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History of Korean Martial Arts
Korean martial arts can be traced to the beginning of the Ko Cho Sun (old Korean Kingdom B.C. 2333- B.C. 100). The people of this period gradually moved from cold Manchuria to the Korean peninsula in search of a better climate, fertile land for farming, river and sea shores for fishing and mild mountain terrain for hunting.
this period, tribal commune systems were established and young warriors engaged
in martial arts training in order to protect the tribes.
Empty hand fighting included training in running, throwing, punching,
striking, kicking, and swimming. Weapons
techniques included the practice of stone knife, stone spear, stone throwing,
throwing sand, and wooden pole.
Gradually, they incorporated horseback riding into their weapons training regimen. Being able to fight on horseback was a sign of an elite warrior. Lesser warriors were trained as foot soldiers and practiced empty hand and weapons techniques.
this tribal period, maik kung (bow and arrow made in Ko gu ryo) and dan kung
(bow and arrow made in Ok-Jo) we well known to China through its colony of Nak
lang, located near the China-Korea border.
The arrows heads were dipped in poison and were aimed at the victim’s
At that time, the position of King was not inherited, but awarded to the strongest warrior among the tribal confederation.
According the ancient historical text, Sam kuk yu sa, Dong Myung, the founder of the Ko gu ryo Kingdom, was an expert in archery. From the age of seven, Dong Myung made bows and arrows and trained tirelessly. As a result the future king was made a Ju Mong (expert archer) at a very early age. As a young warrior, he was a friend to one of the sons of King Kim Chung, leader of the Boo yu Confederation.
King Kim Chung's eldest son, Daiso, was wary of the young Ju Mong, and warned his father that Dong Myung was no ordinary archer, but was brave and intelligent. Daiso, with the support of his brothers and advisers to the King, warned his father that if they didn't kill Dong Myung, he maybe of threat to them in the future.
Dong Myung became aware of the plot against him, and along with his followers, left Boo yu to Jol bon ju. There the Ju Mong became King and established the Ko gu ryo Kingdom (37 BC - 668 AD). Dong Myung's son, following in father's footsteps, left Ko gu ryo for central Korea. There he founded the Paikche Kingdom in 17 BC. In 57 BC, the Silla confederation elected Park, Hyuk kuse as the first King.
The three kingdoms were continually battling one another for control of Old Korea. This period was known as the golden age of Korean martial arts. For, the rulers of each kingdom firmly believed that the way to unite Korea was through the utter subjugation of the enemy by martial force.
The three kingdoms trained all of its young in the martial arts to prepare them to serve their homelands in battle.
Also, it was during this period, when only the best martial artists were considered for service in the high ranks of the government. By this time, the title of King was inherited. The King was the commander-in-chief of the Army, with other warriors holding major military positions.
The Governor of a province were responsible for providing political and judicial leadership as well as maintaining a militia for protection and training young warriors in the martial arts.
In Ko gu ryo, the Pyung-dang (educational institution) was established to produce experienced warriors. Select superior and unmarried young people were taught martial arts as well as classical literature. The young people were required to train and study the following
1. Kung Sa – Archery
2. Kum Sul bub – Swordsmanship
3. Ki sa bub – Horsemanship
4. Dan kum Sul – Art of throwing knives
5. Ji lu ki bub – Strikes and Kicks
6. Su young bub – Swimming and combat in water
7. Pung you bub – Playing music, including the drum and gong
8. Su ryub – Hunting and fishing
9. Jung chi, ko jun – Politics and Classical Literature
Those who passed all of the required tests were designated Sun Bi, brave and intelligent warriors. This Sun Bi enjoyed the highest prestige of the social classes. They carried five short knives and a small sharpening stone.
During this period, they participated in many martial arts contests, including empty hand fighting, fighting with stones, hunting and archery. The victor received widespread recognition, and awards of distinction.
In Silla, the most outstanding group of martial artists was called Hwa rang do (young flowery group). The leaders of the groups were the handsome and intelligent sons of noble warriors. The leading young warrior was called Hwa rang, and the followers were called Nang do. Therefore, Hwa rang do means young warrior and his followers.
The groups traveled to the rugged mountain areas and to the rivers and seashores to train martial arts and produce healthy bodies and minds. Training included the study of classical literature as well as music and dance.
