History Of Native Korean Martial Arts

Part 1: 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.

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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 activity.

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 skills.

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 same postures.

Part 2: 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 house.

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 generations.

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 techniques.

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 known today.

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 and identity.

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.

Written by In Sun Seo