The following is an interview with Grandmaster Han conducted in 1991 by Dennis Conroy who at the time of the interview was a 3rd Degree Black Belt with the UTF. The interview was part of a graduate level conjoint study of the martial arts and the liberal arts which Mr. Conroy performed at Mundelein College, now part of Loyola University, in Chicago.
Han, Cha Kyo, is a ninth degree black belt in Taekwon-do with over 40 years of experience in teaching the art to students all over the world. Mr. Han is the founder and president of the Universal Taekwon-Do Federation which is based in Chicago.
Although Grandmaster Han is known internationally for his achievements in the martial arts, he is also devoted to working with the physically disabled. His unique treatment programs and special training devices have helped hundreds of people maintain an active physical life despite severe handicaps. over a two year period, he worked intermittently with some of the retired sisters at Mundelein College free-of-charge. Two of the sisters participated in the social activities of the Universal Taekwon-Do Federation and became part of the martial art "family" at Han's Taekwon-Do Academy.
The following conversation was recorded in order to provide a perspective on martial arts and liberal arts training from the perspective of a "master instructor" in the martial arts. The reader is advised that this paper represents a reworking of the actual recorded conversation/interview. I did my best to capture the essence of the conversation, but there are sure to be unintended errors of "translation" in this format. This document was reviewed by Grandmaster Han and is submitted with his approval.
Dennis Conroy: Mr. Han, I would like to start by talking about some fundamental concepts of Oriental, or Eastern, thinking that may not be commonly understood by Westerners. For example, just as Buddhism is referred to as the "Way of wisdom," Taekwon-do is referred to as the "Way of Taekwon-do". How is Taekwon-do a Way of life? How is it lived?
Grandmaster Han: In the practice of Taekwon-do, tae means jumping or kicking; kwon means hand, or fist. A lot of people train "tae kwon," but not the "do." A person who practices "Taekwon-do" means they learn philosophy, they learn morality, and they learn culture. So, to learn "tae kwon" means that you are only learning hand and foot fighting. A person who learns "Taekwon-do" means learning the art, and learning the Way of the art. This is the best we can define it.
DC: A Korean martial artist and historian, Sang Kyu Shim, noted in one of his many articles on Korean history that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism had a very strong influence on ancient Korean society and that these philosophies are very present in modern day Korea. For Confucius, the most basic thing was to develop one's humanness, to become great internally and then to live out one's greatness. How does Taekwon-do help one become great internally?
GH: Taekwon-do helps a person become great internally by equally stressing both "moon" and "moo." In Korean, the character "moon" refers to the intellectual arts, and the character "moo" refers to the martial arts. A person who has studied moon and moo equally receives great respect because that is how one becomes a whole person. For example, West Point does not only teach killing people, there is an emphasis on developing the whole person, a leader. It is like the training of a knight in European history.
DC: It is a high level of training; intellectual, moral and physical.
GH: That's right. A person who focuses only on moon, or moo, will one day be in trouble because they are not in harmony. They could also be in danger. People who only study moo--they are only a weapon, like Saddam Hussein. They are dangerous.
DC: Would you say they are unbalanced?
GH: Yes, there has to be both moon and moo for harmony and balance.
DC: An authority on Oriental philosophies, John Koller, has written that in the orient "philosophy is not divorced from life, and practice is inseparable from theory." I think what he is saying is that philosophy is meant to be lived, not just studied. How does this apply to Taekwon-do?
GH: See, for example, at different times in Asian history, there were coup d’etat situations where a new king, or ruler, would try and get people to change their beliefs, or philosophy, for materialism, or for a high position. But people would not change because they respected and followed a system that was important to them. To use myself as an example, when I told my master I was going to America he said, "Yes, you can go, but there will be an opportunity to seek materialism." He asked me, "Will you follow this school?" I said, "No." I am sure this is the same in the West, too. There are a lot of people who would rather stay poor than change their beliefs.
DC: If I understand you correctly, it is important to have integrity, to adhere to one's beliefs, and to live one's beliefs.
GH: Yes, it is important to have integrity and to follow your beliefs.
DC: For those of us who study Taekwon-do, and learn from you, we know that Taekwon-do has strict codes of conduct, and tenets to guide the teacher and the student. Let's please talk about the historical development of the tenets, starting with some background on the beginning of a form of training known as hwarang-do. I have read that the code of the hwarang is similar to the more commonly known code of the Japanese samurai called Bushido (translated the "Way of the warrior"). What, first of all, do the characters "hwa" and "rang" mean?
GH: Hwarang-do was founded by the 24th king of Silla, Chin Heung. "Hwa" means flower, and "rang" means follow--to follow people. There are different interpretations. Another interpretation of "rang" is youth, or gentlemen. At first, Chin Heung picked two women to begin hwarang
DC: Excuse me for interrupting, but since I study at a women's college, I find it very interesting that in the 6th century A.D. a Korean king picked two women to begin the development of a specialized form of leadership training. He sounds like a liberated king!
GH: Yes, but that system did not work. We are now almost into the 21st century, but back then picking women to lead did not work.
DC: I read that in order for the hwarang to have a code of ethics, a famous warrior and Buddhist monk, Wong-Gwang, was asked for advice. Could you please comment on the commandments Wong-Gwang wrote to guide the hwarang warriors.
GH: The codes were actually simple. Five codes to live by. They were, however, taken very seriously. For example, in battle one could not back up. Whatever was ordered, you had to obey. Hwarang warriors would die in battle rather than retreat.
DC: How has the code of the hwarang influenced and guided you in your own life? Did you think of the hwarang when you were in training? I guess what I am asking is, how did you connect with the hwarang-do?
GH: The Korean background is influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism, as was the hwarang. So, like the hwarang, people in Korea know the values of Confucianism and Buddhism and how they are instilled in one's personal life, one's family, one's society, and one's nation. We studied the hwarang, so we know how they developed moral character and ethical behavior. I am Christian now, but I was influenced by Buddhism and Confucian principles. So, naturally, I learned from monks. After instruction, I began to mountain train by myself for almost 15 years. I got up at 4:00 a.m. and ran up the mountain.
DC: How old were you when you started doing this?
GH: I was 18 years old. I was getting stronger and stronger.
DC: You were becoming more self-directed at that point?
GH: Yes, self-directed. Around that time, one of the top monks in Korea asked me to become his student. But I refused. The reason why I said no was due to the way I would have to study - by myself. I wanted to have interconnection with others. Once you become a monk, you are focused on yourself.
DC: So it is more of a solitary study, individually directed?
DC: If I understand you correctly, you decided to be a man of action, and not a contemplative.
GH: Yes. I wanted to live with people. I wanted to live with others--to sometimes learn alone--but I needed to learn in a practical way, and not just through intellectual study.
DC: Master Han, you have lectured many times on how important it is to work out regularly in order to develop a healthy mind and a healthy body. How does physical exercise develop harmony and reduce stress?
GH: It happens step by step. We have an Oriental expression: "If you have good health, then you will have good spirit." If you have a bad body, then no matter what, you are going to have bad spirit. You have to keep healthy step by step.
DC: You are a grandmaster in Taekwon-do, but before you attained such a high level of skill and accomplishment you, too, had teachers. Could you please comment on your teachers and their teaching methods.
GH: I had a top grandmaster. I was so lucky because I met one of the top masters in the world. Actually, I had a few masters. one master was expert at patterns. I learned from him how to become a leader. I learned how to fight against evil--the concept of "might for right." From another master I learned technique. Different masters taught me different things.
DC: I take it that one of the reasons you became a grandmaster is that when you studied with these different individuals, you would master, if you will, their lessons, their techniques, and bring their skills into your own person.
GH: Yes, and remember, if I only learned tae kwon, I would never have become a grandmaster.
DC: If you don't mind still talking a little bit more about yourself, would you please explain where and when your studies began as a student of Taekwon-do.
GH: I started when I was 9, in Seoul, Korea.
DC: Was it common for young boys, and perhaps girls, to study Taekwon-do?
GH: Boys, seldom. And girls, no.
DC: Was it more common for older boys, or young adults to study?
GH: Young adult.
DC: You started at 9. Why did you start so early?
GH: I just started. I used to study gymnastics. But my master showed me technique that just fascinated me.
DC: So you were really interested in Taekwon-do, like a passion?
GH: Yes, passionately. I started at a main school in my home town. I think 300 people started and now only the master and myself are left.
