In part one of this enlightening interview, Master Choi was kind enough to share his memories of his father, and his early days learning Taekwondo.
In part two we move on to discuss Taekwondo the art and Master Choi’s views on sparring, unification, the Olympics and how he views it as a whole.
Taekwondo the Art
As you’ve no doubt seen from reading part one of the interview, Master Choi is refreshingly honest and open. He continues to be so as we move on to discuss what his favourite aspect of training is, and whether it had changed since he started.
“To be fair, when I was young I don’t think I had any favourite, I just wished that the classes would end. But after that experience, Taekwondo is a package. You cannot separate one technique from another or one aspect. I think that when you know the whole of it you will appreciate it. If you only know part of it then I don’t think a person understands the essence of Taekwondo. That’s probably not a good answer for you, but for me it’s hard to separate one aspect from another and say ‘this is my favourite’ because Taekwondo is about making a man, not just a technique itself.”
The last statement about making a man is very important and will become much clearer in part three of the interview. As with most things, people in the West tend to focus on the physical rather than mental aspects of the martial arts and this is highlighted by the emphasis placed upon competition. Master Choi agreed with me when I pointed this out and challenged the belief that martial arts are mostly physical with a small part being mental.
“I think that it is probably all mental art. The physical is only a stepping stone and I would like to emphasise to young people these days that sometimes we are missing the wood for the trees. Martial arts are aimed so that you become a very able and strong and honest person. I think a lot of people emphasise the physical which is sad and unfortunate.”
Competition aside, the over-emphasis on physicality rather than mentality is very understandable. As a white belt, you are often un-coordinated, your stances are too long or too short, your movements are stiff and unbending and your flexible is on a par with an ironing board. 6 months down the line and there is a massive difference. 4 years down the line and you’re not even recognisable as the same person.
Mental strength and improvement is much harder to quantify however. Because the changes can often be so subtle and because the work done to improve oneself can be so easily torn down (read ‘Mental Strength’ By Iain Abernethy for more details on this), it’s all too easy for it to be case aside. Mental strength is also much harder to develop because, as with muscles, you need to exercise the brain in order to grow. Quite often this growth comes in the form of facing your fears (quite literally, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’) and so is much harder to do than just improving your turning kick.
Despite the over-emphasis on competition in recent years, there does seem to a sign that Taekwondo is coming back to its roots. Master Choi explained why he thought this was, “They say that there is a trend in the human race. Every 15 years, something different interest takes part in their civilisations and I think that sports martial arts is similar. For some years the martial arts aspect is very popular and then the tournament aspect is very popular. I think it’s a cycle we go through.
For excitement I think the sports aspect should continue.
Now the trend is that people want to go back to a little more meaningful aspect of martial arts than just competition.”
The need for excitement, the need to be seen to be achieving and the need to prove oneself against another seemed to be a driving force more for Westerners than for Orientals. Master Choi explained that in the beginning there were no competitions. Competitions dictate that there is a winner and a loser and he explained that Orientals did not originally approve of that kind of competition.
“As you know we emphasise competition with yourself rather than with somebody else.” Competition with yourself, pushing yourself further than your mind or body want to go, further than you’ve been before is, in Master Choi’s opinion what makes you not only stronger (mentally or physically) but what defines you as a martial artist.
We discussed how the modern martial arts are influenced very much by the Western way of living and Western thought processes. The main factor was the need to achieve, to progress and to accumulate status symbols that reflected the progress and, therefore, social standing within specific peer groups. One obvious way of measuring success is through grading and obtaining belts.
Quite often people only start the martial arts because they want ‘to be a black belt’. They have no idea as to what ‘to be a black belt’ truly means, but are really stating that they want to obtain or achieve a black belt. Although many drop out of the martial arts before they achieve this aim, many more drop out once they have reached their goal because, despite the years of training, they did not grasp the fact that a black is not the end of the journey, but the start. All the belts prior to black belt are really only preparation
Do you think that gradings detract from the true meaning of martial arts?
I thinik if we did away with the belt system we could truly find happiness. Many people have put too much emphasis in grading and the grading processes. It has diluted the good things that we can offer and can be the way to undo a good person’s learning.
Would you consider doing away with belts?
I’m sleeping with the thought every day. How we can balance humility with ability and the belt ranking system is definetly the quickest way to build a person’s ego and to destroy it in the end.
If you were to implement such a thing, how do you think it would affect your students as a whole?
My hope in the future is that there would be some criteria where we can, where school teachers can be given permits to operate schools. All these are the results of either bad teaching or no teaching in the martial arts, if every school is equipped with a good teacher over-egotism will not be so prevalent as it is these days. That can only be done with the co-operation of Local Authorities and governments and recognised martial arts organisations.
I think that they will come but that is much needed. We are already seeing many unqualified people, even dangerous people, teaching these days and that must be rectified as soon as possible.
How are you going to achieve that?
I think that first of the martial artists themselves have to speak with the same voice, that this is to teach our next generation and to the betterment of their life and not to regard each other as competitors but as friends or brothers and sisters. There’s room to accommodate different styles for everybody. There’s no need to compete with each other but rather with a sound voice to approach the local governments and ask that we set a critera to give permits to qualified instructors. Only that way can we be teaching what is beneficial for the next generation.
