Review of “A Killing Art” by Alex Gillis

There have been copious books written about martial arts over the past century. Unfortunately, almost from the beginning, they have largely consisted of peculiar mixtures of mythology, facts and partisan writing. This has continued to the present day. It’s not that there haven’t been good writers or even many useful and enjoyable martial arts books, but very little objective journalism. Therefore books like Geoff Thompson’s “Watch My Back” and Robert W. Smith’s “Martial Musings” made for a refreshing change. Sadly they were and remain in the minority. However, in 1998, one year prior to the publication of “Martial Musings”, Robert Twigger produced “Angry White Pyjamas”. This was a one year account of a man, with no prior experience in the martial arts, who undertook the intensive year long aikido course in Japan designed for Tokyo Riot Police. Rather than being a story about machismo and devotion to the martial arts, dressed with mystique, Twigger, an Oxford university graduate, gave a warts ‘n all journalistic account of his experiences. Since then there has been a slow and gradual emergence of non-partisan and more objective works. “A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do” brings some much needed and long overdue investigative journalism to the world’s most popular martial art.

It seems apt that writing is the medium that helps separate much of the mythology and mystique that has surrounded this not so ancient art. After all the main source for disinformation regarding this Korean art’s origins and its development came via the huge body of texts written by the man who gave tae kwon do its name, General Choi Hong-Hi. Alex Gillis, a professional investigative journalist and 25 year veteran of tae kwon do, begins his story with his first meeting with Choi at a large black belt seminar that was as much about re-establishing authority over those who had left his association and asserting his art’s superiority over its closest rivals, the WTF style of tae kwon do and karate, than teaching the attendees anything new. This particular chapter is the most insightful in the book and Gillis provides a critical outsider’s view into the inherent politics and cult of personality that drove a lot of traditional tae kwon do.

After this the story revisits the real 20th century roots of tae kwon do, which began with Japanese/Okinawan karate, as opposed to the pseudohistory that has been created about a millennia old Korean system of combat. Gillis takes us through the series of events that led Choi to flee Korea for the homeland of his country’s occupying force, Japan, and learn karate to protect himself from the retribution of a wrestler he had assaulted during a game of poker. The story then takes us through Choi’s experiences in a prisoner of war camp, his military career, his naming of the art during a meeting held at a Korean geisha house, his further development of the art during his time at the Korean embassy in Singapore and the establishment of tae kwon do’s combative reputation during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

As a martial arts practitioner and keen history fan, I find the developmental years of special interest. Gillis provides us with an insight into the workings of man driven by desire to distinguish his art from others and his wish to root it in Korean culture and traditions. Along with the addition of resurrected t’aekkyon techniques (this Korean kicking game had been completely outlawed during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945) Choi included the overt use of physics, Newton’s third law in particular, to explain the function of his techniques. He used the latter addition of t’aekkyon along with Korean history and legends to help invent a direct lineage with his country’s past. Much later he would make this even more noticeable in his application of the sine wave power generation theory. Choi also laid claim to “inventing” certain kicking techniques. For example, the twisting kick is often credited as being unique to the art and its derivatives. According to Gillis’s book his last invention, which he couldn’t have pulled off given his age at the time, was a somersault kick. Many tae kwon do black belts have broken boards in demonstrations using this spectacular technique. Its use in a combative situation is another discussion altogether. As for Choi laying claim to having invented it, I guess he didn’t see Bruce Lee’s stunt double pulling it off in “Enter the Dragon”.

However, never far from the surface is the political skulduggery and outright gangsterism associated with the South Korean government that would, by default, also be connected with taekwondo. As tough as Gillis is on Choi, he does not seem to let up at all on the art’s other famous founder, Kim Un-Yong, the man who first headed the World Taekwondo Federation and the one who would achieve what Choi failed to do, make taekwondo an Olympic sport. Kim’s federation would supplant Choi’s in Korea as the latter man was busy pushing his International Taekwon-do Federation to the rest of the world. Gillis’s book links the WTF with much of the South Korean’s alleged criminal activities, including their political shenanigans and covert operations, such as international kidnappings. This is down to the fact that many of the Korean CIA operatives are also WTF taekwondo black belts.

However, if the WTF were linked at root with one corrupt government, Gillis doesn’t brush over Choi’s association with North Korea’s infamous dictators or his admiration for the founder of the notorious “Moonies” Unification Church. Gillis’s lengthy quotes from no less than Choi’s estranged son reveals a bare truth I have often implied about most martial arts, it closely resembles a religious cult. This admission comes in a chapter literally entitled “Like a Cult”.

