From The Martial Arts Encyclopedia

Korean martial arts (Korean: Musul (무술 hanja: 武術) or Muye (무예 hanja:武藝)) are the various martial arts that originated in or were adapted and modified by Korea. The best known are Taekwondo and Hapkido, although there has been a revival of Korean sword arts as well as knife fighting and archery.


Much of Korea's martial heritage was lost during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea. This was primarily due to two factors: 1) at some point during the occupation the Japanese forbade the practice of Korean martial arts; 2) during the late Joseon period traditional Korean martial arts were not popular because neo-Confucian doctrine advocated academics rather than martial practice. After the Japanese occupation new Korean martial arts like hapkido and taekwondo blossomed and interest in Korea's own ancient martial traditions grew.

Early Korean martial arts

Martial arts have existed in Korea since the earliest ages. During the Goguryeo (고구려) dynasty it is believed that subak (수박/手搏, a general term for barehand martial arts imported from China (pronounced Shoubo)), swordsmanship, spear-fighting and horse riding were practiced. Paintings showing martial arts were found in 1935 on the walls of royal tombs, believed to been built for Goguryeo kings, sometime between 3 and 427 CE. Which techniques were practiced during that period is however something that cannot be determined from these paintings. Subak is mentioned in government records from the Goguryeo dynasty through the Joseon (or Yi) dynasty (조선왕조, 1392-1910).

Subak and Taekkyon

It is believed that the warriors from the Silla (신라) Dynasty (57 BCE–668 CE) learned subak from the neighboring Goguryeo armies when they appealed for their help against invading Japanese pirates. Practicing subak became part of the training for Silla's hwarang (화랑) warriors and this contributed to the spread of subak on the Korean peninsula. But again we do not know exactly which techniques the hwarang warriors practiced. Quite often Buddhist monks who added more spiritual aspects to the art instructed the hwarang warriors. Their greatest contribution to the development of Korean martial arts is probably adding a spiritual dimension to the training practices, something that Korean martial arts lacked before. It is safe to assume that empty-hand fighting only played a small role and that most of the emphasis was on armed fighting, something which is true for the development of martial arts until modern times. It has only been recently that empty-hand fighting has gained more popularity than armed fighting.
The Buddhist influence on the hwarang is most notably seen in the moral code Sae Sok O-Gye (세속오계) written by Won Kwang (원광: 圓光) consisting of five rules <ref>http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=92933</ref>:

  • 사군이충 - 事君以忠 - Loyalty to the king
  • 사친이효 - 事親以孝 - Care for ones parents
  • 교우이신 - 交友以信 - Trust equals
  • 임전무퇴 - 臨戰無退 - Defence against the enemy with courage.
  • 살생유택 - 殺生有擇 - Make no unjust kill

The development of subak continued also during the Goryeo dynasty (935-1392). Goryeo records that mention the martial arts always include passages about subak. The Goryeo government, however, outlawed the practice of subak by civilians because people used to bet at subak games.

Subak split into two separate martial arts, taekkyon (택견) and yusul (유술), probably in the last years of the Goryeo dynasty or the early years of the Joseon Dynasty. It is believed that many techniques were lost at this time. Joseon Dynasty records and books often mention taekgyeon. And taekkyon players are found on several paintings from that era. The most famous painting probably being the Dae Kwae Do (대괘도 hanja(*): 大快圖), painted in 1846 by Hyesan Yu Suk (혜산 유숙, 1827-1873), which shows men competing in both ssireum (씨름) and taekkyon.

