Hand-to-hand combat is as old as the human race, and the different fighting styles that prevailed in different regions of the world took generations to evolve. In Western culture one is reminded how old the fighting arts are by the story of the Greek boxers, Greugas and Damoxenus about 400 B.C. who fought a death match in which Damoxenus killed Greugas with an open handed spear strike under the arm. More sophisticated fighting techniques developed as warfare became more organized and fighting styles popular in one region evolved and spread to other parts of the world, modified and influenced by the different cultures and traditions. But only in Asia did different styles of empty-handed combat become an art regarded as secrets of the state or harbored within the walls of the religious monasteries.

The roots of what is now known as HWA RANG DO ® {The Way of the Flowering Manhood} began over 2000 years ago and continued through the Silla Dynastic Period and Koryo Dynasty. Initially, the young people, of what later became Korea, would gather in groups to test themselves and each other. These unified groups of young people wee the predecessors of the HWA RANG.

In the year 540 A.D. a new monarch by the name of King Chinhung came to power in Silla. Then followed a long period of wars of expansion with the larger kingdoms to the north. But before the northern kingdoms were engaged, King Chinhung took on the task of driving out the Japanese colonies to the south and annexed the portion of the Kaya league which was in alliance with the Yamato clan of Japan. Ten years later, King Chinhung turned his armies onto the fertile valleys in central Korea, between the Han and Imjin Rivers. The conquest of Han-Imjin river area brought great wealth to Silla through the acquisition of the richest agricultural lands in the peninsula, military service and labor of the peasantry; this conquest also opened an easier route to China through the capture of the ports on the Yellow Sea. The acquisition of iron mining regions meant new technological gains that would foretell greater expansion by the Kingdom of Silla.

One of the most significant acts by King Chinhung was the incorporation of the society called Hwa Rang into his
military service. Organized groups of youths went to the mountains, rivers and other places of natural beauty to learn to develop patience, mental and emotional control, artistic pursuits coupled with martial art training. Through the development of strong mental, physical and spiritual training they were taught to act as models of cultures and
chivalrous warriors. They were Silla’s elite warriors. They were called Hwa Rang {Flowering Knights}, and were young men who exemplified the warrior-intellectual that influenced Korean history for many centuries. A 13th century monk recorded that King Chinhung had “issued a decree and chose boys from good families who were of good morals and renamed them Hwa Rang. Sor Won was the first to be admitted as KUK SON {or, General}. This was the beginning of the Hwa Rang.”

Besides religious instruction, the Hwa Rang were taught dance, literature, the arts and sciences. They were also taught the art of warfare, archery, self defense skills etc. Based upon the concept of the unity of opposites embodied in the um-yang, the empty-handed fighting techniques were known for their blending of the hard and soft, linear and circular attacks. A linear thrust punch could break through the wooden armor of an opponent and kill him instantly. They could spin kick at such speeds that their enemies frequently thought that the feet of Hwa Rang warriors were swords. The eighth century Silla historian, Kim Taemun, noted in his Hwa Rang chronicle. “Sagacious counselors and loyal ministers follow the Hwa Rang and flower; they produce great generals and brave soldiers.” The rank of Hwa Rang signified the position of a teacher of the martial arts and he commanded 500 to 5,000 students, who were called Rang Do. A Kuk Son possessed the rank of general in the army. The ferocious fighting spirit of the Hwa Rang warrior became legendary, and their exploits were recorded for posterity in Hwa Rang poetry and literature. The Hwa Rang narratives of the Silla dynasty became the basis of the classical novel that formed the backbone of Korean literature for a thousand years.

One of the most famous stories eulogized by Hwa Rang literature is the martyrdom of the son of General P’umil, who died in the wars of unification. Kwan Chang was a Hwa Rang commander at the age of 16. He was captured during a battle with Paekche, one of the northern kingdoms. Since his high ranking battle crest indicated he was the general’s son, he was taken before the Paekche general. Lifting his war helmet, the Paekche general was taken aback at his youth. thinking of his own young son, he decided against execution which was the usual fate of the captured officers, and returned him to Silla lines. Kwan Chang went before his father and asked that he be sent back into battle at the head of his men. General P’umil agreed. He was captured after a day-long battle, but after he was disarmed, he broke loose from his guards, killing both of them by hand and attacked the Paekche general’s second in command. A leaping, spinning heel kick killed the commander as he sat on his horse, afull eight feet in the air. Finally subdued, he was taken before the Paekche general. Much distressed over the loss of his chief commander, he told Kwan Chang, “I gave you your life once because of your youth, but now you return to take the life of my best field commander.” This time the Paekche general returned the boy’s head attached to the saddle of his war horse. At the Silla line, General P’umil grasped his son’s head and wiped off the blood with his sleeve. “My son’s face is as when he was alive,” he shouted to his men. He was able to die in the service of the king. There is nothing to regret.” The King rode back into battleto defeat the Paekche general and the story became legendary in the Korean culture.

