The Past, his Father, his Childhood
If you practice Chang-Hun based Taekwondo, Master Choi Jung Hwa’s name is one you should already be aware of. Son of General Choi (pronounced ‘Chay’), the Founder of Taekwondo, Master Choi Jung Hwa carries a heavy burden upon his shoulders.
Politics and splits aside (there are now three Taekwondo groups claiming to be the ITF), Master Choi has the unenviable position of inheriting the legacy his father left him, and ensuring that Taekwondo is not only preserved technically, but that it continues to grow morally and spiritually.
Being the son of a Founder of a martial art is something that most practitioners of martial arts will have day-dreamed about at some point in their lives. However, there’s a lot more to it than ‘martial arts on tap’.
This becomes more than apparent when we discussed his childhood and how he first became involved in the martial arts.
“I had no choice. I was born under the Founder and it was natural that, as a father, he wanted to have his child understand his purpose in life. He would tell me ‘the reason that you are here is to make sure Taekwondo survives after I am gone’. So we would play a game all the time in the car when we were travelling. He would hold my hand and ask me ‘why are you here?’ and I would reply ‘For Taekwondo’. I did not know what I was saying but I knew that pleased him.”
To hear such a thing five minutes into the interview was, shocking. It also gave me a glimpse as to Master Choi’s open and honest character. Most westerners would have grown up with a ‘complex’ and had issues with the way they were not only forced to practice martial arts, but also the way their father had already decided their role in life.
Master Choi appeared to have no such issues, nor complexes, simply stating “I had no choice whether I liked it or not, but I am glad I was born under those circumstances.”
Such a frank and honest opinion is very refreshing to see and we moved on to when General Choi introduced Master Choi to physical training.
“I knew what I was doing when I was seven years old,” he explained “that I was actually learning this thing called Taekwondo, but my father said that he actually taught me when I was five years old. I’ve discounted that as I don’t remember what I was doing. So I would say that officially it’s seven years of age because that I remember.”
With the propagation of classes that teach children as young as 3 or 4 these days, I was surprised to learn that Master Choi had started so ‘late’. Nor does he seem to have been gently inducted into martial arts training, “I remember that when I was learning I was learning with other people and there was no special treatment for me.” Master Choi went on to explain the training conditions, “It was very Spartan training, where the instructors were actually wielding bats to discipline the students. It was not for punishment. Thanks to that kind of training I think I am much stronger in mind and body than otherwise.”
Such training sounds as though it comes straight out of a 1980’s martial arts video, and is something that most certainly wouldn’t be tolerated in this time and age. However, persevering through such training would indeed make a person stronger, both mentally and physically. Attending such hard sessions would build indomitable spirit as well as perseverance. Master Choi was literally living two of the five tenets of Taekwondo on a daily, hourly basis.
Unlike most people, Master Choi didn’t have the option to actually quit when he wanted to, but did he actually dislike the training (big sticks and beatings aside?). It seems not, “Of course at that time I disliked it, I was hoping that someone would come and save me from that class because it was hurting, it was long, and it was very painful. But I wish that other people could have had that opportunity nowadays, unfortunately that it very difficult to find. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to have trained under great masters, and under very strict circumstances.”
Paradoxically, Master Choi found that he was excited by his training as well, however, due to the very things he disliked. Seeing my puzzlement, he was more than happy to elaborate saying “It was always a grind but in a strange way it excited me. It excited me because I knew that after the class I would become a much tougher person in mind and body.”
Having spoken to Master Choi and his associates, I could see that they were all united on a common front. This was the improvement of morality and social awareness in society, as well as the spiritual nature of Taekwondo. It seems that the seed was planted when he was very young. We chatted about his happiest memories of that time.
“My happiest memory is spending time with one Master called Master Han Cha Kyo. I learned philanthropy through him. He was destined to become a Buddhist monk but on his way to the Temple he fell in love with Taekwondo and he made Taekwondo his home.”
Ed’s Note: Master Han did indeed make Taekwondo his home, and went on to form a very successful school in the United States alongside his younger brother.
It’s not often that you meet someone who has been trained by an instructor who is spiritual at heart, and we talked about Master Han and the memories Master Choi had of him.
