ABOUT TAE KYON
A Deceptive and Deadly Martial Art
From Ancient Korea
©1995 by Robert W. Young
Today, it is officially classified as an Intangible
Cultural Asset No. 76 by the government of Korea. But centuries
ago when tae kyon was created, it was a means for fighting battles
as well as for protecting one's family and property. And for a
long time afterward, it continued to stand as one of the most formidable fighting
methods in existence.
Chances are the average martial artist in the
West has never even heard of tae kyon. That's understandable, as
many Koreans also have no information about it. Tae kyon has endured
a tortuous history, and that fact has taken its toll over the years.
At present, gathering information is a bit difficult, to say the
least. But the art is definitely still alive, with hundreds of
students practicing in three cities in Korea today. Serious efforts
are being made to gain more national and international recognition.
The histories of the various Korean martial arts differ somewhat from those
of other countries. Certain individuals claimed to have been the sole creators
of most Japanese, Chinese and Okinawan styles. Koreans do not teach that their
arts had a purposeful, directed creation, but rather a gradual evolution. And
so it is with tae kyon. One of the few current experts in the skills and history
of tae kyon is Lee Yong-bok of Pusan, Korea. According to him, the fighting
arts have evolved alongside mankind ever since he has had to coexist with other
men. Human nature itself made this necessary. One person alone cannot take
It was more than 5,000 years ago when humans started migrating to the Korean
peninsula from the adjacent parts of China. Quite some time after that, a distinct
fighting art slowly began to develop. It was called "maen son mu yea," or
empty-hand martial art. Whether it was brought in from China by immigrants
or actually started in Korea is not certain. But over time, maen son mu yea
must have diverged from any possible connection it might have had with another
art, making it the first distinctly Korean style.
The earliest verifiable evidence yet found is a painting in a grave from the
Koguryo dynasty (fifth and sixth centuries A.D.). On the wall near the dead
member of the royal family is a scene depicting tae kyon self-defense techniques.
One man is attacking with a front kick as his opponent traps his leg with one
arm and strikes his chest with the other. Further evidence suggests tae kyon
was taught to public servants, whether they agreed or not. And while it could
be argued that the differences between the styles are too slight to allow exact
determination of tae kyon from a mere stone carving or wall painting, historians
tend to support tae kyon in this case.
A Chosun dynasty scholar named Shin Chae-ho devoted a great deal of his life
to the history of tae kyon. Among his conclusions was that this was the martial
art of the nobility during the Koguryo period for reasons of both personal
defense and physical well-being. The Hwarang warriors of the Silla dynasty
were famous throughout Korea. Over the centuries, their martial art came to
be known as hwarang-do, at least in the West. But Shin contended that these
young warriors were really trained in tae kyon, and it was only after their
amazingly successful exploits became legend that their art's name was altered
in their honor. Another of his claims, sure to be disputed by followers of
other arts, is that the ancient art of tae kyon was, in fact, the inspiration
for some styles in neighboring Japan and China. Specifically, judo's locks
and throws and drunkard-style kung fu's hand techniques are identical to tae
kyon movements, he wrote.
records from the countries of the region all lend support to the historical
importance of tae kyon. Chinese books state that the "Han" people
(in Korean, "Han guk" means the Korean nation) were strong,
brave and skilled in the martial arts. It also says their art was likely
to have influenced those in China. Ancient Korean history texts tell
how all styles flourished during the Koguryo period, even to the point
where the king was practicing tae kyon. Other documents verify this.
And finally, old writings from China, Japan and Korea give accounts
of a type of martial arts competition held in the Paekche region of
Korea. They noted the remarkable similarities of the styles of the
three countries, pointing to the great influence that tae kyon had
But as all things in life do, tae kyon reached its peak. The king and his court
were practicing it. Soldiers drilled daily in the deadly aspects of it. And
even the common man enjoyed it for its defensive techniques mixed with dance-like
rhythms. But with the advance of technology came the introduction of firearms.
No longer would hand-to-hand combat be so essential a factor in warfare. And
so began the stagnation and eventual decline of tae kyon. The military abandoned
it first, and then the royalty. Only commoners continued, until tae kyon came
to be called the martial art for the average man. And for quite some time after
that, things remained as such.
Perhaps the darkest period in Korean history was from 1910 to 1945, when Japanese
forces occupied the entire nation. All forms of art and culture, including
tae kyon, were suppressed in the hopes of destroying the people's strong nationalistic
spirit. Historical accounts tell how a sword-wielding Japanese soldier was
attacked and killed by a Korean man. The victor was armed only with tae kyon.
Subsequently, the Japanese military outlawed all practice and teaching of it,
partly out of revenge and partly out of fear. So, as with so many other martial
arts in the world, tae kyon went underground. It was secretly and diligently
practiced, improved and handed down to a select few individuals. As the number
of students at times fell to zero, the art balanced on the verge of extinction.
Present-day tae kyon owes its existence to one man named Song Duk-ki. Throughout
the entire period of occupation, he persevered for the sake of the preservation
of his art. He most often practiced alone in his home under cover of night.