Through this kind of training, Silla created strong young warriors who eventually became the backbone of the area. History demonstrates that Hwa rang do warriors were a major force in the eventual unification of Korea. The Hwa rang do were required to train in the following martial arts areas:
1. Kung Sa – Archery
2. Tu ho – throws
3. Su Bak – strikes
4. Ki Sa – Archery practiced on horseback
5. Tae Kyun – kicks
6. Su Ryup – hunting and fishing
Su Young – Swimming
8. Kum Sul Bub – Swordsmanship
A very popular martial art practiced during the Silla period was Bi kak Sul, better known as Tae Kyun. According to the book Che Wang Un Ki, Bi kak Sul emphasized kicking and was divided into three grades.
The average student kicked to an opponent’s leg, advanced students kicked to an opponent’s head and experts kicked at an opponent’s sang too or the bound hair on the top of the opponent’s head.
There is also another interesting historical record on empty hand fighting. According to a section on General Kim, Yu-shin in the history book Sam kuk yu sa, in 647 A.D., General Jung Ryang’s troops were stationed in Myung Whal Castle. Queen Jin-duk’s troops occupied Whal Sung Castle.
On the night of the tenth day, a shooting star fell toward Wal Sung Castle. General Kim perceived this as a bad omen and ordered his men to construct mannequins and set them on fire. The flame from the burning figures illuminated the dark sky, which he believed countered the bad luck brought by the burning star.
King On-jo established Paikche, one of the Three Kingdoms, in 17 B.C. He was the son of King Dong Myung of the Ko gu ryo Kingdom. Marital arts were practiced and handed down from generation to generation. In 320 A.D., King Bi-Ryu ordered a martial arts training center, to be constructed west of the capital.
The King ordered his warriors to train in archery on the first and fifteenth days of each month. Contests were held once a month under the light of a full moon. The training of these warriors included, but was not limited to:
1. Ki sa – Horsemanship
2. Mok bong – wooden pole fighting
3. Kum sul – Swordsmanship
4. Su Sul – empty hand fighting
Jong da bub –
defense against attack from multiple
6. Bul bub – Buddhist sutra
7. Ko jun – Classical literature
The Su Sul (empty hand fighting) practiced in Paik che was one of the earliest and most organized martial arts in Korean history. According the history book, Hai Dong Un Ki, the master instructor used his hands like a powerful sword.
It was recorded that General Chuk taught this fighting art to his warriors. During their training, two practitioners exchanged strikes and blocks. If one partner was careless in blocking, the text stated, “The student could be severely damaged by the strike, and could die from his injuries.” Needless to say, practitioners seldom neglected to block.
According to the same book, a Silla citizen named Whang Chang-nang went to Paik che when he was seven years old. He performed a beautiful ssang kum hyung (double sword form) throughout the kingdom. Soon, he became famous and was summoned to perform for the King at the royal palace.
During his performance, he stabbed the King with his swords, but not successful in his assassination attempt. Shortly, thereafter, he was executed. In Silla, they honored Whang Chang-nang by creating masks of his face and performing the hyung(form). They passed this form down through the generations, and though modified, it is still practiced to this day.
Following the unification of the Three Kingdoms by Silla in 668 A.D., the popularity of martial arts gradually declined. And warriors no longer held the highest governmental positions as the government relied more on the civil service for leaders.
In 918, descendants of the Ko Gu Ryo and Paik che staged a coup and installed General Wang Kun as the first King of the Ko Ryo Kingdom. Ko Ryo is the name from which the west derived the name Korea.
Once again, warrior dominated the government. A later king, King Kwang-Jong realized that if the warlords remained powerful, the kingdom would not last long. He introduced the national civil service examination system in order to diminish and control the power of the warlords.
The King required sons of the warlords to study classical literature, history and political science as well as train in the martial arts. After completing and passing the civil service test, the King would employ them. Another method of maintaining control over the warlords was to arrange marriages between the royal families and the warlord families. In this way, he could manipulate the local and central warlords at the same time.
Those who passed the national civil service test were hired to work in governmental positions. They were civilians, but also possessed military powers and were called civil-military officials. When invasions or rebellions occurred, the officials served as commanders of troops in the military. Many famous generals such as Kan, Kam-chan, Yun Kwan, Kan Jo, Park Su, and Wong Jong were well-educated civil-military officials.
Another typed of soldier, were the professional warriors, hired according to their martial arts abilities. These warriors were stationed along the northern border areas to defend against the Mongolian and Manchurian barbarians. They were also stationed along the southern coastal areas to defend against Japanese pirates.
They did not enjoy the distinction of being authoritative figures during the Three Kingdom Period. They existed to receive orders from the civil-military officials and to guard the frontiers and coastal areas.
