Tang Soo Do, The Way of the China Hand, a traditional Korean martial art said to have originated in the ancient arts of Taekyun, Subak, and Kwon Bop. They especially flourished during Korea’s Three Kingdoms period starting in 50 B.C. and developed ever since. It is said that Tang Soo Do was called SuBak at that time.
This article is not to go step by step through the ancient timeline of Korea’s history and what martial arts there were in the country. It is to examine the claims of Tang Soo Do’s history as it relates to Grand Master Hwang Kee, who is credited with developing Tang Soo Do as we know it today. I am not referring to the art of Soo Bahk Do either, which is the art Hwang Kee developed his style into and renamed as such, developing it until his death on July 14, 2002.
There are various versions of Tang Soo Do’s history being taught to students all over the world, but most center around the fact that Hwang Kee developed his own style of martial art, named it Tang Soo Do and opened his school the Moo Duk Kwan (School of Martial Virtue) spreading it throughout the world. Some of these facts cannot be disputed and are well documented, but many are not documented at all and are left to interpretation and what one chooses to believe. This is where the problem lies.
Hwang Kee was born November 9,1914 in Gyeonggi, Korea. From all that I have been able to find, Hwang Kee’s interest and study of the martial arts began when he was 7 years old (1921-1922). It was at this time Hwang Kee witnessed a man defend himself against several attackers. He later approached the man, asking him to teach him but the man refused. There are some that say this man studied Taekyon, some say Su Bak and others say both.
After being turned away, Hwang Kee spied on the man from a distance as he trained, copying and imitating what he saw. This is how he claimed to have learned his martial arts base. No one knows who this man was or can confirm his style. There is no record of Hwang Kee having formal instruction by anyone in his younger years.
Think about this for a minute. If you walked into a dojo today and were refused instruction, could you truly learn and master the art by watching from the parking lot and imitating what you saw through the window? Anyone claiming to have mastered an art, learning in that manner today, would be instantly shot down as a fraud or a liar. Yet, everyone accepts that Hwang Kee was a Taekyon and Subak master learning in this manner. He has even been called a prodigy at this age. More on this later, but for now let’s jump ahead.
From 1910 to 1945 Japan occupied Korea and forbid any martial arts practice. Hwang Kee was born during the occupation, so growing up, any martial training would have been done in secret. (This does not however explain not having formal instruction or knowing the name of your instructor if there was one.)
Hwang Kee trained on his own until 1936, when he went to Manchuria for a year. He stated that while he was there he trained under a master of the Tang method, Yang Kuk Jin. Hwang Kee trained with Yang Kuk Jin from 1936 to 1937 and again for a short period in 1941.
So what is the Tang method? No one knows for sure, but it is speculated and pretty much accepted that he studied Yang style Tai Chi Chuan. (Hwang Kee’s later development of Soo Bahk Do shows much more influence of such a style).
So if he studied Yang Tai Chi, was Yang Kuk Jin a member of the legendary Yang Tai Chi family? No one knows. According to the Yang family lineage (www.Yangfamilytaichi.com) there is no Yang Kuk Jin listed. Some believe that this may have been Yang Zhen Guo (Yang Zhn Kou), but having been born in 1928, he would have only been eight years old when Hwang Kee was in China.
Yang Kuk Jin and the specific style he practiced is a mystery and there is no record to date of such a martial arts master, other than Hwang Kee’s claim. This is the only official martial training he ever claimed to have.
Won Kuk Lee was born April 13, 1907 in Seoul Korea. He took an interest in the martial arts at an early age, but Korea was occupied by Japan and forbid martial arts training. Won Kuk Lee, would listen to stories of Taekyon told by his elders, and in 1926 at age of 19, his family sent him to Tokyo, Japan to study at Chuo University.
It was customary for affluent Korean families to send their children to Japan to study and improve their chance of success in their Japanese occupied society. It was here that Won Kuk Lee began training in Karate-Do under master Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate and his son Gigo Funakoshi. Won Kuk Lee became one of the first students of Karate in Japan, and obtained the highest rank for a non-Japanese
After graduating college he traveled Japan, visited Okinawa and various cities in China, experiencing the martial arts of those areas.
Won Kuk Lee, seeing how the Japanese were trying to erase the Korean culture and their martial arts, decided to return to Korea and teach the Karate he hadlearned in his homeland. He returned in 1944 and filed for a permit to teach Karate to Japanese citizens living in Korea and a select few Korean citizens. He was denied twice and on the third time he was approved.
