21 November 2018

"100th Anniversary of Choi Honghi: Taekwon-Do and Life; How to View Choi Honghi"

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend a symposium about General Choi 최홍희.

The symposium was in honour of the 100th Anniversary of the birth of General Choi, the “principle founder of original Taekwon-Do” (as Taekwon-Do historian Dr George Vitale likes to put it). General Choi’s claim to the title of “founder” of Taekwon-Do is not without controversy and while his great contribution to Taekwon-Do is undeniable (even so far as coining the term “TaeKwon-Do”), in South Korea his legacy has been nearly eradicated because of the conflict he had with the then dictator-president Park Chonghee. Gen. Choi’s later visit to the North further estranged him from South Korea.

The purpose of this symposium, organised by Taekwondo Box Media and hosted at the Korea National Sports University, was to re-asses General Choi’s contribution. The university president gave an opening remark, which was followed by the reading of a handwritten letter by General Choi’s wife.

A handwritten letter of appreciation from Mrs Choi,
the widow of Gen. Choi

There were two speakers. The first speaker was Dr. Heo Keon-sik (허건식), General Director of the Chungju World Martial Arts Masterships Organizing Committee. He discussed “The Martial Artist, Choi Hong-hee”. Dr Heo had an interesting approach. He looked at the founders of Judo (Kano), modern Karate (Funakushi), and Kyukushin Karate (Mas Oyama, aka 최영의) and noted how each of them studied a previous martial art and then changed it into something new. By comparison, he argued, that General Choi did the same within the Oh Do Kwan (which was the name of Gen. Choi’s karate school in the ROK military from which Taekwon-Do evolved). Dr Heo also differentiated between the “core” of ITF Taekwon-Do (i.e. Gen. Choi’s Taekwon-Do) and WT / Olympic Taekwondo. For him, the core of Olympic Taekwondo is sport competition, whereas in ITF it is traditional martial arts (if I understood him correctly). A point Dr Heo frequently brought up was “Red Complex”, which is a term used in Korea to refer to the overreaction of anything remotely related to North Korea or Communism. Because of General Choi and the ITF’s connection with North Korea, General Choi became a taboo topic and anything to do with him enticed “Red Complex”. Unfortunately, my understanding of the presentation was limited, so this is all I could derive from Dr. Heo’s presentation.

The second speaker was Dr. Mikhail Han (한병철), a martial arts movement researcher at the 88 Exercise Science Institute. Dr. Han also looked at the Oh Do Kwan as the root of (ITF) Taekwon-Do, noting that it started with Karate training but evolved. He suggested, if I understood him correctly (i.e. if I interpreted his Powerpoint slides correctly), that ITF Taekwon-Do concepts of power generation were derived from various other martial arts influences that were part of the collective knowledge of the early ITF Taekwon-Do pioneers, which included karate, Western boxing, some Chinese martial arts, Taekkyeon, wrestling (I’m guessing he refers to Judo), fencing, Muay Thai, and weightlifting. I’m not sure what his sources for fencing and Muay Thai are, but the other activities mentioned were definitely part of early (ITF) Taekwon-Do. He then spoke about ITF’s sinewave movement and pointed out that ITF Taekwon-Do’s conception of force shares concepts with the knee-bending principle 오금질 in Taekkyeon, and certain concepts of movement within the Chinese internal styles: Hsing-I Chuan, Taichi Chuan and Baqua. This was a pleasant surprise because this is the first time I heard someone formally make this claim—which is something I’ve written about for years on my Taekwon-Do blog. (The only other person I know who has made similar statements is Manuel Androgue.)

Dr Han stated that Choi Hong-hee should get credit for being the "major shareholder” in the foundation of Taekwon-Do, for his attempt to break away from Japanese-karate, for introducing Taekwon-Do to North Korea, for preserving Taekwon-Do as a “Martial Do” 무도태권도, and for being a Korean patriot.

He concluded his talk by addressing the tasks ahead. He suggested that an objective reappraisal of General Choi’s contribution is required, that it should be “beyond ideology”, that General Choi should receive amnesty (he was declared a traitor by the Park Chong-hee regime), that there should be an independent meritor of Gen Choi’s work, that a Choi Hong-hi memorial should be established, and that Inter-Korean Taekwon-Do exchanges should (continue to) occur.

Symposium Q&A Panel

The second part of the symposium involved a discussion (Q&A) with six specialists, including Sean Yu, who is the Secretary General for one of the ITF groups in South Korea. Because this part of the symposium did not include presentation slides, I wasn’t able to follow along as well. One of the questions from a university student was why General Choi’s contribution to Taekwon-Do were not taught to them in university. The uncomfortable answer was because of “Red Complex”.

Dignitaries, presenters, panelists and PhDs in attendance

I don’t know what the long term implication of this symposium will be because as far as I could tell it was not sanctioned by the World Taekwondo, the Kukkiwon or Taekwondowon. It was a rather low-key event. Nevertheless, it is of great significance. When I came to Korea over a decade ago, General Choi was a taboo topic. I was even warned to avoid talking and writing about him because I might get investigated by the NIS (National Intelligence Service), which could result in having my visa revoked. Since then, the political climate has made a 180-degree turn. The legacy of General Choi is slowly re-emerging and hopefully he will get the credit as the “major shareholder” of Taekwon-Do in the homeland of Taekwon-Do.

09 November 2018

An Interpretation of the Korean Foundation Myth of the Tiger and the Bear

The essay below was published in this month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, Issue #116. For Taekwon-Do enthusiasts, it is well worth subscribing, I think.

An Interpretation of the Korean Foundation Myth of the Tiger and the Bear
By Sanko Lewis

“The tiger’s nature is wild and violent, and it causes calamities. Do not act with violence and impatience, for these bring harm to yourself and to others. Always abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.” — Dangun Wanggeom* 

The quotation above is from the Eight Codes of Conduct, said to have been established by Dangun Wanggeom 단군왕검, the legendary founder of Korea. Dan-Gun Tul, the second pattern in the Chang Hon pattern set, was named after the mythical Dangun Wanggeom.

As a moral code, the quotation starts with a curious allusion to the wild and violent tiger. This must be seen within the greater context of the Korean foundation myth. For the sake of brevity, the focus of this essay will be on the part of the foundation myth related to the “Tiger and the Bear” and the Bear-Woman, Ungnyeo, who was the mythical mother of Dangun Wanggeom.

A bear and a tiger pleaded in prayer to Hwanung 환웅, the son of the King of Heaven, to make them human. Hwangung gave them sacred food to eat—twenty cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort—and told them to stay in a cave for 100 days. The tiger was too impatient and left the cave early; whereas the bear remained in the cave and finally emerged a human. She was Ungnyeo 웅녀, the “Bear-woman.” She made thank offerings to Hwanung, but soon Hwangung noticed her crying under a sacred birch tree 신단수 for she could not find a husband and was lonely. Hwanung had pity on her and took her as his wife. They had a son whom Ungnyeo named Dangun, which translates as “Altar Prince” or “Birchwood.” Dangun Wanggeom established Gojoseon, the first Kingdom of Korea in the year 2333 B.C. 

There is much one can extrapolate from the Korean foundation myth, but before doing so, it is useful to understand what the purpose and value of such myths were within the cultures these ancient stories developed and were passed on in.

Older generations, much more than modern generations, had an inherent understanding of the powerful truths that are often embedded in stories. The ancient Greeks used two words to denote ‘truth’: logos and mythos. The former is where we get our modern word “logic” from and refers to logical truths, i.e. truths derived from reason. In our modern age we can understand logos as those truths often associated with the natural sciences. While the ancient Greeks definitely valued logos they also valued mythos, which are those types of truths embedded in mythology—in epic poems and drama.

The ancient people understood that there are certain truths that science cannot adequately deliver. If one were to ask, ‘what is love?’ or ‘what is bravery?’, science has little to say. Of course, science can explain that love is basically a neurochemical cocktail of the endorphins dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, as the American psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz did in his 1983 book The Chemistry of Love. However, anyone that has experienced love knows that it is far more than just fizzing juices having a party in your brain. A better way to learn what love is, is to intuit it from the lyrical language and metaphors in poem and song, or to see it enacted in stories. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provides a far better exposition on love than reading a biochemistry textbook. Similarly, the classic Old English epic of Beowulf facing monsters or Homer’s telling of the Greek hero Odysseus’ struggles to return home sheds far better light on the meaning of ‘bravery’ than a scientific analysis of testosterone levels in mammals.

Ancient myths tend to have particular functions. Creation myths gives a cosmological explanation for where the world comes from. Myths, like fables, sometimes provide other ‘origin’ explanations such as psychological answers to the nature of man, for instance the reasons for our innate desires. Another function of myth is to provide an origin narrative for a community. This is known as an ethnogenesis or foundation myth. Furthermore, myths offer a mythomoteur¸ which is a goal or sense of purpose for a community. Additionally, myths provide exempla (singular: exemplum), which are anecdotes that illustrate moral codes of conduct. As such, myths often function as religious narratives.

Following I will provide an analytical interpretation of the Korean foundation myth of the “Tiger and the Bear.” My analysis is based on typical interpretations of archetypal symbols and my knowledge of Korean culture, having lived in Korea for over a decade.


