Choi Hong Hi was born on November 9, 1918 (Eastern calendar) or December 22, 1918 (Western calendar) in the rugged, mountainous, harsh area of Hwa Dae, Myong Chun District, in what is now North Korea. At the time, Korea was under Japanese occupation and it had not yet been divided into a North and South Korea. Choi was the third of eight children, five boys and three girls, of family that owned a brew house. In his youth, he was frail and sickly and was a constant source of worry for his parents. However, even at an early age, he showed a strong, independent spirit.
In 1930, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, a group of female Korean students on a train bound for Kwang-ju City was harassed by a group of Japanese students. When the train arrived in Kwang-ju, a group outraged Korean students attacked the Japanese students. The Japanese police arrived and ruthlessly crushed the group of Korean students. The incident was known as the Kwang-ju Student Uprising.
As word of the incident spread throughout Korea, students in schools around the country staged strikes and walkouts to protest the outrageous acts of the Japanese students and police. At the time of the uprising, Choi was twelve years of age and a fifth grade school pupil. He planned and directed a mass student walkout from his school in protest of the uprising and was indefinitely suspended from the Japanese school system for his actions. This was the beginning of what would be a long association Choi had with the Kwang-ju Students Independence Movement.
After his expulsion from school, Choi's father sent him to study calligraphy under one of the most famous teachers in Korea, Han Il Dong. His father felt that Choi could later use these skills to carve tombstones. Later in his life, Choi became a prize-winning calligrapher. Han, who was also a master of Taekkyon, was concerned over the frail condition of his new student and began teaching Choi the rigorous exercises of Taekkyon to help build his body. Choi studied under Han for seven years.
In 1937, Choi became interested in studying Western culture, sciences and laws. His friends had been studying the West in Japan and they encouraged him to come to Japan. Choi's father was satisfied with his proficiency in calligraphy so he sent Choi to Japan to further his education
Shortly before leaving for Japan, Choi had an argument with a massive professional wrestler, named Hu. Choi lost all his money he was to use in Japan to Hu during a card game and Hu refused to return some of the money. As Hu turned to leave, Choi threw a ink well at him that hit him on the forehead and knocked him unconscious. Choi grabbed the money and left for Japan. Hu promised to tear the youth limb from limb at their next encounter. This threat seemed to give a new impetus to young Choi’s training in the martial arts. Choi has explained that after this event, "I resolved to become a black belt holder in karate while I was in Japan."
In Kyoto, Japan, Choi considered learning boxing, but a fellow Korean, Kim Hyun Soo, a Shotokan karate instructor, convinced Choi to train with him at Dong Dai Sa University. After two years of concentrated training, Choi earned his first dan in Shotokan karate from Kim. To improve his educational opportunities, Choi later moved to Tokyo and entered the Dong A Business High School which allowed him to later enter the Law School of Choong Ang University. While at the university, Choi continued his Shotokan studies under master Guchin Funagoshi. After earning his second dan in Shotokan, Choi and his friend Byung In Yoon taught Shotokan karate on the roof of the Tokyo YMCA. Choi recalls that, during this time, he struck or kicked every lamppost in the city to make the copper wires overhead vibrate. Choi said that:
"I would imagine that these were the techniques I would use to defend myself against the wrestler, Mr. Hu, if he did attempt to carry out his promise to tear me limb from limb when I eventually returned to Korea."
Whereas Oyama stayed in Japan, Choi returned to Korea. With the outbreak of World War II, he was forced to enlist in the Japanese army as a student volunteer on October 20, 1943. He sent to basic training at Seoul National University. While at his post in the 42nd Unit of the Pyongyang Division in Korea, Choi became involved with a group of about 30 Korean student-soldiers that had decided to escape to the Baek Mountains located on the Manchuria-Korean border, an incident known as the Pyongyang Student Soldiers' Incident or the Korean Independence Movement. The escape plan failed after it was discovered by the Japanese military. Choi was convicted as the planner and was interned at a Japanese prison during his eight-month pretrial examination. While in prison, to alleviate the boredom and keep physically fit, Choi practiced his martial art in the solitude of his cell. In a short time, his cellmate and the jailer became his students. Eventually, the prison courtyard became a gymnasium.
Choi received a seven-year prison sentence but that was later changed to execution, to take place on August 18, 1945. On August 15, 1945, just three days before his execution date, Choi was spared execution by the liberation of Korea from Japan.
Following his release, Choi was recruited by the Kun Joon or Preparation Committee for Self Government in Seoul. In Seoul, he helped organize a student soldier party, the Student's Volunteer Group. The group later split into two groups, one advocating communism and the one Choi led that advocated democracy. In this role, Choi enrolled in a military language school, which later was to become the Korean Military Academy. At the school, Choi had a meeting with the superintendent, U.S. Army Major Reas, which led to Choi becoming one of the 110 founding fathers of the Korean Army.
