In the past few decades Korean martial arts have gained a lot of popularity in the West. Taekwondo, an Olympic discipline, is even the martial art with the largest amount of practitioners world wide. But how Korean are these martial arts? Is it even possible to call a martial art Korean, or Japanese or Chinese? I will try to answer these questions in this post. Before I will try to formulate my answer we first have to establish what a martial art is and what martial development took place on the Korean peninsula in times now past. What is a martial art? Ever since people roamed the African savannah they have fought each other. Which methods they used in prehistoric times is of course unknown. It is only by looking at the kind of weapons that were used, that we get an idea. What we see is that weapons became sophisticated early on. The oldest arrow heads date from 64000 years ago. The use of sticks and spears predate the use of bow and arrow. Although we don’t have sources that describe the techniques, we can be sure that sticks were used to hit, spears to stab and arrows to be shot. Weapons in these days were not only weapons, but tools as well. The weapons of prehistoric man probably found their origin in the hunt. With the dawn of early settlements we also see the formation of armies. These armies needed to be instructed and trained. For a long time this kind of training was only available to soldiers who served in the army and since soldiers often had to provide their own equipment, it was often the job of nobles and professionals. Training for war means training with weapons. So instruction was always focused on the use of weapons and preparing for armed battle. The Korean word for martial art is Muye (무예). Mu means ‘war’ or ‘heroic’ and Ye means art. The Chinese character for Mu is 武 and we also see this same character in the names that the Chinese and Japanese use for their martial tradition. You could also say that Muye is the art of armed fighting. In the last century we have seen a shift in where people started to consider unarmed methods of fighting to be martial as well. This, as we have just seen, wasn’t always the case. Does this mean that in the old days the army didn’t practice methods of unarmed fighting? No it doesn’t, but unarmed methods were used to prepare the soldiers for armed methods of fighting and to condition their bodies. Much like in modern days soldiers practice sports to stay in shape. It also should be noted that with the shift of emphasis the practice of martial arts also made a shift from being in the domain of the army to being in the domain of the public. Not only within the army did people fight each other, also outside the army did fighting skills have their place. However these fighting skills were usually in the domain of public entertainment and strictly speaking didn’t belong to the martial arts. Later we will see that this changed. When fire arms came to the scène, the role of traditional weapons slowly faded. Just as the unarmed fighting skills before these traditional methods now became an instrument to keep soldiers fit and focused. Many skills disappeared completely. In Japan armed skills found their way to the public school system. Students practiced Kendo and Judo for physical education. When Japan occupied Korea in the first half of the twentieth century these arts were also taught in Korean schools. So what we have seen is that traditionally martial arts were the domain of the army and that armed skills were considered most important. With the shift from army to public domain the unarmed skills started to become more popular. Where first the unarmed skills were to support the armed skills, now we often see that the other way around. Martial arts in Korea Now that we have come to the conclusion that martial arts include both armed and unarmed skills, it is time to look at the development of martial arts on the Korean peninsula. We will have to look at two different lines of development, those within the army and those outside the army. Army traditions Development in the first domain is easy to follow since the year 1598. In this year a martial arts manual with the title Muyejebo was first published. In the late sixteenth century Japan had invaded Korea with the goal to eventually attack China and become the main force in Asia. With the help of China and their strong fleet the Koreans eventually managed to push the Japanese back. The strategies used by the Chinese were written down in a book called Ji Xiao Xin Shu. The Koreans got their own copy of the book and studied it which eventually let to the creation of the Muyejebo. In 1610 the first revision was published under the name Muyejebo Beonyeoksokjip, in 1759 the Muyesinbo and eventually in 791 the Muyedobotongji. In the Muyejebo we find among others descriptions of sword, spear and trident techniques. In the Muyesinbo there is a chapter about unarmed fighting skills. The chapter with the title gwonbeop (literally: fist techniques) does not only contain descriptions but illustrations as well. This is proof that in the Korean army unarmed fighting skills were part of the program. The Muyedobotongji is a comprehensive work that mostly interests scholars because it was written in a time just before the rise of firearms as the most important weapons on the battlefield. Of course firearms had existed for a few hundred years already. Portuguese muskets were one of the reasons why Japan could advance so quickly in the sixteenth century. Dutch sailors who got shipwrecked in Korea in the seventeenth century were used by the Korean king for their knowledge about firearms. However it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that firearms were of such good quality yet so inexpensive that they completely pushed traditional weapons from the scene. All these developments took place during the Joseon dynasty (1392 – 1897). Which methods were in dynasties before that is unknown. We don’t have manuals like those from the Joseon dynasty that describe techniques or tactics used. We do know from history that fighting did take place and we can look at weapons that were used during those times. The Muyesinbo does contain a chapter titled ‘bongukgeom’ which supposedly describes techniques from the Silla dynasty (57 BC – 935). However between the end of the Silla dynasty and the writing of the Muyesinbo lie more than 800 years. When we realise that knowledge of this style was lost in Korea but later rediscovered in Chinese writings, we can see that already in early times styles didn’t limit themselves to one geographic area. Civilian traditions Fighting skills were not only practiced in the army, also in public life people practiced skills mostly for public entertainment. Wrestling matches (ssireum) were