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Martial Arts: Korean Arts: Taekwondo

Storming the Fortress:  A History of Taekwondo

Part Two: The First Korean Schools:  The Shotokan Schools

By Eric Madis

Lee Won-kuk and the Chungdokwan

Lee Won-kuk, the founder of the first TangSooDo school, the Chungdohwe

Lee Won-kuk (1907-2003) is considered by some to be the founder of taekwondo.  He was one of the first Koreans to study karate in Japan and he established the first school of tangsoodo (and what would eventually become taekwondo) in Seoul, Korea in 1944.  He would also exert a profound influence on the development of the art through his instruction of many of the future leaders of taekwondo (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 1; Lee, 1997; Massar & St. Cyrien, 1999). 

Lee Won-kuk was born on April 13, 1907 in what is now South Korea.  Little is known of his early youth, except that he went to Tokyo in 1926 to attend secondary school.  In early 20th century Korea, most children started primary school around age 11, and therefore attended secondary school at later ages than in the present day.  Lee subsequently attended Chuo (Japanese: “central”) University in Tokyo where he majored in law and where he studied Shotokan karate under Funakoshi Gichin and his son Funakoshi Yoshitaka (Gigo). 

Funakoshi Gigo, senior instructor at several Japanese university karate
clubs under his father Funakoshi Gichin

The Chuo University karate club was established sometime between 1928 and 1935 (Cook, 2001: 76).  Considering when Lee would have entered Chuo University, the earliest that he could have studied karate would have been 1929 or 1930.  If so, he certainly would have been one of the early students of karate in Japan, even by Japanese standards. Although Lee never specified his rank in Shotokan karate, it is usually thought to be 2nd or 3rd dan (Japanese/Korean: “degree of black belt”), based on several clues.  Lee stated, in a telephone inteview in 2000, that he had received the “highest dan” rank available at that time (Uesugi, 2000).  However, in an interview conducted by karate historian Graham Noble, noted Shotokan historian and instructor Taiji Kase stated that, by 1944, there were only three students (other than Funakoshi’s assistant instructors) who held 4th dan rank:  Hayashi, Hironishi and Uemura.  Kase added that he remembers one Korean student who received the rank of 2nd dan and who later returned to Korea, although Kase did not recall the person’s name (Graham Noble, personal communication, July 2000).  Whatever his rank may have been, Lee was acknowledged as the senior practitioner and leader of Shotokan karate in post WWII Korea. 

Lee did not specify, in any interviews, what he did from the time of his graduation from Chuo University Law School until his return to Korea in 1944.  However, he has stated on numerous occasions that he visited Okinawa, and numerous places in China, including centers for chuan fa (Chinese: “fist method”; kung fu) in Shanghai and the Honan province.  Whether this was as a member of the Japanese military or otherwise is unknown.  However, his connections with Japanese leadership aided him when he returned to Korea, for he found employment with the Ministry of Transportation (Uesugi, 2000).  More importantly, after three requests, Lee received permission in 1944 from the Japanese Governor General Abe Nobuyuki to teach karate to Japanese nationals, and shortly thereafter to a select group of Koreans (Lee, 1997; Massar & St.Cyrien, 1999).  Lee named his school (Korean: dojang; Japanese: dojo) the Chungdohwe (Korean: “Blue Wave Association”) and classes took place at the Yungshin School gymnasium in Seoul (Kang and Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 1-1).  Lee called his art tangsoodo (“Way of China Hand”) (Hwang, 1995: 26; Massar and St. Cyrien, 1999), the Korean pronunciation of Funakoshi’s mid-1920s spelling of “karate-do”, using the Tang/China character. 

Training at the Chungdohwe at that time reflected the training that Lee had received in Japan with Funakoshi Gigo, who was the third son of Funakoshi Gichin and the senior instructor in several of his schools. The Chungdohwe emphasized strong basics, forms (Korean: hyung; Japanese: kata), use of the striking post (Japanese: makiwara; Korean: tal yul bong), and included both single-step sparing and three-step sparring (Cook, 2001: 76-96; Lee, 1997; Massar & St. Cyrien, 1999).  In a 1999 interview, Lee stated that his instruction “...consisted of ten hand and eight kicking techniques all aimed at the vital points of the body. The hand techniques were punch, spear-hand, palm, knife-hand, inner ridge-hand (between thumb and forefinger), twin fingers, single finger, back fist and tiger fist. The kicking techniques consisted of front, side, round and back kick and these were aimed at various levels of the body” (Massar & St.Cyrien, 1999).

