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Taekwondo Pioneers: Haeng Ung Lee

October 5, 2010, was the tenth anniversary of the passing of Haeng Ung Lee (1936-2000), founder of the American Taekwondo Association. In keeping with the Korean tradition of gije (annual memorial for family members who have passed on), we take time to remember an extraordinary man with an extraordinary vision.
Lee grew up amid the hardships of the Japanese occupation of Korea and China. In the chaos of post-World War II Korea, he began studying taekwondo to learn self-protection. At first he trained informally, but in time he was invited to train at a Chung Do Kwan branch school in Incheon. Since he had natural ability and trained constantly, he quickly earned black belt rank and began teaching.
In the mid-1950s, Lee spent his national service in the South Korean army, attached to an intelligence unit based on Baengnyeong Island. His primary duty was as the martial arts trainer for his unit. After his discharge from the army, Lee eventually wound up in Osan, leading a Chung Do Kwan branch school near Osan Air Base.
One of Lee’s early students was U. S. Air Force airman Richard Reed. At first, Reed trained on the air base under one of Lee’s assistants, but because of his ability and commitment was eventually brought to Lee’s school in Osan. Eventually, Reed became one of Lee’s first two non-Korean black belts. It was to Reed that Lee first unfolded his vision of teaching martial arts in the United States. Lee’s goal was not simply to establish a single school, but to touch so many people with martial arts that his students would spread over the entire country. Although he was dubious about whether or not Lee’s goal could be achieved, Reed agreed to help Lee emigrate to the U.S. and to assist him however he could.
Lee first came to the States in 1962. Reed, still in the military, was stationed in Omaha, so Lee joined him there and began to teach in the small school Reed had established. Lee was a charismatic and gifted instructor, and he quickly attracted a following. However, he had only been able to get a visitor’s visa, and in 1963 he was forced to return to South Korea. After a protracted effort, including intervention by one of Nebraska’s senators, Lee was granted a resident alien visa in 1965.
After Lee settled in Omaha, he concentrated on growing his martial arts schools. He also started the Midwest Karate Federation (MKF), an umbrella organization for the growing number of martial arts schools his students were opening. Due to Lee’s hard work, the MKF grew rapidly, and developed a reputation for being one of the best-organized martial arts groups in the country.
Lee’s success attracted the attention of General Hong Hi Choi, President of the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF). The General had established the ITF in 1966 and had been working tirelessly to build national affiliates outside Korea. He saw the MKF as a starting point from which to build a potential national governing body for taekwondo in the U.S. In late 1968, the General met with Lee in Omaha, ostensibly to discuss the issue. What exactly was decided was never recorded. However, the General did spend four days with Lee, teaching him the first 16 of the Ch’ang Hon forms in the process.
A few months later, in 1969, the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) was formed as the original ITF affiliate in the U.S. The MKF formed the nucleus of this new organization. Although he was considered the driving force behind the establishment of the ATA, and therefore deserving of the title “founder,” Lee was not permitted to be the first president of the ATA. This was for cultural reasons, mostly; in Korean culture, seniority is very important, and the senior runs the organization. As a sixth degree in his 30s, Lee was not even entitled to call himself “master” at the time (in the ITF, you needed and still need to be a seventh degree to carry that title), and there already several higher-ranking instructors in the U. S.
The problem was solved when Lee’s original instructor, Kang Suh Chong, was persuaded (most likely by Choi) to relocate to the U. S. Kang was a senior eight degree with a significant resume: he had martial arts seniority as one of the first Chung Do Kwan black belts, he had spent 14 years running martial arts training in the South Korean military, and he was (at the time) a Choi loyalist. Because of these factors, it was felt he would attract some of the more senior Korean instructors to join the ATA. Kang settled in New York City and was installed as ATA president. Lee was named Vice President and Chief of Instruction, with his Omaha school serving as the …

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Taekwondo a Path to Excellence by Doug Cook

“Taekwondo a path to excellence” by Doug Cook is an exceptional book for martial artists, not just those who practice taekwondo. The subtitle of this book is “Achieving Physical and Spiritual Enrichment Through Disciplined Practice,” and while Cook’s specific practice is the art of taekwondo from Korea, I believe much of what he writes is applicable to any martial art, regardless of style or country of origin. This is not a technique book, but rather a text that shares the author’s journey and how taekwondo positively impacted his life.
Through Cook’s journey, this book explores taekwondo and can stimulate others to explore their own martial art path. Yes, I do believe those who practice the Korean arts will enjoy this book the most. I personally do not do taekwondo, but my experiences with my chosen art of hapkido are similar, and when Cook wrote about his trips to Korea, it reminded me of my time in the Land of the Morning Calm. (Not to mention, it made me a bit homesick to return)
The book is divided into seven parts. Part One focuses on what taekwondo is. The author explains it as more than just striking and kicking, and I found myself agreeing with much, especially the importance of “Do.” The second part explains a bit of history of taekwondo, including a bit of Korean history. Part Three addresses becoming a steadfast practitioner of the art. I really liked this part and think most practitioners can relate the author’s message to their own practice, regardless of art. The fourth section of the book has some very good advice aimed at beginners. Since we are all beginners at some part of our art, this chapter is good for everyone, but especially those starting their journey. Part Five is more personal to the author regarding his students, colleagues, and experiences. I found it an inspiring chapter. Part Six is fairly short, but provides some wisdom regarding the economics of the martial arts, something anyone who wants to make their living by teaching must deal with. Finally, Part Seven, relays some of the experiences of the author on his training trips to Korea. Those practicing Korean arts that have not yet traveled to Korea may be inspired by this chapter to journey themselves to their art’s country of origin. As I mentioned, it made me think of my time there and made me yearn for my next visit.
This was an enjoyable well written book that prompted me to ponder my own journey in the martial arts. I think it is a valuable book for martial artists, especially those that practice taekwondo or other Korean arts. Definitely recommended reading for all taekwondo stylists.…