Tae kwon do pioneer Jack Hwang is one of only four Korean instructors who fought in open tournaments during the notorious “blood-n-guts” era of American karate. Just as uniquely, he is a genuine tae kwon do master who earned the respect for his title without demanding it. Although Hwang is seldom seen and heard in the media he has a lot to say. Here he unleashes some explosive opinions on the over-abundance of socalled “All Korea Champions,” the down side of kick-boxing, and the politics — here and in Korea — that have hampered his traditional art.
Tradition is in decline, and with it much of what the world has come to know as tae kwon do. Mastering the market has taken the place of mastering the self. When a traditional martial art is stripped of its ritual, its substance, and its structural integrity, what’s left? Oklahoma City’s tae kwon do master Jack Hwang contends that the practice of throwing traditional values out of the dojang is creating problemswhich threaten to undermine the entire tae kwon do (TKD) establishment. In Hwang’s opinion, devaluation of the black belt, rank test abuses, instructor self-misrepresentation, and the politics of full-contact karate are major problems which must be overcome if the art is to keep “face,” and continue to expand.
A New Start
Jack Hwang immigrated to the United States in the 1950’s to acquire an edu-cation, and most of all to get a grip on his new life as a civilian. Hwang had been a captain in the Korean Army. He made the difficult transition to peace and a new country. “School was hard for me at first,” Hwang admits. It was not until he entered graduate school at Sam Houston University in Texas that the academics got easier and his after-school martial arts classes got bigger. He left Sam Houston with a degree in criminology and arrived at the University of Oklahoma for further studies. “One day I made the decision to teach full time. I told my wife that I wanted to dedicate my life to the martial arts,” Hwang explained. In 1964 he opened his first full-time studio.
Fighters And Fakers
Jack Hwang won the respect and confidence of the American martial arts community early in his teaching career. He did so by fighting in open U.S. tournaments. To date, only a handful of Korean instructors have taken this risk and displayed their skills in the public arena. Besides Hwang, there was David Moon, Byong Yu, and Hee II Cho. Hwang holds an 8th-dan in TKD. He is an experienced tournament fighter and a master teacher. But the name plate on his wooden desk reads simply, “Mr. Jack Hwang.” “Master is not something you make yourself,” Hwang remarks. “Master is what other people say about you.” In Hwang’s opinion there are too many self-proclaimed TKD masters operating in the United States. Says Hwang, “People are laughing at signs that say master.” For years it has been painfully apparent that a large number of the Korean instructors throughout the Western world have exaggerated their rank. Hwang is deeply concerned about the long-term effect of this problem. “A 7th-dan must be at least forty years old,” he points out. “I meet some teachers at a tournament [and] they show me their business cards [that read] 9 th dan. [These people are] 25 years old — what can I say? It hurts my feelings because I love the martial arts. A lot of these people don’t know them-selves,” Hwang says, visibly moved. “A [self-promoted] 7th-dan is scared inside. He is like a building without a foundation. A strong wind and he might [be blown] down. Hwang says that it is much better to have a “two story building” with a good foundation than a “tower” with no support. “You must earn respect. You can’t just claim it with a sign,” Hwang warns. The ‘do’ in tae kwon do means way of life, respect, justice, and face. How can they go around quoting the spirit of martial arts when they are not honest themselves? “It’s pretty pitiful — not being honest with yourself,” Hwang observes. “How do they [self-promoted instructors] teach the children? How do they face their family — their own wife and kids? They all know the truth.” Hwang points out that the first All Korean Championship was held in 1960. So how many genuine All Korea Champions are in the United States today? Hwang doesn’t think there are enough to fill Yellow Page ads in most of America’s major cities. [See “Yellow Jack Hwang made his name the old-fashioned way — he earned it — by being one of only a handful of Korean instructors to compete in open U.S. tournaments. His breaking wasn’t bad, either.
He said that individuals who misrepresent their rank and tournament credentials hurt the image of all martial arts instructors. Why are some of the Korean TKD teachers misrepresenting themselves? “Lack of education and no confidence,” Hwang answers. Being dishonest about rank and honor is a serious loss of face in Hwang’s opinion. Surprisingly, it is not anger that Hwang feels for such individuals; it is something more akin to pity.
The Price Of Tradition
The early 1960s were the pioneer years for Korean martial arts in the United States. In that era there was an atmosphere of cooperation between schools and teachers. It was an environment that was virtually free of politics. “We were close, not political,” Hwang says. Unfortunately, there was then plenty of political turmoil back in Korea. The controversy over what to call the arts and whether or not to unify them under one banner raged on for years. “My teacher was Kee Hwang, the founder of Moo duk kwan tang soo do. In 1969 I invited my father to come over from Korea. He suggested I switch from using the name tang soo do to the new official name of tae kwon do.” Hwang took his father’s advice and adopted the new name for his Korean art. But a visit from Kee Hwang taught Jack that there is always a price to pay for breaking tradition. “As soon as he found out I had changed the name, he left. I never had contact with him again.” Master Kee Hwang is now 74 years old. Although they have not communicated since that fateful day in 1969, Jack Hwang still has the highest respect for his teacher.
