History of Kuk Sool Won

Sah Doh Mu Sool – Tribal or Family Martial Arts

The Korean Tribal, or Family Martial Arts, can be traced to the earliest historical period in Korea, the Late Neolithic (or New Stone Age), from 2000 BC to 900 BC. The primary social and organizational group of this period was the family or clan. These were groups of people linked together by bloodline, which gathered together in communities for protection and security. The weapons of the period, which have survived as arrowheads and spear points, were crude stone weapons used in hunting and defense. Even at this early stage in Korean history, some social organization was apparent. Leaders were elected from the tribal elders and could be removed if the members of the group felt that they were ineffective. Loose ties with other clans were made, in order to expand territorial control.

The Bronze Age in Korea lasted from about the ninth century BC until the fourth century BC, and a number of artifacts have survived, that tell us some interesting things about the social and martial arts development of the Korean people of this period. These include a “mandolin-shaped” bronze dagger, as well as polished stone daggers that were placed in tombs as burial objects. The Koreans of this period hunted and fished, as did their predecessors in the Stone Age Period. On the basis of the survival of tools used in cultivation, they possessed a considerable level of agricultural skill. This allowed them to settle more stable and widespread communities of people.

Coinciding with the development of the Iron Age at the beginning of the fourth century BC, the society of Old Choson (고조선), combined with several other walled town states in order to form a single, larger confederation of states. This confederation became so strong that it began to militarily confront the Northern Chinese state of Yen across the Liao River boundary. For a brief period, the Old Choson began to gradually weaken and fell into a state of decline and it was during this time that the Chinese forces crossed the river boundary and occupied the Liaotung peninsula. It was also at this period of Korean history that individual clans or tribes began to come together for their mutual protection and benefit. They formed alliances and confederations among themselves that were superior in strength and influence to that of the individual tribal units.

The principle weapons of this period were, for the most part, of stone, although bronze and iron weapons were also in existence. The most common weapons were Suhk Guhm (석검: stone knife), the Suhk Chahng (석창: stone spear), the Suhk Boo (석부: stone axe), and the Koong Shi (궁시: bow and arrow). Also important during this time period were the martial arts techniques of Too Suhk Sool (투석술: stone throwing) and Sah Lahk Sool (사락술: techniques for spreading sand to attack an enemy). It is interesting to note that these techniques are considered important in Kuk Sool Won, even today, and are taught in the Kuk Sool Won curriculum at the Master level.

In addition to training themselves in the various weapon arts to a very high level of skill; these early Korean warriors also sought to train their bodies through running, wrestling, swimming, and hand-to-hand fighting, in order that they might maintain peak physical condition.

A hierarchy of control began to develop within these confederations, and it was at this time that a clear delineation began to be seen between the leaders and the followers. Ancient Korean burial methods, which have been uncovered, suggest that the leaders of these confederations began to exercise control over larger and larger groups of people; and that their power was in many cases passed along familial bloodlines to following generations.

The ruling elite lived in walled towns, that were set apart from the surrounding village communities of farmers and peasants. These walled town states are representative of the earliest form of state structure and, as such, they can be said to represent the very origins of the Korean political structure. Along with this delineation between a peasant class and a powerful, ruling elite sprang the distinctions of a stratified social order and developing rules of social behavior. Many of these confederate states began to develop diplomatic and military ties with neighboring China, both for protection and to form alliances to harass and attack their neighbor states. The Chinese encouraged these individual diplomatic ties, thus hindering the individual states from uniting together to form a more powerful union, and effectively disrupting the developing political processes.

As Eckert states in his Korea Old and New: A History, “The chief characteristics of law in the confederate Kingdoms’ period were simplicity and severity.” The ancient Koreans felt that the gods ordained that good be rewarded and evil punished. Many of their laws and punishments were set up along religious lines; and the punishment of criminal offenders was generally held in conjunction with religious festivals.

In addition to political and social connections between the various tribes and clans within the federation, contests began to be held every year in order to decide who would assume leadership and be responsible for the confederation in the months that followed. The village-level military units, which took part in these annual contests, were known as Doo Rai (두래). Each had a banner by which it was identified, and many were associated with an animal totem. Interestingly enough, these village Doo Rai still exist in Korean villages in modern times. Their sole function today is merely for the purpose of entertainment during local festivals. They serve no real function in the village’s protection or defense, and most have forgotten their military origins.

The Moo Sah (무사), or tribal warriors, of this period were ethically bound by a strict code of moral conduct which allowed for specific punishments for any type of transgression against members of the tribe. Existing historical evidence (such can still be found) would suggest that “in all of the confederated Kingdoms the crimes of murder, bodily injury, thievery, female adultery, and even jealousy on the part of a wife were considered to be serious offenses”, according to Eckert. Punishments for these types of transgressions varied, and the severity of the punishment is some indication of how significant the crime was viewed in the context of the society at the time. For instance, if one of the Moo Sah were to harm another without just cause, then he would be required by the existing moral code to pay restitution to the injured party in the form of goods and food. If he should steal another person’s belongings or property, then he would be forced to become that person’s slave (in effect becoming a part of that person’s property himself). Severe penalties for the crime of murder show a high regard among these societies for the value of human life. If a woman was raped or a person killed unjustly, then the assigned punishment for the offending party would be death.

Some of the existing sculptures and wall paintings to survive from this period (some of which are in present-day China, which was part of Korea in centuries past) can be seen to depict various martial arts-type activities. These include depictions of figures wrestling, practicing ancient martial arts such as Ssi’reum (씨름: ancient Korean wrestling), and Subak-ki (수박기: an early type of martial art), figures practicing archery from horseback and so on, as well as portraying individuals and groups standing in strange postures which can readily be identified as the same postures and defense (known as Jah Seh: 자세), that are seen in martial arts such as Kuk Sool Won today.

Because of the centuries of upheaval that have passed since this early period of Korean history, relatively few Korean records still exist from this period, but a famous Chinese classic, San Kuo Chih (삼국지: The Annals of the Three Kingdoms), records that the Korean empty-hand martial arts were highly regarded by the Chinese military leaders of that period of history, and that they described the martial arts forms of the Koreans, which they referred to as Koryo-Ki (고려기: Techniques of Korea) as “powerful and superb”.

These particular styles of fighting are extremely important to the development of the Korean martial arts for reasons even beyond their historical relevance. Even though these village-level militia units were banned officially when General Yi, Sung Gye (이 성계) overthrew the Koryo (고려) Kingdom in 1393, the arts which can be grouped under Sah Doh Mu Sool continued to be practiced by the villages in the mountainous rural areas of Korea. Because of this continued practice of their traditional martial arts, when the Japanese forces under Hideyoshi invaded the Korean peninsula in 1592, they were met by a strong and telling resistance by these village troops.

Thus, the value of continuing the relatively secret practice of banned martial arts skills carried an important historical precedent. In the early years of the 20th century, during the period of Japanese annexation of Korea, this practice salvaged valuable information, which led to the development of the present system of Kuk Sool Won.