Martial Art Manuals

During the Imjin War (임진왜란, 1592-1598), Korean armies fought off a Japanese invasion. The Japanese had imported guns from Portugal and wanted to conquer the mainland. With Chinese assistance, the Koreans turned back the invaders, but at a heavy loss of men and cultural heritage. It was also during this war that the famous turtle ships (Geobukson, 거북선) were used by the famous general Yi Sun-sin. These ships were covered with an iron shield, much like the shell of turtle, which could withstand the gun attacks of the Japanese.
In 1593 the Koreans received help from the Chinese to win back Pyongyang, during one of the battles the Koreans learned about a martial arts manual titled Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書 Kor.: 기효신서), written by the Chinese military strategist Qi Jiguang (戚继光 Kor.: 척계광). King SeonJo (선조, 1567-1608) took a personal interest in the book. And he ordered people in his court to study the book. This eventually led to the creation of the Mu Ye Je Bo (무예제보 hanja: 武藝諸譜) in 1599 by Han Kyo (한교) who had studied the use of several weapons with the Chinese army. In 1759, the book was revised and published at the Mu Ye Sin Bo (무예신보 hanja: 武藝新譜).
In 1790, these two books formed the basis, together with other Korean, Chinese and Japanese martial art manuals, of the richly illustrated Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji (무예도보통지 hanja: 武藝圖譜通志). The book does not have any references to taekkyon, but shows influences from Chinese martial arts. The book mostly deals with armed martial arts like sword fighting, double-sword fighting, spear fighting, stick fighting etc. The chapter that deals with a style of empty-hand fighting called Kwon Bub (권법/拳法 or "fist methods," a generic name for empty handed fighting; the word is the Korean pronunciation of quanfa) shows techniques that resemble Chinese fighting, quite different from taekkyon. According to the Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji empty-handed fighting should be learned before armed fighting since it forms the basis of a martial education. It is also quite remarkable that it states that internal styles are better suited for fighting than external styles, since until then Koreans never developed their own internal styles. The interest in Korean martial arts began to decline during the later Joseon dynasty under the influence of Neo-Confucianism and it was only because of the interest the common people had in traditions like taekgyeon and because of the Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji that these traditions managed to survive.

Modern Korean martial arts

The history of every modern Korean martial art starts after the occupation and was heavily influenced by Japanese martial arts. These Japanese arts were introduced to Korea during the occupation or brought to Korea by Koreans who had studied in Japan. After the occupation, Korean masters claimed linkage to traditional Korean martial arts like subak and denied any connection with Japanese martial arts, mostly because of the bitterness Korean felt for the Japanese, especially in the first few decades after the occupation.
Although the influence of Japanese martial arts is undeniable and still existent, many modern Korean martial arts have diverged from their Japanese counterparts. Ancient books like the Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji became popular reading and study material for Korean martial artists and influenced the development of many modern Korean martial arts. For example, Koreans who had studied Japanese kendo during the colonization period studied the Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji to rediscover their own cultural heritage and recreated the traditional Korean martial arts.

Some Koreans claim that historically Japanese martial arts came from Korea and thus all Japanese martial arts should be viewed as traditionally Korean. Just as the Japanese turned the martial techniques in older ages into something distinctively Japanese, so too did the Koreans take the Japanese arts and turn them into something that suited their needs. Although martial arts like taekwondo (태권도) and tangsudo (당수도) have their roots in Japanese karate, they have taken their own route of development and transformed into quite unique Korean martial arts. In a same manner hapkido (합기도) developed itself from Japanese Daito Ryu (大東流), but also with influences from traditional Korean and Chinese martial arts, into a distinctively Korean martial art.

Martial arts

In the late 19th - Early 20th Century, Koreans were exposed to Japanese versions of Chinese martial arts such as Shotokan karate. A great deal of systemization of martial arts came from Japan to Korea during Japan's colonization of Korea through outlawing traditional Korean practices and only allowing the Japanese education system to be lawful. Even with the ban on Korean practices some Koreans were able to influence Japan's martial art style, most notably Choi Yeong-Eui, who practiced martial arts in Korea at an extremely young age then moved to Japan and began learning Shotokan karate from Gichin Funakoshi at age 15, then later as an adult he developed Kyokushin karate. Other Korean students in Japan also studied Japanese martial arts. A number were students of Funakoshi. Their mastery of karate led to its modification, developing a new martial art which incorporated Taekyon-style kicks called Taekwondo. Also at the same time, many Koreans studied martial arts in neighboring Manchuria and China. After the 1945 liberation, Korean martial artists made conscious efforts to re-establish Korean martial arts and distance themselves from the influence of Japanese occupation, including incorporating or preserving what remained of traditional Korean arts.

