HISTORY OF NATIVE KOREAN MARTIAL
Written by In Sun Seo
The majority of today's Korean
martial artists believe that the origin of martial arts came only
from China. In particular, it is thought by many that the Great
Teacher Dahrma, who is known as the founder of the Shaolin Temple,
is (also) the father of every kind of martial art. However, this
is untrue. This kind of thinking is a mistaken notion, steeped
in toadyism. Martial arts are not something that were founded by
any particular individual or group. That is to say, martial arts
are not something that could be founded in any certain nation.
The reason is that martial arts
started as natural outgrowth of techniques used from prehistoric
times by primitive people to find food and to protect themselves
and their families from wild animals Therefore, all areas of the
world have indigenous kinds of combative arts used for developing
mind and body, as well as for fighting.
In addition, all kinds of indigenous
weapons techniques have been developed throughout the world. Among
the various early weapons that existed, there have been different
kinds of both rough and polished stone tools excavated in every
part of the world. From many parts of the Korean Peninsula, too,
stone swords, stone knives, stone spears, stone arrowheads,
stone axes and so on have been unearthed. The range of finds in
Korea extends from Kyunghung Province; Hae Ju and Anak in Hwanghae
Province; Yangyang and Choon chun in Kangwon Province; Ansung
in Kyung-gi Province; Puyo in south Choonchon Province; Andong
and Kyungju in North Kyungsang Province; and Mirang in South Kyungsang
Province. It's reasonable to assume that Korea's forefathers used
these types of stone weapons for both food-gathering purposes and
also for self-protection against wild animals and savage enemies.
The stone-throwing techniques
of those prehistoric Koreans have survived down to this very day
and are called too-suk sool ('stone-throwing arts'). The awesome
effectiveness of these stone throwing techniques was amply displayed
in the battles at Hangjin and Chinju mountain fortresses during
the Japanese invasions into Korea in the late 15th century under
Hideoshi. In addition, it is recorded that members of the royal
family and high-ranking scholars of the Shilla Dynasty enjoyed
a game developed for amusement called doo-ho (an ancient game of
pitching arrows into a pot). Other forms, such as sword-throwing
and spear tossing developed out of this, and it is not difficult
to conjecture that archery also was connected with this kind of
As human civilization advanced
in Korea, an agricultural society gradually emerged. Ancient Koreans,
who had originally lived around Mt. Bektu (between the borders
of modern day North Korea and Manchuria), began to migrate southward
and settle where the living environment was more attractive. It
can be presumed, therefore, that because of an increased awareness
of and a greater fondness for territorial possession, it was necessary
for that society to cultivate new and improved types of combative
A sedentary lifestyle led to
a collective social body. In the communal system, clan units merged
together into tribal units and a clear distinction between the
leaders and the followers came about. In addition, feuds and struggles
with other tribal units naturally resulted. Under these conditions,
individuals could not help but try to maintain a strength that
was mightier than that of other individuals in order to protect
themselves and their own group.
In order to attain this kind
of superior strength, people trained themselves through running,
wrestling, swimming, hand-to-hand fighting, and other such activities.
It is also natural to assume that the fundamental development of
such weapons as staff, spear, swords, bow and ax took place around
this time in the civilization's history.
Unfortunately, there are few
detailed accounts of ancient Korean martial arts in existence today.
In the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms, written during
the 12th century), there are merely fragmentary allusions to a
double-sword dance in the nation of Karak (Karak, also known as
Kaya, existed on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula between
approximately 42 BC to 562 AD). In the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia
of the Three Kingdoms, written during the 13th Century), it is
recorded that generals in the three kingdoms of Koguro, Paekchae,
and Silla trained hard at martial arts and contested among themselves.
However, there is no detailed description of the martial arts used
or the specific techniques involved.
Even though there are no detailed
explanations about the martial arts techniques, examination
of the power struggles that characterized the Three Kingdoms Era
reveals that there were both military officers and lower ranking
soldiers who were acquainted with a vast array of martial arts.
