History of Kuk Sool Won

Koong Joong Mu Sool – Royal Court Martial Arts

During the 1st century BC, three powerful kingdoms began to emerge and proceeded to divide up the Korean peninsula. As a direct result of this state of affairs, a new class, the warrior caste, came into being in an already stratified society. Because these three countries were in such close proximity to one another, and constantly redefined their borders, in an attempt to gain greater power and control, conflict invariably ensued and a continual state of tension existed. As though these internal struggles were not enough, Korea also had to maintain vigilance against the possibility of invasion by her expansionist neighbors, China and Japan (historical adversaries which both coveted the relatively small Korean nation).

The alliance between these three Korean Kingdoms shifted unsteadily as they maneuvered to align themselves for maximum benefit, two together against the third, or with the armies of China and Japan against one another. Throughout this period of almost constant turmoil, a number of historically important martial arts systems began to develop within these three Korean Kingdoms. It was also during this period, that much of the interchange between the indigenous Korean martial arts and those of China and Japan occurred.

Chronologically, the first of these Kingdoms to be founded was Silla. It evolved from a much older Kingdom called Sorabol 서라벌 (or Karak-kuk: 가락국), that had developed as a confederation in the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula. Sources provide the year 57 BC as the founding year of Sorabol, which later became the Kingdom of Silla. Later, Silla unified the Korean peninsula and became one of the most influential countries to shape the Korean culture. Consequently, the Unification Period of Silla is interpreted in Korean history as a “golden age”.

It is important to note that the warriors of the Silla Kingdom, known as Moo Sah (as discussed in Family of Tribal Martial Arts section) and later as Hwarang, gave as much precedence to penmanship and learning as they did to swordsmanship and the martial arts. It was this Silla warrior class that would later prove instrumental in the development of a martial arts philosophy and a code of ethics upon which the Japanese samurai caste would later be modeled. This assertion can be easily supported by the fact that Japan (whether through trade and diplomacy, or through invasion and warfare) had a great deal of contact with the Korean nation and held them in a relatively high regard throughout the history. At certain points in Japanese history, the Japanese nobility would often boast of Korean ancestry. While the modern Western world tends to consider the Japanese samurai as the epitome of the oriental warrior, it was not until the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 AD) that bushido emerged as a written code of warrior ethics in Japan, long after the Korean Hwarang was established and flourished (around 550 AD). The early Korean warrior expressed a belief that a balance must be achieved between knowledge and action. After a certain level of knowledge was acquired, he would continue to pattern his life on the principles reflected in that knowledge. This is still an important consideration in the training of serious students of the martial arts today. In light of this belief, these warriors of Silla should be seen as men of great virtue. They demonstrated the discipline of character, not only in embracing high ideals as a philosophical abstraction, but in putting these beliefs into practice and using them to shape and temper their actions. In many ways, these Korean warriors reflect many aspects of the Code of Chivalry of the European knighthood, which is similar to us through romantic literature about the exploits and adventures of the Knights of the Round Table from the Arthurian legends. For those who are familiar with some of the legends surrounding the young King Arthur and his knights, certain parallels between those tales and those of Silla warriors become even more apparent. During the reign of the Silla King Chinhung (진흥왕), 540-576 AD, the kingdom experienced a period of great expansion through wars and alliances. It also entered into a period of greater hostilities from its neighbors, Paekche and Koguryo, who formed a strong alliance against their powerful neighbor. However, during this period an elite warrior force was created under King Chinhung that would prove to be a formidable opponent to the larger forces of Silla’s enemies. This force consisted of royal sons, noblemen and other youths of exceptional physical and moral stature. It was created not only to build a fearsome force of highly trained warriors, but also to train the future military and political leaders of the Kingdom. This institution came to be known as the hwarang-do (화랑도), which can roughly be translated as an “organization of flowering youth”. The word Do has commonly been mistranslated as “way” as it is used in the Japanese martial arts, but the actual oriental character from which this word is derived means “group” or “circle” and is a totally different character than the one for “way”. The hwarang-do was originally conceived as an institution to foster both martial arts and learning; not as the name of a particular martial art.

In order to properly train these young warriors, King Chinhung turned for assistance to a wise and venerated Buddhist monk named Won Kwang Bopsa (원광법사) – hence the close association mentioned before between the Buddhist and the Royal Court Martial Arts systems. Won Kwang Bopsa had personally developed and become a master of his own comprehensive form of martial arts. He was also an extremely knowledgeable scholar in both the Buddhist Canon and the Confucian classics. This made him the perfect candidate to pass on to these warrior-students the mysteries of the martial arts, the spiritual underpinnings of a rigorous faith in Buddhism and a firm foundation in the ethics of Confucianism on which the society of Silla was established. It is an important footnote that the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion by each of these three Korean Kingdoms, including Silla, helped to foster and maintain a strong martial arts culture. Certain martial art philosophies of non-violence and tempered strength influence martial arts even today, a thousand years later. At Won Kwang Bopsa’s mountainous temple school, these young Silla warriors trained themselves relentlessly, against each other as well as against the treacherous natural elements of the rugged Korean landscape. At the same time they traveled throughout the mountainous terrain in order to familiarize themselves with its geography. The training for these Hwarang warriors was often intense. However, it became common for these warriors to lead the fighting forces of the King and owe him personal loyalty.

Reaching an extremely high level of expertise in both armed and unarmed methods of attack and defense, the Hwarang warriors eventually became so adept that, should their weapons become lost or broken in the confusion of battle, they would continue to fight on fiercely with their hands and feet alone, even dying without a thought of retreat. The young warriors were required in their training to become adept in such areas of study as archery, swordsmanship, mounted archery (which, combined with the use of short yet powerful bows, allowed them to maintain an assault with bow and arrow, even as they were riding into the ranks of their enemies), kicking methods, hand striking methods, throwing and grappling techniques, hunting and swimming. Bi Kak Sool (비각술) was an art of specialized kicking skills practiced by Hwarang warriors (a technique that has been traditionally favored by the Koreans). Bi Kak Sool divided its practitioners into three very separate and distinct grades of proficiency: the average student kicked the opponent’s legs, the advanced student kicked to the opponent’s shoulders, and the expert student kicked to his opponent’s sang too (the bound hair that was fashionably worn on the top of the head). This combination of training enabled the Hwarang to become highly efficient, well-rounded warriors whose personal skill reached levels of extreme proficiency, thus making them one of the most feared and respected fighting forces in the history of Asia.

However, they were not restricted to techniques for use on the field of battle. In addition to this extremely complex and exhaustive martial arts curriculum, the Hwarang received additional training in matters of statecraft and political theory, as well as instruction in arts and letters. Although it was not possible nor appropriate for these warrior-scholars to be trained to adhere strictly to all aspects of the Buddhist moral code of conduct (as an example, the Buddhist injunction against the taking of a life might later prove cumbersome on the field of battle), the monk Won Kwang Bopsa did manage to instill in the Hwarang an uncompromising adherence to a philosophy that was designed to reflect the highest ideals and virtues.

It was thus from Won Kwang Bopsa that the Hwarang received their code of ethics known as the Hwarang Do Sesok O-Gye, or the Five Commandments of the Hwarang Do. The five simple, yet profound, tenets became the foundation for the ethical and moral principles upon which these young noblemen were to pattern their every action and served as a foundation upon which they built their lives. These principles are important in Kuk Sool Won today.

Hwarang Sesok O-Gye (화랑 세속 오계)
  • Il: Sah Koon Ee Choong (사군이충: Loyalty to one’s country)
  • Ee: Sah Chin Ee Hyoh (사친이효: Honor and respect towards one’s parents)
  • Sahm: Kyoh Oo Ee Shin (교우이신: Trust and sincerity in friendship)
  • Sah: Im Juhn Moo Teh (임전무퇴: Courage: never to retreat in the face of the enemy)
  • Oh: Sahl Seng U Taek (살생유택: Justice: never to take a life without cause)

The graduates of the Hwarang Do became the military leaders, the generals, and the virtual backbone and substance of the Silla military forces. Trained equally in welfare and in the matters of state, the Hwarang became an elite corps of public officials, both military generals and ministers of state. They were known throughout Asia for their skill in battle, as well as for their courage and indomitable spirit.

The tales of the Korean Hwarang warriors have been handed down for hundreds of years as a central theme in Korean folklore. The courage and exploits of this fighting elite have been held up as examples of the high level of personal conduct and achievement to which everyone (but most especially those students of Korean martial arts) should strive.

One of the most famous stories to be passed down, and one that perhaps most exemplifies the warrior spirit of the Hwarang, is that of the young warrior Kwahn Chahng (관창). The son of the Silla general Kim P’um-il (김 품일), Kwahn Chahng himself, was a general of the Silla armies at the age of sixteen. Captured during a battle with the armies of Paekche, Kwahn Chahng, because of his high rank and the importance of his capture, was taken as a prisoner before the commander of all of the Paekche forces. When his captors removed Kwahn Chahng’s helmet, the Paekche general was immediately surprised by the relative youth of the Sillar commander. Because he happened to have a son of the same age, the general’s heart was softened toward the youth and he decided against executing the young warrior. Instead, the general sent him back to his own lines. Upon his return from captivity, Kwahn Chahng immediately went before his father and begged that he once again be permitted to return to the field of battle in order to serve at the head of his men.

During the daylong battle, the Paekche forces once again captured Kwahn Chahng. He was disarmed, and yet with no weapons other than his hands and feet, managed to kill the Paekche general’s second in command. Eventually subdued yet again, Kwahn Chahng was once more taken before the Paekche commander. Angrily addressing the young general this time, the commander said, “I gave you your life once because of your youth, but now you have returned to take the life of my best field commander.” This time the Paekche general had the young man executed. Then, his severed head tied to the pommel of his saddle, his horse was sent back to the Silla ranks.

Upon seeing the severed head of his son, General Kim P’um-il wiped his blood away with the sleeve of his jacket and declared for everyone to hear, “My son’s face is as when he was yet alive. He was able to die in the service of his King. There is nothing to regret!” The general then rode back into battle and eventually defeated the Paekche armies.

This story is used to illustrate a number of the virtues associated with the Hwarang warrior: courage and perseverance in the face of adversity, unquestioning loyalty to one’s King and country, filial piety, and a highly developed level of personal martial arts skill.

The second Kingdom of the Three Kingdoms Period in Korean history was called Koguryo. It was founded in the year 37 BC, and according to Eckert, developed within a context of ongoing conflict with neighboring China. Because of this, the need for a warrior elite was very strong in Koguryo. Records indicate that even during periods of peace this warrior elite engaged in no other activities besides training in the martial arts in order to develop and maintain a high level of skill.

The warriors of the Kingdom of Koguryo were known as Suhn In (선인), which can be translated as “virtuous person.” The Suhn In was held in high esteem by the people of Koguryo, as evidenced by the fact that they ranked highest in the social order. Even during times when there was no fighting and their military and martial arts skills were not needed for national defense, they were expected to perform no other function. They were simply allowed to train and to perfect their skills. Each Suhn In carried about his waist five short knives, as well as a stone for sharpening them – every Suhn In was expected to be an expert in their use.

Similar to the Hwarang warriors of Silla, the Suhn In was required to educate himself beyond simply fighting techniques and methods of warfare. While the Suhn In studied archery, sword fighting, horsemanship, hunting and fishing, swimming and fighting in the water, weaponless combat, and the art of accurately and effectively throwing the short knives that he carried (a technique known as Too Guhm Sool), he also received a relatively extensive education, for the period, in politics and the affairs of state, as well as being taught music and the study of the classics.

In the year 17 BC, the last of the Three Kingdoms, Paekche, was founded as a confederate kingdom. Around 350 AD, Paekche merged as a highly centralized and aristocratic society under the reign of the formidable warrior-King, K’un Cho-go (근초고왕).

From the advent of Paekche as a separate Korean Kingdom, training in the martial arts was actively encouraged. A tradition began to evolve in which the practice of the martial arts and archery took place at festivals and celebrations. Warrior and comer alike participated in these events, with the winners receiving special recognition and awards. Unfortunately, there are

no detailed descriptions left of the specific types of martial arts or techniques involved in these early contests.

The warriors of Paekche trained in horsemanship, archery, and swordplay. The further training of the Paekche warrior dictated that he gain proficiency in a weaponless form of combat known as Soo Sool. According to historical records of this period, a master instructor of the Paekche warriors, Hai Dong Un Ki, was credited with the ability to use his hands like powerful swords. He taught this method of combat to his students.

During training, two students would engage in attack and defense techniques. In a description of this method, one history book stated that, should one of the students be deficient in his application of a defensive technique, then the individual could be severely injured by the strike. This could result in permanent injury or even death. Needless to say, these warriors were never to neglect these defensive techniques in their training. The type of two-man pre-arranged sparring set that this historical record seems to describe is similar to the types of two-man sets that are used in Kuk Sool Won today for both empty-hand and weapons training.

History reveals that it was the Kingdom of Silla that was destined to become the most important country of the Three Kingdoms. During the reign of King Moon-mu (문무왕), who is considered to be the greatest of all Silla rulers, General Kim, Yu Shin (김 유신, 595-673 AD) laid the foundation for the eventual unification of the Korean peninsula in 688 AD.

