Choi: The Beginning

I read Yoshikawa's Musashi a number of years ago, and have pondered the ever-shrinking lines of distinction between the real 16th Century polymath Miyamoto Musashi and Yoshikawa's fictionalised account of the sword saint.

One of my favourite martial arts books, Musashi is an important novel in the present-day cult worship of the 16th Century swordsman

Musashi is a long epic, detailing the journey of the Miyamoto Musashi beginning just after the Battle of Sekigahara, the insight he gained leading to his revolutionary and previously unheard of two sword style, and the climactic battle with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island. Written as an 'serial' for the Asahi Shimbun starting in 1935, Yoshikawa's Musashi, whilst based on fact, is popularly received as a true account of the man himself.

Yoshikawa's work was part of my inspiration for starting research on Choi: The Beginning, which is really a historical fiction series surrounding the Founder of Taekwondo General Choi Hong Hi. I have always felt  there is too little literature in the world of Taekwondo world and I wanted to do something about it. So I set about researching events important to General Choi, from about when he was born in 1918 to 1960. I needed to see the world in which these Taekwondo pioneers lived in and when important personal events occurred. To gain further clarity I even juxtaposed these events with what was going on in the world of Karate.

Never ever forget how tough they had it. While there are the corollaries of the human condition, our world affords us luxuries that pioneers of Taekwondo never had. We must respect them for what they accomplished with what little they had.

My idea was to immerse myself in those years so I could recreate the sights and sounds of a Korea at war and in civil unrest. Then I busied myself extrapolating from what I found, filling in the gaps with my own perspective as a Traditional Taekwondo instructor.

While writing the series, a student of mine coincidentally loaned me a copy of Alex Gillis's A Killing Art. Already having the general historical background allowed me to really appreciate the work Alex Gillis did on the book. But it made me even more aware of Yoshikawa's lesson - and that was I shouldn't let facts get in the way of a good story.

Alex Gillis' book is an interesting read for any serious student of the art. 

My series Choi: The Beginning started taking a life of its own very quickly. It started off with the mundane smells of cheap KT&G cigarettes and the constant resentment Koreans felt to the years of having the Japanese hell bent on erasing their cultural heritage. But where it really developed a 'hyper reality' for me was when I started 'repurposing' classical literature related to Taekwondo forms. For instance, Yulgok's Four Seven Debate on Myohap or 'Wondrous Fusion' helped describe Chonji's inseparable Heaven and Earth. Wonhyo's Geumgang Sammaegyeongnon or 'Exposition of the Adamantine Absorption Scripture' allowed me to look into Choi's mind and explain how he could extrapolate from his previous training to understand that "all positions have at least some validity" with the new Taekwondo system he was creating.

Yulgok's Four Seven debate on Myohap or wondrous fusion - 'repurposed' to reflect Choi's thinking.

These gems of course all made their way into the young General's personal journal, of which then landed in my hot little hands. What blew me away was being able to travel to Korea and seeing Yulgok's Myohap scratched as graffiti into the cell wall. Graffiti etched by no other than a young Choi who was imprisoned as a rebel by the Japanese army for his involvement in the Pyongyang Hak-byung incident. It's incredible how far a directed imagination can take you.

Of course, none of these things really happened, and in fact Alex Gillis, the authority on Taekwondo's early history would proffer a reality that is sinister, more political and much harder-to-swallow. But I fear there is little wisdom to be gained from that version of events.

Where am I at with this series? Like Musashi when he enters a township and is overwhelmed by the heat, the press of the people, and the powerful rhythm of a Taiko drummer using two batons, my next article is about how our young Choi is walking past the parade square on the way to a meeting and gets jolted by the movement and shouting coming from recruits practicing bayonet fighting drills. In that instant, he has the realisation of the timing that is necessary between footwork, hand strikes and long range attacks.

This is a Korean saying used to describe how a young Choi guided his group of students, and reflects the common thinking of traditional martial art instructors. 

Certainly any serious practitioner has their perspective of what works, but is there a difference on how the  Founder of a martial art gets to that point and beyond? What can you accomplish with an hour of your time? What did Choi Hong Hi accomplish with an hour of his time? What obstacles do you face? Do you know the enormity of the obstacles he faced? This series is as much a mirror for our own development as it is about Choi's.

Come discover what you can take away from this story at Totally Taekwondo Magazine, and read the entire piece at Rebooting the Founder of Taekwondo [Historical Faction].


In the arts,

Colin Wee
Joong Do Kwan Chung Sah Nim
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