The tiger and the bear are at the top of the food chain. As animals, they are at the hierarchical pinnacle. Yet they are not satisfied with their current state. Firstly, their discontent in this story may suggest that desire—to want something—is natural. Secondly, the tiger and bear want to be human. This may suggest that there is an innate desire within us to be better; to be more than what we currently are. Or rather, the myth suggests that we ought to have such a desire for self-improvement, and that if we are sincere, the Heavens will assist us. This virtue of self-improvement fits within the Confucian ethic that was to become particularly valued by the Korean people. Confucius taught that all people should strive to by a junzi 君子 (comparable to the Korean seonbi 선비), which were a type of ideal or superior person. Famous seonbi were Yul-Gok and Toi-Gye, both of whom also have Taekwon-Do patterns named after them.

Natural Order

The myth suggests a natural order. The animals realise that humans are of a higher order than themselves; hence, their desire to be human. The myth makes it clear, however, that both humans and animals are of a lower order than the gods, so a natural cosmological order is suggested with the gods at the zenith, followed by humans, and then animals. Such a cosmological order fits well with the emphasis placed on hierarchical order that was later suggested by Confucius.

Humility / Prayer

The thing that the tiger and the bear in this myth strive for is impossible for them to achieve by themselves, therefore they petition to a power greater than themselves—they pray to the Divine. This may suggest the importance of humility, which is a virtue much prized in the Orient.

Heaven Help Those Who Help Themselves

The gods will help us in our striving towards betterment, in our pursuit of our goals and dreams. However, according to this myth the Divine won’t simply give us what we want. We must do something. We must go into the cave and endure the trial.

Controlling Our Wild-Nature: Perseverance and Self-Control

In this myth, the god Hwanung is benevolent and willing to grant their wish, but being human comes with responsibility, and so he gives them a test (of perseverance). Will they simply carry their wild (impulsive) natures into their new human state, or do they have what it takes to be human? In other words, can they control their wild, impulsive natures? Inversely, it may suggest that if we can’t control our emotions, that we are less than human—we are behaving according to our animalistic natures. (This, too, correspond with the Confucian ethic of having one’s emotions under control.)

Need of the Divine

Hwanung doesn’t simply expect them to have this ability in and of themselves. He provides assistance in the form of herbal medicine. This may suggest that to overcome our animalistic natures and strive towards becoming fully human we need the assistance of a Wise Helper. In many myths the main character is assisted by a divine or sage archetype that presents them with wisdom and or gifts which will be invaluable for the successful completion of their journey or pursuit. In this myth, Hwanung fulfil this archetype and presents them with the gift of special herbs. Consuming of the herbs provided by the god and entering the cave may also suggest a type of religious ritual—the beginning of a rite of passage.

Heavenly Medicine

Medicinal plants are a gift from the gods; medicinal plants are sacred. This confirms part of the extended Korean creation myth that Hwanung established laws, moral codes, and taught humans about medicine and agriculture. In many ancient cultures the healers—those with knowledge of the medicinal plants—were also the shamans and priests that were connected with the Divine.

The Cave as a Trial 

The cave is symbolic of a trial, a test, a challenge. In other myths it is the dark, scary and dangerous place that the hero must enter and pass through: the valley-of-death, the dark forest, the depths of the ocean, the belly of the beast, the ‘dark night of the soul’, the abyss.

The Cave as Grave and Womb / Death and Resurrection 

The cave is both a symbol for the grave (death) and for the womb (birth). The bear, who stays in the cave for the whole duration of the test, symbolically dies in the cave. Bears hibernate in the winter—their hibernation is a type of death from which they re-emerge (symbolically re-born) in the spring. The cave acts as a womb in which the foetus develops—emerging from the cave is analogous to being born. In this myth, the bear goes into the cave, dies from being a bear—it’s wild impulsive nature dies—and is reborn into a human.

Spiritual (Re-)Awakening / Enlightenment 

Emerging from the cave suggests a type of enlightenment—literally moving from darkness into the light. She transcends from animal-being to human-being, and the first thing Ungnyeo does when she emerges from the cave is a spiritual practise: a religious offering to Hwangung.


Immediately after emerging from the cave, Ungnyeo gives offers of thanks to Hwangung. This relates back to the earlier point of humility. The importance of traditional thanksgiving practises such as at Korea’s most important annual festivals, Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and Seollal (Korean New Year), are already foreshadowed in this ancient myth.

