Visiting overseas instructors have always played an important role in British martial arts, of almost every style and discipline. For Taekwondo stylists the most regular, and arguably the most popular visitor has been Master Hee Il Cho. Master Cho, now ranked 9th Dan has been teaching in Britain since the 1970’s and recently spent 10 days here conducting a hectic series of seminars and gradings for ‘Global Taekwondo International’. The schedule included a Dan grading in Worcester and a special Dan grade and instructor course held in Leicester that was acknowledged by all present as an exceptional demonstration of Taekwondo at it’s very best.
Master Cho agreed to meet Martial Arts Plus as part of his packed tour and we met him accompanied by GTI vice Chairman Frank Murphy (5th Dan) at the arrivals lounge of Heathrow Airport.
Master Cho immediately impressed us with his presence. Despite having just stepped off a long haul flight he radiates an impression of strength and vitality that seemed totally undimmed by ‘jet lag’. Master Cho’s powerful technique is legendary and the strength and athleticism demonstrated in his many books and video productions are literally famous world-wide. Meeting him face to face he seems just as dynamic and immediately we could understand the loyalty and respect he has built up among his students across the world over the last twenty years.
Despite this enormous strength, both of presence and physique Master Cho is also an open and friendly man with a charming, modest manner and an engaging ‘mid Atlantic’ twang to his voice. He is very good company and spoke with us for a considerable time, only leaving for our photo shoot when he was certain that we had all the information we needed.
The interview was anything but a formal one with Master Cho happy to briefly cover his personal history of growing up in Korea in the aftermath of the Korean war; entering the martial arts at the age of ten after being beaten by bullies; early training in the art of Tang Soo Do, then entering Taekwondo before serving in the Korean Army as a self defense instructor. After his military service the Master began to develop his teaching internationally, with visits to India and Germany, again teaching military unarmed combat. By this time his technique had reached a stage where he was invited to join official ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) demonstration team that brought him to the United States for the first time.
Visiting the US was a turning point as Master Cho made the decision to make a permanent home there, eventually settling in California, where he found the warmth of the climate perfect when compared to his childhood memories of bitterly cold winters in a Korea still recovering from ferocious Korean war. Master Cho opened a series of schools across the States, and in addition to building a reputation as a top instructor simultaneously established himself as a top competitor, regularly competing and winning in open tournaments.
Master Cho then launched the ‘Action International Martial Arts Federation’ which although Taekwondo based, is open to all martial art disciplines. The organisation is now established across the globe, with a total membership of tens of thousands, and represented in the UK by ‘Global Taekwondo International’.
With his Federation and schools established Master Cho then turned his amazing energies to another field, writing what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive series of books (and accompanying video tapes) ever produced. These books, included titles such as ‘Man Of Contrasts’ and ‘Masters Kick’ broke Master Cho’s Taekwondo down to it’s very essentials. Of history, philosophy and technique, covering every aspect from patterns to sparring, via of course the dynamic and spectacular breaking techniques for which he is renowned. He is not the only accomplished martial arts author, but he is perhaps the only one to have examined his martial art so minutely and then improved and developed it before choosing to share what he has learnt so widely.
He is a very public figure, with a huge reputation. During our interview we hoped to see the man behind the public image with a series of questions, and we think we have managed to do just that.
MAP: You have already achieved so much in the martial arts. Do you have a personal philosophy you would share with us in respect of both your own training and for your students here in the UK and world-wide?
Master Cho: My philosophy is very simple. Martial Arts are a way of life. We have principles, philosophies and traditions handed down through many years from Master to Master. But you can’t live simply in the past and we live in the 20th century. My philosophy is that traditional values of discipline, respect are very valuable and we should keep these values in our teaching methods. But technical aspects are different. The development of WTF Taekwondo and the sporting aspects of martial arts have lead to technical advances.
MAP: In what way?
Master Cho: At the Olympic Games every four years they break new records because they are using a scientific approach. Martial Arts are no different. We need to examine ways we can improve ourselves. Modern Masters need to use their knowledge and experience, but they also need to use modern technology, and scientific knowledge. Using this knowledge, introducing things like weight training the students get more benefit. Definitely for further technical advancement we need to adopt a more scientific approach.
MAP: You have written a wide range of technical books and video tapes. Do you intend to continue with this as well as developing and refining technique?
Master Cho: Yes, I have produced I think 11 books and over 40 instructional videos. I think as far as technical matters are concerned and at this moment in time I have no plans to write any further books or videos. At the moment I am geared into promoting an international martial arts tournament to be held in 1995 at the Los Angeles Olympic Sports Complex.
MAP: Will this be purely a Taekwondo event?
Master Cho: No. I don’t believe that any one style is the best. All styles have value in the unique ways that they train. Everyone needs to find a style where they feel they fit in and you can’t say that Taekwondo has stronger spirit than any other style, or Judo is better than Karate. You just can’t say this. Everyone has different tastes and should find a style they think suits them. We all work on the same basic principle of discipline and respect that allows us to develop our characters.
MAP: So the event will reflect your personal ideas about the martial arts?
Master Cho: Yes, you can dedicate your training to improving your character. You don’t have to concentrate on how great a fighter somebody is. I emphasise to any students that you can gain peace of mind through training. My concerns are to have a positive effect to all martial arts. It is important to try and unite all martial arts together. At my championships next year we will compete in WTF style, ITF style, American point sparring and European continuous sparring, side by side all at the same time. I hope that this will allow us to show the very high standards of martial arts in a positive way.
MAP: Often in Britain martial arts seem to be misunderstood. People think the more spectacular techniques are what martial arts are all about, and too often we only get coverage in the press if a student has abused his martial arts training. Do you think events as yours are the way to put forward a more positive image?
Master Cho: Yes, the public is always more interested in the more sensational side of the martial arts. They see a Bruce Lee movie and don’t understand how hard people have to train to achieve a high standard. They don’t understand the personal discipline. This is one of the reasons why it is important that people are able to choose from different martial arts. Martial arts like Tai Chi are beneficial to the health and are much less aggressive than Taekwondo or Karate. Whatever the martial art it offers something that can be of value to somebody. Similarly you just don’t need to strictly limit yourself to just one style. You should practice martial arts as part of your own ‘way of life’. Not just a martial arts way, but you can study and adapt whatever you need to fit to develop yourself and your personal needs in life.
MAP: Do you have a message for martial arts students that we can pass on via Martial Arts Plus?
Master Cho: Yes, my recommendation is whatever your grade or whatever your style, forget about the politics. Train hard, learn fro your instructors and always avoid criticizing other styles and instructors. This just hurts the martial art community. Use the martial arts as a way to learn to understand each other and lead more peaceful lives. This is more important than using martial arts as a way of showing how tough you are. That’s a big headed and uneducated way to behave. My message would be to open your mind and look what can be learnt from your training and that is all you have to do to begin to improve yourself.
MAP: Master Cho thank you very much.
Master Cho: Thank you.