If that is unregulated it will become very dangerous.
Some people have spoken about how they would like to have a uniform black belt where they take modules, is that something that you’ve considered?
I don’t have the solution for people misunderstanding TKD but that is everyone’s homework. How can we rectify the fact that we’re not making good martial artists but Monsters, not Masters. It’s very sad.
There seems to be a move towards not only unifying North and South Korea but also WTF and ITF. Do you think it’s a good thing, or do you think that the diversity of TKD as it stands is a good thing?
WETF has done a lot in promoting competition and when they encourage the sport aspect of TKD I think that is a wonderful thing.
Our TKD is based on martial arts philosophy and martial arts structure. I don’t think that it is necessary to put the two together. I think we should encourage the goodness of WTF as well as ITF. Let’s develop the sports aspect of it to a higher plateau and martial arts can still be improved. Why would anybody want to see an offshoot of a cat and dog together, they are separate entities. Why would you want to mix it together?
So do you think the Olympics were a good thing for TKD?
I think it was good for Korea’s prestige. I think it was good for promotion, however we must also know that we should acknowledge that TKD is popular for the martial arts aspect and not just the sports. I think it is good.
You’re saying that you’re the guardians of Taekwondo and that nothing should be changed within the patterns etc, how do you see Taekwondo progressing if you’re trying to preserve Taekwondo the system and not Taekwondo the concept?
Much of the technical aspect that we practice has been completed by Gen Choi, there are confusing aspects of Taekwondo that need to be clarified which is what I mean by improvement.
I remember Gen Choi said ‘I have barely had time to teach technique to my students, to teach morality takes a long time, I hope our sons can finish the job for me’. In other words Gen Choi’s time was more physical teaching and our time is more moral by becoming good examples, becoming good brothers and sisters so that we can embue more morality and explain and also become part of the learning process of morality. I hope we can achieve it, I’m sure we will.
Where do you see TKDF in 20 years?
We have to undo many of the wrong concepts not only of TKD but also of martial arts. That martial arts are very peaceful and not violent and as we go up in the ranks that our heads can become lower like a very ripe grain. We have to learn more humility, to be kind and to hide the aggressiveness.
There’s a trailer for the World Championships that appears to be very violent with a high number of knockouts, this appears to be very violent, even to martial artists.
This is what is happening still to this day. But aren’t you glad that our Founder said that this is a non-contact sport, for that reason. Even so people are being knocked out.
Is this something that you will be addressing with your association?
It is always a very important issue because TKD was meant to make people strong and healthy, not to destroy each other. The competition aspect has to be researched much more thoroughly that it is now. We have to spend a lot of time to safeguard our children and adults.
There’s a bit of an issue with regarding head contact to children. Is this something that you would consider dropping?
We make it mandatory that we all wear the appropriate safety gear and our training of Umpires emphathisses very clearly the safety of the players over everything else.
There are good point fighters and there are good full-contact fighters and our basic competiton remains a non-contact competition as my father had dictated. However, for good contact fighters there is room for that which is a little bit of a different taste to our traditional fighters. So there will be, and are already soft-contact allowed.
Alot of ITF fighters are stepping into the cage and doing well. Is this something you would like to see more of?
There has always been ITF people fighgting in full-contact or other forms of contact fighting and they do quite well. At that time we would expel them because we didn’t condone it. I think that there is no need to cage them. If they are good fighters and that is their wish, I think we should also develop that area and those people too.
This organisation is not here to control people but to enhance the ablitiy of different people, of different aspects of the person. If the person is good in full-contact fighting there’s no reason for use to stop it, we can develop it to a different plateau. That’s possible.
TKD became very legendary during Vietnam when the NVA issued an order that no ROK troops were to be engaged unless the odds were 3-to-1 or victory was assured, and there were instances of where TKD was used and the enemy casualties had no marks on them. How has TKD changed since then and was it a different form of taekwondo that they were teaching?
I think you are very well informed. I think that the strength of the ROK army has been the indomitable spirit. All Koreans are physically smaller than many others. We have a very short history of armed forces. They were, especially during the Vietnam war, feared. I hear that it was much more than the Green Berets. The backbone of their strength came from that very Spartan training that was mandatory for all Korean Armed Forces.
Seriously how TKD was taken or perceived by the armed forces. An interesting story appeared regarding the 1959 demonstration team in Vietnam. There they said ‘you will find something strange here’. The order of their entrance is that a lower ranking person in the army is in the front, and a Colonel is at the back. This was because General Choi decided to line them up in order of TKD ranking. This meant that when an army officer, this was unthinkable that he ignored army rankings but put TKD ranking first.
One comment was ‘you can see the love of TKD from General Choi’.
It’s very interested because one could be court-martialled for that but General Choi said ‘the person who has more TKD knowledge is the senior in my mind’.
Look out for part 3, the final chapter in this interview. Master Choi shares his views on morality and how Taekwondo can be used to cure social ills.