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Korean Martial Art

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Korean Martial Art

Korean martial arts (Hangul: 무술 or 무예, Hanja: 武術 or 武藝) are Military practices and methods which have their place in the history of Korea but have been adapted for use by both military and non-military personnel as a method of personal growth or recreation. Among the best recognized Korean practices using weapons are traditional Korean Archery and Kumdo, the Korean sword sport similar to Japanese Kendo. The best known unarmed Korean Martial Arts Taekwondo and Hapkido though such traditional practices such as ssireum - Korean Wrestling - and taekkyeon - Korean Foot Fighting - are rapidly gaining in popularity both inside and outside of the country. In November 2011, Taekkyeon was recognized by UNESCO and placed on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.[1] There has also been a revival of traditional Korean swordsmanship arts as well as knife fighting and archery. Today, Korean martial arts are being practiced worldwide. More than one in a hundred of the world's population practices some form of taekwondo.


Early history

Further information: Subak and Taekkyeon

Wrestling, called ssireum, is the oldest form of ground fighting in Korea. While, subak/taekkyeon was the foot soldiers upright martial art. Weapons being an extension of those unarmed skills. Both Tradition martial arts, besides being used to train soldiers, were also popular among villagers during festivals for dance, mask, acrobatics, and sport fighting. These martial arts were also basic physical education. Koreans, as with the neighbouring Mongols, relied more heavily on bows and arrows in warfare than they did on close-range weapons.[2]

It appears that during the Goguryeo dynasty, (37 BC – 668) subak/taekkeyon or ssireum (empty-handed fighting), swordsmanship, spear-fighting and horse riding were practiced. Paintings showing martial arts were found in 1935 on the walls of royal tombs, believed to been built for Goguryeo kings, sometime between 3 and 427. Which techniques were practiced during that period is however something that cannot be determined from these paintings. References to subak can be found in government records from the Goguryeo dynasty through the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).

It is believed that the warriors from the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-668 AD) learned subak from the neighboring Goguryeo armies when they appealed for their help against invading Japanese pirates. Practicing subak became part of the training for Silla's hwarang, and this contributed to the spread of subak on the Korean peninsula.

The Buddhist influence on the hwarang is most notably seen around 600 AD when the moral code Sae Sok O-Gye (세속오계), written by Won Kwang (원광, 圓光), consisting of five rules were documented:[3]

  • 사군이충 / 事君以忠 – Loyalty to one's king.
  • 사친이효 / 事親以孝 – Respect to one's parents.
  • 교우이신 / 交友以信 – Faithfulness to one's friends.
  • 임전무퇴 / 臨戰無退 – Courage in battle.
  • 살생유택 / 殺生有擇 – Justice in killing.

The development of Subak continued during the Goryeo Dynasty (935–1392). Goryeo records that mention the martial arts always include passages about SUBAK. The Joseon government, however, outlawed the practice of SUBAK as a public spectacle in response to the large numbers of Korean farmers and landowners whose betting practices included wagering land and sometimes family members. As a concession to public pressure, the government allowed a lesser practice - Taekkyeon games - be used as a form of civilian recreation. Joseon Dynasty records and books often mention taekkyeon, and taekkyeon players are portrayed on several paintings from that era. The most famous painting is probably the Daegwaedo (Hangul: 대괘도, Hanja: 大快圖), painted in 1846 by Hyesan Yu Suk (혜산 유숙, 1827–1873), which shows men competing in both ssireum (씨름) and taekgyeon.

Joseon era manuals

During the Imjin War (1592–1598), Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched the conquest of China's Ming Dynasty by way of Korea. However, after two unsuccessful campaigns towards the allied forces of Korea and China and his death, his forces returned to Japan in 1598. but with heavy loss of men and cultural heritage. It was also during this war that the famous turtle ships (Geobukseon, 거북선) were used by Admiral Yi Sun-sin. These ships were covered with metal shields, much like the shell of a turtle, which could withstand the gun attacks of the Japanese. This was the first iron armoured ship in naval history.

In 1593, Korea received help from China to win back Pyongyang. During one of the battles, the Koreans learned about a martial art manual titled Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書), written by the Chinese military strategist Qi Jiguang. King Seonjo (1567–1608) took a personal interest in the book, and ordered his court to study the book. This led to the creation of the Muyejebo (무예제보, Hanja: 武藝諸譜) in 1599 by Han Gyo, who had studied the use of several weapons with the Chinese army. Soon this book was revised in the Muyejebo Seokjib and in 1759, the book was revised and published at the Muyesinbo (Hangul: 무예신보, Hanja: 武藝新譜).[4]

In 1790, these two books formed the basis, together with other Korean, Chinese, and Japanese martial art manuals, of the richly illustrated Muyedobotongji (Hangul: 무예도보통지, Hanja: 武藝圖譜通志). The book does not refer to taekkyeon, but shows influences from Chinese and Japanese fighting systems. Though Taekkyeon was still the core martial art training of all Royal Korean Military. The book, deals mostly with armed combat like sword fighting, double-sword fighting, spear fighting, stick fighting, and so on. The chapter that deals with a style of empty-handed fighting called kwonbeop ("fist methods," a generic name for empty-handed combat; the word is the Korean pronunciation of quanfa) shows techniques that resemble Chinese martial arts—quite different from taekkyeon. According to the Muyedobotongji, empty-handed combat should be learned before armed combat, since it forms the basis of a martial education. It also states that internal styles are better suited for fighting than external styles. The interest in domestic Korean martial arts began to decline during the later Joseon Dynasty, under the influence of Neo-Confucianism. The name for the martial arts of the Muyedobotongji is shippalgi.