Early Chungdohwe photo.  Lee Won-kuk front row center.

Lee was aware of the social significance of his karate instruction. He stated, in a 1997 interview for Taekwondo Times, “The lessons were popular and many people wanted the training.  We had to be careful to recruit and keep only the best, most highly motivated students.  The students we kept included some of the prominent figures in modern taekwondo.  We worked hard to keep up the quality of instruction and our students, and to promote tangsoodo as a positive influence in Korean society.  Our main objective was to instill discipline and honor in young people left without a strong moral guidance in those troubled times” (Lee, 1997). 

Yun Cae, the head of Korea’s national police, approached Lee in 1947 with an offer.  Acting as an emissary of ROK president Rhee Syng-man (Yi Sung-man), Yun told Lee that, if he would convince his entire 5000-member association to join the President’s political party, he would be rewarded with an appointment as Korea’s Minister of Internal Affairs.  Lee refused and later explained:  “I was concerned that the government’s motive for enrolling 5000 martial artists in the president’s party was not to promote justice, so I politely declined the offer” (Lee, 1997).  Lee, his wife and several of his top students were soon arrested and accused of being pro-Japanese and an assassin group.  This is ironic because, according to noted Korean historian Lee Jeong-kyu, “during the 12 years of Syngman Rhee’s administration (1948-1960), 83% of 115 cabinet ministers were Japanese agents or collaborators under Japanese colonial rule” (Lee, 2002a). 

Son Duk-sung assumed leadership of the Chungdohwe in 1951, eventually renaming it the Chungdokwan

Lee’s release came in 1950, thanks in part to the pleading of Yu Chang-jun, the personal secretary for President Rhee.  After their release, Lee and his wife were still extremely uncomfortable with the political situation in Korea and returned as political refugees to Japan (Lee, 1997; Massar & St. Cyrien, 1999).  Shortly thereafter, Korea suffered devastating losses and disruption of daily life from the war between North and South Korea.  Therefore, from the time of his arrest in 1947 until the time of the armistice (ending the war) in 1953, a number of Lee’s students established their own schools.  These individuals included Hwang Kee (Moodukwan), Kang Suh-chang (Kukmookwan), Nam Tae-hi, under direction of Choi Hong-hi (Ohdokwan), Lee Yong-woo (Jungdokwan), Ko Jae-chun (Chungryongkwan) and others (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 1; Massar & St. Cyrien, 1999).  Shortly after Lee’s departure for Japan, his student Son Duk-sung assumed leadership of the Chungdohwe, renaming it the Chungdokwan (“Blue Wave Institute”) in 1951. 

Lee emigrated from Japan to the United States in 1976 with the assistance of U.S. Army General William Westmoreland, who had studied with Lee when the latter had taught martial arts to U.S. military personnel during the Vietnam War in the 1960s (Lee, 1997).  Lee lived the remainder of his life with his wife Lee Young-do in Arlington, Virginia, practicing calligraphy and acupuncture, and granting occasional interviews.  He died of pneumonia at the age of 95 on February 2, 2003 at Arlington Hospital.

Ro Byung-Jik and the Songmookwan

Ro Byung-jik, founder of the Songmookwan

Ro Byung-jik was born July 13, 1919 in the small city of Kaesong, which is located in North Korea very close to the demilitarized zone between the two different Koreas.  Little has been written about Ro’s youth, although it is reported that he was the fourth child in his family and, because of his frailty as a youth, he began elementary school a year later than what was then customary in Korea (WSA, 2010), so probably at twelve years of age.  Ro subsequently went to Japan for education in 1936.  Although it is reported that he attended Chuo University (in Tokyo) in 1936 (WSA, 2010), this is highly unlikely.  Had he entered elementary school in 1931, then (if these reports are true) he would have completed his primary and secondary education (at that time, an 8-year course) in five years. Japan’s pre-university education at that time consisted of five years of elementary education and three years of non-mandatory secondary education, with many secondary educational institutions being preparatory schools for specific universities.  Therefore, it is most likely that Ro went to Japan in 1936 at the age of seventeen to attend preparatory secondary school and then college.  This was very common for elite Koreans during the years of Japanese occupation of Korea.  This explanation is compatible with many of the short biographies of Ro, stating that his education in Japan began in 1936 and that he returned to Korea in 1944, after graduation from Chuo University (WSA, 2010).

