Korea’s most extensively lost history is that of her traditional martial arts. Because of the rigid neo-Confucian ideas of the last several hundred years, the attempted annihilation of Korean culture this century, and her own modern preoccupation with politics, the martial arts heritage of Korea that maintained her as an independent culture and country has been widely overlooked, forgotten, and misunderstood even by her own people. This unfortunate situation is partly due to the fact that very little of her martial arts history is accessible or remains intact, either as artifacts or records. Information that is available is inclined to be biased, altered or blatantly false. Even the accuracy of her old records tended to be influenced by the powers of the times in which they were written.
The fact that Korea is still an independent country and culture attests to the power of her traditional martial arts. The importance of this knowledge, closely guarded as secret throughout time, has often been overlooked or forgotten in the modern era. Powerful techniques were handed down through oral tradition from teacher to student for generations. Weaponry and weapon making were also passed on in this same manner. With almost nothing written to verify the oral tradition, we face an enormous problem today when investigating ancient Korean martial arts. However, we should also not overlook another important source of validation for the accuracy of Korea’s oral history: the rich oral tradition of all of Asia through which instruction in every art passed. While many Westerners give greatest credence to the printed word, Asian masters recognized that the highly trained memories of their many students were the safest repositories of knowledge. When we consider how defenseless the written word is in the hands of revisionists and censors, contrasted with the survival through to the present of ancient oral teachings, it seems wise to regard the reliability of oral history as seriously as do the great Asian teachers and cultures.
Writings on Korean history often miss the mark on martial arts. Some common examples include these statements found in contemporary martial art journals and books:
In the last few decades we have seen history rewritten in many areas where new research and deeper reexamination have shown a need for revision of entrenched perspectives. In the field of martial arts studies we find clarification is needed in many areas, particularly concerning the martial arts lineage of Korea. This is a country whose great heritage has been heavily obscured, repeatedly attacked, and where competing political and philosophical interest have stripped Korea of features of its history which they have found counter-productive to their goals. Korea’s martial arts tradition, which threatened the influence of invading ideologies, was hardest hit.
Many researchers, unaware of the extent to which recorded Korean history has been altered or destroyed, identify martial arts in Korea as essentially imported, even before the popularization of more current Japanese-based techniques. As a result, there is a conclusion fairly prevalent that there is little or no martial arts heritage indigenous to the country. This persists despite the fact that Korea shares the same reverence for the skills and accomplishments of its ancestors in every other field as do all Asian nations. In addition, the country’s capacity for distinctiveness in every aspect of its culture is widely acknowledged. Many Korean martial arts innovations have been exported and copied by her larger neighbors for centuries.
It is my hope that this book will make obvious the many facts still on record of Korea’s tremendous martial arts spirit, giving readers insight into the existence of an intrinsically Korean martial arts tradition and its unique standing as a direct product of the Korean culture and its people. As a professional martial artist committed to the passing down of Korea’s achievement in martial arts, I feel a responsibility to help bring it and its lifestyle out of the historical fog which has obscured its legitimacy. By sharing the sources and research I have gathered over many years, I believe it will become obvious that an unbroken lineage exists in Korean martial arts, that the Korean martial arts heritage is not derived or borrowed from its neighbors any more than the skills of these countries were based on imported knowledge, and that the Koreans actually were innovators in many areas of military development, including weapon-making, arms, armored warships, and the military lifestyle that was the forerunner of the samurai and bushido in Japan, to name only a few.
Furthermore, it is my goal to show that the Koreans were fighters as much as fortifiers, with a long roster of heroes who sought honor on the open battlefield and at sea, regardless of personal peril.
When investigating the origins of anything Korean, we are always at the mercy of the depleted and limited quantity of sources. The legacy of the Confucian-dominated Yi Dynasty’s disinterest and even disdain of military arts, followed by the decades of Japanese colonial repression, had a devastating impact on Korean martial arts, pushing them to the brink of extinction. Historical records that were determined to be controversial were good candidates for rewriting, for careless storage where they would deteriorate, or for outright destruction.
While the records of nearby conquering nations abound with their own specific details on martial arts, Korea’s records have what initially may appear as very peculiar gaps in this regard for a nation almost continually- and, until the 19th century, successfully- on the defensive. Despite the survival of documentation on arms from the prehistoric period forward, and of heroic legends about its armed struggles, Korean warriors have taken a back seat in modern times to those of other nations in terms of martial arts history. This was due in part to those hostile interpreters of history wanting to build up their own nation’s image or tear down Korea’s. If we go back to 12th-century Koryo (as Korea was then known) we can find another potential source of censorship that explains the scarceness of documentation from early times. Records in Korea were then in the hands of the Confucians. Being strongly anti-military, they would not have been interested in preserving many of the military records of previous times, especially as these documents contained specific information regarding combat techniques or glorifying martial arts history. The specter of these biased sources, burned manuscripts and altered texts hangs over anything Korean that passed through times of invasion and occupation. It is one of the points that make research on Korean martial arts trying and difficult.
Indigenous Korean martial arts masters themselves have, by their traditional protectiveness of the art, contributed to the shortage of available information on ancient techniques and their evolution. Manuscripts of the ancient masters were, understandably, kept hidden in the days when their art embodied the great secrets of national defense and keys to personal advancement in the military and society. It was feared they might fall into the hands of invaders, evil-doers, competitors or just the inept.
Today, many martial artists continue to closely guard what has been passed down. This is frustrating for anyone seeking the significance of the Korean style and system of martial arts throughout history. Also, because of such secrecy, scholars often prefer to ignore claims that a Korea-born body of information truly exists since they have never seen it. When Korean martial arts masters further attribute to such “invisible” manuscripts a metaphysical depth, pragmatic scholars tend to discount their existence even more.
