Interview with Grand Master Kwon

The following interview is reprinted by permission, from the 1136-page book "Hapkido: Traditions, Philosophy Technique" by Marc Tedeschi, published by Weatherhill (ISBN 0-8348-0444-1). Copyright 2000 Marc Tedeschi. All rights reserved.  No part of this interview may be used or reproduced for any reason by any means without written permission. 

Tae-Man KwonGrandmaster Tae-Man Kwon

Tae-Man Kwon was born in 1941 in Andong, South Korea. He began studying Taekwondo at the age of nine. In the mid 1950s he switched to Hapkido, a martial art he would dedicate himself to for the next 40 years. He began Hapkido training (called Yu Kwon Sul at that time) under Grandmaster Han-Jae Ji, and was one of Ji’s earliest students. In 1964 Kwon opened his first school in Inchon, where he instructed U.S. Army personnel stationed in Korea. In 1971 he was promoted to master instructor by the Korea Hapkido Association and became its chief judge, responsible for promotion-testing and maintaining the association's high quality standards.

In 1973, looking for new opportunities, Kwon emigrated to the United States, where he opened schools in Palos Verdes and Torrance, California. During the intervening years, he served as vice president for the Los Angeles-based International Hapkido Association, and developed strong friendships with other masters based in California, including Bong-Soo Han and Jong S. Kim.

Over the years, Kwon earned an exceptional reputation in Southern California for his ability to help all types of people integrate respect, discipline, and control into all aspects of their lives. His love of teaching is evident in the personal attention he gives to his students. He has instructed over 3,000 students of all ages, and has been featured in a variety of martial arts magazines including Inside Karate, Karate Illustrated, and Inside Taekwondo.

In the early 1990s, Kwon was promoted to 9th dan by Grandmaster Han-Jae Ji, in recognition of his lifetime of service to the art of Hapkido. He currently teaches and trains at his school in Torrance, California.

The following interview was conducted in Torrance, California, in July 1998. The selected material was edited down from several hours of taped conversations with the author. In this interview, Grandmaster Kwon speaks softly and thoughtfully about his personal philosophy, and a wealth of experiences acquired during five decades as a martial artist.

How did you come to be involved in the martial arts?

After the Korean War, the entire country was very poor. At that time, the best way to strengthen your mind and body was to learn martial arts. When I was a young boy, my body was very weak. As you can see, I’m not as tall or strong as other people. Initially I studied Taekwondo. But later, I switched to Hapkido because I didn’t have the size or strength to be effective using a hard-style martial art like Taekwondo. For a smaller person like myself, Hapkido was better, since it involved many soft-style techniques, joint locks, and pressure point attacks.

How did you find out about Hapkido?

Andong was a very small place. Han-Jae Ji had been studying under Yong-Sul Choi, and he had recently opened a school in Andong. I trained there together with other people.

Did you ever have the opportunity to train under Yong-Sul Choi?

No, I didn’t train under him. I did meet him at seminars for instructors, at various times during the 1960s and 1970s. Hapkido was originally called other names such as Hapki Yu Kwon Sul

Was this the same art as Hapkido?

Yes, the same art. Grandmaster Choi’s major students were Han-Jae Ji, Moo-Hong Kim, and Bok-Sub Suh. There were many other masters as well. I don’t know them all.

Did Hapkido have belt ranks at that time?

Oh yes. At that time we had white belt, brown belt, and black belt. Only three belts.

What was your training regime like in those early years in Korea?

When we started training in Korea after the war, most schools were not fancy like the schools you have here now. It was usually some kind of warehouse. We didn’t have a real floor, just dirt. We would obtain used rice-straw sacks that had been used to hold beans or rice. These sacks were woven out of the grassy part of rice plants. I have never seen anything like them here, but it is common in Korea. We would cut open these rice-straw sacks and lay them down over the dirt floor, usually one or two layers thick. This kept the dust down and cushioned our falls.

I remember during the winter we would need to spray water on the floor to keep the dust down. It was so cold that it would turn to ice right away. By the end of practice it would be all gone. We would practice at least two or three hours. Never just one hour. One hour is too easy and goes by too quickly. After a week the rice-straw sacks would be all gone, just worn out. So we would have to replace them over and over again.

