The son of Black Belt Hall of Famer Bow Sim Mark, Donnie Yen has entertained millions with his martial arts. We go one-on-one with the film icon.

Donnie Yen first appeared on my radar 25 years ago, when his name often graced the pages of martial arts periodicals. I learned that Donnie Yen, the son of Boston-based wushu pioneer and Black Belt Hall of Famer Bow Sim Mark, stood out from his peers because of his strong stances and aesthetic postures, which helped him dominate the competition at martial arts tournaments. In part because he longed to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen decided to try his hand at action films.


Like Bruce Lee, he opted to return to southern China, where he found work as a stuntman in Hong Kong. Donnie Yen quickly leveled up to starring roles, commanding the screen opposite Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and as hung gar kung fu master Wong Kei-Ying in Iron Monkey (1993). (The movie found U.S. distribution in 2001 thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Miramax.)

With hit after hit under his belt, Donnie Yen built himself into one of Asia's most bankable actors. In 2008 he landed what would be his heaviest role to date: playing wing chun grandmaster Yip Man in Ip Man. (The Chinese family name Yip can be Romanized as Yip or Ip. In this article, I will use “Ip Man" to refer to the movie and “Yip Man" to refer to the man.)

Portraying the martial artist who was Bruce Lee's master didn't come without immense pressure and criticism, but the movie's box-office performance and the rabid following it generated online proved the naysayers wrong — and set the stage for two sequels. When the publicity tour for Ip Man 3 brought Donnie Yen and co-star Mike Tyson to Los Angeles, I got an opportunity to interview Yen and hear about the struggles, triumphs, insights and visions that make up his life.

Bearing a gift from my teacher, Black Belt Hall of Fame member Dan Inosanto, I entered the room, hoping for a good conversation. What I got was a great interview with a man who's humble, hardworking and still hungry for higher achievements.

***

It's an honor to finally meet you. I have a gift for you from someone you might have heard of: Dan Inosanto.

Donnie Yen: Wow! Thank you so much. I've heard so much about him and followed his career for years, but I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. Please thank him for me.

I spoke to him just before coming here, and he's a huge fan of yours. Not only does he love your movies, but he also had high praise, saying that Bruce Lee would've been pleased with your work had he lived to see it.

Donnie Yen: That's overwhelming. Please thank sifu Inosanto for me. [He tells his wife and his manager excitedly in Cantonese that Dan Inosanto was the training partner, best friend and top student of Bruce Lee.]

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I always wanted to study Filipino kali from him. I've been a Bruce Lee fan ever since I was a kid, and as you probably know, I did an homage to him by reprising the role of Chen Zhen (whom Lee portrayed in Fist of Fury) in a TV series and feature film.

Absolutely. Your performance in Legend of the Fist is one of my favorites.

Donnie Yen: It's funny … people asked me whether I knew that Bruce Lee had already done that role. The whole point of me doing those movies and playing those roles was out of respect to Bruce Lee — as a way of showing how much he inspired me in my career. I could never be Bruce Lee. Nobody can. Nor could I imitate him in a way that would do him or the role justice. But just paying tribute to him with those roles was huge for me. I've always said that if Bruce was still alive, I'd have become his most devoted student.

How did that weigh on you when you were offered a chance to portray Yip Man?

Donnie Yen: The pressure was huge, and it came from a variety of angles, too. Let me share a bit of background with you. The first time I got a call to play the role of Yip Man was a couple of decades ago, but that movie never got made due to problems with the film's backers. Years later, I was at a press conference in Beijing and got another call from a producer, saying that they'd spoken to grandmaster Yip's family, gotten their blessing, were going to make a movie on him and wanted to cast me in the lead.

But there was already a film about Yip Man (The Grandmaster, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi) that the famous director Wong Kar-Wai was going to direct. I asked about that, but the producer said not to worry since Wong has a reputation for taking his time on projects. Even though we were going to involve the same namesake character, they would tell their story and we would tell ours.

When the public got word that we were going to do Ip Man, people in the entertainment industry started drawing lines and picking sides. Critics claimed that our director Wilson Yip wasn't qualified to direct a project of that magnitude. At that time, I'd just finished police movies like SPL: Kill Zone and Flash Point, which had a ton of over-the-top action sequences and MMA-based fight choreography. Those movies and Special Identity were the first Hong Kong action movies to take MMA grappling techniques and communicate them in a cinematic language. So critics also said that I wasn't suitable for the role of grandmaster Yip or to showcase wing chun cinematically.

All this even before you started shooting?

Donnie Yen: Yes. I never expected there to be so many doubters, even though I knew this to be an iconic role.

Preparing for a role like that must have been different, considering your extensive martial arts background. What was your foundational training in with your mother? Was it modern wushu?

Donnie Yen: No, it was traditional Shaolin kung fu and then tai chi, but my tai chi is a little different. My mother's master Fu Wing-Fay had a different style, and I've added my own flavor to my tai chi.

Growing up in Boston, did you get to experiment with different martial arts?

Donnie Yen: When I was a kid running around Chinatown, hung gar was really big, really popular. I used to study the old Lam Sai-Wing books on hung gar with the line drawings and practice those stances and postures. But back then, I was so curious and excited to learn martial arts from any source, regardless of style. I just wanted to absorb as much as I could. I'm still that way when I see something I like.

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Did you get any formal wing chun training back then?

Donnie Yen: Unfortunately, I did not. But there was one kid that knew a little bit, and we'd skip school and train in the park together, sparring and practicing techniques on each other. Back then, I was just trying to learn moves from the different styles and systems, including taekwondo — not just Chinese martial arts.

You mentioned Bruce Lee as a source of inspiration. Did you watch other kung fu flicks?

