Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate (Part 1)

Grandmaster Duk Sung Son
Grandmaster Song Duk-sung

An Artifact of Tae Kwon Do History

Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”” footer=””]The article first appeared in Totally Taekwondo, edited by Stuart Anslow) April, May, & July 2013.[/panel]

Duk Sung Son, Richard Chun, Ki Whang Kim, Sijak Henry Cho and Jhoon Rhee are credited with being among the first Korean masters to bring Tae Kwon Do, a hard martial art, characterized by powerful blocks, kicks and strikes, to the United States and popularize it in the 1960s. However, unlike the other masters who immigrated to and pioneered the art in America, only Duk Sung Son was present and assisted at the “birth” of Tae Kwon Do.

Many Tae Kwon Do stylists today, especially those younger than 30, know little if anything about Grandmaster Duk Sung Son (1922 – 2011) or his role in the early years of Tae Kwon Do. Duk Sung Son’s impact on Tae Kwon Do is often relegated to little more than a footnote in the history of Tae Kwon Do, overshadowed by General Choi Hong Hi. Grandmaster Son’s leadership, influence and martial arts talents, however, were substantial.

In 1968, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son published the first of two books, Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do. Published in the United States by Prentice-Hall, Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Dowas the second book in the English language written by a member of the Tae Kwon Do Naming Committee. The first was General Choi Hong Hi’s Taekwon-Do: The Art of Self-Defence, published three years earlier in 1965 by the Daeha Publication Company in Korea. Like General Choi’s book, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s book offers a well-rounded syllabus for promotion in Tae Kwon Do, or “Korean Karate”, from 10th gup (white belt) to 1st gup (brown or red belt). It includes a definition and history of Tae Kwon Do; warm-up exercises; basic strikes, kicks and blocks; patterns; three step sparring; practical applications; free-style fighting; and breaking. As an early record of Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do also reveals, intentionally or not, the intertwining histories of the Okinawan, Korean and Japanese martial arts.

Book Cover: Korean Karate
Book Cover: Korean Karate

The first thing that students will notice about Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do is its unusual title. “Korean Karate” is an odd title for a book about Tae Kwon Do. In fact, many instructors of Tae Kwon Do will be the first to tell you that Tae Kwon Do is not karate. “Karate is Japanese,” they would say. “Tae Kwon Do is Korean. They are not the same.” However, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son clearly says that Tae Kwon Do is a Korean style of karate in the title of this book. Readers may quickly dismiss Grandmaster Son’s claim as simply a clever title, since Grandmaster Son’s book is about “the art of Tae Kwon Do.” But Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do is more than a clever title. In a single stroke it reveals to readers the influence of Japanese karate on the Korean art of Tae Kwon Do. The contents of Grandmaster Son’s book, however, reveals much more about the history of Tae Kwon Do.

The second thing that readers will notice about Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do is its cover, which features perhaps the best-known photograph of Grandmaster Duk Sung Son. This photograph is quite likely one of the most memorable photographs ever taken of any martial artist. In the photograph, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son punches a Kwon Go, ormakiwara, a padded post or board used to condition the parts of the body for fighting. Grandmaster Son displays complete focus, all his muscles tensed at the exact moment of impact. The muscles of his neck stand out like cords and his mouth is pulled open with the effort of his attack on themakiwara. The photograph is well-known for good reason. It is a dramatically lit black-and-white photograph taken at the perfect moment of impact. Once a student has seen the photograph, he is not likely to forget it.

The masterful photograph is the perfect choice for the cover of Grandmaster Duk Sung Son’s first book. It accurately reflects the character of its contents: A martial art with roots in Okinawan karate mastered through diligent effort. “The fundamental is hard work…It is frequently overlooked, but without it all the other fundamentals do not count…There is no way around [it]and nothing can possibly take its place,” writes Grandmaster Son in Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do. Themakiwara that Grandmaster Son strikes in the photograph innocently reveals one root of Tae Kwon Do, which many in Korea sought to obscure after World War II. Makiwara is a Japanese word which means “forging post,” but the makiwara itself originated in Okinawa. Traditional Okinawan dojos have a makiwara, and there is an old Okinawan saying, “A dojo without a makiwara is nothing more than a dance school.”

