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Roots of Ji Do Kwan

The school that would later become Ji Do Kwan was originally called Chosun Yun Moo Kwan Kong Soo Do Bu. Its founder, Chun Sang Sup, had studied Judo during high school in Seoul, then Karate in Japan while a student at Tokyo’s Takushoku University. There his studies may have been led by Funakoshi Gichin—founder of Shotokan, one of the world’s most influential schools of karate. Whether Chun was a direct student of Funakoshi Gichin is unclear, as it was likely that the primary instructor of that school at the time was his son, Funakoshi Yoshitaka Gigo. Even this is a matter of some dispute, as record keeping was not always clear, and some believe that Kanken Tōyama was Chun’s teacher instead. If the latter theory is true, Chun would have had the same Karate teacher as Yun Byung In (founder of Chang Moo Kwan) and Yun Gwae Byung (more about him later).

Chun returned to Korea during World War II, and after the liberation of Korea, he opened a school in Seoul on the site of the Yun Moo Kwan where he’d trained in Judo as a high school student and taught Karate and Judo before the end of the war. Although Chun started this school as an affiliate of the Yun Moo Kwan, it marks the first date Ji Do Kwan existed as an organization: May 3, 1946.

Chun’s school was short-lived, because he disappeared around 1950, early in the Korean War, and was never seen again. His first two black belts were Yoon Gwae Byung and Lee Chong Woo, and after Chun’s disappearance, they jointly ran the school. Lee suggested renaming the style as Ji Do Kwan (The Way of Wisdom Institute) and the name change was approved by Yoon, who became the first president.

Early Ji Do Kwan History
Ji Do Kwan founder Chun Sang Sup
Ji Do Kwan founder Chun Sang Sup

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Ji Do Kwan school developed a reputation for excellence in sparring, especially in tournament competition. A long succession of highly regarded champions had Ji Do Kwan training, and by the late 1960s—when the five leading Kwans and other less prominent schools began the process of unification into the organization that would become known as Tae Kwon Do—Ji Do Kwan was one of Korea’s leading martial arts styles.

This time period was crucial for the development of our Ji Do Kwan lineage, because Yoon and Lee disagreed on the course the school should take. Yoon believed that the school should retain its identity, much like the Tang Soo Do and Moo Duk Kwan schools, and be in control of its own curriculum, standards, and rank testing. (Some branches of the latter, such as Richard Chun’s school in New York, have since merged with mainstream Tae Kwon Do.) Lee thought participation in the Kwan Unity Act was the appropriate course and advocated joining the Korea Tae Soo Do Association along with Lee Nam Suk (Chang Moo Kwan), Uhm Woon Kyu (Chung Do Kwan), Hyun Jong Myun (Oh Do Kwan), Hwang Kee (Moo Duk Kwan), and other less prominent schools. This conflict led to the ouster of Yoon Gae Byung as president of Ji Do Kwan in 1967, and Lee Chong Woo succeeded him to become the second president of the organization.

During Lee’s tenure, Ji Do Kwan joined this new organization, which would evolve into the Kukkiwon, and Lee himself became an influential member. Black belts within the Kukkiwon knew each others’ origins, much as soldiers in the army know each others’ units and may demonstrate spirited and good-natured rivalry within a common organization. Practitioners from the Ji Do Kwan lineage continued to enjoy prominence in sparring through the 1960s and 1970s, but as time passed, membership in the Kukkiwon came to supersede feelings of allegiance to schools of origin. Today, many older members of these schools may recognize these lineages to varying degrees, and many younger practitioners—whether in Korea or around the world—are no longer aware of the roots that connect them, and some of their teachers, back to an older tradition.

Our Branch of Ji Do Kwan

Choi Bong Young, the founder of our school’s interpretation of Tae Kwon Do, was a student of Lee Chong Woo. Choi’s 1979 book, The Way of Martial Art, was dedicated to Lee:

I am sincerely grateful to my instructor, Jong Woo Lee [sic], who has given me the most effective advice for my training and teaching of the martial art through many years.

Choi Bong Young came to the United States in the 1960s and taught briefly in Ohio before moving to the San Francisco bay area. Sean Owen was an early student, along with Richie Reichel, and the three of them built a dojang in a storefront location in the lower Telegraph Avenue neighborhood of Oakland. Choi taught in California until the mid-1970s, at which time he began spending half of each year in Korea, then later moved back to Seoul to run his family’s construction business, where he died in 1991.

Choi’s reluctance to fully embrace the methods of the Kukkiwon may seem at odds with his teacher’s strong advocacy of modern Tae Kwon Do practice. Without understanding the nature of Yoon Gwae Byung’s teaching, or the reasons for his opposition to merging Ji Do Kwan with the Kukkiwon, it is hard to know what traditions Choi observed in retaining the Ji Do Kwan name for his school. It seems possible that he may have been loyal to Lee, his teacher, while spiritually adhering more closely to the values of Yoon. Or Yoon may have believed and taught something else entirely, and Choi may have been following other influences in deciding to keep the Ji Do Kwan name for his school in Oakland.

dedication page: Choi Bong Young’s The Way of Martial Art, 1979

Sean Owen is the Master who connects River Valley Tae Kwon Do to its Korean roots through Choi. According to Owen’s transmission of our core curriculum and traditions, there were three essential characteristics of Choi’s values that are central to the practice of our style today:

  1. Ji Do Kwan is a noncompetitive style. There are many reasons for studying Ji Do Kwan, but all have to do with ways of living, not the short term goal of pursuing recognition and prizes. Choi’s schools in Oakland sometimes participated in what were called “tournaments” but they differed in form from the tournaments we see today. These were generally meetings between two schools, in which sparring was sometimes similar to our present practice but sometimes much rougher. Instead of determining a “winner,” these competitions were seen more as experiments in the virtues and limits of training methods, as well as of individual fighters. In other words, they were meant to be another kind of learning opportunity, not the purpose of training. Choi did not support the evolution of Tae Kwon Do into a sport because he thought competition encouraged nontraditional techniques and had the potential to foster negative personal qualities.
  2. Ji Do Kwan is an “aristocratic” or “gentleman’s” style. Sparring is not only noncompetitive, it is “gentle” compared to other martial arts styles. Higher ranks don’t dominate lower ranks when sparring, but foster growth by sparring at slightly above their level. Instead of throwing students into the deep end or “sink or swim,” the various stages of sparring (one-steps, free sparring, contact sparring, etc.) are introduced after students have the physical and mental control necessary to be respectful of their opponents and safe. In resolving conflict outside the dojang, physical or otherwise, Ji Do Kwan practitioners give their opponents the benefit of the doubt (the principle of “one hit,” allowing for the possibility of accidental or misconstrued aggression) before reacting with force.
  3. The deep stances and long, flowing techniques we practice, compared to other modern Tae Kwon Do styles, reflect a balance of practicality with aesthetic beauty and meaning beyond the physical. The beauty and grounding of the physical techniques embody and foster the ideas of #1-2 above, so expressing them in this traditional form is essential to proper practice.

Sean Owen taught Ji Do Kwan at a number of locations in California, then at the Verde Valley School in Arizona during the 1980s, and he has supervised testing in our school in Massachusetts since the early 1990s. See the Ji Do Kwan Family Tree for more information on Owen’s students, including those practitioners who started River Valley Tae Kwon Do and contribute to its guidance today.

Resources for Further Reading

This history is a highly compressed account drawn from many sources. For further reading on the evolution of Tae Kwon Do and the Ji Do Kwan school, you may be interested in the following:

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