When we used to practice advanced kicks like the Spin Kick, our feet would become cut from the rice-straw mats. Since we needed to practice, we would wrap our cut toes tightly with thread. In a few weeks we would be completely healed.

What did you do for training equipment?

At that time, we didn’t have much equipment. We would get old Army duffel bags used for carrying clothing, and make them into punching bags. We would also get used rice sacks, and fill them with rice to make a heavy-bag for kicking or punching.

Did you ever train outdoors?

During the winter, we would all get up together, around 5 o’clock in the morning. We would go up to the mountain and train in the snow. It was very interesting. When you are running up a hill and jumping over logs, you must move your feet very quickly. If you take big steps or go slow, you will slip and slide down. We would wrap our ankles very tightly in heavy cloth for warmth and support.

Today, when you are teaching people to kick, it can take a long time before they become competent. In those days, you would learn to kick well much more quickly, because our training sessions were much longer, and we concentrated on making our bodies strong.

Of course, training is very different today?

Yes, very different. You cannot compare these days with the older days. At that time, we were mostly learning how to make the body strong. After practice, we would stay at the school a long, long time. It was also the responsibility of all the students to clean up the school.

This is not true of your school today?

Some people volunteer. But most do not have the time before or after class. If I ask them to help, it is a problem. Because they are paying for training, they think someone else should do it. In Oriental martial arts, cleaning the school is part of the discipline of training. It does not matter whether you made it dirty. You must clean it up, in consideration of the next person.

What brought you to the United States?

I came in 1973 with seven or eight other Hapkido masters at the invitation of some colleges in Southern California. We had temporary work visas. After my visa expired, I decided to stay. In Korea, I had opened my own school when I was still in college, and taught U.S. Army soldiers for many years. Teaching G.I.’s gave me the confidence to believe I could teach in America.

Was there greater opportunity to teach Hapkido in America, compared to Korea?

Yes. In Korea you had many martial arts schools and instructors. In Southern California, master Bong-Soo Han came in the late 1960s, and master Jong S. Kim around 1971. But other than that, there were not very many Hapkido schools. Around 1974 the three of us created an association.

Are you still together?

We are all friends. Now we each have our own associations, but we still work together.

Have you modified your teaching or techniques to adapt to American students?

Yes. When I was training in Korea, we would train for two to three hours a day, six days a week, sometimes Sunday. At that time, you would earn a first degree black belt in about two years, learning around 700 techniques. Here people only train for an hour, a few days a week. In my school, they earn a first degree black belt in about three and a half years, but the systems are different, because the student’s training time is much less.

So you have condensed the material and reduced the number of techniques?

Yes. For example, when I was in Korea, I learned and taught 18 different pressure point techniques on the body. Here, I cannot teach 18 techniques, because already one month is gone by. You need to show students less, with more quality. So I make five techniques out of eighteen. Even then, you only need one technique for self-defense. Today, I am teaching the same Hapkido techniques I learned, but not as many.

Have you modified Hapkido techniques over the years, to make them more effective?

In Korea, your instructor would show you a technique. You must respect what they tell you 100%. You cannot change it or contradict the instructor. You just practice it over and over and over. In this country it is different. When I teach you, sometimes a technique doesn’t work. You ask why. I must have an answer. So I tell them, for your type of body, you should do it this way. If your are tall, you do it this way. If you are lady or have no strength, you do it this way. In this sense, Hapkido has improved. There are also some techniques which are impractical and rarely work. These I don’t teach anymore except at the very highest level. This is because timing and technique is so critical.

What are some of the more memorable teaching experiences you recall?

I remember one of my students, who was a police officer. One day I taught him a pressure point technique. Soon after, he was able to use this technique on his job to move a very large, stubborn person with very little effort. He came in very excited: "Master Kwon, already I got to use this technique. It works!" He didn’t think about it, he just did it. His partner was very surprised. Knowing that it works makes me very proud. If I can help someone who is very inexperienced and unsure of themselves to defend themselves in a real situation, this makes me very happy for them. These are the things I remember most.

