Situated atop a 40-foot-high, rickety-looking catwalk, Jet Li looks like a puppet on a string as he prepares for one of Corey Yuen’s action-directed stunts. Wires protrude from Jet Li’s body in four directions, and as Corey Yuen bellows, “Action,” a menagerie of Chinese stunt guys yank on them by leaping off 10-foot ladders or running back and forth in a controlled- chaos tug-of-war. Jet Li and his opponent fly upward and then 60 feet backward in opposite directions. Then, as if being struck by invisible tennis rackets, the two fly back toward each other for their final clash of pugilistic mayhem. Who is Jet Li’s opponent in this ultimate battle? None other than Jet Li. Moments later I’m sitting with Jet Li in his trailer. The most striking image there is a photo of the Dalai Lama. It’s ironic when you consider the religious persecution that takes place in China and the fact that the Dalai Lama is considered a political criminal there. In a way, the photo portends the direction of our talk. I broach the thought that for a man who follows Buddhism, a life of film, fame and fortune might not exactly mesh. “It’s not about having to lead a simple life—although that is one [path],” Jet Li says with a smile.

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“Regardless of those things, you are still just a normal person. You really are, in the cycle of life, nothing special, and the idea is not to think of yourself as something truly special. I can think that I’m No. 1 in the world, or I can think that I’m a normal guy with a lucky life because I’m able to do these films. It depends on how you think and what kind of personality you have. You must always be kind to other people, try to help them and have a good heart.” I ask Jet Li if it’s hard for him to have a good heart in an industry where everyone wants something from him to make themselves rich or to improve their status in the business. “Well, that’s the part of life where one must learn,” he replies. “I’m not a perfect monk yet; this is why I learn every day. And even though I may not reach my goal in this life, I can still continue to learn and become a nicer person. You may have a name, a house and money, but it is all temporary. When you die, your name is gone, your money is gone. The point is you never really own anything. Everything you have now is an illusion.” Movie stars are expected to gracefully handle all the questions and requests they get bombarded with. That may wear thin the patience of some, but not Jet Li. “If you think about it, it could be tiring [because] I’ve done this for 21 years,” he says. “Hundreds of reporters ask the same questions, and that can make you tired; but when you’re a Buddhist, you learn to see things from different angles. I could have retired already, but I want to share [this kind of ] knowledge with young audiences. I want to talk about philosophy and try to get people to not hate each other. That is part of my life.” I jokingly apologize that I must now become one of those reporters and ask about The One because, after all, that is why the studio has let me onto the set. He impishly laughs and says, “OK.” The One is the brainchild of the outrageous X-Files writing team of Glen Morgan and James Wang. Pro wrestling pseudo-hero The Rock was slated to star, but when WWF chieftain Vince McMahon refused to let him go, the film’s action was destined to take on a more mythical dimension with Jet Li. The movie’s plot revolves around the theory that an infinite number of parallel universes exist in the same space as ours but in different dimensions. The theory also holds that bridges can be opened between them. In The One, the worlds that exist in some of these universes have joined a futuristic United Nations called Multi-Verse. Because the inhabitants of some worlds have learned how to travel between universes, Multi-Verse has established a police force to monitor for Hitler types and squash them before they get started. Jet Li plays two characters: Gabe Law (“Good Jet”) and Yu Law (“Bad Jet”). Yu is a Multi-Verse agent who, while fighting in one universe, accidentally kills his other self and Highlander-ishly discovers he can absorb the energy of his counterpart. As he travels to other universes and kills the equivalent of himself in each one, he becomes stronger. When he arrives in our universe, he must be stopped by his last self, who is oblivious to what’s going on. What made Jet Li decide to star in this type of film? “I am ‘the one,’ ” he says with a laugh. “Sorry, just joking. Seriously, the script and ideas are very cool, and I always wanted to do a sci-fi film. I like that there are many universes and each one has your life in it. When I first saw the script, it was a typical American action/sci-fi movie, but after they picked me up, I said: ‘Wait a minute. I like the idea, but we need to do something about the martial arts.’ That’s because I also want to share information through the characters and physical movements. So we got Robert Kamen (Karate Kid) to rewrite my two characters because he knows the martial arts and philosophy. “So for each character, we developed a philosophy. Bad Jet only kills ‘himselves.’ He uses a martial art called hsing yi—[which uses the] attack idea of the shortest distance between two points. He just kills to reach his goal. Good Jet is trying to keep his family and life normal, and he doesn’t want to become a hero or be ‘the one.’ So his philosophy is like a circle—like pa kua and yin-yang. He’s looking for balance. He must protect his family and his life. The two are a balance unto each other: good-bad, happy-unhappy.” The most interesting part of The One, according to Jet Li, is that Jet fights Jet. The difference between this and other films in which the same actor plays two versions of the same person—such as Jackie Chan in Twin Dragons and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Impact—is that you never really see them fight each other, Jet Li says. “They just act [using a] split screen and play two parts looking where they think the other will be standing but never crossing the line to fight. In The One, with special effects I can hit someone, and he will fly up and fall down in slow motion while I still move fast; but this is done in the same frame, which has never been seen before. It’s really cool. And Bad Jet is very powerful and has ching gong (the power to jump high, walk on tree tops, etc.) like in old Chinese period-piece films where they can fly.” When Jet Li was a teenager training in wushu, did he ever imagine that all those aerial maneuvers he was learning would one day be put to use on the silver screen? “In my opinion, there are four kinds of martial arts: sport style, filmmaking and TV style, health and treating your body, and self-defense,” he says. “When I started, it was for sport. In the beginning, I trained three hours a day doing basic forms and then weapons. Six months later, I became a pro athlete and started training eight hours a day, six days a week—just doing martial arts. Film was never an objective; my goal was to become a champion in hopes of representing my country and then to show other countries what it’s all about. “But with all the basic training you do, you get to a point where the most important [thing] is how to think about your form and yourself, and how to learn something new and different. Of course, after years of doing the physical, it’s important to do the internal martial arts. After the internal, you should do chi [training], and after that you must reach into religion and philosophy—which is the aspect that should be most important.” Jet Li waxes philosophical when asked about the trials and tribulations of being a martial arts superstar with a message. “It’s not good or bad,” he says. “If it happens, it happens. You’re born, you become human and you bring nothing. Then you die, you go, you take nothing. You can only use your body for 70 years or so, but your spirit is always with you. About being a star, you have to thank the audience because they make things happen, not the studio. And now they have discovered Hong Kong martial arts films. So with all of this, the audience grows bigger, but again it’s really about sharing what the martial arts are all about through film.” Throughout the evening I spend with Jet Li, listening to him talk and observing his facial expressions and body language, it suddenly strikes me who he resembles: Bruce Lee. Anyone familiar with my writing knows that for years I’ve interviewed most of the big stars and filmmakers in martial arts cinema. Inasmuch as they share their cinematic experiences or are anxious to talk about their latest projects, sadly none of them has ever felt the need to talk about philosophy and how that applies to their martial arts, their life and their films. However, it always seemed that whenever Bruce Lee was interviewed, the topic was his philosophy of life and how it fit into the martial arts, as well as how the martial arts fit into his philosophy of life. Until now, no actor except Jet Li has shared that inner light about his art and philosophy. As the night ends, I mention this observation to Jet Li, and a long, heartfelt silence ensues. At a loss for words, he tries to clear his throat. An appreciative nod later, we shake hands, exchange smiles and part ways. Although Jet may have changed the English spelling of his name from “Lee” to “Li” to avoid cinematic comparison to Bruce Lee, his wheel of life has led to a comparison based not on his movies but on his heart and philosophy. In a melodramatic sense, perhaps Jet Li is, in fact, “the one.” (Dr. Craig D. Reid is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and fight choreographer with more than 20 years in the business. For more martial arts movie wisdom, check out his book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors).
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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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