In January of 1946, Choi was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the fledgling Republic of Korea army and was posted to the Fourth Infantry Regiment in Kwang-ju, Cholla Namdo Province, as a company commander. At that time, the local police were more powerful than the Army so military personnel were frequently beaten by the police for minor offenses. When Choi became a company commander, he taught his entire company Tang-soo so they could protect themselves. Choi hated having to teach his men a Japanese style of karate, so he began his research to create a new Korean martial art. According to Choi, "I began to teach karate to my soldiers as a means of physical and mental training. It was then that I realized that we needed to develop our own national martial art, superior in both spirit and technique to Japanese karate." Choi was then promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to Tae-jon to be in charge of the Second Infantry Regiment. While at his new post, he began spreading his new art not only to Korean soldiers but also to Americans stationed there. This was the first introduction to Americans of what would eventually become known as Taekwondo.
In 1947, Choi was promoted to captain, and then to major. In 1948, he was posted to Seoul as the head of logistics and he became a martial arts instructor for the American Military Police School in Seoul. In late 1948, Choi was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1949, he was promoted to full colonel and, in June, he visited the United States for the first time, attending Advanced Military Training School at the Fort Riley Ground General School in Kansas. While there, gave public demonstrations of his martial arts skills for the troops; this was the first display of Taekyon/karate in America. Choi graduated on June 23, 1950, just two days before the Korean War started, so he had to rush back to Korea where he established the Officer Training School.
Choi later attended the Advanced Command School at Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia. At the time, Fort Benning was called the birthplace of American Infantry Corps and parachute troops; it was a requirement for all the officers to go through it. Even Field Marshall Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (1891-1944) of Germany, who was called the "Desert Fox" during the WWII because of his expert command in tanks in African deserts, had attended the school.
In 1951, Choi was promoted to brigadier general. During this time, he organized the Ground General School in Pusan and served as Assistant Commandant and Chief of the Academic Department. In 1952, Choi was appointed as Chief of Staff of the First Corps and was responsible for briefing General Douglas Mac Arthur the Supreme Commander of the United Nations Troops, during the latter's visits to Kang Nung. Mac Author was visiting the front line and Choi was selected to update him on the battle situation. After the thirty minutes briefing, Choi asked the general if he had any questions. To which the general replied, "No questions; very clear." He then approached to Choi and while shaking Choi's hand asked him his name. At the time of armistice in 1953, Choi was in command of the Fifth Infantry Division. The year 1953 was eventful for the Choi in both his military career and in the progress of his new martial art. He authored Military Intelligence, the first authoritative book on military intelligence in Korea.
In September of 1953, General Baek Sun Yuh, the Chief of Staff of the Korean Army, asked General Choi to create the 28th Division. Choi asked General Baek if this would be the last division created during the war? General Baek replied that one more division would be created in a few months. Choi asked Baek if he could create the last division, the 29th Infantry Division, and General Baek granted the request.
Choi organized and activated the crack 29th Infantry Division at Cheju Island off the South Korean coast. The division eventually became the spearhead of Taekkyon in the military. The first thing Choi did was to create a distinctive division flag. On the flag, the number two of the number 29 symbolized the divided Korean peninsula. The number nine symbolized a fist. The flag he thus was a fist over the Korean peninsula. After seeing the flag, people gave the 29th the nickname, "The Fist Division" or "Ik Keu Division" and later "The Taekwondo Division."
Choi's second task was to choose the division's command staff. To assist him in training the troop in military drills, he enlisted the aid of Colonel Ha Chung Kab and Lieutenant Colonel Kim Hwang Mok. He also recruited Master Nam Tae Hi and Master Nam Cha Kyo, both from Chung Do Kwan (Gym of the Blue Wave) to help him to train the soldiers in Tangsoodo. Although Choi still called the martial art Tangsoodo, the characteristic and quality of the techniques were now far different from the karate that he had practiced in Japan. A combination of Korean Taekkyon and Japanese Shotokan and Tang-soo formed the basis of his teachings, but at this point his art was much different from these arts.
To his officers and Tangsoodo insructors, he gave very specific orders. "When the soldiers train in Tangsoodo, everyone has to bow to the instructors, regardless of military rank. Outside of the gym, salutations go according to military rank." The combination of military drills and Tangsoodo practice made this division unique among other division in the Korean Army; they were ready to fight with or without weapons.
In 1954, Choi established the academy of martial arts, "Oh-do-kwan" or "school of my way" where he taught his style of culturally-patterned Korean karate to a group of Korean Army instructors, assisted by Nam Tae Hi, his right hand man. In the latter part of 1954, Choi commanded the "Chong-do-kwan" (school of the blue wave), the largest civilian gym in Korea. He was also promoted to major general and was made the deputy commander of the Second Army in Tae-gu.
Interest in Taekwondo was now growing rather quickly.