This discrimination continued during the twelfth century. Additionally, ill treatment of the professional warriors by the King and his civil-military officials increased over time. King Ye-jong was not wise enough to be a King.
He was a playboy who was only concerned with his own amusement and with visiting places of entertainment. His partying companions were civil-military officials and his bodyguards were the generals of the professional warriors. He embarrassed his warriors by making them perform the martial arts at parties. At one, Don-jung, son of the prime minister set the beard of General Chung Jung-boo on fire for amusement.
At another, a general performing su bak ki (empty hand and foot techniques) was struck in the face and pushed to the ground.
By 1170 AD,
these incidents of disgraceful treatment angered the professional warriors to
the point of seeking revenge against the King and the civil-military officials.
Their chance came when the King and his companions were partying outside
of the palace at Bo Hyun Won.
The generals of the professional warriors seized the capital. Later they arrested and executed the King and his civil-military officials. The rebellion was important lesson to the royal family and government bureaucracy.
One of the three leaders of the rebellion was General Lee, Eui-min. He was an expert in su bak ki (empty hand and foot techniques). Because of his expertise, the new King made him a special general.
After the coup, martial arts contests were held between different divisions of the military annually during the month of May. As a byproduct of the coup, each general maintained his own Sa Byung (private army) in order to protect his safety.
The private armies were secretly trained in martial arts. Some of them specialized in Too Kum Sul (Knife throwing techniques) to an opponent's knee or Jang Kum Sul (Long sword techniques) to cut an opponent's wrist.
During the Ko ryo Kingdom, one of the most prestigious martial arts training programs included training martial arts on horseback. Archery training, sword fighting, spear fighting, and hunting were high martial arts skill for the upper-class warriors and civil-military officials during this period.
The King mandated training in archery on the sixth day of each month for central and local officials. They were made to practice from a distance of forty to eighty paces from the target. Inspectors from the capital city were dispatched to the local districts to test the skill of the local officials. Officials had to hit a target a minimum of five times out of ten attempts in order to pass the inspection. A measure of expert skill was the ability to extinguish the flame of a candle at night.
As far as empty hand martial arts, Su Bak Ki was most popular. King Myung-jong (1174) was one of the kings who loved to watch this event. He ordered contests among the warriors in ghe Joong-bang group, one of the strongest martial arts groups. This group considered a part of the royal army. The winner of the contests received special military rank in addition to an award. Su Bak Ki, soon became a popular road to military promotion.
General Lee, Sung-kei was a master archer and a commander in the northern frontier. In 1394, he overthrew the Ko ryo Kingdom and established his own named Lee Cho sun or Lee Kingdom. General Lee, recognizing the danger of military power in the future, adopted Confucian concepts of superiority of civil officials over military officials, absolute loyalty to the King, and reverence for the father of the family.
He also instituted the policy of Kwa Ku or public service testing. He divided the testing into two divisions, one for civil officials and one for military officials. The Moo Kwa (test for military officials) was held at three-year intervals.
The Moo Kwa was divided into three periods, Cho Shi, Bok Shi, and Jun Shi (first, second and third test). The first test was held in the autumn at the central training facility in Seoul. One hundred twenty men from eight provinces passed the first test.
The second test was held in Seoul under the sponsorship of the defense minister. The participants were tested in various martial arts techniques, Confucianism, history, classical literature and military service. Only twenty-eight passed.
The third test was completed in the presence of the King. The results were as follows: three warriors received kap (A), five warriors received eul (B), and twenty warriors received byung (C).
At the beginning of the kwa ku system, military officials received the same treatment as civil officials. Internal struggles for the title of King among the royal families and factional struggles among civil officials in addition to long periods of non-aggression by outsiders (Manchurians and Japanese) produced a reduction of military personnel. Consequently, the importance of martial arts training diminished.
Following two hundred years of peace, Japan attacked Korea in 1592. This attack forced the Korean King to flee to the Korean-Manchurian border. The Korean people suffered during the seven years of war that followed.