Heroic legends of the Hwa Rang warriors were preserved in many forms: dances, poetry and literature. They were told and retold from one generation to another and provided an example for the young of each generation to follow. The fighting spirit of the Silla warriors was so widely known that even the most powerful enemies hesitated to attack.

One of the most famous stories that illustrates the respect that the country of Tang {as China was known in this
period} had for the people of Sillais told about the young Hwa Rang general named Yoo Shin Kim. General Kim was 15 at the time he became a commander in the army. Some years later China and Silla were in an alliance in a war against Paekche. The Silla armies had engaged Paekche in a battle and defeated them. But the battle had taken several days and it caused the Silla commander, Moon Kyung Kim, to be late for a meeting with the Chinese general, who was the top commander in this temporary alliance.

The Hwa Rang commander and General Kim went before the Chinese General Jung Bang So, to report the good news of their victory. But General So wanted to punish the Silla Commander for his disobedience and late arrival. He ordered his execution. Suspecting treachery, that China’s real intentions were to first take Paekche and then turn on Silla, General Kim spoke out angrily, “Are we your allies or your slaves?” Then in a burst of fury he exploded, “I will first fight with your army and then we will defeat Paekche.” Yoo Shin Kim’s sword rose from its scabbard by itself into his hand and he was about to take the life of the Chinese general. It was thought in those times that the sword was the soul of the warrior and that it followed the mnd of its master. Seeing this, General So was taken with fright. He quickly apologized to General Kim and rescinded the order of execution.

Paekche was defeated and Silla prepared for a war with China. But General So was afraid to attack Silla and returned to China. Asked by the Emperor why he had not taken Silla also, General So said, “it is true that Silla is a small country, but their King is very wise and the generals are fierce and loyal. All the people are united in a strong camaraderie. He repeated the incident with the Hwa Rang commander and said, “they are small, but we cannot defeat them.”

Another story which revealed the depth of familial bonds of the Silla period concerned the death of General Bi Yeng Ja. Asked by General Kim to lead a suicide attack against a large Chinese force. Bi Yeng ja replied,” You have given me a great honor to show loyalty to my king and country.” He then requested that the general watch over his son and prevent him from following him into battle. Since Bi Yeng Ja had only one son, he was concerned that his family name live another generation. General Kim assured him that he would watch over his son. Bi Yeng Ja entered battle and was killed. Upon witnessing the death of his father, the son mounted his horse and followed his father into battle and was killed. Then followed the house manager and servant. The whole Silla army witnessed this act of loyalty and, swept with a wave of sympathy for this act of sacrifice, charged into battle to avenge the death of the Bi family. They defeated the Chinese armies and saved Silla from almost certain conquest.

Fraternal loyalties among Hwa Rang warriors were frequently as strong as familial ties. Sa Da Ham was 15 years old when he became a Hwa Rang under King Chinhung. In a war with the Northern kingdoms, Sa Da Ham pleaded with the King that he be allowed to lead the first attack. In spite of Sa’s young age, the King consented so as to demonstrate the bravery of the Hwa Rang youth. Sa Da Ham led the army into battle against a fortress and he was the first to breach the gate. For his bravery, King Chinhung gave him 300 slaves from the defeated army, but Sa Da Ham gave them their liberty and wished no personal rewards for his deeds.

In this war, Sa Da Ham lost his closest comrade, Moo Kwan Rang. From early childhood the two young friends had a death pact that obliged each to commit suicide should one or the other die in battle. Sa Da ham heard of his friend’s death and fell into remorse and mourning. He refused to eat or sleep for seven days. He died on the seventh, and his sacrifice was eulogized in Hwa Rang novels for centuries to come.

The story of Won Sool, the second son of Yoo Shin Kim, commander of the Silla army, is similar in its import. Won Sool was a lieutenant in the army when it suffered a defeat at the hands of Chinese troops. Upon his return, his father requested permission from King Moon Moo to execute his son for the disgrace he brought on the family and the country. But King Moon Moo replied that the boy was not in command and therefore was not responsible for the defeat. But the father banished his son into exile in the mountains as a monk. When the father died Won Sool came back down from the mountain to face his mother, but she refused to see him replying that she would not violate the father’s command. Won Sool returned to Tae Bak mountain. Some years later China launched another war. Won Sool heard of the impending war and returned to the King to request that he be allowed to enter the battle. He was given a command and performed brilliantly. King Moon Moo wanted to reward him, but Won Sool refused, saying that his family held him in shame and that he could not accept. He returned to his mountain once again to live out his life as a hermit monk.

These stories, which became part of the Korean folklore and heroic legend, were not idle fairy tales, but models of the martial code of chivalry. This code evolved into a system of ethics and morailty which was essential to the warrior’s mentality. The ego and self-interest was never sufficient to sustain such a commitment.

The development of a code of ethical behavior was achieved by Won Kwang Bopsa. Two young Hwa Rang - Kwi San and Chu Hang, sought out the monk and asked him for commandments that men, who could not embrace the secluded life of a monk, could uphold. The commandments were divided into five rules and nine virtues called Hwa Rang O Kae and Hwa Rang Kyo Hoon.

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