The histories of the hard martial arts of Japan, Okinawa and Korea are immutably intertwined. In 1609, the Japanese conquered the Kingdom of Ryukyu on the Okinawa Islands, and subsequently banned weapons and the teaching of indigenous martial arts. Out of necessity, Okinawans began in secret to practice to-de, or “China hand,” a traditional empty-handed fighting system which had been blended with various Chinese martial arts. To-de, sometimes called Okinawa-te, translates tokarate in Japanese. Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan and founder of Shotokan karate, demonstrated his style of Okinawa-te in Japan in 1917 and again in 1922 at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Education, and thereafter taught the art of Shotokan karate at several institutions in Japan. In 1931 when Japan invaded China, Sensei Funakoshi would change the meaning from “China hand” to “empty hand” by changing the first character but not the pronunciation. Among Gichin Funakoshi’s students were Won Kuk Lee and General Choi Hong Hi, pioneers of Tae Kwon Do. Today, more than 400 years later, Okinawa remains Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

Korea similarly became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War. In 1910, Japan forcibly annexed Korea and banned all weapons and the teaching of indigenous martial arts, just as it had on the Okinawan islands 300 years before. The indigenous martial art of Taekyun, whose practice had already declined, was practiced in secret and further declined; by 1945 only a single Taekyun master, Song Duk-Ki, would remain. Within a decade of Korea’s annexation, it was customary for Koreans to travel to Japan for a better education and, subsequently, better opportunities. Koreans studying in Japan were allowed to learn karate. Some Koreans earned their black belts and, at the end of World War II, returned to their homeland, where they began to teach the karate they had learned. The word karate translated into Korean is Tang Soo Do (“way of the China hand”) and Kong Soo Do, (“way of the empty hand”). Won Kuk Lee, who had earned his 4th degree black belt in Shotokan karate from Gichin Funakoshi, founded the first such school, or kwan, in Seoul in 1944. Won Kuk Lee named his school the Chung Do Kwan. Duk Sung Son joined the Chung Do Kwan soon after it opened and began to learn Tang Soo Do as one of Won Kuk Lee’s senior students.

In 1950, Won Kuk Lee returned to Japan, and Duk Sung Son became headmaster of the Chung Do Kwan, which by that time had become the most influential of the five original schools which taught the similar martial arts that would later be named Tae Kwon Do. As headmaster, Duk Sung Son steadfastly promoted the Chung Do Kwan martial art of Tang Soo Do. Duk Sung Son himself taught Tang Soo Do to the Seoul police and the 8th U.S. Army. He also sent advanced students to teach at the most prestigious Korean institutions, including the Korean Military Academy, the Sung Kyun Kwan University and the Seoul National University. Korean President Rhee Seung Man named Duk Sung Son chief instructor of the Republic of South Korea’s Army, where Duk Sung Son first met General Choi, who had, like Won Kuk Lee, studied Shotokan karate with Gichin Funakoshi, and who would soon lead the increasingly important military branch of Duk Sung Son’s Chung Do Kwan. Due to Duk Sung Son’s tireless efforts, the Chung Do Kwan became the largest and most powerful of the original kwans in South Korea.

On April 11, 1955 Duk Sung Son and General Choi attended a special meeting of representatives of the five major kwans, members of the press, and representatives of the Korean government to offer a single name to unify the martial arts being taught in Korea since the country’s liberation after World War II. This committee was originally known as the “First Advisory Committee for Duk Sung Son’s Chung Do Kwan,” a name later changed by General Choi to “Tae Kwon Do’s Naming Committee,” a change which semantically minimized Duk Sung Son’s role in naming Tae Kwon Do. It is generally accepted that at this meeting General Choi suggested the name “Tae Kwon Do,” which he and Nam Tae Hi, one of General Choi’s instructors, had created using Chinese and Korean dictionaries and which sounded similar to Taekyun, the traditional Korean kicking art. Other stories about this fateful meeting, however, say that the Chung Do Kwan as a group, under the guidance and leadership of Master Duk Sung Son, proposed the name “Tae Kwon Do.” Some even say that Master Duk Sung Son himself handed a slip of paper to General Choi on which he suggested the name “Tae Kwon Do,” although this has not been reliably substantiated.

Taekwondo Naming Committee 1955
Members of the naming committee who proposed the name “Tae Kwon Do” & submitted it to President Rhee Seung Man for endorsement. Seated from the left: Nam Tae Hi, Duk Sung Son and General Choi Hong Hi. Other members included members of the press and representatives of President Rhee Seung Man.