held regulary and in Korea the game of taekkyeon appeared. Writings about these matches are found in records of both the Goryeo and Joseon dynasty, but there are no extensive descriptions of the techniques used. These ‘sports’ were divided in two categories, wrestling styles were called gakjeo, styles that used striking techniques were called subak. People sometimes betted heavily on these games which eventually led to the prohibition of these games, but they never completely disappeared from public life. Because no one at that time ever wrote about the technical aspects of the sports, we can’t say anything with much certainty about these games. We do have pictures from the Joseon dynasty in which we see people engaged in sirreum and taekkyeon but not a lot can be made up from them. Wrestling styles can be found world wide and the styles from China, Korea, Japan and Mongolia seem to have a lot in common. It is safe to say that many of the techniques in use these days have been used in centuries past as well. How much modern taekkyeon still reflects the traditions of subak is something we will probably never know. Modern development What is important for our story is that had the end of the nineteenth century in Korea there existed two ways to learn how to fight. The official way, which was through the army with a big focus on the use of weapons, and the civilian one which was mostly about empty hand fighting. Japanese occupation From 1910 until 1945 Korea came under Japanese colonial rule. This period is a black page in the Korean history, much of the rich Joseon culture was lost during this time and Japanese culture and customs were introduced. With that, it needs to be said; also a lot of modernization reached the Korean peninsula in this period. The Korean army was dissolved and knowledge from the Muyedobotongji was no longer actively being transferred. The Korean school system was restructured and Japanese martial arts like Judo and Kendo were introduced. Korean students went to Japan to study and learned Karate which they later brought back to Korea. Judo was called Yudo, Kendo was called Geomdo (or Kumdo) and Karate was known by the names Gongsudo and Tangsudo. Both Koreans and Japanese use Chinese characters but the pronunciation is often different. 劍道 is pronounced as Kendo in Japan, but Koreans say Geomdo. After the occupation the Koreans started a process of rebuilding their country and their culture. A process that wasn’t always carried out with the greatest care. The emphasis was much stronger on rebuilding the country and the economy. Korea is the school example of what is called a reinvented culture. On the martial arts side many Japanese martial arts that had been introduced during the occupation were ‘Koreanified’. From Tangsudo and Gongsudo the modern martial sport of Taekwondo arose. Other styles became a mixture of Korean and Japanese elements, Hapkido being the most obvious one. Hapkido is a mixture of Japanese Aiki Jujutsu and techniques from the public fighting systems. Hapkido shares its name with Japanese Aikido, both use the Chinese characters 合氣道, but instead of Hapkido being the Korean version of Japanese Aikido both arts actually share the same root in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujustu. Like I mentioned before, the process of reinventing their culture wasn’t always done with the utmost care. Often the Japanese root of certain traditions was obscured by making up nonexistent historical links. Although most of this has been debunked already, it is not uncommon to find organizations that link their martial tradition to ancient Korean institutes like the Hwarang from the Silla dynasty or claims that murals from the Goguryeo dynasty (37B – 668) depict ancient Taekwondo techniques. How Korean are Korean martial arts? To say that modern Korean martial arts are only Japanese martial arts with a different name, would be to short sighted. Korean elements have always played an important role in the adoption of Japanese martial arts and as we have seen before exchange of martial arts has always happened and will always happen. It is all part of the natural process. It is just that in the last few decades this process has happened very fast in Korea. Another aspect that I want to mention is the influence that the spread of Korean arts had on these arts. When Korean martial arts reached the West there was already a perception of what martial arts should be like, again mainly coloured by the Japanese traditions. Of Korean traditions, and to a lesser extent the Chinese traditions, it was expected that they followed the path as the Japanese traditions. Generally speaking Japanese tradition grew up in a culture of Zen Buddhism, Korean traditions from before the occupation developed in a Confucian culture. The new martial arts that arose in Korea after the war were too fragile and often choose to follow the Japanese tradition. It is good to know that the old Korean martial traditions didn’t completely vanish. With the help of manuals like the Muyedobotongji and other historical records scholars can recreate the techniques and methods of the Joseon dynasty very accurately. Apparently some of the instructors that worked in the army passed on their legacy to civilians during the occupation as well. Sirreum and Taekkyeon survived the Japanese occupation as well and are still being practiced in Korea. In the last decade or so Taekkyeon has become a popular martial art in Korea again and is spreading to other countries as well. We can ask ourselves if talking about martial arts as being from a specific geographic area is a valid thing to do. We have seen that martial traditions around the Asian continent have influenced each other constantly since ancient times. The techniques used are never unique. There are only some many ways you can throw, kick or hit your opponent. It is not like Chinese people have different limbs from Korean people who are not all that different from Japanese people. Usually people only have two arms, two legs and one torso which limits the possibilities of what is humanly possible. The differences lie more in how a culture has treated their martial tradition that made the difference. One last thing, this article wasn’t written to blame the Japanese people for the decline or disappearance of certain Korean martial traditions. The truth is more complicated than just that. The article contains many generalizations and there is lot more to tell about this subject. For example the influence of Buddhist armies on the Korean traditions, the Byeolmuban armies of the Goryeo dynasty and Korea’s archery traditions are just a few of the elements that didn’t play a role in this article but have had their influence on Korean martial traditions just as much.