Sacred Tree

The sacred tree 신단수 where Ungnyeo cries and prays is clearly very important. It is at the tree where Hwangung finds Ungnyeo crying, and it is supposedly also at the tree where their union is consummated. Ungnyeo even names her son after the tree. The tree clearly has religious symbology. As the tree reaches towards the sky, it connects the earth with heaven; hence, it is a place (an “altar”) for connecting with the Divine. In naming Dangun after the tree, Ungnyeo clearly associates the tree somehow with the new life of her son. Therefore, we should interpret the tree as a fertility symbol—a symbol of life, possibly even eternal life because of its connection with the Divine. Even in modern Korea, one can still find sacred trees in old villages. ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners may make the link to the pine tree which served as the inspiration for the logo on the back of the ITF Taekwon-Do uniform. The pine tree was chosen as symbol for Taekwon-Do because it is an evergreen tree which ‘never changes its colours’. Unlike other trees that “die” in winter, the pine tree has a seemingly immortal quality to it. General Choi interpreted this unchanging quality as a symbol of integrity.

Social Connection

Ungnyeo is lonely. She wants a husband. She longs for connection with another. The importance of social connection established.

Divine Connection 

Hwangung takes Ungnyeo as his wife. Instead of giving her a human husband, he elevates her, by humbling himself. Here, again we see the importance of connection with the Divine. The purpose of the Divine is to elevate humanity: elevation in state (animal state to human state); elevation in station (nobody / commoner to somebody / queen). This idea of ‘elevation’ also resonates with the previous points related to (self-) improvement.


The filial triad is established: parents and child. Traditionally, in Korean culture the family is of utmost importance. Often the reason for this value placed on filial piety is attributed to the influence of Confucianism on Korean society, but maybe the roots of Korean filial piety reaches as far back as the Dangun myth.

We also notice here the prototypical notion of Sam-Taegeuk; namely, the three essential elements: Heaven (represented by Hwangung), Earth (represented by the Bear), and Human (represented by Dangun).

True Human, Divine Child

Dangun represents the true human. Ungnyeo became a human, but she was not born human. On the other hand, Dangun was born human. Within Korean cosmology, Dangun represents the prototypical human, similar to Adam in the Judeo-Christian creation myth. From an archetypal perspective, Dangun is the Divine Child that will grow up to become the King archetype.

The King as Connection Between Heaven and Earth

As Dangun is the offspring of Heaven (Hwangung) and the Earth (Bear), in him Heaven and Earth is united. Since Dangun is the prototypical human, he is the example for all humans. Every person should bring in themselves a harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. To be truly human, we should represent the characteristics of the King-archetype: a wise and benevolent ruler. (The Chinese character for “king” 王 depicts a vertical line that connects three horizontal lines representing heaven, humanity, and earth.)


In ancient cultures, mythologies were not simply stories for entertainment, but provided important “truths,” that the ancient Greeks called mythos. In our modern times of scientific discovery and technological advancement we are quick to dismiss such stories as mere superstitious fictions. It is certainly the case that modern science can and often does provide better general explanations so that we need not hold onto unnecessary superstitious beliefs. However, some truths fall outside the scope of rational science.

I started this essay with a quote from Dangun’s moral code, that admonishes the hearer not to be like the impatient, violent tiger, but that one should instead “abide by the laws of the Heavens, and harbor love for all beings. Protect the one who is in danger, and do not disdain the weak. Help the one who is in misery, and do not despise the poor.” With a better understanding of the myth that the code alludes to, the admonition carries a richer layer of meaning. The opposite of the wild (impulsive) and violent tiger is not a weak prey, but the bear. Not any bear, but the persevering mother-bear. As mother-bear, she protects her young: those who are in danger, the weak, the miserable, the poor.

For the Taekwon-Do practitioner who practise the pattern Dan-Gun and learned the story of the tiger and the bear, there are valuable truths to be gleamed. Foremost, is the importance of the virtues of perseverance and self-control. The tiger’s inability to control his wild nature prevented him from gaining the prize of humanity. So too, the Taekwon-Do practitioner that wishes to transform into a better version of him or herself needs to have perseverance and self-control. But towards what end? Dangun’s moral code suggests it is towards the betterment of humanity: to “love all beings” and to protect those in danger and the weak. The thoughtful Taekwon-Do practitioner will be quick to see how this resonates with the Taekwon-Do Oath: not to misuse Taekwon-Do, but to be champions of freedom and justice, and to build a more peaceful world.

Dr. Sanko Lewis (5th Dan) teaches literature at a university in Seoul, South Korea. His PhD research focus was on oriental philosophy and martial arts. You can find more of his writing on his blog: http://sooshimkwan.blogspot.com 

* The quotation from Dangun’s moral code is from The Practise of Hongik Ingan: “To Live for the Benefit of All Mankind.” (2nd ed.) by Hyang-jin Jung, Ji-seon Lee, Hang-jin Chang, Yoon-sang Han, and Matthew Jackson. (2014.)