The Jhoon Rhee Story

Jhoon Rhee

Part One: A Tiger Roars (1931 – 1945)

In a luxurious palace, somewhere in Korea, a young woman hears the roar of a tiger, thundering from the darkness of the surrounding jungle. She’s not afraid, because the palace is protected by a high and heavy wall. But the roar is deafening. It startles her—and she wakes up.

Kay Im Rhee

Jhoon Rhee’s mother, Kay Im Rhee (1906 – 1994).

The palace, the wall, the tiger—it was all a dream. But it was a very special kind of dream, what Koreans call a taemong, or conception dream. The woman was Kay Im Rhee, the year was 1931, and her first son, Jhoon Rhee, was on the way.

Years later, thinking back on his mother’s taemong, Jhoon Rhee described what he believes the dream meant. “I think it has to do with the prominence I’ve been lucky to achieve with my Tae Kwon Do activities—the ‘noise’ I’ve made throughout the world outside my mother’s castle: Korea.”

Nine months after his mother’s taemong, on January 7, 1932, Jhoon Rhee was born in the small Korean village of Sanyangri, Asan. His father, Jinhoon, was a clerk in a small business. His mother was a housewife. The couple already had two daughters, but as the first son, Jhoon Rhee was an especially welcome baby; at that time in Korea, most parents preferred to have boys. Eventually, the couple would have a total of five children.

Jinhoon Rhee

Jhoon Rhee’s father, Jinhoon Rhee (1909 – 1965).

Despite this auspicious beginning, there were few signs of the roaring tiger to come. While still an infant, Rhee was accidentally dropped by his ordinarily very careful 7-year-old sister, and his thigh bone was broken. On that same day, Rhee’s maternal grandfather died. Following an old Korean belief, Rhee’s mother carried her baby son five miles so that she could place her dead father’s hand on Rhee’s broken leg. The fracture healed soon after.

Because of the accident, Rhee’s family believed he would never be athletic, and as a child he was indeed smaller and a slower runner than his peers. Rhee, however, was determined to compensate for his size and speed, so he decided at a young age—before even turning five—to study martial arts. He couldn’t begin immediately, though; there were no martial arts schools near Rhee’s home. In the meantime, Rhee resolved to begin lifting weights and build his strength.

Rhee’s weight-building program began in earnest when he was six. He had recently returned to his village after spending a year living with his paternal grandfather and uncle—an “exchange program” meant to teach children independence, especially from their mother. Back in his village, Rhee came home from school one day crying. When his mother asked what was wrong, Rhee explained that a tough five-year-old neighbor girl had slapped him. Rhee says that his mother was appalled that he had let himself be assaulted by a girl—especially a younger girl. To raise his self-confidence, Rhee committed himself to weight training with renewed focus, and continued training until he was 13, when he moved to Seoul to enroll in Dong Sung High School.

Rhee’s notion of self-improvement, even at this young age, wasn’t limited to physical strength. After starting high school, he began teaching himself violin, learning to play Korean folk songs by ear. His love of the violin, as well as the harmonica, was part of an appreciation for music and the arts that would carry through his whole life, and eventually even become part of his approach to Tae Kwon Do.

As Rhee entered his teens, he was becoming stronger and more confident—a few steps closer to the roaring tiger of his mother’s dream. But it wasn’t only Rhee who was changing; his country was changing, too. In the summer of Rhee’s 14th year, on August 15, 1945, Korea gained its independence from Japanese colonial rule. Rhee says that he was too young at the time to understand the event’s full significance; it wasn’t until later that the idea of freedom from domination became truly meaningful for him, when the North and South of his country went to war in 1950.