Legendary taekwondo master Hee Il Cho was about 10 years old when he started studying the martial arts. That was back in the 1950s when South Korea was in a state of chaos because the Korean War had just ended. The people were poor and undernourished. Cho and his family lived in a small, poverty-stricken city called Pohang. Until fairly recently, it used to take Pohang resident 12 or 13 hours on a train to reach Seoul, the nation’s capital.
Back then, Koreans used names like subak, tang soo do, kong soo do and tae soo do to describe their fighting arts. “After the Korean War, Gen. Choi Hong-hi said people should get rid of all the names and call it taekwondo,” Cho says.
In the 1950s, martial arts training wasn’t for exercise, he says. It was for survival.
“Although they were not really gang members, young people used to roam from town to town and beat up kids and take away their toys,” Cho says. “One time I was beaten up by some boys around 12 or 13 years old. At the time, I thought it was pretty bad, so I wanted to protect myself.” Taekwondo turned out to be the answer.
Martial arts training facilities were very basic then, Hee Il Cho says. “The buildings had a roof, but sometimes they didn’t have walls. The floor was dirt. Many children didn’t have shoes, so we all walked around barefoot.”
Instructors didn’t know the proper way to teach martial arts. Instead, they merely followed the ways they’d learned from their own instructors. “There was no master teaching philosophy or how to behave,” Cho says. “It was all physical. We would just spar or stand in line and follow the leader. No questions were asked because that was considered disrespectful. Traditionally in Korea, the father was the king of the home, and no questions were asked of him. Martial arts were taught that way, too.”
Whenever Cho or his classmates got out of line, their taekwondo instructors, often just 14- or 15-year-old kids, would give them a painful reminder of their mistake. “There was a lot of physical punishment,” Cho says. “Sometimes they would just keep hitting us. We would get black and blue. Everything was very disciplined. Today, I look back on it as good training, but no kid would do that these days. They would quit right away and never go back.
“But in those days, the only way to survive was to get tough,” Cho continues. “So it didn’t bother us that much. Hunger was a natural thing; we ate maybe once a day. Your character becomes stronger when you have to go through hardships like that.”
As far as martial arts techniques go, the basic principles of what Hee Il Cho learned then in South Korea were the same as what he teaches now in America. “But taekwondo has changed so much since I started,” he says. “The training methods were very primitive then, not based on a scientific approach as they are today. The instructor would say, ‘Block this way, kick this way, punch this way,’ and no questions would arise.
“In the old days, we had only the front snap kick, roundhouse kick, side kick and jumping side kick,” Cho continues. “And the kicking method was different. It was not as technically good as it is today. Today’s method is much better. The only things better then were the discipline and respect that were taught.”
Another thing that is better nowadays is the overall effectiveness of the art. “These days, many people work out and are physically strong, but in those days, people were weaker; to defend yourself, you did not have to be such a skillful fighter,” he says. “So I don’t think the art was as effective as it is now. Students used to punch hard surfaces and make their knuckles big. The training was tougher, but not as skillful.”
Even the young students conditioned their hands because they followed the example set by their seniors without ever wondering if it would harm their body 20 or 30 years down the road. “Then it didn’t matter if you did it at such a young age, but now people say you will mess up your hands or develop arthritis,” Cho says. “I, too, conditioned my hands, but I haven’t had any problems so far.”
Hee Il Cho used to train in taekwondo six days a week for one and a half or two hours a day. Unfortunately, all his time was not spent at maximum efficiency. “Training is like driving a car — you have to put gas in your tank,” he says. “In those days, because of malnutrition, many things were not so effective. After training, we would get dizzy because we didn’t put anything into our body. That’s not the way people should work out.”
Sparring used to take place daily with no protective pads. “We punched and kicked as hard as we could — not to smash someone’s face, but sometimes noses got broken,” Cho says with a smile. “In any physical confrontation where you have two people sparring, at first, they say, ‘Let’s use control.’ But as time goes by, it’s natural for them to start hitting each other harder.”
All that hard sparring would seem to be ideal preparation for tournaments, but for most martial arts students in the 1950s, that was not the case. “Korea had only one or two national tournaments a year,” Cho says. “We seldom participated in them because they were held in Seoul, and travel by train was very difficult. But we did take part in local tournaments.”
Today, looking back on his tough childhood in Pohang, Cho believes that perhaps he was fortunate to have experienced all those hardships. “It makes you more appreciative of the most valuable things, like the love of your parents,” he says.
“These days, kids have almost too much; that can make them less disciplined,” Cho says. “A certain amount of hardship helps people know how to live life properly.”
In 2012 Hee Il Cho was Black Belt’s Man of theYear. For more information about the martial artist and his organization, visit the website for Action International Martial Arts Association.