The Lion of Hwa Rang Do® Roars!

An exclusive interview with Founder, Lee Joo-Bang

Part 3 by Hyung Min Jung

(Black Belt Magazine - November, 2000)

In parts one and two of this article, which appeared in the September and October 2000 issues of Black Belt, Lee Joo-bang began his discussion of the development of the Korean martial arts. In part three, he sets the record straight regarding the early days of his art in the United States and charts a course for the future. -Editor

Black Belt: It has been said that at one point you were the highest ranked black belt under hapkido founder Choi Yong-sul.

Lee Joo-bang: That is correct. Master Choi awarded Ji Han-jae, my brother and me pal dan (eigth-degree black belt) in May 1968. In the 1960’s, no one was ranked higher than us in hapkido.

BB: Although you earned a high rank from Choi and established hapkido in Seoul, Korea, you walked away from hapkido. Why?

LEE: It had to do with the rules that govern the traditional study of martial arts. Human loyalty is a basic requirement from a student toward his master. If a student studies under a master, he knows no other teacher, no other way, no other distractions. I learned um-yang kwon Hwarang combat skills only from Su-Ahm Dosa. I didn't want to divide my loyalties, and I didn't have to divide my attention to the wisdom that my master was imparting to me. That kind of concentration and loyalty is what helped my brother and me become masters of the Hwarang combat skills. Then my family moved to Taegu during the Korean War, but Su-Ahm Dosa remained at Yang Mi Ahm [hermitage] on O Dae mountain. I could no longer serve my master, as he was far away. During that time, we found Master Choi, and my brother and I began studying yu sool wholeheartedly from him. We didn't continue to study um-yang kwon since we knew that we couldn't serve two masters at the same time. It’s just not done that way in traditional Korean society.

BB: And you played an instrumental role in spreading the art in Seoul.

LEE: When we were able to popularize hapkido in the capitol city- earning high masters’ rankings and promoting the art and Master Choi in front of the president of Korea- I knew that our work was good. However, the quality of hapkido broke down when one of the [ Korea ] Hapkido Association officers started selling the rights to hundreds of kwan (training hall) titles and high ranking black-belt certificates. Allowing anyone who enough money to buy the rights to establish a “whatever-kwan” hapkido school also made it impossible to regulate quality control. Although my brother and I were already well-known in the Korean martial arts society and had established a very successful school in Seoul, we knew we were not destined to represent hapkido when the ethos of the art began to disintegrate that way.


BB: What did you decide to do?

LEE: Up to that point, Su-Ahm Dosa had shared his knowledge only with me and my brother, and he expected us to continue this tradition of secrecy. So I traveled back to visit him and explain my situation. He gave me permission to bring his ancient Hwarang combat skills to the public, and I dropped all my affiliations to any other martial art and founded hwa rang do and the Korean Hwa Rang Do Association. In 1968, my brother and I categorized all the techniques we had learned from Su-ahm Dosa and broke everything down into a clear curriculum and belt-ranking system for students and instructors to follow. That same year I registered the martial art name of hwa rang do with the Korean government to protect it and ensure that it would not follow the same path as hapkido.

BB: Since you trained with Choi, did hapkido become part of hwa rang do?

LEE: Master Choi did not use the name “hapkido” until 1968. Some of the yu sool techniques were very similar to the soft style techniques I had already learned from Su-Ahm Dosa, so it was easy for me to master that art. Since I trained extensively with Master Choi during the late 1950’s, I can’t say that 100 percent of my hwa rang do skills are the same combat skills that I learned from Su-Ahm Dosa. Yu sool definitely left an influence on me and my teaching, but the majority of my martial art came from Su-Ahm Dosa’s Hwarang combat skills.

BB: Some people claim that most of hwa rang do is actually a modified form of hapkido.