There are a number of famous historical anecdotes about this eminent warrior. One of the most notable is about young Kim having fallen in love with a kisaeng girl (a courtesan), named Chuhn Gwahn. As a result of the affair, the young warrior had begun to neglect his martial arts training. Upon learning of the affair and the effect that it was having on her son’s training (his mother felt that his position in life was being jeopardized, because the young girl was a commoner and his responsibilities to his nation were being disregarded), young Kim’s mother chastised him and forbade him to continue to see the young girl.

Kim Yu Shin, out of filial piety (as set forth in the 2nd precept of the Hwarang Do Code of Ethics), had no choice but to obey his mother’s wishes. But late one evening, an exhausted Kim fell asleep on the back of his favorite white horse and, out of habit and familiar with the route, the animal carried the sleeping warrior to the young girl’s home.

When Kim awoke with a startle and realized where he was, he tried to turn the horse and return home, but the horse (who believed he had returned home and was prepared for rest and food, not further travel) refused to move. Kim became possessed with a great rage, and immediately beheaded his favorite horse with a single stroke of his heavy battle sword. Having done this, he then fled into the sanctuary and solitude of a mountain cave in order to meditate and purify his spirit through training.

According to the Korean legend that tells this story, the gods were so moved by Kim’s spirit and dedication that a heavenly figure appeared and commended to him an engraved sword and several special texts as a reward for his diligent training. It is said that these special gifts were responsible for allowing Kim Yu Shin to eventually carry out his great task of unifying the nation. The girl who had been the object of Kim’s affections and in fact his first love, never married, but instead became a Buddhist nun. After her death, a Buddhist temple (Chuhn Gwahn Temple) was built on the site of her home to honor her. The temple site can still be seen on the northwestern slope of Nahm Sahn, within sight of the ancestral home of General Kim Yu Shin.

Unfortunately, after the unification of the Three Kingdoms under Silla’s rule, the practice of the martial arts (which had once been so necessary) fell into a period of decline. Though beneficial to the Korean people, the period of peace which followed the unification and the influence of Buddhism’s non-violence principles, proved devastating to the continued practice of the Korean martial arts by large numbers of the population.

In 918, a military faction under General Wang Kon (왕건, who felt that he was the legitimate successor of the earlier Kingdom of Koguryo and who shortened that name for the name of his own state of Koryo, 고려), after first employing a policy of friendship with Silla, overthrew the Unified Silla and installed in its stead the Koryo Kingdom. It is from this name, Koryo, that the present name of Korea is derived. Once again, after a period marked by the erosion and decline of the martial spirit, the military was again in charge of the nation.

In 958, in order that he might secure a necessary balance of power between the military and the civilian officials, King Kwang Jong (광종) established the Kwa Kuh (과거), a national civil examination, which was required of both warrior and scholar alike. This led to the appointment of scholars of merit in the Koryo government regardless of their background or lineage, a serious threat to the gentry officials who had received appointments because of their family ties. The system dissolved however, and the scholars lost their influence after the death of Kwang Jong. In 992, King Sung Jong (성종) established Kuk Ja Gam (국자감, National University). Records of this period indicate that a course called Moo Hak (무학), or martial studies, was included in the seven curricula offered. However, because of the increased friction between the civilian and military officials, the Moo Hak course declined to a point at which it was a martial studies course in name only. Officially denigrating the study of the martial arts by the government forced the common practice of the martial arts by the Korean people to take on an air of secrecy and move underground. Secret martial arts techniques and methods were passed down clandestinely within families. Due in part to this decline in the martial arts spirit and in martial arts training, Yi Song Gye was able to seize the reins of power and control of the throne through military force, effecting the overthrow of the Koryo government and establishing the beginning of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910).

In the beginning of the Yi Dynasty, there was very little change in the political structure itself, but merely a change in the royal authority. The socio-cultural aspects of the Yi dynasty were closely patterned after, and by and large merely a continuation of, those of the Koryo civilization that had preceded it. Yi named his dynasty Choson (조선), after the earliest Korean Kingdom and moved the capital of the government to Hanyang (한양). Hanyang was on the site of present day Seoul (서울) and from Yi Song Gye time on until the present, Seoul has been the political, economic and social center of Korea. Because he had risen to power through military force and was therefore well aware of the threat of being overthrown himself, Yi Song Gye imposed even tighter restrictions on the practice of martial arts by the common people.

The Confucian literati-bureaucrats that resented the power and vast land holdings of the Buddhists and the powerful families of the old Koryo dynasty promulgated the non-aggressive policy of Confucian thought throughout the Kingdom. In line with the tenets of Confucianism, these neo-Confucianist literati enjoyed preferential treatment as scholars and civilian authorities, while the military officials and the warrior class came to be held in contempt. As a direct result of this officially sanctioned disdain, the morale of the warriors and the military officials dropped dramatically. Eventually, the practice of the martial arts came to be considered an embarrassing and contemptible activity, completely unworthy of a gentleman of education and breeding.

The end result of this state of affairs was that, seeing the weakness of the Korean nation under its policy of “despising arms”, the Korean peninsula was twice invaded by the Japanese (in 1592, and again in 1596, in an attempt to a launch an invasion through Korea into China itself) and once by Manchuria (in 1637).

During these early invasions by marauding foreign troops, something unusual occurred.

In the face of national turmoil and at a time when the Korean forces were falling before the Japanese invaders and the central government was in retreat, people from every class and from every part of the country rose up in response to this threat. Filled with a deep sense of patriotism and nationalistic fervor, they formed a kind of informal militia which were called Ui Byung (의병, or Righteous Armies) in order to repel the invaders. Respected Confucian scholars who held a high reputation in their areas led many of these local armies. Many of these scholars – such as Kwak Chae-U (곽 재우), who assembled a guerrilla force in the southeast; Kim Chun-Il (김 천일), whose forces harassed the Japanese invaders around Suwon (수원), and who was later killed in the north and east-central provinces – helped to lead important harassing attacks against the Japanese, contributing to their eventual retreat. Also leading these Righteous Armies were revered Buddhist monks, such as So San Dae-sa (서산대사) and Sa Myong Dae-sa (사명대사). It was as a result of actions such as these that the Buddhist monks of Korea became known as “defenders of the nation.”

It is further recorded that these local militia leaders hoisted high the banner of national salvation and slew the Japanese hordes using “supernatural” fighting techniques. Though this is probably an exaggeration, it is an indication of how high these righteous army guerrilla forces were held in the esteem of the Korean people.

During the reign of Sunjo (선조, 1567-1608), the fourteenth King of the Yi (or Choson) Dynasty, a martial arts scholar named Han Kyo (한교) scientifically researched the secret techniques of Korea’s traditional fighting arts and then compiled the results of his findings in a martial arts book called Moo-Yea Jae-Bo (무예제보), or A General Introduction of Korean Martial Arts Techniques. After having compiled this important volume, he then gave detailed martial arts training to more than seventy individuals, so that these once secret techniques might be spread among the common people for use against the Japanese invaders. This may be the first historically recorded instance of what might be called a dojahng (도장), or “martial arts training hall”, as they are known today.

As a result of these continued invasions by the Japanese armies, as well as the constant harassments of the Japanese waegu (왜구, pirates), respect for and appreciation of martial arts training was greatly restored. In 1790, King Jung Jo (정조) ordered Lee Duk Moo (이 덕무) to compile the MooYea Dobo Tong-Ji (무예도보통지), or Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts. In his first volume, Lee illustrated the use and techniques of the long spear, the bamboo spear, special categories of spear, and how to use each of these spear methods from horseback. His second book illustrated the techniques and methods of the long sword, the short sword and the Japanese sword. The third weapons training book illustrated the use of special types of swords and their use by a mounted swordsman, as well as special methods for the use of the Bong Kwan, or pole.

A fourth manual consisted of methods and techniques employed in empty-hand combat that used offensive and defensive techniques. He described the location of specific target areas and noted that by striking these vital points he could, by controlling the force and the specific angle of the blow, either kill his opponent or render him helpless. He further stated that a warrior skilled in these empty hand methods would be capable of killing a tiger. In fact, the techniques were so deadly and so potentially dangerous that, Lee admonished instructors in his book not to teach these techniques to a student, unless he was absolutely confident that the student could be trusted not to use the techniques in the wrong manner.

It was suggested, therefore, that the student should first exhibit these five principles in their character before they might be entrusted with these techniques:

  • Virtue
  • Trust
  • Intelligence
  • Courage
  • Discipline

In Kuk Sool Won Traditional Korean Martial Arts, these characteristics are considered as prerequisites, even today, for advanced martial arts training. This is why a high degree of moral character is considered as important in Kuk Sool Won as physical skill.