“I remember waking up in the morning and training with him. General Choi would come and reprimand him for digging up the front yard, making holes. He asked him ‘why are you doing this’ and Master Han said ‘There are many poor people in this area ‘ and he said that with General Choi’s permission he would dig the ground and make a dojang for those who could not afford to take lessons. So at that time I learned about loving and giving from him.
I have the fondest memories of him; Jogging every morning, in the winter time taking cold showers. It was of course very painful also, but in a strange way it was a learning period for me. I did not know what martial arts were but I said ‘This must be it. If it hurts it must be martial arts’.”
The Koreans are known for being hardy and tough fighters. The Tiger Division is one of the most famed units in the ROK army and, if you look them up, you’ll see them training in some of the most arduous and harsh conditions you can think of. Think ‘Best of the Best’, where the Korean Team is training in the snow and you’ll get a good idea of what I mean.
It’s not only the ROK army that does this however, it seems ‘normal’ people in Korean did this as part of their Taekwondo training. Master Choi confirmed this when I asked what sort of exercises he did then, as opposed to the exercises we teach children now.
“Probably about 50 times more than we do now. There were no time periods for classes. When it got dark outside we would finish the class. A lot of the times the exercise was done in the parks or the mountains. There were a lot of people learning and there weren’t many buildings that could accommodate the people who were willing to learn, unless it was at home.
The exercises would start from maintaining basic stance for long periods of time to rolling in the snow, walking in the snow to that extent. Much of it was conditioning your body, which in turn would condition your mind.”
Despite having such a harsh training regime, Master Choi wasn’t put off being in the wilds, and in fact grew to love it. I asked him how this came about.
“I think I owe that to my friends. I was a very spoilt child because I was the only son. I had a very bad habit of not being able to eat outside of my house. I was very finicky in other words. My friends encouraged me to go camping with them. As you know camping is rough and tumble, and we all had to eat from one pot. Of course I couldn’t imagine doing this. After a while I was doing that voluntarily and I became a man through my friend’s encouragement to spend more time outside rather than inside. I still cherish that and that is why I still enjoy spending time outdoors, not only with my friends but of course with nature.”
Having a father such as General Choi, whose goal in life was the evangelical proliferation of Taekwondo was hard on Master Choi and it became clear as we talked that as a child he missed out on being with his father. Even today he still refers to him as ‘General Choi’ rather than ‘father’ or ‘dad’. Because of this I dug deeper into their relationship and asked what their relationship was like and whether he was is father or ‘the General’.
“I wish that now he’s not here, but even when he was alive, that I could spend more time with the father. But as you know General Choi was away from home, spending more time spreading TKD.
I lamented the fact and I asked my father one time ‘if you didn’t do TKD would you have more time for us? ‘”
Reading this, it’s hard to assign any emotion to the above statement. In black and white, it has a very harsh appearance, but in the flesh, it was humbling to hear such a thing from the man who has inherited Taekwondo from his father. There was no bitterness and certainly no self-pity. The reason for this became clear as he continued.
“All my sisters and I decided to have the courage and ask him ‘stop taekwondo now so that we can spend more time together.’ I didn’t have much chance to spend time with my father.
When I became a student, then I found that I could spend time with him. I travelled with him during the latter part of his life quite extensively and I volunteered a lot to spend more time with him. One can say that I spent time with him more as student than as his son.”
That said, Master Choi and General Choi did spend time together, and Master Choi has a favourite memory of collecting Korean ‘delicacies’ with his father.
“General Choi was stationed in Korea and I would go and visit him during the summer holidays and one of the things that stands out is that we used to run through the shrubs catching caterpillars and grasshoppers and frying them, cooking them. Although I didn’t eat them, I loved catching the grasshoppers.
There were a lot of soldiers there and I myself caught them in the name that I would give them to the soldiers. It was a very nice snack for them in those days. I must have eaten some.”
It is the role (and duty) of fathers, to try to not only teach their children physical skills, but to also teach them to deal with life as a whole. Whilst speaking to Master Choi, I came to understand that although he spent a limited amount of time with his father, the time he did spend with him was utilised to the max. I asked him what he thought was the most important lesson he learned from his father.
“Perseverance. As you know, General Choi was in the unfortunate situation where in his childhood days he had to struggle from the oppressors and fight for his life and his country. That continued even until recently. His own countrymen became his enemies thinking that General Choi was giving this nice Taekwondo to the Korean’s enemy. But to General Choi it didn’t matter whether they were Communist or Capitalist, Choi had no ideology and his intention was just to promote TKD.
Unfortunately, in this struggle for survival for the ITF and himself, General Choi sacrificed everything he had, including perhaps his family in order to make sure that his Taekwondo could be enjoyed by all races and all people.”
This last statement is made with pride, and it’s clear that no matter how much he lost with his father, Master Choi gained just as much back from the General.
Fathers reading this will understand the pressures of raising children whilst doing something we love and believe in. Every moment lost when your children are young is a moment that will never be regained. Key stages such as the first word, the first stand and the first step are things that will never be replicated. I’m fortunate enough to have seen all of these for both of my daughters, and yet I still regret the other moments I may have missed. I asked Master Choi if he thought his father regretted their time apart.
“Good question. General Choi was a man of vision and somebody very special. What I mean by that is when I was held as hostage by the Korean Government because General Choi had refused to come back to Korea, he said ‘I will die one day and so will my son. If my son was in my place he would do the same. He would gladly give his life to save TKD.’ I know that there was no regret in what he did, his determination to spread TKD was that strong. ”
This is said without a shadow of bitterness, anger or even sadness. It would have been completely understandable had there been, but it’s clear that Master Choi has come to terms with both his father and the General. I asked him how he felt at the time when he first heard about this.
“Actually I only found that out when I released by the Korean Government to visit him. I felt very shocked at first but then later, the more I knew my father, I knew that I had a great leader.”
For those that don’t know, whilst General Choi was spreading the word of Taekwondo, the South Korean Government decided that they would try to put a stop to it. Their solution was to hold Master Choi and the rest of his family under house arrest, and then to threaten the life of the young Master Choi (resulting in the above statement).
Fortunately Master Choi was still able to travel. The training was carried out by instructors who came to their house.
“Now that I think about it, it was very embarrassing because he would come to our room and wake us and with sleepy eyes we would go on the floor and train. He was a great teacher and I owe him a great deal. I wish I had been more mature and able to appreciate what he was giving us. Only now, in my later age do I appreciate that kind of giving to me.”
It’s commonly known that the General was vilified by the South Korean Government and indeed, the people of South Korea for his actions and his beliefs. Having created an art that was quickly becoming the face of South Korean, to face such opposition and criticism from his own nation must surely have hurt the General. Master Choi explained what he thought his father was going through.
“I think Gen Choi felt very let down by his own people. I do remember his conversations with others where he said ‘Korea is a very small country and we have very little to offer to the world, but I know that Taekwondo can be something we can offer to the world and yet my own government is blocking this wonderful gift to civilisation.’ He lamented the fact that his own government didn’t understand his very noble intentions.”
Master Choi’s love for Taekwondo shines through every time he talks about Taekwondo. We discussed whether he would have done martial arts had his father not been the General.
“I would have done some form because once I got into it I found tremendous beauty and some unexplained love for it.
Most likely it would have been Karate because my father had also learned Karate. In Korea there were a lot of Karate influences remaining in my early days. As a matter of fact I did learn Karate for some time when I was young with my friends and in return I would teach them TKD.”
Master Choi practiced the Heian Kata, rather than the Pyong-Ahn (the Korean version of the Pinans) and we talked about how they compared to the Hyung of Taekwondo.
“General Choi had learned Karate and from his knowledge was able to make something that evolved into what is now know as TKD. The truth is that Karate was the basis of modern TKD so I find that the basic forms are very similar but the theory of creating power has now become a unique and separate entity in itself.”
I was surprised to hear this. It’s not often that you come across a Master in Taekwondo who is willing to admit that Taekwondo is based upon a Japanese martial art. This base is very clear indeed if you look at the lower grade patterns in ITF Taekwondo.
Well written article – very interesting and Master Choi comes across as a very open person. You highlight his humble appreciation of his circumstances well and he deserves respect for his positive outlook.
I was there with him and four other Masters. He and I spoke for such a long time.