"A martial art lives and grows through the deeds of its practitioners. It belongs to the artists who practice it, not to a single country."

Nationalism Means Closed Arts

by Grandmaster Kim Soo, 10th. Dan & Founder, Chayon-Ryu Martial Arts

The following guest editorial by Grandmaster Kim Soo was published in the January 1996 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times magazine.

In the October 1995 issue of Tae Kwon Do Times, in an article entitled "Preserving Tradition," Hwang, Kwang Sung discussed the origins of taekwondo, the International Taekwondo Federation, and General Choi's motives in promoting this style and association. I have listened to like talk for many years now, and feel compelled to respond.

Master Hwang is quoted as saying, "...the Koreans (after World War II) were still training in Japanese or Chinese martial arts. General Choi, Hong Hi thought that was very sad, and he was also ashamed."

This view is old-fashioned, out-of-date, and dangerously provincial, particularly as the world moves from an industrial age to an information age. In light of South Korean President Kim, Young Sam's stated push for Korea's position as a team player in globalism, it is particularly out of place.

If it is so important for Koreans to be practicing a Korean art, instead of a style originating from Japan, China, or Okinawa, then why shouldn't the Japanese do the same? And the Europeans and Americans? If a "foreign" martial arts style is not good enough for Koreans, then why should Americans be so heavily bombarded by Koreans promoting taekwondo, a "non-American" style?

Where is the logic in this? A music teacher does not teach only the music produced in his homeland, nor does an art teacher only teach the techniques of his own country's artists. In other fields, teachers take the masters' works and ideas as the foundation for teaching basics. Why are the martial arts supposed to be so different?

A martial art lives and grows through the deeds of its practitioners. It belongs to the artists who practice it, not to a single country. All art is apolitical, except to politicians who try to make it political to suit their own ends. To make art property, tie it to political organizations, to desire for power or influence, to make it fodder for politicians' agendas, is to kill its essence.

The benefits of training in martial arts are to be found in the process of training, not in attainment of this belt level or that political membership., or the number of boards or bricks broken. Similarly, the value of the art is in the practice of it, and the teaching of it. If people haven't learned the dangers of nationalism in this turbulent century, then I am very sad, and ashamed. If some of these people would stop political posturing, trade their business suits for a dobok, and sweat in the dojang, more people would benefit.

Those deeply involved in nationalistic political maneuverings always argue that their own work is central to building a country's prestige and unity., But how can public squabbling about who is most important be prestigious to the martial arts? Where is the art in a system that focuses more on political affiliations and sports victories than on the moral character, integrity, and community contributions of men and women who practice it?

Is this shifting of emphasis (away from forms, for example, toward sports competition, to swell enrollments) worth the sacrifice? When this shift has completely stripped taekwondo of any traditional forms, where is the art in this martial art? Since any form not created in Korea has been cast out of taekwondo, and replacement "Korean" forms thrown together to replace them, where is the tradition to preserve? How much wisdom can be gleaned from these new forms? They are the fast-food of modern martial arts -- quick, fast, simple, lacking in nourishment, prone to cause indigestion.

One problem with tying any art closely to a country (and to that country's reputation) is that any critical ideas are usually attacked as "unpatriotic." Personally, I believe it's far more disloyal for leaders--or anyone--to remain silent out of fear of such accusations. To fear opposing thoughts or ideas, or to fear learning from other cultures, countries, or arts, is to isolate oneself. To believe that modern Korean sport taekwondo is the center of the martial arts world, to refuse to learn anything from anywhere else, to ignore the possibility that serious problems exist both in Korea and its current martial arts culture--this is to be like the "frog in the well," who thinks the little circle of sky far above his head, and the tiny patch of water he's in, is the whole world. Any suggestion otherwise tends to shake his faith and threaten his peace of mind.

Huge political organizations promoting sport taekwondo are not necessary to raise the prestige of Korea in the world. Moreover, like any other large bureaucratic entity, these organizations have become preoccupied more with self-perpetuation than achieving their original goals. Korea will enjoy a positive reputation when its people individually set positive examples for others. When a college student or adult looks back at his youth and remembers a Korean teacher who taught self-confidence and respect for oneself and others, or helped him grow strong and carry himself with humility, that is very powerful public relations.

When an American instructor teaches taekwondo, and Korean culture, when he demonstrates the good example of his teacher (and his teachers' teachers), it is a powerful tool to use in the wider community. But when taekwondo degenerates into jumping up and down, throwing ax kicks at tournaments, what culture is left to carry on and preserve? This must be why for some, "culture" consists of festooning uniforms with a Korean flag; perhaps there is nothing else left to pass on.

I was born and reared during the Japanese occupation of Korea. My teachers, and my teachers' teachers, were or are Koreans who learned martial arts in the 1930s and 1940s from karate and judo schools in Japan, and Chinese chu'an fa centers in Manchuria. These were some of the only places one could learn, since Japanese occupation had destroyed any indigenous martial arts styles in Korea. Did this make my instructors traitors? Does this mean I'm not a Korean if I teach what I've learned? Does teaching the classics of the great masters make me unpatriotic?

I'm not a karate teacher; I'm not a kung fu teacher, nor a judo teacher, nor a hapkido teacher. I'm a Korean martial artist. I choose to take everything I was able to learn in Korea, and with permission of my teachers, teach it all in America under the name Chayon-Ryu ("The Natural Way School"). I have both American and Korean flags hanging in all my dojang. My students learn Korean phrases and names. I make sure they know the name of all my teachers, and my teachers' teachers. They know the country of origin of every form they learn.

Letters of appreciation and commendation hang in my headquarters dojang -- from the President of the United States, the Governor of Texas, and two Mayors of Houston. Beside them are many others letters and commendations from school teachers and principals. During 28 years in the Houston community I have conducted countless demonstrations and teaching seminars, served on the faculties of both major universities in Houston, taught tens of thousands of students, and promoted hundreds of instructors, dozens of whom are now teaching and helping others in communities across the U.S. and in nine foreign countries. Why would membership in either the International or the World Taekwondo Federation amplify my life's work? Why would discarding what my teachers passed on to me benefit my students?

I consider myself very fortunate to have learned what I possess from my instructors. I honor them by preserving ancient karate and chu'an fa forms they taught me, and handing them down to my own students. Leaving Korea in 1968 meant I escaped the tremendous pressure to throw away everything I knew, join the ITF or WTF, teach only new made-up forms with Korean labels, and stress how to win trophies at tournaments. The fact that I am today not a member of either ITF or WTF means I am completely free to speak and write my thoughts without fear of any censure.

I realize that many dedicated men and women teach and train in taekwondo schools. Surely they are diligent, humble, sincere, and deeply committed to their martial arts training, and to the welfare of their students., I am respectful of, and grateful for, their efforts. My statements here are in no way an attack on these students. I am, however, deeply troubled by those who are diluting, twisting, exploiting, and misusing martial arts to promote their own political and economic goals, create an atmosphere of cultural isolationism, and use a silence bred of fear--with cries of "unpatriotic" and "traitor"--to advance themselves.