Choi Yong Sul came back from Japan after the war and started teaching a style, which he said he had learned form Sokaku Takeda. He called his style Yawara, but it was later renamed to Hapki Yusool and again renamed to hapkido. Students of Choi Yong Sul like Ji Han Jae helped to spread this art. Hapkido helped re-vitalize traditional Korean martial arts by providing the systemization and becoming incorporated into the other martial art styles. This process complemented modern Korean martial arts like Kuk Sool Won and Hwarangdo.

Many modern Korean martial arts have been influenced by both traditional and imported Korean martial arts, while some have also relied on manual like the Mu Ye Je Bo (무예제보), written in 1599 and the Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji (무예도보통지) written in 1791. The Mu Ye Che Bo was compiled in order to help repell the Japanese invasion of Korea during the Seven Year War. Later it was re-edited and named the Mu Ye Sin Bo (무예신보) and eventually revised again in 1791. These manuals primary focus on battle field tactics and techniques. Only the Mu Ye Do Bo Tong Ji contains a chapter about unarmed fighting, called Kwon Bub (권법). There are also many Korean modern martial arts that are recompilations or reorganizations of techniques from traditional or imported arts. Many of the arts here visually appear to have more of a Chinese influence than other Korean martial arts (except for Taekyon). Others have been influenced by boxing or other Western influences as well.

Additionally, it is not clear who created these arts in the first place in their most ancient form - often, exponents of Korean martial arts argue that Korea in fact created these arts in ancient times, which then passed over to Japan, and then were later re-imported back to Korea. Historically, many cultural features, including Chinese calligraphy, Buddhism, pottery techniques, city design, and political systems, were transmitted from China to Korea, and in modified form, retransmitted to Japan, which further modified them. As with other adjacent cultures, constant borrowings and adaptations in various directions make claims of origin very difficult to prove using only fragmentary evidence.

The forms of martial arts which today can be viewed as being a traditional Korean martial art (as opposed to modern Korean martial arts) is taekkyon and a handful of other Martial arts such as Subyokchigi, Mudokkwan Subakdo and various weapon and archery martial arts as well as Buddhist Martial arts such as Seonmudo and wrestling such as Ssireum. Taekkyon is also the only Korean martial arts which received that status of 'intangible cultural asset' (no. 76) from the Korean government.

Teaching methods

Modern Korean martial arts systemization and presentation are very similar to modern Japanese martial arts, i.e. barefoot, with uniforms, classes executing techniques simultaneously following the teacher's commands, and sometimes, showing respect to portraits of the founder by bowing to the picture or national flags. Many modern Korean martial arts also make use of colored belts to denote rank, tests to increase in rank, and the use of Korean titles when denoting the teacher. These include:

  • Sabomnim (사범님/師範님): teacher
  • Kwanjangnim (관장님/館長님): training hall owner/Kwan leader
  • Dojunim (도주님/道主님): keeper of the way

These Korean terms are based on Confucian rank systems (with the same Chinese characters).

Many schools also make use of Korean terminology and numbers during practice.


Korean martial arts are usually practiced in a dojang (도장/道場) which can also be referred to as cheyukkwan (체육관/體育館, i.e. gymnasium). The practitioners wear a dobok (도복/道服) with a belt or ti (띠) wrapped around it. This belt usually shows which grade the practitioner has. A student usually starts of with a white belt and through a range of colored belts (which differ from style to style) finally gets his or her black belt. The grades before black belt are gups (급/級) while the grades from black belt on are dans (단/段). Some styles use stripes on the black belt to show which dan the practitioner has. It is common for a system to have 9 gups and 9 dans. While it might only take a few months to go from gup to gup, it can take years to go from one dan to the other. Note that most of the above terms are identical to those used in similar Japanese styles (such as karate), but with the Chinese characters read in Korean pronunciation, with a few exceptions (dobok and ti have been altered to fit the Korean language). In some styles, like taekkyon, the hanbok is worn instead of a dobok. The v-neck that many taekwondo uniforms have, was supposedly fashioned after the hanbok.