The defense of the country depended heavily upon volunteer soldiers, monk soldiers, and small groups of the royal army. Martial Arts training were revitalized by the Japanese attack. Examples of the marital arts techniques that these soldiers were trained in were:
1. Kum Sul Bub – Sword Techniques
2. Kung Sul bub – Archery
3. Ha jo bub – Jumping from great heights
4. Hen jo bub – long jumping techniques
5. Jo sang bub – high jumping techniques
6. Jun ha bub – rolling techniques
7. Jo wol bub – hurdling techniques
8. Jik ju bub – running techniques
9. Su young bub – swimming techniques
10. Jam young bub – underwater swimming techniques
11. Ku jo bub – navigation techniques
12. Jin bub – battle or military strategy
13. Chuk ho tan jang bub – infiltration, espionage, intelligence gathering techniques
14. Chun moon bub – meteorological techniques
15. Eui yak Sul – medicinal and natural herbs and acupuncture techniques
The seven-year war ended with the sudden death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in August of 1598. The new Japanese leader, Togukawa Iyesu, sent an envoy to Korea with the hope of establishing normal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The Korean King, not trusting the new Japanese ruler, increased level of martial arts training. In 1790, King Jung Jo ordered Master Lee, Duk-moo to research and record the state of Korean martial arts. Master Lee wrote Mu ye Do bo Tong ji, a famous series of books containing Korean martial arts techniques. The books were organized as follows:
Book I – Chang (Spear Techniques) – Illustrated volume on the use of the long spear, bamboo spear, special types of spears and the use of weapons on horseback.
Book II – Kum (Sword Techniques) – Illustrated the use of the short sword, long sword, and Japanese sword.
Book III – Kum (Sword Techniques) – Illustrated the use of special swords on horseback and bong Sul, using the pole as a weapon.
Book IV – Kwon bub (Hand and Feet Techniques) – Illustrated the methods to use the hands and feet in offensive and defensive situations.
According to Master Lee, Duk-moo, the power of a strike to a vital point could lead to deafness; render unconsciousness or kill and opponent. The master said that if a warrior trained in these techniques and in Ki training, he would be capable of killing a tiger.
also warned that since these techniques were so dangerous, an instructor should
not teach students who could not be trusted.
It was suggested that a student was worthy to study these techniques only
after he had achieved the qualities of virtue, trust, intelligence, bravery and
Following World War II, martial arts in Korea began to boom again. In order to understand Korean martial arts history, one must first understand Korean cultural history. Korean marital arts are a major part of Korea’s cultural history. For example, to become a Zen mong, one joined a temple and became a novice.
The head monk of the temple then selected a teacher for the novice. Under this teacher, the novice received a certain amount of training. The first teacher recommended the student to a second teacher at a different temple.
Following a few years of training under the second teacher, the student was allowed to become a traveling monk and began traveling around the country. During this time, the traveling monk experienced life as he met other teachers.
After he completed his travels, the monk then settled in the temple of his choice and became a mature monk. As he grew older and wiser, he reflected on his past teachers and selected the best one of all. He then called himself a student of that teacher.
This kind of tradition is seen in the martial arts community. Students learn martial arts from different teachers. After being taught by each teacher, the student then selects his best teacher and tells others that he is a student of that teacher.
A second aspect of Korean culture is that it is a part of the Asian culture. Geographically, Korea is a peninsula located between China and Japan. Korea has served as a bridge between these two nations for thousands of years.
These people of three countries exchanged their culture by peaceful means and during times of war. Through the exchanges, the original culture Korea’s culture evolved into a second stage of a new culture. Through the generations additional influences advanced the Korean into new stages.
Korean Martial Arts history was affected in the same manner. Traditional Korean martial arts were influenced by the Chinese and Japanese and developed into new Korean martial arts. The Chinese and Japanese also experienced the same process of martial arts evolution.
Korean martial arts can be divided into three distinctive categories:
1. Empty hand vs. empty hand fighting
2. Empty hand vs. weapons fighting
3. Weapons vs. weapons fighting
There are also three ways to divide Korean martial arts techniques:
1. Kwan Jul Bub – joint twisting, throws, holding and choking
2. Dan Shin Ki Bub – striking, punching and kicking
3. Mu Ki Sul – short sword, long sword, short stick, long pole, cane, spear, rope, stone throwing, and knife throwing
There have been several stages involved in the evolution of Korean martial arts. The first stage is known as the Pioneer Stage (1945-1960). Many Korean martial arts masters, some of who trained overseas returned to Korea and exchanged ideas with the masters who remained in Korea.
The second stage is known as the Development Stage (1960-1970). During this period, each Korean martial art came under governmental control. This lead to more standardized method of teaching.
During the third stage, the Maturation Stage (1970-present), second and third generation martial artist elevated into the leadership of Korean martial arts and instituted changes in techniques and organizational structures.
At this point in history, the practice and knowledge of Korean martial arts spread throughout the world. Korean masters began to restructure the traditional techniques and philosophies to fit contemporary times.
Master Lim, Sungkon is one of those master
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