In addition, it is recorded that the majority of martial arts practitioners
of that era relied on teachers and/or martial arts books for their
training. Therefore, it can be surmised that there existed texts
that explained martial arts techniques in detail at that time.
Ancient texts, wall painting,
and sculptures depict persons shooting arrows from horseback, as
well as scenes of archery, stone throwing, and playing in a kind
of martial polo game, hunting, and other such activities. In these
scenes, there are individuals or groups of persons posed in strange
postures and confronting other individuals or groups of persons
in similar postures. These postures are precisely martial arts
stances of attack and defense that are employed while facing an
enemy. The empty-handed martial arts of today still use these very
References can be found in
the Samguk Sagi to Chuk-guk (to kick a football--an ancient game
played with a ball of leather stuffed with hair), Too-ho (the game
of pitchpot), Soo-bak (striking with the hands), Chu-choon (a rope
swinging activity), Chuk-ma (bamboo horse), Gum-moo (sword dance),
and so on. In addition, such activities as gak-chuh (butting),
mok-chuh (pushing against a wheel), chuk-ma (bamboo horse), gake-hoe
(to play, to sport), gake-hoe (Leg play), sang-bak (to strike one
another), chol-kyo (foot soldiers school), and cheng-kyo (to contest),
among other, are mentioned in the Tung-i Chuan section (Account
of the Eastern Barbarians, a section dealing with Korea) of the
San-kuo Chih (Annals of the Three States, a very famous book written
in early China). These types of activities are thought to be different
kinds of empty-handed martial arts that were practiced in Silla.
It is also recorded that the
Chinese regarded the ancient Korean empty-handed martial arts known
as Koryo Gi (Techniques of Korea) and Yoo-Kyo (a kind of wrestling)
as powerful and superb martial arts forms. Linguistic scholars
have recently uncovered the fact that Chu-Mong, which was the name
of the founder king of Koguryo, was a special title given to prominent
knights who excelled at archery in the state of Puyo. (Puyo was
in existence at the same time as the establishment of Koguryo).
In Shilla, there was an organization
known as Hwarang-Do (Way of Flowery Youth) that was composed of
young men. These boys were selected from the upper echelon of Shillian
youth. They traversed the nation's mountains, familiarizing themselves
with the territorial geography, while training in martial arts.
The Hwa-rang were engrossed with a tenacious spirit, which included
a precept which unconditionally forbade retreat in battle.
It can be seen, therefore, that
already by the Three Kingdoms Period, the national leaders were
instilling in their youth a sense of patriotism and a deep love
their native land. The principles upon which a strong body and
a steadfast spirit can be created were fully understood by the
people of that era. There are many widespread anecdotes to this
day about the famous general, Kim Yu-Shin, a man who played a decisive
role in the unification of the three kingdoms under Shilla.
Among the many tales, one of
the most notable is about Kim Yu-Shin who, as a young man, had
fallen in love with a kisaeng girl and had begun to neglect his
martial art training as a result of the affair. Kim's mother learned
of the matter and scolded her son severely, making him promise
never to meet the young woman again. Kim Yu-Shin fell asleep on
the back of his beloved horse one night and the animal, out of
habit, carried the sleeping man to the doorstep of the kisaeng's
When Kim Yu-Shin realized where
he was, he became enraged and beheaded his horse with his sword.
Then, he fled to a cave deep within the mountains to purify his
spirit. The story goes on to say how Kim Yu-Shin's diligent training
moved the gods. A heavenly figure appeared to him and bestowed
upon him an engraved sword and some special texts. It is then said
that these celestial gifts helped Kim Yu-Shin carry out his great
task of unifying the Korean peninsula.