In the years following this fateful meeting, General Choi’s military power and political influence continued to increase, both at the Chung Do Kwan and publicly, as Duk Sung Son’s influence began to wane. In 1959, Duk Sung Son published a letter in the Seoul Shinmun, a South Korean newspaper, in which he dismissed General Choi and other advanced students from the Chung Do Kwan over philosophical concerns. This single irrevocable act instantly separated Duk Sung Son from General Choi and the other senior students named in the article, and Master Duk Sung Son was soon ousted from the Chung Do Kwan and excluded from all sports organizations in Korea, including the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association, an important organization in the early growth of Tae Kwon Do.

In 1963, in response to these events and to escape the continued political discord in Korea, Duk Sung Son traveled to the United States and started anew. He began to teach Tae Kwon Do, or “Korean Karate” as it was called in the United States in the 1960s, in Central Park in New York City. He opened his own gym between 21st Street and 7th, and began teaching the art at West Point Military Academy, the University of Princeton, New York State University and the YMCA in New Jersey, among other locations. Duk Sung Son was featured on the cover of the October 1964 issue of Esquire magazine, alongside famous heavyweight boxer Carmine Basilio and professional wrestler Antonino Rocca, advertising an article about how to defend oneself in a barroom brawl. He is also featured in Omni magazine in March 1990 as one of the top five U.S. martial arts masters. He demonstrated Tae Kwon Do to thousands of visitors at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City. Together with several of the Chung Do Kwan masters who had immigrated to the U.S. with him, Grandmaster Son also established the Tae Han Karate Association, which in 1966 became the World Taekwondo Association. At its peak, the World Taekwondo Association listed more than 495 schools in the U.S.A., Venezuela and Australia, and it became the largest Tae Kwon Do organization in the United States. Five years after immigrating to the United States, Grandmaster Duk Sung Son published his first book, Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do.

Esquire Cover with GM Duk Sung Son
Esquire Cover with GM Duk Sung Son

In Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do, Grandmaster Son is insightful about the history of the Asian martial arts. He acknowledges that Tae Kwon Do has its counterparts in other countries of the Orient, including Japan, Okinawa, China, Burma and Thailand, and further acknowledges that the similarities between the martial arts in these countries “suggests either a common origin or a substantial cross-fertilization or both” which “can be explained, at least in part, by the natural communications in both peace and war among the countries of the Orient.” In the matter of only a few pages, Grandmaster Son reviews the history of the martial arts in China, Okinawa and Japan, mentioning Gichin Funakoshi by name. Grandmaster Son, however, stops short of saying that Tae Kwon Do, previously known as Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do in Korea, evolved from karate. Instead, he reports the politically correct history: Tae Kwon Do dates back more than 2000 years to ancient Korean knights and nobles, which is the same “official” history first recounted by General Choi in the 1950s and published in his Taekwon-do: The Art of Self-Defence in 1965, and now currently published by the Kukkiwon, the world headquarters for Taekwondo established by the government of South Korea, and by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), the governing body for the International Olympic Committee for Olympic Tae Kwon Do around the world.1

Ironically, Chapter 6 contradicts Grandmaster Son’s assertion that Tae Kwon Do dates back to ancient Korea. The bulk of Chapter 6 instructs students on the specific forms required for testing up to but not including black belt at Grandmaster Son’s dojang: Kuk Mu I, Kuk Mu II, Pyong An I, Pyong An II, Pyong An III, Pyong An IV, Pyong An V, Chul Gi I, and Pal Sek. All but two of these forms are borrowed from Okinawan karate, which Gichin Funakoshi had taught to Won Kuk Lee, who likewise taught these forms to his students at the Chung Do Kwan, including Duk Sung Son, who likewise taught them to his students in Korea and, later, the United States. Grandmaster Son himself developed the first two forms in the curriculum, Kuk Mu I and Kuk Mu II, to train the Korean military. The Pyong An, Chul Gi and Pal Sek forms were developed in Okinawa by masters of Okinawa-te. The Pyong An series is known as the Heian forms in Japan and as the Pinan series in Okinawa.2They were changed to their Japanized form around 1920 by Gichin Funakoshi. Chul Gi is known as Naihanchi in Okinawan karate; in Shotokan karate it is known as Tekki. Pal Sek is known as Bassai or Balsek in various Korean, Japanese and Okinawan karate organizations.