TaeKyon History

The History & Development Of Tae Kyon  - By Robert Young(2001/09/14)

The origins and histories of the Korean martial arts have long been subjects of heated debate. Proponents of nearly every style claim theirs is the one historical art of the Korean people, but very few can prove their lineages reach more than fifty or sixty years back into the nation's history. Instead of offering tangible proof or logical argument to support their stories modern Korean masters rely upon oral histories passed from teacher to student. When one considers Korea's fierce nationalism and its general attitude that Korean culture is superior to all others, especially that of Japan, reliance upon word-of-mouth does not suffice in these matters.

Although Korea has valiantly struggled to retain its own identity while enduring the cultural onslaught of neighboring China and Japan, many more cross-cultural influences have occurred than most Koreans will
ever admit. A great deal of Korea's culture, including much of its martial arts prowess, originated in China. Additional mainland influences came to the peninsula early in the thirteenth century when
Mongolian armies invaded and occupied Korea for more than 150 years ( Han, 1970:179 ). When the Mongols left, many of their customs and military technologies stayed behind. Among the lesser
known Chinese and Mongolian influences are the Buddhist martial arts, Mongolian wrestling, and Mongolian archery (Lee Y.B., 1988, interview).

Contrary to what is generally believed in the West and vehemently argued in Korea, most so-called Korean martial arts are not original creations. A few owe their existence to skills imported from
neighboring China during the past several hundred years, but most grew out of Japan's turn-of -the-century occupation (Lee Y.B., 1992, interview).

Concerning Korean martial arts during the post-World War II developmental period, Y.H. Park writes, For many years, a variety of Korean martial arts styles existed throughout the country. These styles varied from one another according to the influence each had absorbed from the numerous Chinese and Japanese styles... (1989:4).

Seo Un-sun writes that, after World War II, Korean martial artists tried to revive Korean martial arts ... but due to the heavy influence of the Japanese, many of these arts basically imitated Japanese
movements and names (1987:44). These writers are the exception; most other Koreans refuse to admit any Japanese influence whatsoever. 46

A few martial arts scholars in Korea defy mainstream opinion and openly postulate that subak (Soo Bahk), the only fighting art mentioned in Korea's oldest records, was an ancient, comprehensive
system with roots in northern China. Evidence supporting the contention that subak originated outside Korea is provided by Chinese records that list sho buo (Chinese pronunciation of subak) as an ancient martial art in the northern part of the country (Xu, 1989, interview).

Probably within the past two thousand years, subak spread into Korea and found rapid acceptance first in the military and then in the populace. Once established in Korea, the system became divided into striking skills called tae kyon and grappling skills called yu sul (yoo sool), and the two subsets eventually formed separate martial arts.

Evidence suggest that yu sul may have influenced the development of Japanese jujutsu ( yu sul and jujutsu are written with the same Chinese characters ) but then died out on the Korean peninsula
Draeger & Smith, 1969:76 ). Tae kyon survives as the only fighting system descended form the ancient art of subak.


During the millennium from about 500 B.C. to about A.D. 500, great advances in human thought and civilization took place: Lao Zi and Confucius philosophized in China, the Buddha taught in India, and
Jesus Christ preached in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, masters of most Korean martial arts claim their style's history dates from this period of great human creativity. As soon as one style puts forth such a historical statement, other arts are forced to do the same, for to say otherwise would be to admit that a competing style is more traditional, and, in the eyes of the public, more legitimate.

In his authoritative text titled Su Bak Do Dae Gam, Hwang Kee, founder of modern subak-do/tang soo do, captioned a full-page photo of Baekdusan, a volcanic mountain on the border of North Korea and China, with the statement that Tan'gun, the ancestor of the Korean people, had taught young Koreans kwon bak, a forerunner of subak ( 1970:14 ).

Scholars generally believe, however, that Tan'gun never even existed. Historian Han Woo-keun calls Tan'gun the mythical progenitor of the Korean people (1970:12). Author Robert Nilsen wrote that the
legend of Tan'gun tells of the ancient ancestor's birth in 2333 B.C. after a god changed a bear into a woman and impregnated her.

That Hwang, respected author and head of a worldwide martial arts organization, could make such a statement illustrates and important aspect of the Korean character and its penchant for making exaggerated historical statements. We can see how absurd claims are pushed further and further back into history, in this case more than 5,300 years, in an attempt to outdo the competition. All corroboration or, at the very least, testimony from people who are not promoting their own martial arts.

From this perspective we will examine Korean martial arts throughout the ages.

