Grandmaster Won Kuk LeeLeeChung

Today there are millions of practitioners of the martial art known as Tae Kwon Do. The man most responsible for this tremendous popularity is the one who started it all, Grandmaster Won Kuk Lee. He is considered the Father of Tae Kwon Do because his school was the first to openly teach martial art toward the end of World War II and the Japanese occupation. His school, the Chung Do Kwan, was also the learning ground for many who would later form their own Kwans (or schools). Because of his efforts, martial art training exploded across Korea and, soon after, Tae Kwon Do would swallow the globe. Often martial art history can be sketchy because of inaccurate stories or misplaced loyalty but it is undeniable that Grandmaster Lee was the genesis of the Tae Kwon Do movement.

LeeBlevinsGrandmaster Lee was born April 13, 1907. As a young man he had an interest in the martial arts but the occupying Japanese government banned any martial art practice or instruction. It is probable that he practiced in secret as a teenager because when he first started training he and his first teachers would not exchange names due to possible consequences if someone got caught. In 1926, at the age of 19, Lee left Korea for Japan where he enrolled in the Law School at Chuo University. During college years Grandmaster Lee also enrolled in the Shotokan and studied with the great Karate pioneer Gichen Funakoshi. Sources differ as to what rank Grandmaster Lee attained but most point to fourth degree black belt. Grandmaster Lee traveled around Okinawa, Japan, and China visiting many different martial arts schools including Shaolin Temples in Shanghai and Henan. His interest was in finding other points of view about martial art training and philosophy. His aim was to return to his homeland with this knowledge and begin teaching a type of martial art that emphasized good basic technique as well as an intellectual and educated approach.LeeClass

Grandmaster Lee returned to Korea and, in 1944, applied to the Japanese occupational government for a license to open a martial arts school. His application was turned down and so he applied again only to be rejected again. Finally, after his third attempt (and partly due to a friendship with Japanese Governor General Abe), Grandmaster Lee was granted permission to open and begin teaching a martial arts school. Because of this success, many later thought that Grandmaster Lee was a Japanese sympathizer. In September of 1944 Grandmaster Lee began teaching his martial art system in the Yung Shin School Gymnasium in Seoul. His vision was to create a martial art style of purity and depth that had an irresistable and unstoppable force. Therefore he coined the name Blue Wave Institute (Chung Do Kwan in Korean language). Blue symbolizing a pure and deep body of water (body of knowledge) while the Wave connoted the kind of relentless energy he wanted for his teaching. He called his art “Tang Soo Do” which is the Korean pronunciation of the Japanese Kanji characters for Kara-Te (Karate). This he did, no doubt, in deference to his teacher, Gichen Funakoski.

In 1945 Korea gained its independence and Grandmaster Lee was immediately put on trial for his association with the Japanese. During this time of hardship his Chung Do Kwan was temporarily closed but reopened again when Grandmaster Lee was acquitted a short time later. When the Chung Do Kwan reopened in 1946 Grandmaster Lee became very involved with the Korean National Police in helping rid the country of gangs and organized crime. Because of this tight alliance his school became known as the National Police Martial Art Academy.

Grandmaster Lee went on to lead the Chung Do Kwan to prominence in Korea. In addition to having the first school, he also had the biggest with many sources citing that he had over 50,000 students in his main school and affiliated branches during the high point of the Chung Do Kwan. In the 1940s and early 1950s his teaching was considered to be the best and most authentic. A large percentage of the other Kwans to follow were founded by former students of Grandmaster Lee. Nearly every other style or form of Tae Kwon Do has been influenced in some measure by Grandmaster Lee and his efforts in pioneering Korean martial art. In 1951 Grandmaster Lee retired from active teaching, handing the reins of leadership of the Chung Do Kwan to his student Duk Sung Son. He spent the next years traveling and visiting his many students, including Yong Taek Chung, who were now Tae Kwon Do Masters spreading this knowledge all over the world. One highlight for Grandmaster Lee was a friendship with General William Westmoreland and acting as the martial art instructor to U.S. troops during the Vietnamese War. This association led to Westmoreland inviting Grandmaster Lee to move to the United States and so Grandmaster Lee and his wife settled in Arlington, Virginia in 1976. Lee lived in and around the Washington, D.C. area for the rest of his life.

Grandmaster Won Kuk Lee died on February 2, 2003 from pneumonia at nearly 96 years of age. The eulogy at his funeral was given by his student, Grandmaster Yong Taek Chung.