Today, students are often confused by the technical similarities between Hapkido and similar eclectic arts such as Hwa Rang Do or Kuk Sool Won. In fact, to the novice martial artist they appear the same. When students ask you to explain the difference, how do you do that?

Lets take an example. Suppose you decide to open a school. Lets say your main roots are Hapkido as taught by Han-Jae Ji, but you decide to do some techniques differently because it works better for you. Although your roots are Han-Jae Ji’s Hapkido, you are practicing his art a little differently. It is no longer 100 percent Han-Jae Ji’s Hapkido. It is still Hapkido, but it has become a different system. Maybe you study some Kempo or something else and integrate these techniques into Hapkido—or maybe you create many new techniques and add these. At some point you may change the art so much that it is no longer Hapkido. So you give it a new name. It is a new style, but its roots are Hapkido. Sometimes people will give a system a new name because they wish to promote or establish themselves. Sometimes they do not even credit their master or acknowledge their roots. Historically, most martial arts did not even have names. They were just collections of techniques. Anyway, this is how the martial arts have evolved historically.

Hapkido, Kuk Sool Won, and Hwa Rang Do are similar, yet they differ in small ways. For example, one may have more Chinese influence, and as a result they will execute techniques slightly differently.

All martial arts continue to grow and evolve over time. How has Hapkido evolved?

Hapkido’s main root is the same as it was forty years ago. Some masters have added more techniques. There are also more combinations being practiced.

When you say "combinations," do you mean that techniques are being linked together into new or more sophisticated combinations?


Has Hapkido changed a lot during the last twenty years?

Yes, its changed a lot. Here and in Korea, a lot of modern styles have developed. In Korea, Se-Lim Oh [president of the Korea Hapkido Federation] is providing very good leadership in attempting to unify people.

How will Hapkido evolve in the future?

I think there will be more emphasis on mental discipline, and integrating mind and body. For example, some people have no natural skill or confidence, and their body is weak. If you are just trying to teach them physical techniques, you won’t help them. Getting them to execute a good side kick, punch, or throw is impossible. You need to make their mind strong first, then the body. This person needs to feel, "My mind I can control, my body I can start training."

So you think there will be a greater emphasis on mind-training in the future?

Yes. That is what people are looking for. That is what will make martial arts teachers successful. If you just want to learn some techniques, there are a lot of videos and books you can get. However, teaching technique to a person without teaching philosophy is dangerous. For example, maybe they will become a gang member. Even if you are teaching a friend in your garage, you can still give them more than just technique—history, philosophy, respect.

Over the years, I’m sure you’ve had prospective students come into your school who were of questionable moral character. How do you deal with those situations?

Usually I tell them, "You cannot learn this martial art." Most of them don’t believe me.

They say, "Why can’t I learn?" I say, "You do this, this and this. You have bad habits. Because you cannot change, you cannot learn." So he becomes angry inside—not at me, at himself. He sees other people learning and thinks, "No, I want to learn." Basically I am using psychology. You have to help them understand what their bad habits are. If they are really anxious to learn, then they will change. In the beginning it is very difficult. It takes time. Later they will come to appreciate what you have done. They will gain confidence, respect, and be helpful to others. This kind of person will stay with the school much longer than others.

What qualities make a good student?

A proper philosophy is very important. First, they must have respect. If you respect me, then I respect you. If you do not respect me, then you are only here to buy my techniques. Money is a totally separate thing. You do not pay me because I am teaching you. No. You pay me because we need help to keep this school running—utilities, maintenance, etc. Self-respect is also very important.

You also need self-control. Otherwise a technique can easily injure or kill someone. If you have self-control and respect, then you will want to help other people. When a new student comes into a school, they are naturally uncomfortable. Students should be helpful and make them feel welcome. When you do something for someone else, don’t do it with the expectation of getting something in return.

The last quality is, you always need to have love inside of you. There are many different kinds of love, not only male and female love. For example, self-love. I love my country. I love this flower. You must love without expecting love in return. If you have love, then you can have peace. If you have peace, then you cannot have anger or stress.