Donnie Yen: Oh, yeah. I was a big fan of those movies as a kid. I'd see some move that I thought was cool or some character that inspired me, and I'd try to imitate them physically or philosophically.

When it came time to prep for Ip Man, I understand that you spent time with both of Yip Man's sons.

Donnie Yen: I actually spent a lot of time studying Yip Man's personal story in terms of his history and background, not just studying wing chun. To get as close as I could to the source, I spent time with his sons, listening to them talk about their father, their family life and their art. I even went to Futsan (Foshan, China) to see where he lived.

Were the Yip brothers your technical trainers for the movie?

Donnie Yen: I actually had a bunch of different wing chun trainers to help me learn the forms and the basic drills, like the lap sau and chee sau (sticky hands) drills. The big thing they helped me with was learning the forms. I didn't have three years to devote to mastering wing chun, so I could only try to embody the mindset and philosophy.

So there wasn't just one master who oversaw all your training?

Donnie Yen: No. I didn't want to try to be a clone of any one sifu. I knew that I could never imitate grandmaster Yip Man perfectly. I could only do the role justice by offering my interpretation of his philosophy in movement. Actually, studying the old black-and-white films of grandmaster Yip was very valuable. If there was one source that I tried to draw on most, that was it.

I also tried to get a sense of Yip Man's movement and personality from his students outside the family. I actually used social media a lot to see how the different groups interpreted wing chun. It was very interesting. It gave me a chance to see how different wing chun people expressed the system physically and strategically. From the super-traditional to the more modern and aggressive versions, I wanted to get a broader view of what direction people were taking the art. All that figured into how I moved and how I portrayed the character. Luckily, the public reacted well to it.

There seem to be some signature moves in the fight scenes throughout the Ip Man franchise.

Donnie Yen: You see a lot of the mun sau posture from Yip Man because it fits [him]. He was originally from a well-to-do family, scholarly, very reserved. Wing chun is also a physically conservative style. You're not going to see a lot of flash or wasted movement. So making the action exciting meant that the fight scenes had to educate the audience in a way that made those more efficient movements visually appealing.

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In Ip Man 3, as in the two previous movies, there's a strong thematic element of family. There's a push-pull that's evident between Yip Man and his family in which he's pulled out of involvement in some aspects of the martial arts while being motivated to accomplish more as a martial artist because of them. Is this a bit of art imitating life with you?

Donnie Yen: Absolutely! As you can see, my wife Cecilia is here in the room with us, as she's also my business partner, but I absolutely know how that goes. Luckily, my wife sees everything I go through. She understands me and what I need to do. For an actor to really nail the character, he has to live through something similar to be able to call on that kind of emotion and bring it to life for the camera. If you've never been through something, you won't have the same depth of experience to be able to share on-screen.

What's smart about Wilson Yip, the director of the Ip Man movies, is that he not only understands filmmaking but he understood what kind of stages I was going through in my personal life. So he wasn't just creating another role for me to play. He made it so that I could bring something special to the character as it was written and the character would allow me to express those aspects of myself, as well. I can't tell you how precious that kind of work environment is in acting.

After you did Ip Man and Ip Man 2, did the wing chun world give you any special status?

Donnie Yen: Look, I come from a traditional martial arts household, so I know how it goes with status. [chuckling] I don't care about seeking status in martial arts from my films. Like if you asked me to teach you wing chun, I'm not the guy who's a wing chun master. There are many other people who've devoted their lives to learning, researching and developing wing chun. Those are the wing chun masters, not me.

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What's important to me is that authentic, traditional martial arts were overlooked for years in favor of making more exciting action films. But now that audiences are more educated and can recognize traditional martial arts, it's more important than ever for me to portray these arts and the personalities around them with a certain dignity that's appropriate. The fight scenes have to convey a sense of realism, as well as communicate the principles of the styles that are portrayed.

When the movie does well and inspires people to do more with their lives, that's the reward for me. With the Ip Man movies, it's not about what I did for wing chun; it's about focusing on a character that inspires people. It's not about wing chun versus this style or that style anymore.

Last question: I heard a rumor that you were phasing out martial arts films. What's the scoop with that?

Donnie Yen: I'm human. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment. For me, there have been days when my body is just tired of the beating that I put it through in a high-powered, high-intensity action flick. But at the end of the day, if I sit down and watch TV or see an action sequence on the screen and think, “Oh, come on! That's it? I can do better than that!" then it stirs that competitive spirit. I'm an actor, but inside I'm also a fighter. As for kung fu movies, I don't really have as much motivation to conquer anything more, especially after doing roles from Guan Yun-Chang in The Lost Bladesman to the Ip Man franchise. But especially when it comes to contemporary fight scenes, I feel like there's a lot of knowledge about using martial arts and cinematic techniques in harmony that I still have left to show, that I still want to show.

About the author: Dr. Mark Cheng is a Black Belt contributing editor and doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. In his free time, he teaches shuai chiao, tai chi and kettlebells.

Photos Courtesy of Well Go USA

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In the martial arts, we voluntarily subject ourselves to conflict in a training environment so we can transcend conflict in the real world. After all, we wouldn't knowingly train in a style that makes us weaker or worsens our position. The irony of all this is that we don't want to fight our opponent. We prefer to work with what an opponent gives us to turn the tide in our favor, to resolve the situation effectively and efficiently.The Japanese have a word for this: sabaki. It means to work with energy efficiently. When we train with the sabaki mindset, we receive our opponent's attack, almost as a gift. Doing so requires less physical effort and frees up our mental operating system so it can determine the most efficient solution to the conflict.In this essay, I will present a brief history of sabaki, as well as break down the sabaki method using Miyamoto Musashi's five elements

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.

Deployment

Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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