“A picture is worth 1,000 words; an action is worth 1,000 pictures.”
— Jhoon Rhee
For decades, we’ve known Jhoon Rhee as the father of taekwondo in America. Without digging too deep into our memories, most of us could tell you that the master is based in Washington, D.C., and that he’s trained elected officials on Capitol Hill for years. Some may also know that Jhoon Rhee was instrumental in the development of martial arts sparring gear back in the 1970s and that in 1983 he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Man of the Year. In martial arts circles, he’s as famous as anyone can be.
Ironically, few people — in America or his native South Korea — know much about Jhoon Rhee other than the aforementioned points. To remedy that, I wrote this article. It presents 10 fun and fascinating facts about taekwondo’s best-known practitioner.
RHEE, LEE AND ALI
In 1964, Rhee met Bruce Lee at Ed Parker’s International Karate Championship in Long Beach, California. The two became friends and frequently discussed the martial arts, and Rhee wound up teaching a few taekwondo kicks to Bruce Lee.
A number of people vehemently deny that, and if you’re one of them, consider the following: Bruce Lee’s early demonstrations centered on hand techniques that utilized speed and power. His prowess in the physical pursuits stemmed from his experience as a dancer, boxer and wing chun practitioner — none of which was oriented toward kicking. When Lee rose to fame as a kung fu actor, it was well after his collaboration with Rhee had begun.
Now take a look at a Jhoon Rhee side kick — any photo from one of his early taekwondo books or articles will do. Compare that to film footage of Bruce Lee doing a side kick. The techniques are nearly identical.
Jhoon Rhee is also credited with teaching Muhammad Ali the “accu-punch,” a fact that Ali stood behind. The accu-punch is described as a blow that’s done instantly when no thought is given to it. It’s launched as soon as an opponent presents an opening. Ali said he used the punch in 1975 to knock out U.K. heavyweight champ Richard Dunn in one minute 30 seconds. Pretty cool — but wait a minute. Rhee credits Bruce Lee with having taught him more effective hand techniques that didn’t telegraph one’s intent. So maybe it’s more accurate to say Lee taught the punch to Ali through Rhee.
THE BIG SCREEN
In the 1973 Raymond Chow flick When Taekwondo Strikes, Jhoon Rhee had a role. The setting was one he was all too familiar with: the Japanese occupation of Korea. Rhee demo’d his taekwondo skills on the big screen while portraying a leader of the resistance. He looked forward to more opportunities in showbiz, but Bruce Lee passed away around the time the movie hit the theaters.
That, coupled with the amount of time Rhee was required to be away from his family and his martial arts schools, left a sour taste in his mouth. It ended up being his first and last film.
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FROM KARATE MAN TO FATHER OF TAEKWONDO
When Jhoon Rhee began teaching the martial arts while studying engineering in Texas in the late 1950s, he advertised his program as karate. Occasionally, he’d use the name tang soo do to denote the style of karate he taught. Using the word “karate” was a wise move because Americans were familiar with it. Virtually no one had heard of taekwondo.
In 1960, Gen. Choi Hong-hi paid a visit to the Texas-based Jhoon Rhee Karate Club. Choi, the founder of the oh do kwan, one of the original five kwan that emerged after Japanese colonial rule, encouraged Rhee to use the new Korean term. Calling it “taekwondo” evoked a sense of freedom and independence, as well as respect for the Korean homeland. Rhee agreed.
The road wasn’t an easy one to follow, but Rhee proved he was more than up to the challenge. His decision to go with the new name made him the United States’ first taekwondo instructor.
BORN TO FAIL
Jhoon Rhee possessed a reverse punch and roundhouse kick that were second to none. He could bust boards with either technique. Combine that taekwondo prowess with his strength, balance and flexibility, and you can see that he was an exemplary athlete.
However, it wasn’t always that way. When he was a child, no one thought he’d amount to much physically. “I was the smallest, weakest, most uncoordinated kid in school,” Rhee says. “When I was 6, a 5-year-old girl beat me up. When we ran track, I was always last. No one expected me to succeed in athletics.”
Once Jhoon Rhee concluded his studies in Texas, he moved to Washington, D.C. “When I came to Washington in 1962, I wrote many letters to ambassadors telling them to pay attention to their children’s education,” he says. “I told them, ‘If your children come to my school, I guarantee they will make A’s and B’s.’ Some asked, ‘How can you do that?’ I said, ‘If they don’t, they won’t make black belt.’ They immediately began enrolling their kids.