Due to the harshness and brutality of the Japanese occupation, not wishing to use the Japanese name of Karate Do, Won Kuk Lee decided to use the Korean translation, Tang Soo Do (at that time written China hand, not empty hand). This is the first recorded usage of the name.
Not wanting to use the Shotokan name for his school, which his instructor Gichin Funakoshi used in Japan, he decided to name it, Chung Do Kwan or “Blue Wave school”. Thus, Tang Soo Do was born as Shotokan Karate in Korea under the Chung Do Kwan school banner.
Traditional Tang Soo Do emphasizes strong basics, forms, three step and one step sparring, as well as makiwara training. Tang Soo Do became known as Korean Karate and it’s popularity spread quickly.
It is known that Hwang Kee and Won Kuk Lee met in the late 1940s. Won Kuk Lee claimed that Hwang Kee was one of his students, which Hwang Kee adamantly denied. Lee had stated that Hwang Kee was a student, but never reached black belt. It is rumored that Hwang Kee reached green belt level before leaving, but it cannot be verified.
Having close ties with Japan, when the Korean War started, Lee’s family fled persecution and ran to the southern city of Pusan, leaving his Chung Do Kwan school in Seoul and all of his students. Many of the students, including Hwang Kee, spread out and began their own schools. It is at this time Hwang Kee started the Moo Duk Kwan or “School of Martial Virtue”.
This would make perfect sense, seeing that the Chung Do Kwanschool was one of very few schools able to teach martial arts near the end of the Japanese occupation. It would also make more sense that Hwang Kee learned the Shotokan forms from Won Kuk Lee rather than a book by Funakoshi, or at least a combination of the two.
Hwang Kee stated that he had combined Tang Soo Do (Shotokan) with his art at the time, Hwa Soo Do (Way of the Flowering Hand) and adopted the Tang Soo Do name because it was more accepted by the public. How could he adopt a style he never trained in and take its name? It is my belief that Hwang Kee did in fact train under Won Kuk Lee, essentially learning Shotokan Karate, and adopted it into his own system.
Then why deny it and claim it came from the ancient arts of Taekyon and Subak? I believe one reason is due to the animosity Koreans held (and still hold) towards Japan since the occupation. Between 250,000 and 800,000 Koreans died under Japanese rule and Japan did all they could to wipe out Korea’s culture and make them conform to Japanese ways.
Hwang Kee was trying to restore Korean pride and martial tradition which was all but wiped out by Japan. To claim that the art he studied was mainly or partly a Japanese system would not serve this purpose. So no credit is given to any Japanese sources in the development of Hwang Kee’s Tang Soo Do or the Moo Duk Kwan school.
I believe Hwang Kee combined the Shotokan Karate taught to him by GM Won Kuk Lee with whatever Chinese martial training he learned from Yang Kuk Jin in China. He then began to formulate the Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan style everyone is familiar with today.
When Master Yun Tak Bong was taught, the art was still heavily influenced by Shotokan karate, with more Chinese based changes made to the stances, hand techniques and more circular movements in self defense and one step sparring. Kicking technique also resembles more of a Chinese or Korean style than the Japanese way of chambering and delivering the kicks.
When I began learning Shotokan karate and comparing it to the Tang Soo Do I was taught in Korea under Hwang Kee’s Korean Tang Soo Do Association, they are identical with the exception of the slight changes noted above. Hwang Kee would continue to develop his art into Soo Bahk Do, reflecting the Chinese influence in his training, but at the time I learned in 1985, Master Yun was still teaching an early form of Tang Soo Do, heavily reflecting it’s Shotokan roots.
So if Hwang Kee claimed to have only one official instructor, Yang Kuk Jin, who cannot be positively identified and learned everything else from books and observations, is he for real? Was his skill level and mastery really that good?
To date there has been no video footage made public of Hwang Kee performing hyungs, basics, self defense techniques or anything else. There really aren’t any photos either. The reason for this is unknown, seeing as footage of great masters like Funakoshi and other karate pioneers of that time can be found. So does this make him a fraud?
While I have never met Hwang Kee or trained under him, the number of his students who later went on to grow the Korean martial arts into what they are today, as well as growing the Moo Duk Kwan into a school covering the globe, is testament to his ability and skill.
