History | Way of Life | Ancient Martial Arts | The Birth

History of Korea and its Ancient Martial Arts

Korea has a long martial arts history. In 1935 Japanese archaeologists exploring the Tung-hua province of Manchuria discovered tombs dating back to the 10th Kingdom of Koguryo. Murals on the ceilings of the Kak-Je and Myong-chong temple depict figures in fighting postures.

The Sok Kul An Buddist cave temple is guarded by a statue of Kumgang Yuksa, a famed warrior who served during the reign of King Hye-Gong, also stands in a martial arts pose. These depictions of ancient martial poses gives testament to the fact that martial arts and fighting technique go back to ancient times in Korea.

The early history of the Korean peninsula is a ubiquitous blend of tribal warfare and invasion by peoples to the north. There are few facts, but some artifacts from this period. Early Chinese records indicate some early tribal peoples.

In 109 BC the Chinese invade northern Korea and establish a measure of control over the Korean peninsula for 400 years. During this period of Chinese influence, many of the local tribes unified to form the Koguryo Kingdom under King T’aejo. The Koguryo were said to be a nation of fierce warlike people.

The 4th century AD is known as the time of the three kingdoms, Koguryo, Silla, and Baek Je respectively. There are artifacts from this period indicating that the Koreans may have practiced ancient form of the Chinese martial art Kwonbop. By the end of the seventh century AD the Korean peninsula was unified under the Silla Kingdom.

Silla’s success was partially due to its military class. During this time an elite paramilitary youth group known as the Hwarang flourished. The primary goal of the Hwarang was to nurture and develop the talent of young upper class males. The Hwarang were organized on a local basis with a defined social and rank structure and were a national example for morality and spirit.

They learned traditional values such as communal living, friendship, and mutual understanding through training in the arts of military tactics, poetry, music and many others. During the unification wars the Hwarang were noted as fierce warriors displaying not only skills in military tactics but also proficiency in the martial arts, such as wrestling, Soo Bak-Gi, and Taekyon (ancient kicking based martial arts adapted from games).

The Hwarang were given five precepts for secular life by the Buddhist monk Won’gwang:

        Serve your lord with loyalty.
        Serve your parents with filial piety.
        Use good faith in your communication with friends.
        Face battle without retreating.
        When taking life, be selective.


The peace that followed diminished the need of the Hwarang as a military organization. The organization the began to focus more on the development of arts.

In 936 AD the Silla Dynasty fell to the Koryo (an abbreviation of Koguryo) Dynasty under the leadership of strong war-lord named Wang Kon. The modern name of Korea is derived from the Koryo Dynasty. During the Koryo Dynasty Soo Bak regained popularity as a sport.

The Koryo Dynasty lasted until the 13th Century and became a participant in the Mongols activities on conquest. Koryo was used as a launching ground for the Mongols attacks against Japan which were ultimately thwarted by heavy storms. By the 14th Century the Chinese Ming Empire began expand into Koryo Dynasty as the Mongols withdrew. Yi Songgye came into power in Koryo in 1392; Buddhism was replaced by Confusionism as the official religion of the dynasty.

Confucianism’s emphasis on classical Chinese thinking, which down played the more physical aspects of life and encouraged music, reading, poetry and other classical arts suffocated the development Korean Martial Arts. The Yi Dynasty lasted until 1910 when Korea was annexed by Japan. The final King of the Yi Dynasty sat on the throne for a mere 24 days before the new treaty with Japan stripped him of all power.

The Japanese undertook immediate efforts to subdue the Korean people. The Korean language press was immediately banned. Japanese became a compulsory subject in all schools. Much of Korean culture was frowned upon or banned including Korean martial arts. When Japan entered World War II, many Koreans especially those living in Japan were impressed into military service.

Near the end of the war, the United States invaded Korea to push back the Japanese and to gain control the post-war occupation of the Southern Korean Peninsula. In 1948 Korea was divided into the Republic of Korea (South), with Syngman Rhee as President under American control and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) under Soviet control. Both North and South Korea claimed rights to all of Korea. In 1950 the North Korean Military invaded South Korea beginning the Korean War which lasted until July 27th, 1953.
History | Way of Life | Ancient Martial Arts | The Birth