“After a few years, they saw the results. As the various ambassadors’ tenure expired, they had to return to their homelands. Many asked me to share my instructors and teach them in their countries. I didn’t have enough instructors to go around, so I introduced them to my classmates from the 1940s, several of whom traveled to their countries to teach. These instructors would then introduce taekwondo to neighboring countries. The training of ambassadors’ family members would happen again and again as they came and went from Washington.”
The result: More than 179 countries now have access to taekwondo instruction, which is why it was accepted into the Olympics.
TEACHER OF CONGRESS
Jhoon Rhee has taught more than 350 U.S. senators and representatives. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-Louisiana), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) are just a few of those who’ve made it to black belt. Other notable students include former Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia).
How did Rhee manage to corral so many Congress critters? First, his home base is D.C., a community to which he’s remained committed for years. Second, he endeavors to bring trust, loyalty and honesty to all his relationships. Third, he espouses a philosophy that holds that taking action makes good things happen.
For years, Jhoon Rhee and his students have performed taekwondo routines to The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. He calls it martial ballet. The martial arts component represents Eastern culture to the West, and the music symbolizes Western culture to the East. The result is a marriage of East and West designed to promote peace and freedom for all.
“America has really helped Korea, and I am so grateful for this,” Rhee says. “More than 34,000 young people sacrificed their lives for a country they never heard of and people they never met — it’s hard to imagine. Then the Americans helped rebuild Korea’s economy into what it is today.”
Rhee is repulsed when modern Koreans talk negatively about the United States or shout things like “Yankee, go home!” He recalls a time not too long ago when he reminded Koreans of the generosity of Americans:
“During Korea’s last two administrations, there were communists occupying the president’s office. People in the administrations were carefully trying to influence everybody to be anti-American. Five years ago, I went there to give a speech to 300 masters. I said: ‘I heard America is really unpopular now. I want to see how many of you think America is bad.’ Fifty percent raised their hands. I continued my speech, and after I got through with them, I said, ‘If I got you a green card and a one-way ticket, how many of you would come to the U.S. and live?’ One hundred percent raised their hands.”
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AT THE UNITED NATIONS
On April 10, 2007, Jhoon Rhee addressed an assembly of world leaders at the United Nations and gave one of the most moving speeches of all time. Its title was “Mending Our Troubled World With Martial Arts Philosophy of Action.”
He spoke about the need for a vision, arguing that vision is the source of inspiration for reconstructing society. He recalled an answer Helen Keller gave when she was asked what could be more difficult than living without sight. The blind woman said, “Sight without vision.”
Rhee also spoke about education. He outlined his golden rules of teaching: Lead by example and never fail to correct students’ mistakes with a smile — not until they learn but until they develop a habit or skill. He also explained his famous seven qualities of a champion, which apply as much to business and personal relationships as they do to the martial arts: patience, speed, timing, power, balance, flexibility and good posture.
TAEKWONDO TRIUMPHS IN RUSSIA
On January 9, 1991, Jhoon Rhee began 11 days of seminars in Moscow. He taught for 18 hours a day, obviously with little rest or free time. On the final day, he sat down with 87 martial artists and conducted a 15-hour question-and-answer session. (Rhee answered every question presented to him, including the old standby: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? He said, “The egg, of course.”)
By the end of the event, the attendees were so inspired that they all changed the names of their schools to Jhoon Rhee Taekwondo.
Jhoon Rhee’s good deeds have garnered him glowing praise from none other than former President George H.W. Bush:
“I’ve known Master Rhee as a leader, a great volunteer and an expert [at taekwondo] since the ’60s. I was elected to Congress at the end of 1966, and it was shortly thereafter that I met him. Master Rhee was teaching a bunch of congressmen, and he did a great job at it. We call him ‘Master Rhee’ because he is at the top of his field here. He brought this marvelous martial art to the United States of America. He’s taught members of Congress [and] has helped children on a volunteer basis and otherwise, too. It’s a great discipline, good exercise. He’s done a lot for our country.”
Floyd Burk is a San Diego-based 10th-degree black belt with more than 40 years of experience in the martial arts.