While attending Chuo University, Ro trained in karate at the university karate club under the direction of Funakoshi Gichin, founder of the Shotokan school of karate.  The primary instructor (the person running the classes) there was Funakoshi Yoshitaka (Gigo), Funakoshi Gichin’s third son (Karate-do, 2001; Jotaro, 2001; Togawa, 2001).  Chungdokwan founder Lee Won-kuk, who had attended Chuo University earlier and also trained in Shotokan karate with Funakoshi, recalls meeting Ro in 1940 (Uesugi, 2000). This makes sense, considering the dates at which Ro would have attended Chuo University.  Ro received the rank of shodan (1st degree black belt; Korean: chodan) in Shotokan karate while at Chuo University (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 5; WSA, 2010; Uesugi, 2000)

Ro returned to Kaesong, Korea in 1944, and began to teach karate on March 11, 1944 to youngsters at the Kwandukjung Archery School (Losik, 1999;WSA).  The conscription of Koreans into the Japanese Army reached its peak in 1944, so it makes sense that Ro’s students would have been mostly children at this time.  This school lasted only a few months. 

According to the Lee, Won-kuk, Ro worked as a policeman during the last year of the WWII (1944-1945) in the Mapu-gu district in Seoul, Korea until Korean independence on August 15, 1945.  Lee added that he was able to grant Ro an instructor status at that time, so that Ro could legally teach karate (Uesugi, 2000). 

Ro returned to Kaesong after WWII, reopening his dojang on May 2, 1946, and calling it the Songmookwan.  Song has multiple meanings.  It is the pronunciation of the character representing the pine tree, known in Korea for its strength, flexibility and deep green color. Italso referred to Ro’s birthplace Kaesong, called Songdo when it was the capital of the ancient Koryo Dynasty.  Finally, song is also a reference to Ro’s prior training in Shotokan, which is pronounced “songdokwan” in Korean.  Moo is the pronunciation of the character meaning “martial” and kwan means “institute”.  Ro called his art tangsoodo (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Section 1), although during the 1950s and much later, he would call it kongsoodo (“empty hand way”).  This school, like the first one, lasted for just a few months, due to the remoteness and size of Kaesong (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 5; Losik, 1999) and/or because of desperate economic and living conditions near the end of World War II (Losik, 1999; WSA). 

Although Kaesong was a part of South Korea after the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (PDRK, “North Korea”) on September 9, 1948, it was the scene of much warfare during the Korean War (1950-1953), and it came under control of PDRK in 1951. Like many ROK citizens, Ro fled to the southern Korean city of Pusan during the Korean War.  Near the end of the war, he and other Korean instructors discussed the establishment of an organization to unify and set standards for karate schools (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Section 2).  Ro returned to Seoul at the close of the war in 1953, where he again established the Songmookwan (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 5; WSA, 2010). 

Ro’s teaching at the Songmookwan reflected his Shotokan roots, emphasizing basics, forms, makiwara training, and Shotokan-style sparring (Kang & Lee, 2000: Chapter 1, Section 5), including single-step and three-step sparring, as well as free sparring, which was still in its infancy at the Shotokan schools while Ro attended school in Japan.  According to Lee, Young-sup, one of Ro’s earliest students, free sparring was only to be practiced by those with the rank of 4th gup (rank below black belt; Japanese: kyu) an intermediate level, usually denoted by brown or red belt; and above (Kang & Lee, 2000: Chapter 1, Section 5).  Lee further stated that, when this rule was broken, the entire dojang was made responsible (Kang & Lee, 2000:  Chapter 1, Section 5).  His approach contrasts with modern taekwondo schools, many of which allow and encourage free sparring from the student’s first class.

Ro participated in the establishment of the Korean Kongsoodo Association (KSA) on May 25, 1953, serving as its executive director. The purposes of the KSA were to unify and set standards for Korean karate schools, and to provide official certification and issuance of dan (degree of black belt) ranks to members. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Ro would actively participate in unification associations and discussions between the various Korean karate kwan (Korean: “institutes”), including Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) in 1959 (serving as Vice President) and the Korean Taesoodo Association in 1961 (Kang & Lee, Sections 4-10).  He served as President of the KTA from 1966-1967, as well as an advisor to the World Taekwondo Association (Songmookwan).  Despite his flexibility in discussing and considering significant changes to the name and administering of Korean karate, he was among the first generation of instructors who adhered to traditional karate training methods and forms, and who preferred to call their arts kongsoodo or tangsoodo, rather than taekwondo or taesoodo (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 2, Section 10).  Therefore, like other taekwondo pioneers, Ro found himself marginalized as taekwondo underwent drastic changes in the 1970s.  His son, Ro Hee-sang, moved to the United States (Minneapolis, MN) in 1976 to establish the World Song Moo Kwan Association and to continue his family’s legacy.

