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
During 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.
The invention of archery and the employment of horseback riding greatly changed
the lifestyles of the early tribes. Warriors on horseback now traveled greater
distances to hunt and came into more contact with the neighboring tribes. The
tribes formed a confederation. And through this merger came standardization in
methods of martial arts training and the creation of a martial arts system.
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
During 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 eyes.
The ever-present threat of invasion from neighboring tribes forced young
warriors to accept martial arts training as essential to the survival of his
tribe and as a part of his daily life. The winner of the battle became ruler and
the loser became the slave. In considering tribal structure, the ruler was
always the best martial arts master.
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
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
7. 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
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
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
5. Jong da bub : defense against attack from multiple attackers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
He 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 discipline.
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
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
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.
One of these masters was Master Lim, SungKon