However, much of Korean history has been destroyed over the last two thousand years. The Mongolians sacked the peninsula numerous times, burning all. What few Korean records that have survived must be compared to Japanese and Chinese history for accurate inference.

Modern Korean martial arts

Native Korean martial arts were banned during the period of Japanese occupation but survived through underground teaching and folk custom.

This does not mean that Korean martial arts from before the occupation completely disappeared. Masters of several styles survived the occupation or continued teaching their art even though the Japanese had put a ban on it. Taekgyeon had survived as a folk game and has grown in popularity in recent years. Also the techniques of the Muyedobotongji have survived the occupation and martial arts like shippalgi enjoy a renewed interest.

It should also be considered that Korean martial arts are still in a state of evolution as witnessed by recently emerging arts such as Tukong/Teukong Moosul and Youngmudo. There is now also the development of Korean arts influenced by Western boxing, Muay Thai or Judo, these would include Gongkwon Yusul and Kyuktooki.

It is also important to note that speaking about martial arts in terms of them being Chinese, Japanese or Korean is something that is from recent times[dubious ] and has grown this way under the influence of nationalistic views.

Types of Korean martial arts


Taekwondo (태권도; 跆拳道) is undoubtedly the runaway success amongst the Korean martial arts. It is practised by over 7 million people, in most countries of the world. As a sport, it is an event in every major, multi-sports games, including the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games and the World University Games.

Taekwondo is a synthesis from many different martial arts (both Korean and foreign) and is constantly evolving, taking the best of other arts and adapting them. Its popular success is undoubtedly due to this eclectic and scientific approach (as opposed to the metaphysical approach and Oriental mysticism of some[which?] other martial arts) and to the group efforts of the many Korean masters who created it. (Contrary to some versions of history, taekwondo was not created by one individual but by collaboration between the various Kwans or schools of martial arts in Korea.)


Main article: Taekkyeon

The oldest Korean martial art was an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje.[5] Young men were trained in unarmed combat techniques to develop strength, speed, and survival skills. The most popular of these techniques was subak, with taekkyeon being the most popular of the segments of subak.

As the Goguryeo kingdom grew in power, the neighboring Silla kingdom became comparatively weaker, and an effort was undertaken among the Silla to develop a corps of special warriors. The Silla had a regular army but its military training techniques were less advanced than those of the Goguryeo, and its soldiers were generally of a lesser caliber. The Silla selected young men, some as young as twelve, and trained them in the liberal arts. Those who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in the new special warrior corps, called the hwarang. It was believed that young men with a talent for the liberal arts may have the grace to become competent warriors. These warriors were instructed in academics as well as martial arts, learning philosophy, history, a code of ethics and equestrian sports. Their military training included an extensive weapons program involving swordsmanship and archery, both on horseback and on foot, as well as lessons in military tactics and unarmed combat.

In spite of Korea's rich history of ancient and traditional martial arts, Korean fighting methods faded into obscurity during the Joseon Dynasty. Korean society became highly centralized under Korean Confucianism and martial arts were lowly regarded in a society whose ideals were epitomized by its scholar-kings.[6] Remnants of traditional martial arts like taekkyeon were banned from practice by the general populace and reserved for sanctioned military uses although folk practice by the common populace still persisted into the 19th century. .[5]

Although the art nearly vanished, taekkyeon survived through underground teaching and folk custom.[7] The Japanese colonial government totally prohibited all folkloric games including taekkyeon in the process of suppressing the Korean people. Taekkyeon had been secretly handed down only by the masters of the art until the liberation of the country in 1945. Song Duk-ki, one of the then masters, was still alive at the age of over 80 and testified that his Widea Taekkyeon master was Im Ho, who was reputed for his excellent skills, "jumping over the walls and running through the wood just like a tiger." Im Ho was known as a scholar and undefeatable in Seoul. Also noteworthy was the use of the term "pum" which signified a face-to-face stance preparing for a fight. The masters of Taekkyeon were also under constant threat of imprisonment, which resulted in an eventual cessation of Taekkyeon as popular games.

Taekkyeon has had a slight resurgence in recent days, getting the classification Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea No. 76" on June 1, 1983. It is the only Korean martial art which possesses such a classification. In November 2011 Taekkyeon was inscribed onto UNESCO's Intangible World Heritage Artforms list, being honored as the first martial art recognized by UNESCO.

