Korean Martial Arts History

The 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. As a result, 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.

Kuk Sul Do Korea Korean Martial ArtsIn ancient times, as Korean began to develop as an agricultural society, clan units merged together into tribal units, and a clear distinction between the leaders and the followers came about. Feuds and struggles with other tribal units naturally resulted. Under these conditions, individuals sought 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 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.

Unfortunately, there are few detailed accounts of ancient Korean martial arts in existence today. However, an 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. Ancient texts, wall paintings, 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 people posed in strange postures confronting others in similar postures.  The empty-handed martial arts of today still use these very same postures.

It is 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.  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 endowed 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 for 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.

The development of Korean martial arts blossomed throughout the Three Kingdoms Period and on through to the establishment of the United Silla Dynasty. Thereafter, martial arts experienced a decline as a result of a stabilized government and a society at peace. 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, 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. This marked the beginning of the Koong-Joong Mu-Sol (Royal Court Martial Arts), which were kept out of the reach of the common people. These Royal Court Martial Arts 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 founder of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) was Yi Song-Gye.  He seized the throne through military power. Well aware of the threat of being overthrown himself, Yi imposed tight restrictions on 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, people 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 amazing fighting techniques.

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?  It is obvious that each of these individuals who led militia at that time had undergone rigorous physical discipline and martial art training. There must have been either textbooks containing secret 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.

During the reign of Sunjo (14th King of Yi 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 Yi 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.