A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, by Alex Gillis

This fascinating book presents an alternative history of the development of Taekwondo, calling into question many of the art’s founding myths. Did Taekwondo really evolve from 2000-year-old Korean martial arts such as T’aekkyon? Not according to Gillis, who says Taekwondo’s famous founder, General Choi Hong Hi, invented the connection in order to appeal to Korean nationalism and disguise the Japanese roots of his martial art. Are the tenets of Taekwondo based on the noble values embraced by the revered Hwarang warriors of the Silla dynasty? Gillis argues that the Hwarang were not even warriors, but "flower boys…groups of teenage boys picked from the aristocracy who travelled through the Silla dynasty wearing beautiful clothes and often singing, dancing and practicing shamanism." Did General Choi unite the traditional Korean martial arts schools (or kwans) in the aftermath of the Korean war, emerging with an agreement to call the unified martial art "Taekwondo"? In Gillis’ telling, at first almost no one other than Choi accepted the name "Taekwondo," and the word only became widely used after many years and much political intrigue.

Along the way, Gillis also demonstrates how Taekwondo has been woven into the politics of Korea for a half-century. It was a tool to fight communism in Vietnam in the 1960s, an instrument of the repressive Korean dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, and a channel for Olympic cheating in more recent years.

If this account is credible, then the history of Taekwondo is replete with gangsters, hypocrites, mercenaries and myths. And yet, even Gillis ends on a positive note: despite all of this, the art has produced leaders who are truly dedicated to the values of integrity, honor and respect that have improved the lives of millions of students throughout the world.