Hapkido arts

Main article: Hapkido

Though various forms of grappling have been known in Korea for generations, Hapkido is essentially a 20th-century development, based on Japanese Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu but incorporating Korean striking techiques. The foundation for Hapkido was established by Choi Yong Sul. Returning from Japan in 1946, Choi began teaching material reportedly taught to Choi by Sokaku Takeda. Choi called his style Yawara [柔], but modified the name to Hapki Yusul [合氣 柔術] and later to Hapki Yukwonsul [合氣 柔拳術] to distinguish it from Japanese aiki-jujutsu, which was written in the same characters, and from which much of the early hapkido techniques were derived. Choi's practices were later renamed to Hapkido [合氣道] and students of Choi Yong Sul, such as Ji Han Jae, the late HAN Bong Soo, the late MYUNG Kwang Sik and others helped to spread this art both inside and outside of Korea. Since the hanja are identical to those of Aikido, it is very common that Japanese Aikido and Korean Hapkido are often confused and stylistic differences do cause these separate arts to approximate each other in many ways. In like manner, some variants of Hapkido such as Kuksool, Hwarangdo and Hanmudo have adopted a range of Chinese practices and execution.

Along with Taekwondo, Hapkido has helped to revitalize traditional Korean martial arts by providing systemization and incorporating into other styles. This process complemented the other modern Korean martial art, Taekwondo.

Weapon arts

Please see:

Korean swordsmanship



Revived arts

There are also many modern Korean martial arts that are recompilations or reorganizations of techniques from traditional or imported arts. Some relied on manuals like the Muyejebo and Muyedobotongji. Many of these arts visually appear to have more of a Chinese influence than other Korean martial arts, except for taekgyeon.

Additionally, it is not clear who created these arts in the first place in their most ancient form—often, exponents of Korean martial arts argue that Korea in fact created these arts in ancient times, which then passed over to Japan, and then were later re-imported back to Korea. Historically, many cultural features, including Chinese calligraphy, Buddhism, pottery techniques, city design, and political systems, were transmitted from China to Korea, and in modified form, retransmitted to Japan and back to China . As with other adjacent cultures, constant borrowings and adaptations in various directions make claims of origin very difficult to prove.

The Korean martial arts that may today be viewed as being traditional (as opposed to modern Korean martial arts) are Taekkyeon and a handful of others including gwonbeop, subyokchigi, subak, ssireum, and various weapon-based styles. Taekkyeon is the only Korean martial art that received the status of 'intangible cultural asset' (no. 76) from the Korean government.

Teaching methods

The traditional Taekkeyon system has no fixed curriculum. Every student is treated individually and thus the lesson is always different, although all of the basic skills are eventually covered. The basic skills are taught in temporary patterns, that evolve as the student learns. Basic skills are expounded on and variations of each single skill are then practised, in multiple new combinations. When the student has learned all the variations of the basic movements & techniques, and can intermix all of them proficiently, they're encouraged to perform the Taekkyeon Dance. Taekkyeon is a Ten-year technique.

Modern Korean martial arts' systemization and presentation are very similar to their Japanese counterparts (i.e., barefoot, with uniforms, classes executing techniques simultaneously by following the teacher's commands, and sometimes, showing respect by bowing to a portrait of the founder and/or to national flags). Many modern Korean martial arts also make use of colored belts to denote rank, tests to increase in rank, and the use of Korean titles when denoting the teacher. These include:

  • Kyosanim: teacher.
  • Sabeomnim (사범님 / 師範님): Master instructor.
  • Kwanjangnim (관장님 / 館長님): training hall owner/ kwan leader.
  • Dojunim (도주님 / 道主님): keeper of the way.

These Korean terms are based on Confucian rank systems (with the same Chinese characters). Many schools also make use of Korean terminology and numbers during practice, even if located outside of [South] Korea.


Korean martial arts are usually practiced in a dojang (도장), which may also be referred to as cheyukkwan (체육관 / 體育館, i.e., gymnasium). The practitioners wear a uniform or dobok (도복) with a belt or tti (띠) wrapped around it. This belt usually shows which grade the practitioner has attained. A student usually starts with a white belt and moves through a range of colored belts (which differ from style to style) before reaching the black belt. The grades before black belt are referred to as geup or kup (급), while the grades of black belts are referred to as dan (단). In some cases, students less than 16 years old are not given dan grades, but rather "pum" or poom (품) or "junior black belt" grades. Some styles use stripes on the black belt to show which dan the practitioner holds. It is common for a system to have nine geup grades and nine dan grades. While it might only take a few months to go from one geup to the next, it can take years to go from one dan to the next. Most of the above terms are identical to those used in Japanese styles such as judo and karate, but with the Chinese characters read in Korean pronunciation, with a few exceptions (dobok and tti have been altered to fit the Korean language).

In some styles, like taekgyeon, the hanbok is worn instead of a dobok. The v-neck of many styles of taekwondo uniform was supposedly fashioned after the hanbok, but may simply be a modification for a pullover top to accommodate the modesty of female practitioners (standard jacket construction often requires females to wear a T-shirt, leotard, or sport bra underneath the jacket, whereas the pullover v-neck jacket does not).


Further reading

  • Kim, S. H. (2001): Muye Dobo Tongji. Turtle Press.

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