DC: So you started with 300 others and you alone, and your master, still study. Why do you think so many people left the study of Taekwon-do along the way while you stayed?
GH: I always push myself. In Korea, after you get your first degree, you get instruction from your master once a year. other than that you have to build up on your own.
DC: So you would be working on your own for long periods of time?
GH: Yes, and not only doing sparring and patterns. After I became a black belt, I had to build up a wide knowledge for myself.
DC: Do you recall what age you were when you got your black belt?
GH: I think 17 or 18. I didn't take the test until the end of the Korean War.
DC: Did you have any heroes when you were growing up? Anyone who inspired you?
GH: That's a hard question. One example would be the monk Won-Hyo. He was a famous monk who introduced Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula. His contribution to Korea was very great. Buddhism changed society.
DC: Mr. Han, you have been involved in the art of Taekwon -do for over 40 years. Do you recall at what point you decided to literally devote your life to the art? Did it happen slowly, or did you make a decision to do so?
GH: Slowly, slowly. When I started Taekwon-do, I never thought I would become a black belt. I never thought it. Really. I always thought I was not good at it. Many times I got scolded by my master. You wouldn't believe it. When I became a blue belt, my master asked me, "Who promoted you?"
DC: It's really fascinating that someone who had such grave doubts and concerns like yourself would become a grandmaster. In order to do this, you studied moon and moo equally, in order to develop into a whole person?
DC: Let's go back to the original commandments of Taekwon-do. Today we call the commandments tenets: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. After many years of moon and moo study, you made a decision to add two new tenets in the Universal Taekwon-Do Federation, love and community service. Could you please comment on why you made this decision. Some people think love is a strange tenet for the martial arts.
GH: There are different kinds of love. I'm not saying love like romantic love. Love means you understand, you care. community service is taking the understanding we have and the care that we feel to the community. Community service means we apply. We apply our tenets. If we don't apply them, we don't know them. There is a need for practical application and practice. Love means forgiveness, too. We need that in the martial arts so we can have flexibility; so we won't break. Love and community service help promote harmony.
DC: It is my observation, Mr. Han, through my practice, and my study, that it takes week after week, month after month, year after year to begin to truly understand the tenets. And it's only through a long study that you begin to know yourself. It takes a lot of effort to develop harmony; to find it in oneself. My self-discovery definitely took equal amounts of moon and moo. Perhaps, as a Westerner, I could not find harmony without a great deal of moon. The liberal arts are a very powerful path to self-discovery in the Western tradition. It is only through the conjoint study of the liberal arts and the martial arts that I am finding--experiencing--the balance you refer to. You have a genius for seeing where your student's are in their development, and you also greatly help them to develop. I've seen this many times.
GH: Progress depends on the individual. For instance, in Korea, we have a pot, then we put it into the kiln for heating. After we take it out, some pots are ugly, and some are like porcelain. Some porcelain is nice, some porcelain turns bad. We train anybody in Taekwon-do, but that doesn't mean everyone turns out best. It depends on the individual.
DC: That's a very important point for me personally, and I'll tell you why. Earlier you mentioned that you questioned your ability and you wondered how good you would be at the martial arts because of some physical limitations. When I first started studying martial arts I had a lot of stress, and I knew it, but I did not know how to control it. Stress at home, on the job; just lots of stress.
GH: Yes, everywhere. Hectic society, too.
DC: I didn't want it to be that way, but it was there, it was hard to control, and over a period of time what you were able to do was give me direction. Not through one lecture; not in one day; but over the months and years. I finally realized that, it does lie with the individual; one has to apply oneself too. So the best master cannot teach somebody who does not want to learn. There is a similarity in the liberal arts in that the process is more important than the project. It takes a continual process, over time, to make progress, to gain understanding. In this, the martial arts and the liberal arts are very complementary..... Sometimes I have seen you work with the most difficult people. For example, once you gave a troubled young man a chance to work in the dojang (school). He drank all the time. He was always cussing, always seemed to want to start a fight. And yet you were very interested in him. Why did you have so much interest in such a hard person to reach?
GH: Because I knew how to improve his life. Also, if I improved him, then it would be a life education for my students. So, if they would one day become a master, or a lawyer, the commissioner of a jail system, whatever--if they, too, could learn to apply what I taught, then they can change the whole system.