The fact that so much energy has been put forth by so many to keep certain aspects of indigenous Korean martial arts a closely guarded secret only validates the importance of this knowledge. Further, the fact that in the past so many have tried to destroy or steal this information gives a strong indication of its importance.
There is another very significant roadblock in the way of directly determining the original nature of Korean combat methods, philosophy, and way of life. The classical Asian character writing (now identified as Chinese but once used universally throughout Asia) in which some still-surviving records were written, is very difficult to interpret. Most of the old references to Korean martial arts which have survived the trials and tribulations of Korean history cannot be translated correctly by most modern martial arts masters or scholars. Not only are they written in a difficult poetical language with very subtle meanings, but one must also be very skilled in the highest level of martial arts techniques in order to interpret them correctly. The only martial artist this author knows that can correctly translate the old poetry language is Grandmaster Suh, In Hyuk.
Beyond doubt, the most devastating blow not only to the reputation of Korean martial arts, but to its very existence, was the invasion of the Japanese and their occupation of the country at the end of the 19th century and through decades of the 20th century. Isolated by choice from the rest of the world prior to the “Occupation,” the Koreans had hidden their culture from the Western nations who had no idea of what the Imperial Japanese had set out to obliterate. The invaders remodeled martial arts in Korea to suit their own objectives, which included indoctrinating Koreans with the impression that anything Korean was inferior to its corresponding art in Japan. Since Korean martial arts were supposed to be of lesser value, various types of Japanese martial arts were introduced and Koreans were only allowed to practice those. For more than a generation most Koreans lost the connection to their martial arts heritage.
Under foreign occupation, inquiries made by visitors as to the origins of various techniques and histories were liable to be given highly biased or incorrect answers. If we examine Korean martial arts in the 20th century, for example, we quickly realize how the Japanese invasion of Korea impacted the survival of ancient references regarding the history of these arts, considered highly subversive by occupying forces. The systematic attempt of the Japanese of that era to force Koreans to surrender their national identity along with their homeland was traumatic to Korean record keeping. Undoubtedly, it resulted in the loss of many Korean research materials related to indigenous fighting arts. It has been passed down orally that to resist the Japanese during their takeover, the Koreans would rally around ideas based in their history, most prominently the “Hwarang spirit.” So we can easily imagine how invaders would consider very undesirable continued access for Koreans to any writings mentioning and supporting this martial spirit and Korea’s “Way of the Warrior.”
As part of the ongoing effort of the Japanese to erase Korean culture, the usage of the term “do” (way) entered the Korean lexicon to describe martial arts training. Its use became so common that today in the West, “do” is regarded as a Korean word to describe Korean martial arts. However, it is contrary to historical and cultural usage and does not reflect the way Koreans traditionally viewed martial arts or the place it held in their lives. (Hulbert’s History of Korea, pg. ED98)
Ancient Korean martial arts training was never referred to as a “way” but by various names, usually with words meaning “technique,” “skill” or “art.” Pre-modern records do not contain word combinations like moodo (“martial way”) and kumdo (“sword way”). Instead, pre-colonial Koreans would have used moo-yea (“martial art”) or moo-sool (“martial skill”). Kumdo (“sword way”) would have been kum-sool (“sword skill”) and yudo (“fluid way”) would have been yu-sool (“fluid skill”). The development of body and spirit required specific techniques in the Korean system, and would have been directly identified as such, not as a “way.” The original do of Hwarang-do (“flower of youth group”), correspondingly, is a character meaning “group, circle or order” rather than another character meaning “way”, which is the common method of translation today.
Another example of colonial influence may be seen by studying the development of Tae Kwon Do. Tae Kwon Do is widely believed to be a continuation of Tae Kyun and Soo Bahk Ki but evidence to the contrary has been found since the name was first used in the late 1950s and early 1960s- and after which do became identified with Korean fighting arts. Incorrect translations of the ancient text Mooye Tobo Tong-ji (An Illustrated History of Korean Martial Arts) referring to the term do is not uncommon and helps to propagate the incorrect history.
Self-serving translations have been commissioned by regimes with agendas opposed to the traditional Korean martial spirit and by individuals wishing to further their own personal interests. These have done a great disservice to Korean history by emphasizing outside influences and minimalizing indigenous culture. Understanding the colonial influence is important not as part of an argument over what style is older or better but to make clear the distinct differences of historical standing. The unique nature of the Korean fighting system and its impact on other martial arts becomes obvious only after intense research.
By logical inferences and deductions made from an abundance of evidence and clues, we hope to add to the strong case for the recognition of Korea’s original martial arts heritage and its vast contribution to her own culture. One of the more obvious indications that Korea had its own powerful and secret martial arts is the fact that it otherwise would have been annexed by an invading country centuries ago. Recognizing this provides us with a better understanding of the strength of Korea’s cultural institutions to survive regardless of adversity and despite attempts by foreign militarists of the times to erase their achievements.
Even an inference can be made to support the integrity of a unique Korean martial arts tradition by examining the consistently different styles among the Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese in other cultural areas. For example, the preservation of identity can be seen in each country’s language. In both language and performance of martial arts movements, the Korean preference is obvious for the curved and flowing joined with the straight and sudden. The Chinese language is fluid, almost flowery, much like their martial arts movement. The Japanese language is much more sharply defined in the way it is spoken which also reflects the type of movement in the Japanese martial arts.
In the modern era, with development of sophisticated weaponry, the need for martial arts to protect countries has all but vanished on battlefields. To many, an art like Korea’s may seem like an anachronism. Others, fascinated at first with its form, may eventually experience its deeper layers which are still very relevant to people in today’s world. For those who look beneath surface appearances, I have great expectation that the integrity and distinctiveness of Korean martial arts will become apparent in these pages.