Master Yun, my instructor and student of Hwang Kee, was an exceptional martial artist and worked closely with Hwang Kee heading up the Chung Nam region of the Korean Tang Soo Do Association. His skill was of a very high level and if Hwang Kee was a fraud, his students would not be at such a level, possess such great technique, and go on to head up world organizations themselves.
Whatever the reasons Hwang Kee, his son, or the Soo Bahk Do association never go into detail on his martial arts lineage and background, his results speak for themselves. Hwang Kee developed Tang Soo Do, the Moo Duk Kwan and Soo Bahk Do across the globe with hundreds of thousands of practitioners worldwide. This cannot be done by someone with little to no real skill.
So why bring all of this up? For the Tang Soo Do practitioners like myself, who want to know all there is about the art they study. How it began and why, the true intent of the forms and theories of the masters that came before us.
This is not to debate the validity or skill of Grandmaster Hwang Kee. He has validated and established his skill level through his students as well as the organization and style he developed. He is truly one of the great martial arts masters to have lived.
Right now, believing the most commonly told Tang Soo Do history, my Tang Soo Do lineage looks like this:
Yours may be similar or have a few more instructors between you and Grandmaster Hwang Kee, but it ends with him. We can’t even look into the Yang Kuk Jin or his style because he cannot be positively identified. It begins and ends with Hwang Kee, and that just isn’t possible, especially given the strong similarities to Shotokan Karate (I am not speaking of Soo Bahk Do)
Where the Tang Soo Do hyungs came from, who invented them and why, the past masters and styles that influenced the art, all are left a mystery if one goes by this lineage and believes Tang Soo Do came from Taekyon and Subak thousands of years before. Hwang Kee had to have learned from an official instructor at some point in his life, both in China and in Korea.
Assuming Hwang Kee was a student of Won Kuk Lee in the 1940s, which I believe that he was, learning Shotokan karate in the Chung Do Kwan school, our Tang Soo Do lineage changes drastically. Take a look…
This lineage not only goes through Won Kuk Lee and his instructor Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan, but to the very founders of Karate in Okinawa and the Chinese white crane kung fu masters before them. It also includes the creators of the traditional Tang Soo Do forms we practice.
By studying this lineage, Tang Soo Do practitioners can gain a deeper understanding of their art. Why the forms are the way they are and why they were really created. The true application of techniques, some of which may not even have been passed down.
Tang Soo Do is a type of karate, just like Shotokan, Shorin Ryu or Uechi Ryu. Karate is the art and all of the other names are just facets of that one art, including Tang Soo Do Korean karate. When one embraces karate as one art, it opens up so many doors to gain knowledge and better understanding. This knowledge is often stifled by instructors and arts who believe that their way is the only way and not only do not encourage their students to ask questions or look deeper, but frown upon them exploring anything outside of their own dojo.
Traditional Tang Soo Do is Shotokan Karate brought to Korea by Won Kuk Lee, taught to Hwang Kee, who combined it with the Chinese arts he learned into the Tang Soo Do we are familiar with today. The martial lineage through Won Kuk Lee is what I believe to be the true lineage of Tang Soo Do Korean Karate. It is karate, whether it is called Tang Soo Do, Shotokan or something else, it is one art…… Karate. One art with many facets, that share a very rich and meaningful history. I encourage all Tang Soo Do students to not only adopt this lineage and history but to explore it deeply.
The history I was taught and that most are familiar with, I believe is in error. It does not matter why there is no clear history or lineage to Hwang Kee’s martial training. The lineage through Won Kuk Lee back to Japan, Okinawa and China is the most logical and documented lineage of Tang Soo Do. This is the art that I learned from Master Yun in Korea. This is not the same art that Hwang Kee renamed as Soo Bahk Do, but it’s earliest version. I believe that this lineage/history opens many doors and makes the art much clearer, and gives practitioners the ability to continue learning and becoming better martial artists.
I am not Moo Duk Kwan, I am Tang Soo Do.
This is true traditional Tang Soo Do, but what you choose to believe is up to you.
Hello, I have been a student of the martial arts since 1985 and have studied various styles, always focusing on the self defense aspects of the arts. I have taught in the military, privately and publicly and have been a certified personal trainer. I believe that everyone should know how to defend themselves and that this can be learned from home through videos and written material. I am dedicated to you, the reader, in helping you learn self defense so that you are able to handle an attack on the street.