There are also tales of General
Kim Yu-Shin's son, Won Sullong, who went to fight against the T'ang
Army in a territorial dispute. When Won-Sullong returned home in
defeat, his father disowned him for breaking the Hwa-rang precept
against retreat in battle. Bitter and humiliated, Won-Sullong went
deep into the mountains and concentrated on martial art training.
Sometime later, he entered the enemy camp alone, as a commoner,
and beheaded the enemy commander. He then died a heroic death on
the spot. The existence of such moving tales as these can only
be a reflection of the inspiration that the martial artist gave
to the society as a whole.
The development of Korean martial
arts blossomed throughout the Three Kingdoms Period and on through
to the establishment of the United Silla Dynasty. Thereafter, however,
martial arts experienced a decline as result of a stabilized government
and a society at peace.
It was superior military power
that was behind the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under
the Koryo Dynasty. However, even though the succession of Koryo
kings were themselves proficient in the methods of martial arts
(technique and application), they made Buddhism the State religion.
Buddhism was a religious philosophy at odds with the taking of
life. The official promotion of this type of belief caused the
common people to lose interest in the practice of martial arts.
Meanwhile, only deep within
the confines of the palace, the secret techniques of an esoteric
and highly developed martial art were practiced in private. The
marked the beginning of the Koong-Joong Mu-Sol (Royal Court Martial
Arts), which were kept out of the reach of the common people. However,
these Royal Court Martial Arts were not something which were suddenly
created to fit new circumstances. Rather, they were an integration
of ancient martial arts methods that had been handed down for countless
These arts were, at the same
time, carefully selected out of the vast body of techniques known
at that time, and were considered the most excellent. The reason
for this happening is that martial arts techniques are not something
that can be developed overnight. It's only through a long cultivation
and practice that martial art techniques are improved and developed.
The history scholar An Cha San,
who wrote after the Japanese Occupation of Korea (i.e. after 1945)
stated in his work Mu-Sa Young Oong Chun, (Annals of Military Heroes),
that Korean Yu-Sool (Soft-style martial arts) gradually became
popular after the reign of Suk Chong (the 15th monarch of the Koryo
Dynasty, 1095-1105). That name Yu-Sool was applied to both Soo-Bak
and Kwon-bup, among other arts.
The position of the military
officials started to become powerful again around the time of In
Jong (17th Koryo monarch, 1122-1146). It is recorded that such
military men as Chong Chung-Bu (who led a successful military revolt
against the government in 1170), carried out their exploits by
using Sang-Yae (common arts). However, in the sculptured wall figures
which show empty-handed fighting arts of the Koguryo and Shilla
Periods, it can be seen that Soo-Bak and Kwon-Bup, which
are included in Yoo-Sool, were widely known in the Three Kingdoms
Period--centuries before the Koryo Dynasty.
Over time, the martial arts
techniques of the common people and of the regular military gradually
disappeared as a result of the preferential treatment given civil
officials, the general contempt for military officials, and a government
leadership that was weakened by literary pursuits at the expense
of martial arts development. In the 4th year of the reign of Ye
Jong (16th Koryo monarch, 1105-1122), the Kukchagam (National University)
was established. Mu-Hak (martial studies) was included among the
seven curricula offered.
However, it only increased the
friction between civil officials and military officials and the
mu-hak course ended up being one in name only. Thereafter, as the
development of martial arts had been thus officially thwarted,
the practice of martial arts by common people took on an aspect
of secrecy, with techniques being handed down from father to son.
In the beginning of the Yi Dynasty
(1392-1910) there wasn't a change in the political structure, merely
a change in the royal authority. The society and civilization of
the new Yi Dynasty was also closely patterned after and, for the
most part, a continuation of the Koryo civilization.
The founder of the Yi Dynasty,
Yi Song-Gye, was able to seize the throne through military power.
Well aware of the threat of being overthrown himself, Yi imposed
tight restrictions of the practice of martial arts by the common
people. The non-aggressive Confucianism was promulgated throughout
the nation, with preferential treatment given to civil officials
and contempt shown to military officials. The morale of the military
officers dropped extremely and things got to a point where the
practice of martial arts was thought to be an embarrassing activity,
unworthy of a true gentleman.