Styles of Korean martial arts

Traditional Korean martial arts
Martial art Annotations
Chung Do Mu Sool Won (meaning 'True-Way Martial Arts') This was the original form of the martial arts used by the Korean Royal Army, Royal Palace Guards, and Royal Bodyguards. Reference to this form can be found in the Mu Yae Tobo Tongji and the Korean National Archives. This form uses multiple styles of fighting, and unlike many other Korean styles Chung Do retains a fair amount of weapons training. Skills employed vary from joint locks, fist arts, kicking arts, and pressure point throws. Chung Do also incorporates the arts of Jiapsul (Accupressure) and Chimsul (Acupuncture, etc.).
Charyok (차력/借力) (literally meaning 'Stance Art') This is an art that mainly focused on various forms and stances.
Kukkgong(국궁/國弓) Korean archery, making use of a traditional composite horn bow.
Koong Sul
Koong Shi Do
Koong Do Archery
Choson Sebop (조선세법/朝鮮勢法) This is a sword style originated in Chosun. It has many hand and a half techniques along with slicing with little movement.
Seonmudo (선무도/禪武道)/Bulmudo (불무도/佛武道) /Seon-Kwan-Moo These are Korean martial arts passed down by the Buddhist monks and mostly preserved until today
Ssireum (씨름) This is Korean Competition wrestling. It is a folk martial art. The art requires the opponents to grasp each other in the sash belts that they wear. Whoever lets go first is the loser, or the person that falls first through a technique like a throw, trip, or a strike. This art is still used in Korean culture today. Mostly used as a contest in festivals and such.
Subyokchigi (수벽치기) (literally translated, it means 'Bare Block Striking') It is a breaking art in Korea that trains the martial artists to break stone, Metal, and wood with their bare hands. Many martial artists from different art backgrounds take this art to further discipline themselves.
Taekkyon (택견) This is a traditional Martial art that Subak was divided into. It uses many sweeps with straight forward low kicks using the ball of the foot and the heel and flowing crescent like high kicks. There are many kicks that moved the leg outward from the middle and inward from the outside using the side of the heels and the side of the feet. The art also used tricks like inward trips, wall jumping, fake outs, tempo, and slide stepping. the art is also like a dance which the fighter constantly changes his or her stance from his or her left to his or her right by stepping forward and backwards while his or her arms are up and ready to guard. This art requires traditional Korean white robes which were worn commonly in the past of Korea.
Modern Korean Martial Arts
Martial art Annotations
Dahn Mudo This Korean martial art that consists of Korean techniques and Dahn Yoga aspects in breathing and an overflow of energy.
Kumsul (검술/劍術) (literally meaning 'Sword Techniques') Many scrolls were passed down, spoken through mouth, and taught to many young warriors.
Hankumdo This is a Korean sword-art where the basic techniques are based on the letters of the Korean alphabet, hangul.
Gwon-gyokdo (권격도/拳擊道) This is a Korean style of Kick Boxing.
Gyongdang This is a martial art which uses weapons like the sword, Quarter staff etc. Its origin is the Muyedobotongji, and its founder is Grandmaster Lim Dong Kyu
Haidong Gumdo (해동검도/海東劍道) (literally meaning 'Techniques of the Eastern Asian Sword') This is a sword art that claims to have deep roots of Korean martial art history. Its original name was Hae-Dong Gum Sool. It is more concentrated on field techniques and combos rather than having only one opponent.
Hankido (한기도/韓氣道) This is a martial art developed by grandmaster Myung Jae Nam based on both Hapkido and Aikido as well as a lot of own creation.
Hanmudo (한무도/韓武道) This is an art created by Kimm He-Young; a martial arts historian and Martial Artist who made a deep study of Korean culture and arts. This art is also one of the arts that claims to have deep roots in Korean culture. The art consists of many different striking, grappling, and weapon techniques. Its signature feature is the mu han de, or infinity symbol, shaped movement incorporated into blocking, grappling and striking. Han Mu Do should not be confused with a martial art of Han Moo Do.