His only hope was to find a suitable person to whom he could pass his skills.
Finally he was able to recruit a single student as dedicated as himself--Shin
Han-seung. For many years, these two were the only people in the world with
any detailed knowledge of tae kyon.
It was not until 1968 that the public was exposed to tae kyon. It took that
long for Song and Shin to completely organize and systematize the art and their
teaching method, and to prepare the facilities necessary for instruction. It
was also in that year that a kind of martial arts "feud" erupted
between the followers of taekwondo and tae kyon, which in a way helped with
the publicity drive. Both tried for approval as Intangible Cultural Assets,
and both claimed to be the only traditional martial art of Korea. Tae kyon
declared that it was the original creation, while opponents insisted that tae
kyon was merely a subset of taekwondo. In the end, an impartial board ruled
that the two arts were, in fact, different, but neither one was proclaimed
a cultural asset.
The years following that were rather uneventful. Limited public instruction
was resumed, but it met mostly with apathy and rejection from the martial arts
community. Few seemed interested in an art that had been dormant for such a
long time while other styles had spread throughout the world. In 1983, tae
kyon got an unexpected boost from the Korean government. Finally, after many
years of continuing negotiations, tae kyon officially became Intangible Cultural
Asset No. 76. Additionally this qualified the two masters for government aid
for the purpose of educating the public about the art. Many hoped it would
lead to a rebirth of this dying martial art. But so far, tae kyon is still
nearly lost in obscurity, somehow evading the spotlight and likely to continue
to do so.
To observe a tae kyon practitioner in motion is to learn what distinguishes
it from all other arts. The accomplished student moves in a flowing, continuous,
rhythmical manner, arms rising and then falling, feet stepping forward and
then back. One expects music to drive their strange dance, but they have little
need for any. The true reason for this technique is indeed martial. The footwork
allows one to come within striking distance and attack, then retreat as quickly
as possible. And the constantly moving arms act as both a deception and a moving
weapon, already in motion and poised to strike. Often, a powerful kick follows
a fake or real hand attack. Simultaneous attack and defense movements are taught,
producing a most effective fighter.
Tae kyon movements are usually circular, always following a natural rhythm
to which the body can easily adapt. Foot techniques are stressed slightly more
than the hands, but both are deadly. Quite often it is the softer parts, such
as the open hand and the bottom of the foot, that are used as weapons, minimizing
damage to the user. Another unusual feature of tae kyon is the choice of target
areas on the body. The primary ones include the solar plexus, forehead, calf,
inner thigh, floating ribs and shoulders. Tae kyon teaches that, by attacking
these areas, one can use the minimum amount of force necessary to subdue the
aggressor, and then escape. Only at the more advanced level are techniques
for fatally striking the eyes and nose taught.
The study of tae kyon also differs that of other martial arts. The age and
sex of the student does not matter; all can learn with equal effort. However,
there is one uncommon restriction--young children cannot be taught tae kyon.
It is believed that they lack sufficient responsibility for total self-control.
One can practice any place, indoors or out. No equipment of any kind is required.
Even during sparring, protective pads are not used. That would not be natural
or realistic, practitioners say. Training emphasizes speed and strength, as
well as technique and efficiency. The body is loose, and the art is flexible,
confronting a soft stylist with hard and direct movements, but becoming soft
and yielding when opposed by a hard stylist.
While many modern arts stress attack rather than defense, tae kyon considers
them equally important. And the best defense is, simply, evasion. "It
doesn't matter how strong your opponent is if he can't hit you," the master
said. While the students learn to attack before the opponent hits, at times
they must resort to both blocking and trapping. Some of the skills taught include
those from taekwondo, judo and ssirum (traditional Korean wrestling, similar
to Japanese sumo).
As far as the mental aspects are concerned, tae kyon seems to have them covered,
too. Stressed are discipline, toleration, leadership and etiquette. The rare
competition events also teach sportsmanship. At the middle stage, one develops
his "ki" power using a unique form of "kihap." In contrast
to the usual, explosive blast of the hard-style arts, tae kyon uses a controlled,
soft "eee keh" sound. It is claimed to be more effective for transmitting
inner energy to the hands and feet. And at the most advanced levels, tae kyon
changes to a mostly internal art, stressing both ki energy and "dan jeon" (Chinese:
tan t'ien) breathing.
The future for tae kyon is uncertain at best. Both of the old masters mentioned
above have died. But constant efforts are being made to spread it throughout
Korea, and hopefully to the United States as well. Until now, attempts at gaining
publicity have met with limited success. Even during a demonstration tournament
held in June 1987 at Indiana State University, tae kyon was viewed more as
a curiosity than a martial art. However, a textbook is currently being prepared
by the Korea Tae Kyon Research Association, located in Pusan, Korea.
But those struggling to preserve this 1,500-year-old cultural inheritance are
optimistic. They believe it is the duty of the present generation to keep the
legacy of tae kyon alive, for the benefit of themselves as well as in tribute
to their ancestors.