The Modern History of Kuk Sool Won – From 1910 to the Present
August 22, 1910 was an extremely sad day in the history of the Korean nation, for it was on that day that, for the first time in the five thousand years of Korean history, the country lost its sovereignty as an independent nation when it was “annexed” by neighboring Japan. The Korean emperor Sunjong (선종) was forced to hand over all of his nation’s affairs to the Japanese emperor. This was in no way reflective of Korea’s lack of martial arts knowledge or skills, but was instead a reflection of the nation’s reluctance to produce and adapt to the tools of modern warfare. Also because of a restrictive treaty agreement that allowed the Japanese regent-general to have the Korean military disbanded temporarily, prior to a proposed implementation of a conscript program that, of course, never came into being. The failure of Korean military forces to adapt to modern tools and methods of warfare was a problem shared by her larger neighbor, China. It was around this time, that China fell victim to the might of modern technology during the Legation Period, prior to the founding of the Chinese Republic (it was, in fact, this period of Western imperialism that led to Korea’s weakened state which made her annexation possible).
During this period of Japanese rule (lasting from 1910 until the eventual defeat of the Japanese forces and the collapse of its imperial designs at the end of World War II), the Japanese-occupying forces attempted to suppress virtually every aspect of the Korean cultural heritage, and replace it with their own. Eckert states in his Korea: Old and New that, “Terauchi Masatake, the first Governor-General (1910-1916), legitimated Japanese rule by asserting that there was a natural affinity between the Korean and Japanese peoples. Terauchi noted the historical and cultural ties between the two countries and posited that assimilation of the Korean people into Japanese society was the long-term goal for the colony.” This then created a “powerful and intrusive state unprecedented in Korean experience.” In fact, the Korean language (Hangul) was even suppressed, as the people of Korea were “encouraged” to speak Japanese by the occupying government. Needless to say, the traditional martial arts of Korea were banned as well.
During this time, Japanese martial arts techniques were brought to Korea, both by the Japanese themselves and by Koreans who had spent time in Japan, and who had studied the martial arts there. Some Korean historians, though, believe that the martial arts that the Japanese brought into the country were not being imported, so much as they were being returned to their point of origin. They believed that they were in actuality, martial arts methods that had been adopted by the Japanese at some earlier point in history and then adapted by them into a style that was more reflective of the Japanese culture. Even though these styles and methods may have originally been Korean in origin, by this period they had taken on a distinctly Japanese flavor. Unfortunately, people would later mistakenly consider these Japanese-influenced martial arts, which the Korean people were allowed to practice during this period of foreign domination, as actual Korean marital arts largely ignorant of Korea’s rich martial arts heritage.
As has already been noted, the practice of any sort of Korean martial arts during the period of the Japanese occupation had been strictly forbidden by the occupying forces; and any Korean caught practicing them (or even worse, teaching them) would be severely punished under a legal system that was particularly harsh on the native Korean population. One might imagine the consequences of teaching or practicing a martial art that could possibly aid in an insurrection or an uprising by the Korean population against the Japanese.
There were, in fact, guerrilla operations conducted throughout this period by patriotic Korean groups. As a result of this, an ongoing policy of the Japanese was to completely eliminate the native Korean bladed weapons (such as swords and spears), many of which had been family heirlooms for generations. They were either melted down and destroyed, or were shipped out of the country to Japan. Because of the severity of this repression, the clandestine manner under which the native Korean martial arts were practiced (which had always been in evidence because so many of the techniques were jealously guarded secrets) was greatly intensified. It was for this reason that relatively few people (even among the native Koreans) were familiar with the rich martial heritage and traditions of their own country. Even among those who were aware of this rich cultural heritage, only a very small number actually participated in the training for fear of reprisal. The modern history of Korea (certainly the modern history of Korean martial arts and the development of Kuk Sool Won) must begin in 1910 with the dismantling of the Korean Royal Court armies by the new Japanese rulers. Many of the patriotic Master Instructors of the Korean Martial Arts were forced to flee the Japanese forces and to go into hiding.
Among those patriots was Master Instructor Suh Myuhng Duk (서 명덕), who returned to his family home in the Taegu area and then set about the task of preserving his vast martial art knowledge by teaching it secretly to his family members.
Suh Myuhng Duk was one of those patriotic Koreans who helped to prevent this country’s native martial arts from becoming extinct under the repressive Japanese cultural policies. The Suh family had practiced martial arts for 16 generations. Master Suh made a personal commitment to maintain this tradition, even under the threat of severe punishment, by passing his extensive martial arts knowledge down to future generations. From among all of his grandchildren, Master Suh carefully selected one child who would become the vessel into which the vastness of his martial arts knowledge could be poured. That child was his grandson, Suh In Hyuk.
Young Suh was quite literally born into the martial arts. He was watching members of his family practice martial arts from the time he opened his eyes. His own formal martial arts training began when he was only 5 years old, under the tutelage of his grandfather. Almost as though he realized the significance of the task that would unfold before him, he trained extremely diligently for a boy of such a young age. His Grandfather was there to closely monitor every detail of young Suh’s training with a stern hand and with a meticulous attention to the most subtle detail of both form and technique, while guiding and controlling all aspect of his grandson’s mental training.