The Decline Of Tradition
For years upon years Hwang and a handful of other staunch TKD traditionalists have maintained their standards for rank progression. Hwang believes that the value of a black belt has depreciated in most U.S. schools. “Now you see six- and seven-year-old kids with black belts. Traditionally, a student must be over 16 years old to get a black belt.”
As an example of the traditional ranking system Hwang explains, “If an 18 year old trains hard for six days a week for three-and-one-half to four years, and spends a lot of time helping his instructor teach, he might be ready for a black belt examination.” Even this may not qualify an individual for a black belt test in Hwang’s school. “I check their attitude — everything,” Hwang says. “One week before test day I put names on a list of those who are ready. Until then, nobody knows who will test. Hwang is disturbed by the lowering TKD rank standards. He is equally concerned about the sheer number and frequency of tests now being required. “[For] twenty five dollars, you get a stripe. Twenty five more dollars [and] you get another stripe. Stripe, stripe, stripe. When are you going to get the belt? “In some schools you can take tests any time you like. You got 250 or 300 dollars and you can have a black belt test anytime. Too many tests [and] people will get wise to this.”
The Full-Contact Fable
Jack Hwang has fought in and sponsored countless numbers of tournaments. For the last twenty years or more he had trained his students to fight under point rules. But many of his students have gone on to fight in full-contact matches. Hwang is not opposed to full-contact karate, but he is concerned about the way things are being run by the major sanctioning groups. “Most of these fighters fail as human beings.” Hwang named three highly rated full-contact karate fighters whom he has personally known over the years. “These three used to be really nice young men and good tae kwon do practitioners, now they have some kind of ego problem.” As Hwang sees, it, the danger of full-contact fighting resides more in the area of uncontrolled ego and misdirected values than it does in the risk of injury. In 1969, Jack Hwang changed the name of his art from tang soo do to tae kwon do. Soon after, his instructor, Kee Hwang, the tang soo do founder, visited him. “As soon as he found out I changed the name, he left. I never had contact with him again.”
“I asked one of these young men why he didn’t get out of fighting and open up a nice school. Now he had trouble hearing; he has no education. Where can he go now [when his full-contact career ends]?” “A certain part [of full-contact karate] is good, but I feel sorry for those guys,” Hwang adds. “The promoters make promises of big prizes to be won in the future. They use these fighters.” Hwang seldom encourages his people to get involved with full-contact karate. He believes in the virtues of the traditional way of training in the martial arts. Hwang has great sympathy for the individuals whose lives are enslaved to the full-contact karate trend. His concern is for the young fighters who have been led to slaughter by mad promoters, and combatants who have become enraptured with their own egos and lost the true meaning of martial arts. “Full-contact karate needs to be organized more like pro-boxing,” he believes. “The sport needs better benefits and rewards.”
TKD Politics In The New Korea
“Last year I went to Seoul, Korea for the World Taekwondo Federation’s annual exhibition,” Hwang recounts. “I was surprised to see what happened.” Instead of a traditional TKD demonstration with forms, breaking and fighting, Hwang saw mostly acrobats who performed flashy “tricks.” “Tae kwon do is the national art of Korea. Where were the old masters who started our move to spread tae kwon do the west?” Hwang says that all of the speakersfor the exhibition were politicians. “Now the old masters have no money,” Hwang says. “They need help.” Most of all Hwang says they deserve respect. “There was no invitation for the grandmasters to come to Seoul last year.” The politics of both the United States and Korea seem to be working against tradition. One can only guess what will become of traditional TKD in five years.
Coming Full circle With Tradition
Hwang’s new students learn the rules of point karate right from the start. Meanwhile, the concepts of face, indomitable spirit, and personal integrity are slowly pumped into the ears of these would-be competitors. By the time Hwang’s students reach black belt they will probably have fought in many point tournaments. After attaining their black belt they begin training in TKD self-defense methods. The self-defense techniques and concepts reflect the type of training that was used by Hwang’s teacher and other well-known masters. “When they reach black belt they know that tradition is the center of martial arts,” Hwang says. “So, they have made a full circle from the sport back to traditional martial arts.” “I am 56 years old,” Hwang says, smiling. “I got grey hair so I can [criticize] this way.” Actually, Mr. Hwang has no visible grey in his dark hair, but the years do show on th is weathered face. “Students should grow with the art and be humble, never cocky like so many of the full-contact fighters.” Hwang feels that setting an example for others to follow is one of the best ways to keep the martial arts on the right track. “Phonies,” Hwang states, “will fall away to the side.” In the end, he says, values will prevail. He predicts that in spite of the current challenges to its integrity, TKD will continue to keep face with tradition.