It should be noted that many Korean writers use the terms subak and tae kyon somewhat interchangeably when describing martial arts prior to the Yi Dynasty. In reality, subak is the correct term for the martial art of this period because the name tae kyon was not recorded until the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Over the centuries, subak has been called subak-hi, subak-ki, and subyeokta; tae kyon has been knows as tak kyeon, gak-hi, gak-sul, and bigak-sul (Song,1983:19).

Further illustrating the way some Koreans imprecisely apply one style name to other martial arts is Hwang Kee's use of the term subak-ki to describe the martial arts of historical Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, India, and China. The English translation of his book uses the term tang soo do because that appellation is more popular in the West. In this article, the term subak will be used until the period when historical records specifically name tae kyon. 47


Researchers generally believe subak was first practiced in Korea in the northern regions of the Koguryo Dynasty (37 B.C.-A.D. 668). The territory, extending hundreds of miles north of the Yalu River, now forms part of Chinese Manchuria. Early in the twentieth century, Shin Chae-ho (1880-1936), a Korean scholar exiled to China, wrote that Koguryo people practiced subak, swordsmanship, spear-fighting, and horseriding (Lee Y.B., 1990:38).

In 1935 archaeologists discovered proof of ancient martial arts in several burial mounds near the town of Jian in China's Jilin province. It is now believed the tombs were erected by Koguryo dynasty Koreans between 3 and 427. The oldest physical evidence of martial arts in Korea is painted on the walls of three of these tombs: Gak Jeo Chong, Sam Shil Chong, and Mu Yong Chong (Oh, 1991:7).

Richard Chun writes that the murals indicate that people of the Koguryo Dynasty practiced subak as a martial art (1975:10). Y.H. Park agrees: Evidence of the practice of tae kyon [subak] has been found in paintings on the ceiling of the Mu Yong Chong, a royal tomb from the Koguryo dynasty (1989:1). Choi Hong-hi, the father of modern taekwondo and a noted scholar of Korean martial arts, writes that the mural in Gak Jeo Tomb was painted during the reign of the tenth king of Koguryo and showed subak sparring (1972:18).

Despite depictions in tomb art and occasional mentions in government records, scholars have been unable to determine exactly what techniques or fighting methods comprised subak. Records of the Koguryo Dynasty, most of which were not written until the Yi Dynasty (1932-1910), suffer from a lack of detail. Tomb paintings show generic poses and primitive techniques not easily identified as part of any modern martial art (Song, 1983:17).

The evidence indicates empty-hand fighting arts were practiced in Koguryo, but we cannot know for certain what they were or how closely they are related to modern styles. 48

The History & Development of Taekkyon (part 2 of 2)


The Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. -A.D. 668), located in the southern portion of the Korean peninsula, received its first taste of northern subak from a battalion of soldiers and advisors sent by Koguryo.

Park writes: After Silla appealed for help against the continual harassment by the Japanese pirates, King Gwanggaeto, the 19th in the line of Koguryo monarchs, sent a force of 50,000 soldiers into neighboring Silla to help the smaller kingdom drive out the pirates. It is at this time that tae kyon (subak) is thought to have been introduced to Silla's warrior class. (1989:2) The citizens of Silla developed a great affinity for subak and refined the skills into a more effective military art. It was embraced by the military and widely taught throughout the kingdom.

Park continues: These tae kyon-trained warriors became known as the Hwarang. They adopted tae kyon (subak) as part of their basic training regimen. The Hwarang... were encouraged to travel throughout the peninsula in order to learn about the regions and people These traveling warriors were responsible for the spread of tae kyon (subak) throughout Korea during the (United) Silla dynasty, which lasted from A.D 668 to A.D. 935. (1989:3)

Left: This Korean Buddhist Mural shows a Guardian Diety holding a symbolic sword.

The Hwarang (Flowering Knight) were a group of aristocratic teenage boys selected for their physical beauty and bodily strength. Han described their development as a survival of the youth bands of tribal times . . . dedicated . . . to preparing to serve the state in war (1970:60). When the Hwarang were not engaged in rutual song and dance, they drilled in the arts of war, primarily swordsmanship, archery, and spear-fighting. Secondary training included empty-hand striking and grappling techniques. The eventual unification of the three kingdoms - Silla, Paekje, and Koguryo - into the United Silla Kingdom attests to the warriors' combat efficiency. No records specifically describe the martial arts of the Hwarang fighters.

They probably called their empty-hand striking and grappling skills subak, just as Koreans had for the previous several hundred years. It is uncertain if they had a special term to denote their weapons techniques. Lee Youn-bok asserts that is is ridiculous to believe that the Hwarang relied mainly upon empty hand skills would certainly have been but a minor adjunct to their military training and battlefield
survival (Lee Y.B., 1988, interview).