LEE: If you want to make a historical comparison to see what art influenced the other, consider hwa rang do and daito-ryu aikijujutsu. We already know that hapkido descended from daito-ryu. Hwa rang do contains all the same techniques of those arts, plus so many more. I don’t see how anyone in their right mind can say that my art is just modified hapkido - when they look at the variety of hand strikes, 365 kicking techniques and more than 100 weapons that are completely absent from daito-ryu. We also have healing arts and strategic components that are absent from those other arts.

BB: Some researchers have claimed that hwa rang do’s kicks came from tae kyon.

LEE: Again, look at the physical aspects of the art. Tae kyon is predominately a kicking art. If hwa rang do’s kicks came from tae kyon, why are the kicks of my art so much more complete than theirs? It should be the other way around. If hwa rang do really came from tae kyon, tae kyon would have much more complete and complicated leg maneuvers than my art. People who make those kinds of assertions should do their homework before they open their mouths.

BB: An article posted on the Internet reported that you had studied open-hand strike techniques with the founder of kuk sool, Suh In-hyuk. If you did study with Suh, it would indicate that hwa rang do descended from kuk sool.

LEE: As I mentioned before, Ji Han-jae opened his school in 1959, I opened mine in 1960 and Kim Mu-hong opened his in 1961. Even though we all trained under Master Choi in the 1950’s, I never saw them during this time because I was taking private lessons from Master Choi. When Kim Mu-hong went into the military in 1962, his father hired some other masters to teach at his school. I taught day classes at Kim’s school for a couple of months, and it was then that I met Suh, Kim Woo-tak, Lee Han-chul and Kim Mu-jin. Although we were already masters by that time and had trained in different traditions - Kim Mu- hong’s background was in Master Choi’s yu sool and Suh’s background was yu sool and ship pal gi (Korean kung fu) - a bond of friendship developed between us. It was then that I founded the Han Kuk Mu Sool Hyup Hoi (abbreviated as Kuk Sool Hoi) with these other masters. Then Woo Kim opened his school in Seoul in 1962, and Suh In-hyuk also opened his first school in Pusan with two other friends.

BB: So that theory is untrue?

LEE: As far as theses rumors are concerned, an ignorant historian said I went to Pusan to learn hand-striking techniques from Suh. However, [this allegation makes no sense in terms of] the time frame in which we opened our schools and the techniques I already knew. I was already a master of Hwarang combat skills and yu sool. If I opened my school in 1960 in Seoul, why would I need to go down to Pusan to learn palm strikes five years later? (laughing) Does that make sense? Some ill-informed taekwondo practitioners have also circulated rumors that I learned tang soo do. Anyone can start these kinds of rumors, and I would rather not comment on them. However, the truth is the truth, and hwa rang do is hwa rang do from what I learned from my master, Su-Ahm Dosa.


BB: What else can you tell us about the development of hapkido?

LEE: There are actually two major styles of hapkido that exist today. One is the same as Master Choi’s yu sool, which was influenced by Ji Han-jae and Kim Mu-hong. This style has no forms, hand strikes or kicking techniques. The other major style was influenced by the Kuk Sul Hoi organization that I founded. This version adopted some kicking and striking techniques from the hwa rang do skills I was teaching. Just examine the instructional videos of all these systems, and it will be easy to see that they have different roots. Hwa rang do and the different versions of hapkido contain some similarities, but the vast majority of these systems are different. Again, I would rather not comment on the rumors of who taught whom these skills and which art influenced the other. The curriculums and true histories of these arts speak for themselves.

BB: When did you bring your art to the United States, and how was it received?

LEE: Coming to America was the next logical step in the evolution of hwa rang do. Before I left, there were many hwa rang do practitioners in Seoul. If you look at the national martial arts expos and demonstrations that I organized for President Park Chung Hee in the 1960s [ you will see that ] many of my students performed. The May 28, 1968 United Martial Arts National Expo in Seouls’s Chang Chung Sorts Arena was mainly a hwa rang do demonstration, and other hapkido people supported it. By 1972, I had 16 schools in Seoul alone, and 68 schools in all of Korea. I knew that leaving Korea would be a monumental task. Leaving behind all the schools I founded would mean that my art wouldn't enjoy the same kind of popularity in its birth country. But America was the strongest country in the world, and I knew that if I could bring my art here, I could use that new base to spread hwa rang do to the rest of the world and eventually bring it back to Korea.