Han Moo Do Han Moo Do (also Hanmoodo) is a Korean-style martial art founded in Finland by Young Suk. It is mainly practiced in the Nordic countries. Hanmoodo contains almost all sectors of traditional martial arts and its exponents may participate in full-contact competition.
Hapkido (합기도/合氣道) This martial art has the same roots as Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, but many kicks, acrobatics, and weapons added later.
Hoejon Musul (회전무술/回轉武術) This is a form of Korean martial arts that was developed by Grandmaster Myung Jae Ok which uses circular motions in order to direct an opponent's power against him/her.
Hwarangdo (화랑도/花郞道) Hwarangdo is also an art that claims to have deep origins of Korean martial arts. Grand Master Joo Bang Lee claims to have studied with an old hermit master in the mountains with his brother in the past.
Kom Do Kwan A modern Tae Kwon Do Kwan with strong emphasis on Self-Defense oriented techniques originating from the Allen Steen line of the Chung Do Kwan with strong influence from Shotokan, Hapkido and Arnis.
Kumdo (검도/劍道) (literally meaning 'Sword Art') This has the same Chinese characters as Kendo, and refers to the Korean version of Kendo.
Kuk Sool Won (국술원/國術院) This is an art that claims to have deep Korean origins. The art is based on three branches of traditional Korean martial arts: Family/Tribal martial arts, Buddhist Temple martial arts, Royal Court martial arts.
Kwonbup (권법/拳法) (Kwonbup literally means 'Fist Methods') Kwonbup is the Korean translation of the imported Chinese word, quanfa. Various old documents and scrolls in Korea depicted barehand techniques and referred to them as "Kwonbup."
Mudokkwan Subakdo (무덕관수박도/武德館手搏道) Subakdo is the present incarnation of Huang Kee's style of martial arts; previously it was known as Tang Soo Do (some schools still use the latter name). Similar to old-style Taekwondo, there are some unique methods (such as the "reverse roundhouse kick"). Forms taught and practiced include many adopted from Shotokan karate, as well as Huang Kee's own creations; at higher levels certain forms adopted from Chinese martial arts are also taught.
Muye 24 ki (무예이십사기/武藝二十四技) This is a Korean martial art that tries to revive the techniques of the Muyedobotongji.
Shippalgi (십팔기/十八技) This is a martial art that consists of weapons based on the Mu Ye Shin Bo.
Taekwondo (태권도/跆拳道) This is a modern martial art that is based on Korean style kicks and punching techniques that are based on Karate forms. Much of its emphasis is on sparring, similar to that of Kyokushin Karate which is also made by a Korean Choi Yeong-Eui; this is now an Olympic sport.
Tangsudo (당수도/唐手道) (Tang Soo Do (tangsudo) literally means 'Tang Influenced Techniques') Tang Soo Do is the Korean pronunciation of the old way of writing Karatedo (唐手道, i.e. "Way of the Chinese Hand"); for many years, Koreans refered to their striking martial art as Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do (the Korean pronunciation of the new way of writing Karatedo (空手道, "Way of the Empty Hand"). In the West, Tang Soo Do often refers to Huang Kee's specific style of martial arts (see Mudukkwan Subakdo above).
Tugong musul (특공무술/特攻武術) (literally meaning 'Techniques of the Korean Special Forces')
Kang Duk Won A martial art that places more emphasis on punching then kicking.
Yongmudo A modern combination of Taekwondo, Hankido, Ssireum, and Judo developed at Yong-In University.
Youn Wha Ryu This is an advanced system of fighting techniques from almost every available style of martial art
Gongkwon Yusul This is a martial art style combining Taekwondo, Kyokushin, Yudo and Jujutsu.
Lost traditional Korean martial arts
Martial art Annotations
Subak (수박/手搏) (Means '(Empty handed') It is a term that was used for martial arts that didn't involve weapons. (Chinese translation 'Shoubo')
Yusul (유술/柔術) Means grappling martial arts of the past. The Chinese characters are identical to Jujutsu and it is thought by some to have been the origin for Japanese Jujutsu.

See also

External links