Who’s Teaching Tang Soo Do Correctly?

By: Andy Ah Po


Because there are a number of different Tang Soo Do organizations currently functioning around the world, some practitioners may be inclined to ask the following questions:

First, “Since the passing of its founder the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee, who is currently teaching the martial art of Tang Soo Do correctly?”

And second, “Which of the current Tang Soo Do organizations (Kwans) and Grandmasters are continuing to teach the original practices, principles, concepts and philosophy of the martial art of Tang Soo Do as were developed by its founder the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee?”

In response to both of these questions:

I will emphatically state that: “I believe they are all actually teaching Tang Soo Do correctly and are also continuing to perpetuate the original teachings, principles concepts and philosophy of Tang Soo Do as were originally developed by the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee!”

Because of this response, however, an obvious follow-up question might be, “If this is true, then why do obvious differences exist between what is being taught by the various Tang Soo Do Grandmasters and their organizations, as is reflected by their current curriculum and also by the performance of their students?”

Based on my personal experience and knowledge, my response is that: “These differences are the result of and directly related to exactly when the head of a current Tang Soo Do organization either: 1) left the Moo Duk Kwan; 2) ceased being exposed to the latest material that was constantly being developed by the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee; or, 3) actually stopped receiving direct instruction from the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee while he was still living.”

Although Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee first introduced Tang Soo Do in 1945, he actually never stopped developing and refining his martial art, which under his tutelage, was under constant refinement and evolution until the time of his passing in 2002. As a result, Tang Soo Do Grandmasters or Master Instructors who may have left the Moo Duk Kwan anytime during this time period are actually teaching Tang Soo Do as they knew and understood it when they were either active members of the Moo Duk Kwan or direct students of Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee. Consequently, their current curriculum and instruction does not necessarily reflect all of the additional curriculum, enhancements, or refinements that were added by the late Great Grandmaster after they left or up to the time of his passing. However, many of them have added additional technical elements and training methods to their curriculum which they either integrated from other martial arts systems or personally developed and created themselves.  

I actually began training in Tang Soo Do in 1959 and received my Cho Dan in 1966 under Grandmaster Mariano Estioko (#759), the second American to receive a black belt (Cho Dan) in Korea. To my knowledge, Grandmaster Estioko’s dojang was actually the first Tang Soo Do dojang established in the United States (and not in Michigan as is often purported). Grandmaster Hwang Kee accepted me as his personal student in 1972 after my Sa Bom Nim and I separated and he subsequently left the Moo Duk Kwan. I had the privilege of being the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee’s student until the end of 2001. I mention this only to verify that my exposure to him and to his teachings were uninterrupted until just before his passing. Therefore, I feel that I am qualified to comment on the subject matter that is covered in this article.

As a result of my direct exposure to Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee and to his teachings over the last 30 years of his life, it becomes immediately apparent to me whenever I have the opportunity to observe what is currently being taught by the different Tang Soo Do organizations, exactly what period of time in the evolution of Tang Soo Do since 1945, their curriculum actually represents. I do not, however, either judge or criticize their curriculum and what they are currently teaching, but instead understand why the notable differences exist and how they may have occurred.  

The point of view and opinions that I am expressing in this article are not intended to be disrespectful towards any of the current Tang Soo Do Grandmasters (a few of who are my seniors) or Master Instructors who fit the profile described earlier. However, the fact is that when they left the Moo Duk Kwan, they primarily continued teaching the Tang Soo Do curriculum that they knew and had been exposed to during that specific period of time. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, as they are all exceptional and accomplished martial artists. Many of them have also added unique technical training elements to their curriculum which are the direct result of Ryu Pa (personal growth, development and creativity).

To illustrate my point, I will use the Soo Bahk Do curriculum as an excellent example of more complex curriculum that was actually developed by Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee as early as the 1950’s and 60’s but which was not introduced into the system until the mid 1980’s. This curriculum not only added Soo Bahk Ki techniques into the system, but also unique training principles and philosophical concepts, as well as the Chi Gong training elements that are reflected by both the Chil Sung, Yuk Ro Hyong and also Moo Pal Dan Khun exercises.

I am in no way implying or even suggesting that those of us who had the privilege of being exposed to the entire curriculum developed by the late Great Grandmaster (up until the time of his passing) are any better or more knowledgeable than any of the current Tang Soo Do Grandmasters or Master Instructors who were not. But the fact remains, that we were exposed to this curriculum and they were not. And, there is so much more to the study of this particular curriculum than simply learning the Soo Bahk Do Hyong (forms) and the techniques that they are comprised of.

Consequently, the curriculum and teachings of Grandmasters and Master Instructors who were not exposed to the Soo Bahk Do curriculum primarily reflect and represent what they were actually exposed to when either their instructors or they were "active" members of the Moo Duk Kwan, thereby giving them direct access to the teachings of Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee only during that specific time period. However, even if their current curriculum does not reflect everything that he introduced into the system during his lifetime, what they are currently teaching must also be considered to be Tang Soo Do and therefore correct, credible and valuable. The fact remains that they are all teaching Tang Soo Do.

I feel it is equally important to mention that many of these Grandmasters have also made genuine efforts to learn the Soo Bahk Do curriculum in recent years so that they can also make it available to their students. However, more positive interaction is needed between the leaders of the various Kwans to ensure that this happens and to create opportunities that would enable them to share their unique abilities, expertise, and knowledge with each other and to further develop and promote the martial art of Tang Soo Do.

It is also important to note that any changes or additions to the Tang Soo Do Soo Bahk Do curriculum that may have occurred in the Moo Do Kwan since the passing of Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee or which may occur in the future, did not originate from the founder (Hwang Kee) but rather from his successor. Therefore, it can not be considered to be a part of his original teachings or legacy.

Along these same lines, there are those who currently profess that the continued furtherance, development and evolution of Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) is in the hands of only one specific Grandmaster or one “true organization”. To make such a statement is preposterous, because since the passing of Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee, no one individual or organization is actually able to make that claim.

Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee was, in fact, the one and only founder of the original Tang Soo Do Soo Bahk Do system and all knowledge and information came directly from him and him only. Therefore, no other individual or specific organization can claim that they contributed to its development and evolution during his lifetime or even after his passing.

In conclusion, I would like to respond to one final question, “Will Tang Soo Do, as we know it, continue to evolve in spite of the current differences in curriculum which currently exists between the existing Kwans?” My response to this question is, “Absolutely!” However, it will now evolve in a manner which is truly indicative of the meaning of Ryu Pa (as was defined by the late Great Grandmaster), where today many Tang Soo Do rivers and tributaries (Kwans) continue to emerge from the original source and “mainstream”, the late Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee, but where differences in curriculum and what is being taught need to be respected and accepted as a natural phenomenon of the late Great Grandmaster’s original teachings and Ryu Pa philosophy.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Tang Soo Do, but its future is truly in the hands of its current most senior practitioners and the existing Kwans. We, therefore, must find ways to put our differences aside and work closer together to preserve and promote Tang Soo Do at the highest level possible as the truly comprehensive and unique martial art that it is.

Tang Soo!