What qualities are important in a teacher?

Don’t show your feelings right away—anger or happiness. Keep these things inside your mind. Express these feelings when it is important. If you are always praising or punishing students, then they will become used to it, and it will lose its effect.

Southern California is one of the densest and most populated markets, in term of martial arts schools. There are more world-class martial artists per capita here than anywhere in this country. You have been running your school since the early 1970s. In your opinion, what factors influence the success or failure of a martial arts school today?

Being very good at punching or kicking is not enough to make a successful martial arts business. Here in Torrance, there is a martial arts school every block. In Korea, 30 to 40 years ago, we trained in warehouses. Now you must have a good location and a clean, modern facility. Today, it is very rare to get a "serious" student who wants to learn martial arts. Now it is mostly just the general public who trains. They just want to learn some self-defense to protect themselves, and gain some confidence. They want to learn these things quickly, then leave. This is not "learning martial arts," since there is no philosophy or mental development. Today, if you are expecting students to stay 10 or 20 years, you will not create a successful business.

Nobody stays long-term anymore?

You will get one out of a hundred—maybe.

Is that disappointing for you?

Very disappointing. Some people are serious about learning, but their job changes, or they get married or go to college. If their life changes, what can you do? I cannot ask people to sign up for five or ten years. Even just one year is too long a commitment for most people. They want to be able to change their mind, for whatever reason. Today, that is why I feel it is not possible to be rich and successful teaching martial arts. But this is my job and my life. I enjoy teaching—children, adults, women. If you do not enjoy it, then you cannot teach. Especially if you are just thinking about business and money.

When you look to the future, are there any areas of study you would like to pursue?

In the future, if I have some free time, I would like to go to China and study the philosophy of the Shaolin temple. I would also like to go to India and study yoga and meditation. Although all martial arts have different names, they are of one philosophy.

What would you study at Shaolin temple?

Mostly meditation. I no longer have a young body, so physical techniques are less important to me. At my age, even now my Ki-energy is such that I can kill without touching—just looking. But for me, my Ki-Gong [internal energy work] is still not strong enough. I want to develop it more. In the future, I would like to go to the mountains or a secluded place, to focus on these things.

Sounds nice.

Yeah [thoughtful pause]. These days you couldn’t believe how busy I am. Yesterday I finished teaching about 9 pm. Went home, took a shower, it was 11 pm. I got up at 3 am and worked on business till 8:30, then I came in to teach at 9 am. At 11 or 12 o’clock, I will need to take a short nap. Classes start again at 4 pm. This is my schedule every day except Sunday. Someday I hope to be free to go someplace and not think about business.

Do you ever get together and train with masters Bong-Soo Han or Jong S. Kim?

These days we are too busy. Five or ten years ago we would meet about once a month. During the 1970s, we would go to each others’ schools for promotion-testing of students. Also, since each of us had his own particular area of expertise—for instance in specific weapons—we would share this knowledge with the black belts from our various schools.

It must have been very rewarding to share these things with each other.

Yes. Yes.

It was fortunate that you all lived in this area.

Yes it was.

As you look back over your lifetime in the martial arts, what gives you the greatest sense of satisfaction?

If I had not learned martial arts, I might not have my health today. Many people smoke and drink, or do other things which are not healthy. Life is sometimes happy, and sometimes sad. But because I have martial arts training, I have been able to control these things, by myself. No matter what happens, I always feel peaceful. I am not a young person, but this art makes me young.

When many people come to meet me, they are expecting to see a martial arts master who is large and powerful. When they see me, they think, "He looks so small. How can he do these things?" I can easily throw someone who is 250 pounds, by using their strength against them. I show them how. Because of this, my students have trusted me and my business has been a success.

I am no longer a young man. So I think about things differently now, compared to twenty years ago. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, maybe I will be dead. Now, I think a lot about "how can I help other people?" This is what I try to do in my teaching. If I had chosen another job for my life—other than martial arts—maybe this would not be possible.

Copyright 2000 Marc Tedeschi. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be used or reproduced for any reason by any means without written permission.