Alex Gillis, author of A Killing Art.

Welcome of the Halloween 2012 edition of Kung Fu Tea!  A few weeks ago I had the chance to review Alex Gillis’ groundbreaking work on the origins and development of Tae Kwon Do, A Killing Art.  Click on the links to see that post or the book.  This detailed study is a wonderful example of martial arts history and the sort of thing that I think we need to see more of in the field of martial studies.

I also had the opportunity to exchange emails with Alex and found him to be friendly and open.  He clearly has a passion for his subject and is immensely knowledgeable.  He agreed to drop by Kung Fu Tea and answer some questions about the process of writing this sort of history and the reception that the book has received.


Kung Fu Tea (KFT): How have Tae Kwon Do practitioners, both in Korea and the rest of the world, received your book?  Has it received a generally positive reception?  Has it affected your relationships with other individuals in Tae Kwon Do community?

Alex Gillis (AG): Hundreds of people have sent me notes over the past four years, all of them positive about the English, Spanish and German books. I haven’t counted, but I estimate I received nearly 1,000 emails. Also, during book signings in the US, UK, Canada and Germany, I’ve spoken to thousands of people, and almost all the feedback has been positive — overwhelmingly so.

There have been negative comments, I’ve heard, on blogs, but most of them have been anonymous. I haven’t looked up the chat groups, listservs and blogs where I’m getting anonymously slagged, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. What I find incredible is that the major international Tae Kwon Do organizations, especially in South Korea, have ignored my book, but their instructors and masters (and some grandmasters) have contacted me individually, almost as if they were doing something wrong in talking to me.

The support has been over-the-top positive, because people have been gossiping for decades, so many people knew parts of the true history, but A Killing Art brings together different strands of the history, which, I now realize, readers appreciate. I put seven years of work into the book, ensuring that I got facts right, and I footnoted heavily, because I knew readers would say, “What the hell?! How does he know that?”

A fallen monument in the Goodleberg Town Cemetery, Wales NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: What was the most challenging aspect of researching a project like this? Was it difficult to get your sources to agree to give “on the record” interviews about such challenging topics?

AG: The most challenging part of the research was finding solid proof that secret-service agents (those who worked for or with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and North Korean secret service) were helping to run Tae Kwon Do federations, and that the agents/instructors collaborated with the South and North Korean dictatorships during different decades. Also challenging was figuring out what the founders added to the art as opposed to simply stole from Karate or Taekkyeon (an old Korean martial art).

It was difficult to get on-the-record interviews on these topic and others, but many masters and instructors participated when they realized that I knew a lot about the history. Interviews rise to a different level when interviewees know that one-liners or the “party line” won’t work. So, for example, telling a journalist that Tae Kwon Do is 2,000 years old might fly with a local newspaper reporter who doesn’t have time to check facts, but it didn’t work on me, as I knew the truth from background research. Tae Kwon Do is only 50 or 60 years old, and it developed mainly from Japanese Karate. However, if you type “Taekwondo” in Wikipedia or Google, you’ll find sites that state or imply that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old and that contain all sorts of drivel about ancient dynasties and hwarang warriors. I’m empowered by the fact that well known war heroes and super-athletes developed my martial art, not flowery unnamed warriors.

KFT: You have a background both as an investigative journalist and as a university instructor.  Do you think that this book would have looked substantially different if you had been a pure historian?  What skills did journalism allow you to bring to table that might be missing in more “academic” writing on the martial arts?

AG: Perhaps the book would have been different if a historian had tackled the topic — perhaps a historian would have made it more abstract and less concrete and dramatic. Depends on the historian! I’ve read dramatic, concrete histories. My skills as an investigative journalist allowed me to ask the right questions and to delve into topics that were deeper than those asked by news journalists. Also, with all my research and interviews, I pushed myself to find engaging ways to present the facts and tell people’s stories — with storytelling that would go beyond lists of facts. Basically, I added heart and emotions where I could.

Presenting General Choi Hong-Hi’s life is an example. He was a complex person (as most of us are), and I wanted to show why people thought he was a genius and a dictator, a generous man and a selfish one, too — all at the same time. He seemed to be a megalomaniac and an extremely aggressive leader, but he had to seem that way when facing down homicidal dictators and rogue secret-service agents who wanted to kidnap him and his pioneers. I have a lot of respect for him (but not for all of his actions). While presenting people like that in my book, I felt I had to stick to the facts while adding complex emotions and context.

Barbed wire hanging from an oak tree. Conewango Valley, NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: When I was reading Chapter 19 of your book (“Reprieve”) I could not help but be struck by the contrast between what you had written about, and what you and your daughter actually experienced in your neighborhood Tae Kwon Do school.  Has there always been this disconnect between what was happening at the top of the sport and at the bottom?  It seems hard to imagine that the chaos you describe in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t deeply affect the lives and careers of many aspiring martial artists.

AG: Yes, there has always been a disconnect between what happens at the top of a sport or martial art and what happens among instructors and students. From what I know, this occurs in many sports. Look at soccer and FIFA for instance! Tae Kwon Do practitioners typically had and have no idea how much corruption and cheating occurred in the Olympics for instance. When coaches and athletes did discover the levels of cheating, many had to keep quiet in order to compete, hoping that they wouldn’t be the next victims of “branch trimming,” which was the sophisticated cheating-system that ensured the strongest fighters got eliminated in opening rounds at the Olympics. Careers and lives were deeply affected.

KFT: It has been about four years since your book first came out.  How are things looking in the Tae Kwon Do world today? Have the governing bodies of the sport in Korea and abroad managed to clean up their act and live up to their promises for reform? Is the sport growing and healthy?

AG: There has been a lot of promise about cleaning up their acts — being transparent and fair — but I’m not certain that the governing bodies have lived up to their promises. I keep hoping.

KFT: What are the biggest trends you are seeing in the Korean martial arts today outside of the world of Tae Kwon Do?

AG: The unacknowledged Tae Kwon Do backgrounds of fighters in the MMA, UFC and other popular sports.

KFT: Yes, I can see how that might be frustrating to a lot of individuals within the Tae Kwon Do community.  Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by!

Pumpkin Still Life. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins