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 Dharma, 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 which 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 which existed, there have
been different kind 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 these types of stone weapons were used by Korea's
forefathers 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 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 which 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.
But 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 is 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 which
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 which 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, 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 which are employed while
facing an enemy. The empty-handed martial arts of today still use these
very same postures.
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 which 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) which 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 the gods were moved by Kim
Yu-Shin's diligent training. A heavenly figure appeared to him and
bestowed upon him an engraved sword and some special texts. It is them
said that these celestial gifts helped Kim Yu-Shin carry out his great
task of unifying the Korean peninsula.
There are also tale 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
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
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 which 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 which 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 which 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 7 curricula
offered. However, it only increased the friction between civil officials
and military officials and the "mu-hak" course ended up being one in
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 Joseon 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 Joseon Dynasty was also
closely patterned after and, for the most part, a continuation of the Koryo civilization.
The founder of the Josen 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
Even the sports of today which 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 which 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 Joseon 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
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.
The classification of different types of martial arts as
various kinds of "Do" is a Japanese way of thinking. In Korea, on the
other hand, the martial arts have been recognized traditionally as being
either "Ki" ("skill"), "Sool"("art, method"), or "Kiyae" ("mechanical
art"). That is to say, Koreans looked upon martial arts as either a
means of fighting or as method of developing the mind and body.
Examination of the ancient Korean historical records reveal
that such terms as "moo-do", "koong-do", or "gum-do" were not so much as
once used. It was only after the middle of the Japanese colonial rule in
Korea that the term "do" first appeared in Korean records. In Korea, "mu-yae"
or "moo-sool" were traditionally used instead of "moo-do". In the same
way, "koong-sa" (bow shooting), or "koong-sool" (bow technique) were
used by Koreans instead of "koong-do". In addition, "yoo-sool" was used
in Korea, not "yoo-do".
After the Korean liberation from Japan (August 15, 1945),
Korean martial arts (i.e. "moo-yae" or "moo-sool") spread rapidly
throughout the country. Classical Korean martial art techniques, which
had been hidden, one by one surfaced and became publicly known. The
reason for this rapid public disclosure of secret arts stems from the
rivalry that developed between each proponent of some individual martial
art form. That is, individual masters of their own particular martial
art techniques tried to show theirs to be the "superior" Korean martial
However, the majority of these martial art skills to
surface at this time were not organized systematically and were nothing
more than individual techniques. Hence, after a brief flurry of
activity, many of these arts ended up fading out of sight again.
Although these classical Korean martial arts were
highly-developed, I suspect the reason for their disappearance were
either because of the difficulty of adapting them practically to the
needs of the modern society, or because they weren't something which
could be made into sports.
1985. 9. 25
In Sun Seo (Official 10th Dan)
Korea KiDo Federation