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Korean Martial Arts, tradition and excellence

When we speak about Korean martial arts (무술 or 무예) we generally tend to think of Tae Kwon Do. While it is true that Tae Kwon Do is the most practiced Korean martial art in the world right now, there are more styles that needs to be acknowledged as predecessors of modern Tae Kwon Do. The history of Korean martial arts go far back as the prehistoric era. As the Korean peninsula has been populated by ancestors of Korean people as early as 28th century BC, traditional Korean martial arts have been developed and categorized into three main groups:

  • Sado Musul (tribal martial arts)
  • Bulgyo Musul (budhist martial arts)
  • Gungjung Musul (royal court martial arts)

In 1958, these three groups have been merged into a single modern system known as Kuk Sool Won, an extremely well organized system, which seeks to integrate as a whole, many established Asian fighting arts, as well as developing the mind and trying to bring back the traditional weapon training and fighting.

Fast forward to present day, Korean martial arts are being practiced worldwide, with Tae Kwon Do being so popular that one in a hundred of the world’s population practices some form of it.

Korean Martial Arts - Tae Kwon Do

K Tigers Tae Kwon Do team

But as we already mentioned before, even if it is the most popular style, with many spin-offs, it is not the single one. Below we will go through five of the most popular Korean martial arts and a brief explanation about each (including Tae Kwon Do of course).

1. Tae Kwon Do

Believed to be the most practiced martial art in the world today, Tae Kwon Do is known for it’s acrobatic kicks and graceful movements featuring head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast kicking techniques. Tae Kwon Do was developed during the 1940s and 1950s by Korean martial artists with experience in martial arts such as karate, Chinese martial arts, and indigenous Korean martial arts traditions such as Taekkyeon, Subak, and Gwonbeop.
The main international organisational bodies for taekwondo today are the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF), founded by Choi Hong Hi in 1966, and the partnership of the Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo (WT, formerly WTF), founded in 1972 and 1973 respectively by the Korea Taekwondo Association.
Being immensely popular, starting 2000, Tae Kwon Do is one the only two Asian martial arts (the second being judo) that are included in the Olympic Games.


2. Taekkyon

Taekkyon is an ancient Korean martial arts style first explicitly recorded during the Joseon Dynasty. It teaches practitioners hand-strikes, foot strikes, joint locks, and even head butts. With fluid movements and dance-like steps called “pum balgi” or Stepping on Triangles, Taekkyon aims to apply both the hands and feet at the same time, to unbalance, trip, or throw the opponent. Hands and feet are always used together.
The oldest existing writing source that mentions Taekkyon, is the book Jaemulbo, written by Lee Sung-ji during the Jeongjo of Joseon reign (1776–1800).

“Byeon and Subak are Byeon, Gangnyeok is Mu and all these are called Tak-gyeon (탁견)”

During the Japanese occupation, Taekkyon was made almost extinct, with a resurgence right after the end of the Japanese colonial period in 1945. The last Taekkyeon Master from the Joseon dynasty, Song Duk-Ki, maintained his practice of the art throughout the Japanese occupation and subsequently trained many people in order to ensure the style regeneration.
In 1983, Taekkyeon was given the classification as “Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76” (중요무형문화재 제76호) by the government, while later in 2011, UNESCO included the style on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, being the first and so far, the ONLY martial art to be added to UNESCO’s list.


3. Hapkido

This martial arts is the equivalent of Japanese judo. Mainly a throwing art designed to put people on their backs as quickly as possible and effectively, it also incorporates and relies on strikes.
Hapkido means “the way of coordinating and internal power” and it is thought to have roots in Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu and judo. The records are saying that Choi Yong-Sool (최용술) and Seo Bok-Seob (서복섭), trained together, mixing judo techniques with Daitō-ryū ones, thus developing what is today known as Hapkido. Choi received training in Japan on Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu (a precursor of present day Aikido) while Seo was himself a judo black-belt.
Later, Ji Han Jae (지한재) helped to popularize hapkido as he taught Korean President Park Jung Hee’s body guard the style.
Of course, there are many other grandmasters involved in promoting and refining the style to what it is today, but we are only mentioning the style founding figures that played a vital role in the developing of this traditional Korean martial art.


4. Kuk Sool Won

As mentioned earlier, Kuk Sool Won is the style that emerged from combining the three main groups of Korean traditional matials arts. Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh founded the Kuk Sool Won martial arts system in 1958. In 1974, In Hyuk Suh brought the Kuk Sool Won system to the United States, moving the World Kuk Sool Won Headquarters from Pusan, South Korea to San Francisco, California and eventually moving to it’s permanent location in Tomball, Texas.
Kuk Sool Won roughly translates to “National Martial Art” and it is currently taught in over 500 schools all over the world. The roots of this Korean martial art, are believed to be within the Korean Royal guards training techniques.
In Hyuk Suh trained with his grandfather Myung Duk Suh who was one of the last instructors to the Korean Royal Guard, and he poured his knowledge into his grandson, In Hyuk Suh, with intense training beginning at age five.


5. Tang Soo Do

This Korean martial art is a Karate based style, incorporating fighting techniques from Subak, as well as northern Chinese martial arts. More specifically, the style commonly known as Tang Soo Do combine elements of shotokan karate, subak, taekkyon, and kung fu.
“Tang Soo Do” (당수도) name derives from the chinese Táng shǒu dào, and roughly translates as “The way of the Tang hand”. The style originates from Grandmaster Hwang Kee’s kwan Moo Duk Kwan. In 1936, while Korea was under Japanese occupation, Hwang Kee, who already mastered native Korean styles of Subak and Taekkyeon, was forced to fled to Manchuria by foot, in order to avoid Japanese secret police, given that practice of national martial arts was banned. While in China, he became acquainted with Master Yang, from which he learnt the northern style Yang Kung-Fu.
The style became much more popular outside Korea due to many famous action actors practicing it and promoting it. We can mention Chuck Norris, Aaron Norris, Cynthia Rothrock, Michael Jai White and many other.


All these being said, we thank you for visiting us. Please keep in mind that we have only listed five most popular Korean Martial Arts, while there are many other. Below you can find a non-exhaustive list of the currently practiced Korean styles. We will list thm only by their names and a short description and excluding the five styles we listed above:

  • Gongkwon Yusul – Gongkwon Yusul is a Korean hybrid martial arts that includes elements from Hapkido, Jujutsu, Judo and Boxing.
  • Gungsol – Gongsul is a Korean martial arts focused on traditional archery techniques.
  • Haidong Gumdo – Haidong Gumdo is a Korean martial arts focused on sword techniques. It contains elements similar to Kenjutsu and Iaido.
  • Han Mu Do – Han Mu Do (or Hanmudo) is a Korean martial arts style. It is seen as a “smoother” and more “open hand” cousin to Hapkido. Hanmudo students also train with weapons.
  • Hwa Rang Do – Hwa Rang Do is a Korean martial arts that includes sparring, self-defense, weapons training and grappling.
  • Kyuk Too Ki – Korean kickboxing.
  • Sibpalki – Sibpalki is a Korean martial arts that teaches close combat skills that were utilized in the late 1700s.
  • Soo Bahk Do – Soo Bahk Do is a Korean martial arts that grew out of Tang Soo Do.
  • Ssireum – Ssireum is a Korean martial arts focused on wrestling.

If you think we have omitted something, please feel free to contact us or comment below, suggesting us what to add.

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