The call came while I was out. When I got home, my wife said someone had phoned from China. They wanted me to teach a martial arts seminar. At first, I didn't believe her. Then an e-mail came from Xiaoxiang Vocational School, which was trying to establish a jeet kune do curriculum. Access to Bruce Lee's art in China was limited, but he remains popular there, with statues being erected and a nightly TV show called The Legend of Bruce Lee. I didn't reply right away; instead, I forwarded the message to my sifu,Ted Wong. Another call came — it was Julie, a translator for the school. She asked if I'd travel to Hunan province at their expense to train and possibly certify a group of hand-picked martial artists. Questions flooded my mind. How long would it take? What would the culture be like? Could I even use chopsticks? More e-mails and calls … they wanted me for three months. My opening bid was one month, and we settled on two. I decided that because people were calling me from the other side of the planet, I'd surrender my day job and focus on my passion, the martial arts. I packed one carry-on, forgot about buying a Minnesota fishing license, kissed the wife goodbye and hopped on a plane.

Job One

"Fitness is No. 1." Wong had told me that, claiming it was a direct quote from Lee. Now I found myself saying it to a group of 15 men and women in their 20s and early 30s. They'd trained in tai chi or Shaolin kung fu or taekwondo.They were the most flexible group I'd ever worked with, but were they ready for the combative conditioning that goes into making a modern fighter? "One minute of squats, one minute of push-ups, one minute of crunches, three minutes of shadowboxing," I said. "Go!" Julie translated. No one moved. A man nicknamed John asked a question, and they all nodded. "They want to know what a 'crunch' is," she said. "Half a sit-up," I explained. This time, they moved. The taekwondo black belts seemed to do the best, but some had trouble completing the conditioning routine, which I did along with them. Then we stretched, which was something I needed more than they did. Next came the technical stuff. I demonstrated the straight punch, the backbone of JKD, along with the rear cross, the hook kick (often called the roundhouse), the side kick and the backfist. Everything, I explained, revolved around the footwork, just like in boxing and fencing. I showed them more: push step, side step, shuffle, pivot. Move in, move out, angle in, retreat. "You can use both gravity and muscle," I said,"yin and yang."We established a wish list for the group to get through in two months. Week one had been the on-guard position and footwork, week two, basic punches and kicks. In week three, the group moved into defense: slipping, bobbing and weaving, and parrying. In the fourth week, we added trapping and chi sao (sticky hands) but then quickly returned to the focus, which was hitting and kicking. They struggled, as all students seem to, with the nontelegraphic nature of the straight punch. I explained via Jerry, another translator, that this was normal. More basic drills and trading blows. "Don't get caught in no man's land," I would tell them, unsure if it even translated. I'd crammed some Mandarin into my vocabulary on the flight over but not much. That was OK. My one-inch punch translated nicely. A kicking shield held tightly to the chest would protect them, as would the mats if they hit the ground. Many did. It was, I explained, not chi but physics. Lee was big into physics and the science of training the body. I simply leveraged all my weight behind my knuckles and drove my fist forward in a straight line, compounding it with torque from my hips and shoulders and enhancing all that with pivoting footwork. They caught on quickly, especially Lucy. Lightweight as she was, the torque of her hips and straightness of her line of fire translated into real-world power. But could she apply that power in a fight? Combining distancing skills with footwork is what makes a technique like a jab or kick effective, but without killer instinct, nothing will work in a fight. One of the women, Debbie, had just such an instinct. A kickboxing champ and P.E. instructor, she had sinewy arms and could go half an hour on the heavy bag. Sparring with her, I found my hand skills adequate against her body and hook punches, but her lead side kick tagged my knee several times. I did put her to the mat while there, but she never got me down. Great — because I'd watched her dump man after man to the mat, often scoring a quick submission. During the week, classes took place in downtown Loudi, but on the weekends, the action shifted to Xiaoxiang. We trained at its Bruce Lee Center, which featured heavy bags, universal gyms, free weights and even two mook jong wooden dummies for hand-trapping drills. Each wall of the facility featured framed photos of Lee and the men who'd trained with him: Taky Kimura, Dan Inosanto, Daniel Lee, Richard Bustillo and others. I made it a point to bow in toward the wall devoted to Wong.