Gillis is objective and dispassionate about much of his historical research, but is far from irreverent about his chosen marital discipline. He might liken it to a cult and lay bare the lack integrity behind its initial drive for world acceptance – Gillis describes Choi awarding various trusted karate black belts in different countries with tae kwon do instructorships without having properly learnt the system first – but he never questions the art’s combative efficiency. He once questions the plausibility of an individual being able to penetrate another’s abdomen with a bare hand, using the spear-hand or fingertip thrust technique. However, the questioning never goes any further. Breaking boards, bricks and other hard objects have their roots in Indian fakir street performances – which largely infected many Chinese martial arts at the turn of the century. Even the breaking of untreated objects, which isn’t very common in martial arts demonstrations, is more a dramatic demonstration of applied physics than power development or combat efficiency. These days many arts are justifying its inclusion as a “focus test” or, taking their cue from Tony Robins and the self-help gurus, use it as a metaphor for overcoming personal fears, like other physics exercise/fakir trick fire-walking!

Given the amount of criticism aimed at its founders and the highly unusually candid approach to martial arts history and journalism, one would think that Gillis would be on the verge of hiding or at least ostracized from the world of tae kwon do. This is far from the case. The Tae Kwon-Do Association of Great Britain (Tae Kwon-Do International), a derivative of ITF tae kwon do, has fully embraced it, with no less than its chairman writing a review on it for Martial Arts Illustrated. It’s little surprising really, as said before, Gillis does not really target the art he has invested so much time in.

As previously mentioned, he is less forgiving with the WTF. Again, he doesn’t criticize their style, but he does quote those who do. For example, Gillis mentions the reactions of traditional tae kwon do black belts to the WTF’s decision to remove hand strikes to the head in sparring. However, the fact that the sport is full contact – albeit with the wearing of the somewhat preposterous body armour – whereas ITF only allows semi-contact sparring is not mentioned. It is also worth mentioning that there was a precedent for no head contact kick-based combat and its founder is even mentioned and pictured in “A Killing Art”. Mas Oyama provides an interesting contrast, which Gillis remarks on, to his colleague, Choi. .Unlike Choi, Oyama fully embraced Japanese karate and its cultural roots. Oyama’s own style of karate has a reputation for toughness due to the full contact nature of its tournaments, which permit no safety equipment, but are full contact. Gillis doesn’t touch upon this, only repeating the hotly disputed claim regarding Oyama’s barehanded bullfighting without mentioning the controversy.

“A Killing Art” also neglects to mention the various factors that promote tae kwon do’s trademark kicking during their sparring. These factors consist of awarding the highest points to the highest risk techniques that score – they are all kicks to the head – and not allowing any of the most obvious counter-techniques that can exploit high kicks, such as leg-catching and foot sweeps.

On the whole I enjoyed “A Killing Art”. My remarks on its obvious flaws – no objective discussion regarding how the art’s inherent corruption may affect its teaching and training, no critical thinking in relation to certain areas of martial arts mystique and no attempt at balance when discussing the two key federations – only spring up at me, as the book is so well-written, researched and produced. Gillis’s experience as a journalist really brings credence to a genre of non-fiction that is mainly populated by zealous writers keen to promote their favourite hobby and not to offend the instructors they revere. I admire his boldness and for finally getting down in print one of the few martial arts books we consider to be a serious attempt at objective history. The conspiracy theory angle that initially worried me first when I ordered my copy is far less of a concern that I thought. I admit I haven’t properly checked Gillis’s reports on corruption and criminal activities by Korean secret services, and I would like a better qualified person than me to do so, but it all seems pretty credible and not in opposition to Ockham’s Razor.

The hardback edition of “A Killing Art” is mainly populated with black and white photographs on an average grade paper, but it is nicely bound with an attractive dustcover and a lot of sales blurb information regarding its contents. The book is divided up into five parts named after each of tae kwon do’s tenets: Indomitable Spirit, Perseverance, Self-Control, Courtesy and Integrity. The tae kwon do movie satire, “The Foot Fist Way” did the same. I guess it is irresistible to go for this format, given that Choi literally laid out the key philosophical principles he based his art on. Most of his sources are cited and each chapter has a large number of detailed endnotes. The book also contains a useful index. This book deserves to be on the shelf of any open minded martial artist, particularly those who practice the Korean martial arts. It offers information never collected together before and is presented in a way I look forward to seeing more of in the future.


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