Choi Hong-hi (1918-2002) was a South Korean military general and is heralded by some as “the founder of Taekwondo” (태권도). He was the first president of the KTA (Korea Taekwondo Association), and was the suggester of the name Taekwondo. He was exiled from South Korea for travelling to North Korea (ignoring rules in place at the time) to spread Taekwondo and defected there.
Those are all facts, held pretty much uniformly by all. However, aside from those, opinions then diverge between ITF people (and those that believe everything you read online) and Kukkiwon people. So I’ll go through each of the beliefs about Choi and share some details on by understanding of why they are incorrect.
Overall opinion on Choi
I believe that Choi was a powerful man due to his military rank, at a time when South Koreans really appreciated and idolised the military (straight after the occupation by Japan ended in 1945).
This gave him power and political sway, a good ally to have when trying to unify a group of martial arts school instructors while getting government recognition.
My opinion was the he wasn’t an active martial artist when it all started, but used had position and power to position himself as if he had, after the event.
Taekwondo was founded by Choi
The Korean book written by historians called “A Modern History of Taekwondo” describes the original meetings and records from them. Ohdokwan was founded by Choi Hong-hi and Nam Tae-hi, which makes sense - Nam was an early Chungdokwan member (so he had the legit martial arts experience) and Choi was a powerful military man and therefore political figure.
Choi suggested the name Taekwondo, and there was originally some back and forth what the unified art (from all of the Kwan leaders) would be called. Choi initially forced the name of the KTA to be Taekwondo, but in 1961 it was changed to Korea Taesoodo Association. When Choi became President of KTA again in 1965 he forced the name change back to Taekwondo.
This was contentions and other kwan heads did not work well with Choi, so in 1966 Uhm Woon-kyu and Lee Chong-woo offered that if he did the honor thing and resigned, they would help him make the International Taekwondo Federation.
So he forced through a name change, but there senior martial artists at the time that joined the unification effort and determined what the art would be. However, if this hadn’t happened - Choi would have taught Taekwondo, Kukkiwon would have taught Taesoodo and we’d have been obviously separate arts (with a common ancestor in Karate).
Trained Taekkyeon (택견) by his calligraphy teacher Han Il Dong
Choi often claimed in books (e.g. page 295 of his own self-authored book “Taekwon-do - the art of self defence” (1965) that he had learnt Taekkyeon as a child from his calligraphy teachers.
Taekwon-do is a modern version of the ancient Korean art of self-defence known as T’ae Kyeon… His father sent him to study calligraphy under a well known teatcher Mr, Han Il Dong. … Mr. Han, a great calligrapher, was also a veteran of the ancient T’ae-Kyeon. Worrying about the author’s health, Mr. Han taught him T’ae-Kyeon besides caligraphy. Thus it came about that in 1936 the author took up T’ae-Kyeon, which was consisting solely of foot manoeuvres.
This has been long disputed by Korean scholars as Taekkyeon was seen as a lower class pasttime in history, and a calligraphy teacher is one of the upper classes. So a calligraphy teacher doing Taekkyeon let alone teaching it, is a stretch of belief.
However, that doesn’t even matter… While he originally claimed it, in an interview he walked it back.
Interviewer: You have written in your autobiography that you learned taek- kyeon from Han Il-dong. Did Mr. Han actually teach you any mar- tial art techniques and say they were taekkyeon?
Choi: That gentleman was good at baduk. He always had a baduk board with him. . . . In the evening Mr. Han and the village elders would gather at our house and tell martial art stories. They wanted me to grow up hearing these stories. And they talked about taekkyeon. Said they had done it. However, I never learned taekkyeon from him. I saw him kick a shuttlecock once…
(Baduk is a board game, also known as Go in Japanese and Wei Qi in Chinese)
Learnt Karate while at Tokyo University under Gichin Funakoshi
At that time, Funakoshi kept accurate records of attendance and promotions, and there have been no occurences found by scholars of Choi in those records. There were records of a fellow Korean Kim (first names unknown) obtaining 2nd Dan there. Some have then changed this history to say that Choi originally learned from Kim (who was a 2nd Dan himself) THEN switched to Funakoshi to get his 2nd Dan. This is obviously still disputed due to the fact that there’s no record of it (but there are meticulous records of those that came before and after Choi’s alleged promotion).
Choi’s fans claim that he spent “two years of concentrated training” to gain his 1st Dan under Kim, as if that was some special feat. Funakoshi promoted his first group of 1st Dans after 18 months of training, so two years at that time would have been a slower than normal promotion time.
Learnt Karate while a prisoner of war in Japan
Ignoring the fact that prisoners aren’t normally taught martial arts (and Choi was scheduled to be executed on August 18th 1945), this still likely meant he was learning from peers rather than under a senior instructor.
Was (one of) the most senior martial artists at the start of Taekwondo
This is the biggest claim of all, that he was one of the most senior martial artists at the time. Stories remain that most in the early days never saw Choi do any martial arts training. Any classes were taught by Nam Tae-hi or other senior Ohdokwan members.
Son Duk-sung (who was a president of Chungdokwan) was asked to give Choi an honorary (not tested for) 4th Dan by Nam Tae-hi in 1955 because “we could use his military authority to spread the Chung Do Kwan” (note, not because he was the most senior person at the time. This was done, but in 1957 Choi insisted that he was upgraded to a 6th Dan. Son then publicly revoked Choi’s honorary 4th Dan in the Seoul Shinmoon (newspaper) on June 16th 1959.
This obviously begs the question, why would Choi need honorary rank, in an art he claimed to have founded, and then why would he need to ask someone else to give him even higher rank? Surely, if he was the founder, his certification would mean the most and he’d be giving it to others?