The end result of this state
of affairs was that Japan invaded Korea twice (in 1592 and in 1596),
and Manchuria invaded the Peninsula in 1637. However, something
unusual happened during the time of the foreign invasions into
Korea. In the face of these upheavals, persons from every part
of the country suddenly rose up, filled with a deep feeling
of patriotism, and formed Ui-Bying (righteous armies, a kind of
militia force) to combat the enemy.
Among the countless leaders
of local guerrilla bands who arose during the Japanese invasion
were Kwak Chae-U, Kim Si-Min, and Kim Chon-Il who were all local
Confucian scholars and widely respected by the inhabitants of their
respective local areas. There were also great monk army leaders,
such as Sosun Taesa and Samyong Taesa. It is recorded that
these local militia leaders hoisted high the banner of national
salvation and slew the Japanese hordes by using super-natural fighting
If martial arts are not something
that can be learned in a day, then how is it possible that scholars
who only studied books and monks or nuns who spent all their time
concentrating on the way of Buddhism were able to run around in
the midst of fierce battle and outfight the professional soldiers
of the Government's Army?
To answer this question one
must seek out and examine the fragmentary bits of recorded evidence
concerning the private lives of these local militia leaders during
their youth as well as the documented evidence on the successes
of the martial artists of that period. Then, it can be established
that each one of these individuals who led militia at that time
had undergone rigorous physical discipline and martial art training.
Even the sports of today that
have been developed out of martial arts are impossible to learn
without the guidance of a teacher or coach. If that's the case,
then how is it possible for someone to master the numerous types
of martial arts techniques, which are far more complex and difficult
to understand? There is only one answer. The answer is that there
must have been either textbooks containing secret esoteric martial
arts techniques that were handed down within a family from generation
to generation, or the knowledge was transmitted orally through
a teacher who secretly taught family members.
If one or both of the above
stated conditions did not exist, it would have been impossible
for the martial arts to survive. The grounds for this assertion
become sufficiently clear if one takes a close look at the society
and political structure of that time in Korean history. During
the reign of Sunjo (14th King of Yi Dynasty, 1567-1608), Han Kyo
scientifically researched the secret techniques of Korea's traditional
martial arts and compiled a book called Mu-yae Tong-ji ('Comprehensive
Manual of Martial Arts'). He gave martial art instruction to more
than 70 individuals so that the arts could be used against the
Japanese invaders of that period. Perhaps this is the first recorded
instance of a martial art training hall, or Do-Jang, as they are
As a result of the corrupt government
at the end of the Yi Dynasty, social chaos broke out everywhere.
Korea found herself in a helpless position against the powerful
foreign nations. In this situation, Korean martial arts flourished
for a brief while, thanks to a few patriots who were aware of what
was happening to their nation. However, the ancient classical weapons
inevitably disappeared in the face of the modern weaponry (guns,
cannons, etc.) and only the empty-handed martial arts seem to have
stood out in the minds of the people.
Korea was annexed by Japan in
1910. Every aspect of the martial arts in Korea underwent an extremely
serious crisis and the entire martial arts tradition began to disappear.
It was indeed the darkest hour in the long history of Korean military
arts. During the 36 years of the Japanese occupation of Korea,
practically the life span of a whole generation lost its freedom
The Japanese authorities tried
to completely eliminate Korean thought, Korean cultural arts, and
the very foundation of Korean traditional martial arts, which had
been preserved in Korea for thousands of years. Ironically, it
was the Japanese who had, in the past, brought Korean traditional
martial arts into their own nation and then modified those arts
to suit the Japanese culture. Then in this century, the Japanese
tried to assert that Korean martial arts originated in Japan. In
fact, today's Karate, Kendo, and Aikido were probably influenced
by the traditional Korean martial art tradition.