing. By the way, Judo also mentions the feudal Samurai and their extinction as one of the things that would have caused the extinction of these grappling arts, but Jigoro Kano, Judo’s funder, saved those techniques. If you see, both JiuJitsu and Judo (and Aikido) use much of the same techniques, but no one of the people that sually are involved in those discussions, say that one copied each other. And it’s Ok, because it’s not, of course, independently that the techniques are the same.

    To finish, going back to TKD, there’s two styles (federations); one is ITF (International TKD Federation), and the other, more recent, is WTF (World TKD Federation). Nowadays and, sadly by the way, WTF is usually more difused in media, surely it has to do that 1) WTF is the version of TKD included in the Olympics, and 2) that many people dislike TKD and are not willing to learn the difference between ITF and WTF. Not only that ITF rules of combat are more dangerous and have more realism, but that WTF was created much after ITF, and to simply enter in the Olympics. The TKD, in its original form, is ITF and it is the federation in which Choi Hong Hi was president, until his death in 2002. Sadly, WTF does not mention in their official website, the name of the creator of TKD (in fact there’s not a single mention to the history of TKD). The fact that they do not mention him is surely because they know very well they’re an imitation. Besides presenting themselves ”as the federation governing the sport of TKD”. Tae Kwon Do might be a sport, too, but first is a martial art. Its not the same. Another big misconception.

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