BB: So you left ...

LEE: In July 1972, I left Korea and brought my family here. My brother came before me to establish a school. The language barrier was immense, and that initially caused some problems with misinformation about hwa rang do. Nonetheless, things start to go your way if you endure long enough, and students eventually began coming to learn at my school in Downey, California. Soon afterward, my brother and I earned our medical state-board licenses and established a medical practice to put the Hwarang healing arts of Su-Ahm Dosa to use to serve the people of our new homeland. We also spread a version of our art to the U.S. Special Forces through the late Michael Echanis, who was like a son to me. So you could say the reception was a good one. I’m still teaching in the same city with my world headquarters dojang ( training hall ) and clinic.

BB: Where has hwa rang do created a following?

LEE: Asia, Europe and the Americas all have hwa rang do representation. We have schools in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Mexico, Canada, Poland and a bunch of other countries - not to mention all the schools we have in the United States. Right now there are over 300 licensed schools around the world with some 100,000 students. The art is doing well, and there will be a big boom in enrollment in the next year when my art is revealed to the public through video for the first time.

BB: When will your videos be released?

LEE: Very soon. After years of deliberation, I decided that international trademark laws are strong enough that I can now use video to educate the public on what my art really is. Nobody knows the art and what it entails better than me. I founded it, so I should be the one to speak on it - I authored books on the art back in the late 1960s. Panther Productions had been approaching me for years to do a series, but I wanted to keep the art in my dojang. Now I feel it’s time that the general public got a chance to see what real hwa rang do - Korea’s most comprehensive martial art - is.

BB: A new art called tae soo do has recently appeared in connection with you. What is that?

LEE: Tae soo do is a simplified sport version of hwa rang do. I created it as an undergraduate program for the beginning martial arts student to come in and ease their way into learning true hwa rang do. Hwa rang do generally has a lower retention rate [than other martial arts]. It’s hard for the average guy off the street to understand the rigors I put my students through. Hwa rang do isn’t the kind of art you can expect an easy time with. Korea’s ancient Hwarang warriors were so fearsome because they trained harder than anyone else to realize their fullest potential as human beings because their masters did not let them goof off or praise them regardless of their level of performance like many martial art instructors do these days.

BB: What exactly does tae soo do training entail?

LEE: Tae soo do means “way of the great hand” or “way of the warrior spirit.” I designed it as a way of preparing people for the more difficult hwa rang do training, which is now like a graduate program. A student with prior martial arts experience can come in to learn hwa rang do as a white sash, but a total beginner must first advance through the tae soo do program to black belt. The process takes two to three years, and then the student is eligible for admission into the hwa rang do program as a yellow sash. It takes the average person roughly three more years to progress to their first-degree black sash in hwa rang do.

BB: What is your vision for the future of hwa rang do?

LEE: To continue hwa rang do’s growth throughout the world by using video tapes and the Internet to educate the public about the art and maintain the strict quality control I have kept since 1968. Everyone who wants to be a black sash in hwa rang do must test in front of me and the master’s panel to ensure strict adherence to my standards and to keep the art pure. I personally certify every black sash that is awarded. This means that no matter how spread out the art is, no matter how many schools or how many books and videos we put out, all instructors of my art come through me and me alone. I am going to show everyone the fullness of my art. Earlier, I mentioned that hwa rang do is a difficult [art to master], that it presents a challenge for most people in all areas of their lives. Yet because it has such a full range - techniques are suitable for children, the elderly, athletes and military personnel - it has something for everyone. People need to see that and understand that hwa rang do is the kind of tool that can bring them to realize their fullest human potential physically, mentally and spiritually.

Click Here to read Part I

Click Here to read Part II

WHRDA ArchivesWHRDA Homepage

Copyright ©1968-2001 World Hwa Rang Do Association