Enter the Diet

The Chinese are big on meals. I managed to avoid a large breakfast, opting instead for a banana or orange followed by yogurt and juice. Training 9 a.m. to noon, I didn't want a full stomach. Lunches were different. There was an abundance of rice, noodles, soup, egg or beef dumplings, beef and pork dishes, fish, shrimp or crawfish, and chicken, along with a multitude of vegetables. Fortunately, there was a three-hour gap before the teaching began again at 3 p.m. They suggested a nap after lunch, but I often went out on the apartment patio and caught some rays. This alarmed them because the Chinese normally avoid the sun. Dinner was similar to lunch: Start with soup for digestive health, eat a bit of everything on the table spooned onto your rice and finish with slices of watermelon or mango. Afterward, my host and I would wash down everything with tea. His wife translated as we discussed the current state of martial arts in America and China. Subtracting processed foods, cheese and coffee from my diet while adding training hours, my 5-foot-9-inch frame went from 174 pounds to 158. It felt great. Gazing into the mirror each morning, I could see my face was thinning and my muscle definition improving. How far could a 50-year-old take it? Who knew? After several weeks, I took a break and traveled by train to the tourist city of Fenghuang. Accompanied by a sifu, we shopped, hiked, rafted, climbed and took an amazing cave tour. We also visited a Shaolin training camp. At night, it was relaxing to step out on the balcony of the hotel and gaze over the river, watching vendors hawk their wares along the banks. Three days later, I returned to Loudi on the night train, not really rested but ready to tackle my duties again.

Walking On

By week five, everyone had absorbed the basics. Now we could focus on skill development. The kicking shields, focus mitts, and sparring and reaction drills came in handy. Slip that jab, follow up with a counter. Bob and weave under that hook punch, come back with a cross. Follow up with a hook kick. Move away. Don't get caught in no man's land. Lead in strong and then, once inside, use short hooks and uppercuts, retreat with a backfist or hook kick, but retreat quickly. The focus mitts were used offensively to give the drills a realistic feel, and the students delighted in slapping at each other if someone stayed on the inside too long. Although JKD is mainly a stand-up art, no one can deny the effectiveness of grappling. So we hit the mats for several afternoons, working in a few ground-conditioning drills along with the basics of positioning. With limited time, we transitioned quickly into chokes and armbars, plus a leg lock or two. Back on our feet, we did the single- and double-leg scoop, side shoulder lock and osoto gari, the outside leg sweep of judo. One afternoon in the studio, I noticed a heavy bag lying on the mat. I walked to it and flipped it over. I kept flipping it all the way down the 100 feet of the mat. "What are you doing?" Julie asked. "Showing how some mixed martial artists do conditioning," I said. I was breathing heavy, sweating profusely in the humid, 90-degree air. "Now, who wants to flip the thing back?" I asked. A big guy named James volunteered. Later in the day, he sparred with me and took me to the mat, where I reverse-choked him from the guard. A couple more sessions, I knew, and he'd be choking me out. More than anything else, it was my willingness to get in there with the students and train with them, spar with them and do conditioning with them that seemed to garner the most respect. And I was indebted to them — for their hospitality and for the dedication they showed to Lee's art. I discovered that the students' strengths included kicking, flexibility, toughness and the ability to keep covered in the on-guard position. They had problems, however, with the straight punch. Getting this fencing-inspired tool to be nontelegraphic is always challenging, and I didn't need a translator to understand the growing frustration. They'd do hundreds of reps, then grab a partner and focus mitt and practice the punch as the holder pulled the mitt away. The holder would watch the shoulder, lead foot, hand and face. This type of training can work if it interrupts the normal signal coming from the brain long enough to override instinctive movement. They also had difficulties with the Single Direct Attack, or SDA. It's described in Lee's writing as the Simple Angle Attack, or SAA. As a teaching method, it works to simply define it by footwork: "If your leading attack uses straight-ahead footwork, think of it as SDA. If you angle in, call it SAA. Simple." But simple doesn't always mean easy. I had them hold the focus mitts at different angles to distinguish which was which. Of course, the ultimate idea is to develop a better method to attack the opponent, de-emphasizing the label.

Finishing Moves

With the end in sight, we started the evaluation process. There's always the technical aspect — how well a martial artist performs moves on a focus mitt, on a kicking shield or heavy bag, and while sparring. But there's also an "attitude" aspect, the personal makeup of the student's energy, enthusiasm, knowledge and interest. By this time, we'd logged 300 hours of training. My analysis of the group led me to three top candidates — Debbie, John and Ronnie — as potential instructors. During the last week, they and I taught a two-day seminar for kung fu enthusiasts from all over China, and having them help indicated that I'd made good choices. All three were awarded instructor certificates. My trip to Hunan culminated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school's new gym. The crowd was treated to a team nunchaku demo followed by the JKD trainees demonstrating their expertise. I was anxious to return home, but I knew I'd miss the culture, the food, the architecture, the shops and markets, even the traffic. But mostly, I realized I'd miss the friendship of the people I'd encountered there. The Chinese apparently felt the same way, for they invited me back for the 70th anniversary of Lee's birth.

About the Author:

Michael Rutter studied judo, tang soo do and wing chun before being introduced to jeet kune do at the 1993 AIKIA Radford University JKD Weekend. Certified by Ted Wong, he teaches privately in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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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.


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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