Chun Sang-sup and the Yunmookwan

Chun Sang-sup, founder of the Yunmookwan Kongsoodo Bu

As was the case with most of the earliest pioneers of Korean karate, Chun Sang-sup (dates unknown) came from an elite (affluent and not in conflict with the Japanese occupation) background (Kang and Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 2), and was therefore sent to Japan for his higher education.  Chun studied judo as a youth (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 2), although sources conflict over that training taking place in Korea or when he attended secondary school in Japan (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 2).  Later, while attending Takushoku University in Tokyo, Chun also trained at that university’s karate club (Lee Chong-wu, 2001; Lee Chong-wu, 2002).  Okinawan master Gichin Funakoshi oversaw instruction there, but as was the case with other clubs, the active senior instructor was Funakoshi’s third son, Yoshitaka (Gigo).  That particular school was the initial training ground for many of Japan’s famous karate masters, including Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda, Masatoshi Nakayama, Hidetaki Nishiyama, Teruyuki Okazaki, Mas Oyama (Korean name: Choi Hyung-yi) and many others. 

The Choson Yunmookwan had been established early during the Japanese occupation as a judo (Korean: yudo) club with Lee Kyung-suk (dates unknown) as headmaster of the school (Lee Chong-wu, 2001).  One report gives the date of establishment as 1931 (Losik, 2001). When Chun Sung-sup returned from Japan prior to the end of WWII, he was hired by Lee to teach both judo and kongsoodo (Korean: “karate”).  After WWII, Chun moved the school from its original location in Seoul to the Chunbuk area of Chunju.  This new school, renamed the Yunmookwan Kongsoodo Bu, was opened on March 3, 1946 and was dedicated specifically to the study of kongsoodo (Kang & Lee, 1999; Chapter 1, Section 2). 

The Yunmookwan grew quickly, thanks to the organized teaching of Chun, who offered beginning, intermediate and advanced classes.  A branch school was established in Kunsan in 1947, followed by other branches in Kinsan, Yiri, Namwon and Changup. (Kang and Lee, Chapter 1, Section 2).  From 1946-1949, the Yunmookwan and the Chungdohwe were the predominant Korean karate schools (Hwang, 1995: 26).  As Yunmookwan membership grew, Chun was able to hire Yun Byung-in and Yun Kwei-byung as instructors (Lee, 2002b; Lee Se, 2002; Losik, 2001).  Both of these individuals had distinguished reputations in Japan, and both had received master ranks in karate from Okinawan master Kanken Toyama.  More will be written about them in an upcoming article.  However, Yun Byung-in soon afterward founded his own school, the Seoul YMCA Kwonbop Bu, and Yun Kwei-byung (who was also teaching karate at two Korean Univerities) became the senior instructor at the Yunmookwan.   

Yunmookwan Kongsoodo Bu, March 3, 1947.  Chun Sang-sup is circled

Chun Sung-sup disappeared during the Korean War.  Reports of his disappearance vary from his being abducted by North Koreans to his death or capture while doing a volunteer mission into North Korea (Kang and Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 2; Park, 1989: 4).  It should be noted that disappearance of Koreans, mostly by abduction (and some possibly by voluntary repatriation), were common during the Korean War and have even taken place in recent years (KWAFU, 2006; Daily NK, 2007).  After Chun’s disappearance in 1950, Yun Kwei-byung assumed leadership of the kwan, eventually renaming it the Jidokwan (Korean: “wisdom way school”) (Kang & Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 2).  More will be written about the Jidokwan in an upcoming article. 

Lee Kyo-yun, one of Chun’s students from the original Yunmookwan, returned to Seoul at the end of the Korean War in 1953.  He taught what he called tangsoodo in several locations, eventually establishing a dojang called the Hanmookwan in 1956 (Kang and Lee, 1999: Chapter 1, Section 8).



Part 3 – The First Korean Schools:  The Shudokan Schools and Others




Cook, Harry. (2001).  Shotokan Karate:  A Precise History.  Haltwhistle, 
                 Northumberland, England:  Harry Cook.