The Japanese occupation ended in 1945, however, even as other forces (most notably the United States and the Soviets) began to shape the Korean nation, young student Suh’s training continued. As he trained more and more, his knowledge of the martial arts and his skillful execution of complex techniques began to surpass even the expectations of his grandfather. Young Suh’s training continued uninterrupted until the middle of the Korean War, at which time North Korean soldiers fatally wounded his grandfather. The death of Suh Myuhng Duk came as a heavy and unexpected blow to the young student, but fortunately, his grandfather had provided for his continued training. Prior to his death, letters of introduction from Suh Myuhng Duk to instructors and practitioners of traditional Korean martial arts methods throughout Korea had been prepared. Armed with these letters of introduction and his grandfather’s background as a Master Instructor of Korean Martial Art, many doors of instruction became open to the young student that might otherwise have been closed.
It was during this period that young Suh began to visit and learn from many different teachers and, as he became older, his knowledge increased as he traveled throughout the countryside studying the many different aspects of Korea’s traditional fighting arts. By the age of twenty, Suh In Hyuk had traveled extensively, visiting hundreds of Buddhist temples (many of which served as repositories of traditional Korean martial arts, either as places where the martial arts techniques were still practiced, or as storehouses of martial arts record and manuals) and private martial arts instructors as well. From some of these sources he might learn a wealth of martial arts knowledge and from other he might learn only a single (albeit important) technique or method.
The story is told of one of his teachers (who happened to be a Buddhist monk) from whom he learned a particular striking method and a way to control the power in his strike. The teacher told young Suh to strike a nearby tree and to knock the leaves from its branches. The young Suh struck the tree and the leaves fell like rain all around him. The teacher then looked at him and told him now to strike it in such a way that only one leaf would fall. Suh spent months perfecting this single technique.
In this same manner, over a period of years, he became familiar with many aspects of the traditional Korean martial arts, which had become all but forgotten by the common people. A noble and noteworthy accomplishment for one so young, the young student Suh’s level of skill and wisdom had progressed by this time to the point of mastery. It was during this period in his life that Master Suh met a man who was to become his second most influential teacher: an old Buddhist monk who was known as Hai Dong Seu Nim (해동스님, which translates as “the Great Monk of the East Sea”). The young master learned many different skills from the old monk, but of particular importance was the instruction that he received in special types of breathing exercises, meditation techniques and Ki (internal energy) skills.
It was in the late 1950’s, Suh In Hyuk began the monumental task of organizing the scattered martial arts techniques that he had gathered in order to compile them into an organized and systematized whole. His aim was to produce a single Korean national martial art, or Kuk Sool (국술, also known as Ho Kuk Moo Yea: 호국무예, or Arts Used in Defense of the Nation).
In 1958, that task was completed and Kuk Sool was established as the most complete systematic study of Korean traditional martial art ever devised. In the same year, Kuk Sa Nim (In Hyuk Suh) had first coined the term Kuk Sool to represent, not just a style or type of martial art, but a complete system made by Kuk Sa Nim, which represented a detailed and organized study of the traditional Korean martial arts from the ancient times of Korea up until the present day.
The year 1961 was a historic one for the Korean martial arts, for it was in that year that Suh In Hyuk officially founded the Kuk Sool Won. It was at this time, also, that Master Suh revealed his inheritance: Five compiled books on Korean martial arts, which had been handed down to him from his grandfather. These five books are:
- Yu Sool: 유술
- Kwon Sool: 권술
- Yu-Kwon Sool: 유권술
- Whahl Buhp: 활법
- Hyuhl Buhp: 혈법
The inheritance of these five volumes gave further legitimacy to the task that Suh had chosen. With the establishment of Kuk Sool as a martial art, the title of Grandmaster, or Kuk Sa Nim (국사님: literally, National Martial Arts Teacher) was passed on to the still relatively young Master Suh, then aged 22.
Also important was the fact that, although Kuk Sa Nim had been teaching martial arts for many years prior to the actual founding of Kuk Sool Won, the training after the Association’s founding took on an entirely new life. The study of Kuk Sool became much less secretive and, for the first time in the recorded history of the Korean martial arts, instruction in all aspects of the martial arts (including the most exotic and esoteric which had historically been zealously guarded by the royal family) was given to anyone who wanted to train, regardless of their status or station in society. Kuk Sa Nim opened wide the doors to Kuk Sool and hundreds and hundreds of native Koreans began to take the opportunity that was being offered to them. For the first time, the average Korean was being allowed to train in his native Korean arts.
One of Kuk Sa Nim’s goals was to reunite a nation with its almost extinct cultural and martial arts heritage, and the people of Korea responded with enthusiasm to Kuk Sa Nim’s “open door” policy of training.
After Personally training many students to instructor and master level, Kuk Sa Nim began to open schools throughout South Korea and Kuk Sool Won rapidly expanded to well over three hundred schools. Kuk Sa Nim traveled constantly among these early Association schools, in order to personally maintain strict quality control. He also held seminars twice a year, in order to further train instructors and masters.