DC: A couple of final questions, please. What do you think of having a Taekwon-do club at Mundelein College?
GH: I think that's a wonderful program. Students need to know how to fight against crime. For example, rapes. We, as individuals, need to know how to protect ourselves, and others. Not just the police. So help them be aware of how they can help themselves.
DC: Is there anything else you would like to add before we end this conversation? Anything about the liberal arts or the martial arts; or how we train?
GH: Taekwon-do philosophy teaches how to live wisely, and how one finds harmony, in the person, and in nature.
DC: What do you mean, in nature?
GH: That you become water. If you pour water in this cup (on the table) water will take that shape. Water goes into any shape. So, be flexible, like water, under any circumstances. Martial arts teaches you that. How to deal with people, all kinds of people, all over the world. You can meet the enemy; you can give forgiveness. so you become, yourself, adaptable under any circumstances.
DC: I think that's true. I know it's true because I feel it. Martial arts training takes away fear of the unknown because you're more ready. I think your example of water is very good. Water flows, it's moving, it fits any circumstance.
GH: Taekwon-do develops moral culture.
DC: I think that is a very good point to close on. You mention that often in class, in the lectures, to remind the students why they are training. Yes, for technique, for physical strength, but above all for moral culture. I find that I would not have had the experiences and insights I had in the MLS program had I not been equally involved in the martial arts. It's hard to say to someone what that means. It's something one has to experience; one has to at least try, don't you think?
GH: Yes, life experience is the most important thing. You have to apply and practice. So many people go to church, and they learn, get a lecture from the pastor or priest, and then, after, they leave they do the opposite.
DC: Disconnected, as you would say.
DC: Mr. Han, thank you very much.
(arranged alphabetically by author)
Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy.
This marvelous book provides a study of the dominate ideas and motivating beliefs of Orientals from the perspective of the original texts of classic Chinese literature. In that the fundamental principles of Chinese philosophy are found throughout martial arts literature, this book was especially relevant to my studies.
Kauz, Herman. The Martial Spirit: An Introduction to the origin, Philosophy, and Psychology of the Martial Arts.
There are few books on the martial arts as well written as The Martial Spirit. In addition to providing the reader with an expert introduction to the martial arts from the perspective of a master, Kauz lays the foundation for a philosophical study of the martial arts by illustrating how a study of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism will enhance one's understanding of the martial arts. Because this book often focuses on teaching methods, it materially impacted on my teaching of Taekwon-do at Mundelein College.
Koller, John M. Oriental Philosophies.
This lucid, scholarly text on Oriental philosophy provided me with a philosophical foundation toward an understanding of oriental thought and life. Professor Koller's commentary also literally made possible a basic understanding of the elusive classic oriental texts such as Tao-te Ching. This book continues to be a working guide for use in my continuing studies on oriental thought and life. In a very practical way, this book helps me understand, and interpret, patterns of Oriental thinking I directly encounter on a daily basis.
Levine, Donald N. "The Liberal Arts and the Martial Arts." Liberal Journal.
Levine's singular scholarship provided the foundation for my line of inquiry in the MLS program. Levine's essay, originally presented to martial artists, students, and professors at the University of Chicago, documents the ancient Greek and Chinese ideal of educating a higher type of human being through the conjoint study of the martial arts and the liberal arts.
Shim, Sang Kyu. The Making of A Martial Artist.
Sang Kyu Shim advises in this book that martial arts masters have an obligation to contribute to the state of the art through articles and books. Shim's style is intermittently preachy and xenophobic, but he writes well, and from the perspective of an eighth degree black belt in Taekwon-do. This book quotes extensively from Oriental and Western literature to properly imbue the martial artist-in-training with very lofty goals. Shim takes his authorship too seriously, but he is convincing in arguing that the study of the martial arts, under the direction of a good master, can lead to transcendence.
Soho, Takuan. The Unfettered Mind.
Takuan Soho’s essays are meant to unify the spirit of Zen with the spirit of the sword. While I did not specifically study kendo (Japanese sword fighting), the essays in this book provided me with technical and philosophical perspectives on training mentally, and physically, in both the liberal arts and the martial arts. To achieve what Takuan calls the "unfettered mind" is a life-long learning endeavor, but the key to its attainment is given in this exceptional book.
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