Therefore, we cannot say subak was the martial art of the Hwarang; most likely it was merely one protion of their combat repertoire. The Hwarang's greatest contribution to the fighting arts was more spiritual than martial. Before the Hwarang's existence. Korean fighting skills lacked a philosophical dimension. Their dedication to Mireuk Buddha ( Sanskrit: Maitreya ), the Buddha of the Future, caused this to change (Covell, 1982:96).

Han writes, Quite often Buddhist monks were instructors of the Hwarang. The monk Won Gwang, in fact, was the author of the famous Sesok Ogye, or Five Tenets ( 1970:61 ). Composed around 602, this work constituted the Way of the Hwarang:

Serve one's King with Loyalty.
Look after one's parents with filial piety.
Treat one's peers with trust.
Withstand enemy attacks with courage.
Terminate life with discrimination.

The Five Tenets spiritually strengthened the knights and, by augmenting their fighting skills with Buddhist philosophy and moral precepts, transformed them into true martial arts. Some argue that only then did subak and the various weapons systems cease to be merely methods for destroying enemies and become true martial arts with philosophical value and an attitude of charity and compassion.

Choi Hong-hi agrees: It appears that the warriors of Hwarang added a new dimension to [ subak ] by....infusing the principles of the Hwarang-do. The new mental concept.....elevated foot fighting to
an art( 1972:18 )

Another often-cited example of Korean martial arts during the Silla dynasty is the Kumkang Yuksa Buddhist images. In a chapter about Korean fighting arts, authors Draeger and Smith write, The statues
of Kumkang Kwan at the entrance to the Sukkul-am....show typical fighting postures ( 1969:74-75 ).

Likewise, Choi Hong-hi writes, The statue of Kumkang Yuksa, a famous warrior, [ stands ] in Sukulam, a stone cave built in the age of Silla. Notice the similarities in form between the Kumkang Yuksa and present day taekwondo ( 1972:17 ).

Even Hwang Kee includes in the English version of his textbook under a photo of Kumkang Yuksa a caption reading Statue of a General from the Shin Ra [ Silla ] Dynasty practicing subak-ki ( 1970:11 ).

In reality, the Kumkang Yuksa have no relationship to martial arts. Archaeologists have discovered these relatively common images across Buddhist Asia, from India to China and Korea. They actually portray Buddhist guardian deities, called Vajradhara in Sanskrit. Lee Yong-bok writes, The In Wang statues [ Kum-kang Yuksa ] are from China and India; they are not evidence of Korean martial arts.

Lee explains that both guardians originally held a spear in their hands, but when the images were transplanted to Korea, artists did not replicate the weapons. The resulting clenched hands resemble
closed fists, thus appearing as empty-hand martial arts poses (1990:47). Had the spears been reproduced, those who argue that the statues are in martial poses might not be so insistent. Even if die-hard proponents insist the carvings are actual martial poses, their documented presence in China and India would indicate that Silla- dynasty fighting arts had originated in one of those countries not in Korea.


As the United Silla Dynasty gave way to the Koryo Dynasty (935- 1392), subak continued to fare well among members of the Korean military. Numerous historical records in the Koryo Sa (History of Koryo) briefly mention subak while describing official court functions and military training (Song, 1983:17,29;Oh, 1991:7). Another historical text reported that, during the twelfth century, a man named Eui Mu was skilled in subak and loved by the sixteenth king of Koryo. Because of his martial arts ability, Eui Mu was promoted to general (Hwang, 1970:40).

According to Hwang, another book records that King Chung Hye (r.1339-1344) watched a subak performance as part of a military celebration (1970:40). The soldiers so impressed the king that he sought out the most skilled instructors and began to practice the art. Shortly thereafter, popular empty-hand fighting competitions pitted five-soldier teams against each other. These events, called obyeong subak-hi, helped make subak better known among government officials who had the opportunity to observed these spectacles (Lee Y.B., 1990:52).

Subak's popularity did not last long, however, for the next king, Chung Mok (r. 1344-1348), outlawed its practice by civilians. He was motivated by the high incidence of onlookers wagering outrageous prizes, including money, houses, even wives on subak matches. Chung Mok set the penalty for betting on subak matches at one hundred strikes across the buttocks with a wooden paddle. Recipients of the beatings often died of infection (LeeY.B., 1990:52).

Koryo Dynasty soldiers practiced subak as a compulsory supplement to weapons training. For this reason, it is not surprising that the focus of the art shifted towards quick and lethal attack methods. The military organized national competitions to motivate troops to develop their combat skills and fitness levels and to evaluate them for promotion (Choi H. H., 1972:19).

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