Daily NK (2007).  "Curious about Those Kidnapped to North Korea during the Korean Wartime" April 24, 2007.

Funakoshi, Gichin. (1975). Karate-do:  My Way of Life. Tokyo:  Kodansha International.

Funakoshi, Gichin. (1973). Karate-do Kyohan. Tokyo:  Kodansha International      
     (Originally published 1935). 

Funakoshi, Gichin. (1997). To-te Jitsu.  Hamilton, Ontario, Canada:  Masters Publication.
    (Originally published 1922).

Hwang, Kee. (1995).  The History of Moo Duk Kwan.  Springfield, NJ:  U.S. Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation.

Kang Won-sik and Lee Kyong-myong. (1999). T’aekwondo Hyondaesa [Modern History of Taekwondo].  Seoul, ROK:  Pogyong Munhwasa.

KWAFU. (2006). “Historical Resource on the Korean War Abductees Incident" Vol. 1, Sep. 28, 2006 / Korean War Abductees’ Family Union.

Lee, Chong-wu. (2001). Interview. Taekwondo Jidokwan Historical Society (2001).

Lee, Chong-wu. (2002). Interview.  New York University Jidokwan Club.

Lee Se-ree. (2002). “Lee, Chong Woo: Pioneer of TKD”.

Lee, Kang-seok (1997, March). “Grandmaster Won Kuk Lee, Founder of the 
    Chungdokwan” (interview).  Taekwondo Times (17), 44-51.

Lee, Jeong-kyu. (2002, March 7). “Japanese Higher Education Policy in Korea During the Colonial Period (1910-1945).”  Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 10, (14).

Lee, Ki-Baik and Edward W. Wagner. (1984). A New History of Korea. Cambridge, 
             MA: Harvard University Press. 

Losik, Len. (1999, May). “The History and Evolution of Song Moo Kwan.”  Taekwondo Times (19), 64-67. 

Losik, Len. (2001, May). “The Jidokwan: Way of Wisdom.”  Taekwondo Times (21).

Madis, Eric (2003).  “The Evolution of Taekwondo from Japanese Karate.”  Martial Arts  in the Modern World.  Thomas A. Green & Joseph Svinth.  Praeger
                 Publishers. 185-207, 286-287.

Massar, Frank and Adrian St. Cyrien. (1999, April). “Won Kuk Lee, An Inteview With the True Founder of Taekwondo.” Taekwondo and Korean Martial Arts, 14-17.

Noble, Graham. (2000). Personal communication. July, 2000.

Park Yeon-hee, Park Yeon-hwan and Jon Gerrard. (1989). Taekwondo: The Ultimate Reference Guide to the World’s Most Popular Martial Art.  New York: Facts on File.

Tagaki, Jotaru. (2001, January)  “Karate-do Impressions.” An interview of Shotokan Masters Hironishi, Uemura, and Tagaki by Jotaru Tagaki.  Karate-do magazine  (Japanese). 8-15.

Tsuchiya, Hideto. (2001, May). “Gigo Funakoshi – A Genius Among Geniuses”. 
     Karate-do magazine (Japanese). Volume 361.  May, 2001).

Uesugi, Glenn. (2000, June).  Interview: “Spoke to Grandmaster Lee Won Kuk Today.”, June 16, 2000. Glenn Uesugi, editor.

 WSA. World Songmookwan Association. (2010).  “The History of Songmookwan”. 
     World Martial Arts Center.
     2913 South Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55408. 612.823.8233. 
     Founder and Chairman: GM Byung Jick Ro.  President: GM Hee Sang Ro.

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About The Author:

Eric Madis is a Pacific Northwest recording artist, guitar instructor and Tang Soo Do instructor.  He began his martial arts training in 1963 and his study of Korean martial arts in 1982, and holds a master rank in Tang Soo Do.  His instructors were pioneers of Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do.  Mr. Madis’ previous publications are in the fields of ethnomusicology and martial arts history.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Lee Won-kuk, Chungdokwan, TangSooDo, Chungdohwe, Hwang Kee, Moodukwan, Kang Suh-chang, Kukmookwan, Nam Tae-hi, Choi Hong-hi, Ohdokwan, Lee Yong-woo, Jungdokwan, Ko Jae-chun, Chungryongkwan, Ro Byung-jik, Kwandukjung Archery School, Songmookwan, kongsoodo, Songmookwan, Chun Sang-sup, Yunmookwan, Choson Yunmookwan, Yun Byung-in, Yun Kwei-byung, Jidokwan

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