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Several years ago while taking an advanced post-graduate class in Korean folklore and

ethnography, I did considerable academic research into Korea’s popular indigenous

martial arts traditions. Although a long time student of traditional martial arts, as a

cultural historian, I disciplined myself and applied a critical thinking mindset. Over the past

few months, I’ve revisited and revised my work with plans for an article to be submitted to

an academic journal. Your thoughts and input are appreciated. To best share the research,

the article is split into three sections.

Korean Folk Martial Arts: A Cultural History Perspective

By Don Southerton


Martial arts traditions on the Korean peninsula reach back centuries. Across much of

Korea’s long history unarmed combat arts were seen as a military skill and a popular (folk)

activity. For example, from the late 4th century, Koguryô Kingdom Anak tomb wall

paintings depict fighters engaged in combat matches. Over a millennium later in the Chosôn

Dynasty (1392-1910) and following the Japanese invasions of late 16th century, King Sunjo

commissioned military officials to compile the Muye jebo-- a treatise on contemporary

fighting systems. The work evolved over the next two hundred years into an official

textbook, the Muye dodo tongji, which included kwon pup (fist technique). 1 Fig. 1.

1Sang H. Kim, Muye Dobo Tongji: Compete Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts
(Wethersfield, CT: Turtle Press, 2000), p. 13.


2Jane Portal. religion. Finally. and entertainment. a third section will discuss the legitimacy of claims made by modern martial arts that link their arts to ancient roots. The tomb art depicts daily life and is an invaluable source of information on the occupants and events in their lives. Korea. architecture. 2 . which would imply martial arts were a common activity. 47- 49. historical accounts of indigenous Korean martial arts reach back to wall paintings in the Koguryô Anak Muyongchong tomb. including costumes. South Korean government policy. Art and Archaeology (New York: Thames and Hudson. pp. modernity. A second forthcoming work will examine the impact of Japanese Colonialism. (Fig. Fig. 1 Kwon pup This first section of the essay will survey written and visual records--from the Three Kingdom Period (57-668) through the late Chosôn Dynasty and early Colonial Period (1910-1945)--for accounts of popular martial arts practice. 2). 2000). 2 Murals depict combat matches. and standardization of folk martial arts. An Overview As noted.

in 995 A. military (muban) and scholars (munban). 4Unlike Japan where the ruling gentry. in Korea the gentry was Neo-Confucian intelligencia. was a warrior class. MA (Harvard University Press.4 One 3 Na Hyon-song. were renowned for their prowess in subak. with the munban gaining hegemony for nearly 900 years. what were once popular indigenous martial arts practices were suppressed by the aristocratic upper class (yangban) and pushed to the fringes of society— the elites instead favoring the Confucian tradition of scholarship and the classic arts.D. two acclaimed practitioners. 33. 3 . 1991) p. The Confucian Transformation of Korea (Cambridge. In addition. 3 With the social-political transformation that accompanied the subsequent dynastic change in the late 14th century. 2 Anak #3 Tomb Illustration of Combatants It was however during the Koryô Dynasty (980 -1392) that indigenous martial arts were identified in text as subak or subakki. See Martina Deuchler. Fig. samurai. p.. Korea’s domestic military arts that included hand–to-hand combat were influenced by those of Ming China (kwonpup. Lee Ui-min and Du Kyông-sung. For example. shipp’al ki)--the new dynasty embracing all things Chinese. Han'guk ch'eyuk kyokuska yon'gu (Seoul: Kyohaksa. 1992). 41. A defining split occurred between Korea’s ruling elite. according to historic records of the Koryô Dynasty.

Moreover. taekkyeon). those kwan not aligning with government policy were suppressed. Nevertheless. the ruling class of yangban Confucian elites saw little value in popular martial arts (subak. these texts focused on training for the wisa (king’s guard) and the military. 76 under the 1962 Cultural Properties Protection Law. military experts sought out battle-tested techniques. usually follow the McCune-Reischauer (MR) method of Romanization. However. for the civilian population.exception was archery (kung do). over the next 200 years. highlighted in italics. Similar to many traditional folk arts practiced by the Chosôn masses. 6 Over time they were marginalized. One exception is taekkyeon. Following the liberation of Korea in 1945. the reader will see a number of Korean terms. 5 In fact. twentieth century Japanese colonial occupation forbade practice of native martial arts forcing devotees to train in secrecy. few text accounts of popular martial arts exist today—the elites like in many other civilizations favoring and documenting “high culture” arts. which is the most popular spelling among its current practitioners. advocates of Korean folk martial arts looked to re-introduce taekkyeon. which were further chronicled in the Muye dobo tongji (The comprehensive illustrated manual of martial arts). These schools (kwan) grew in popularity with most eventually unified under the name Taekwondo during the 1961-1979 regime of President Park Chung Hee. modern schools of Korean martial arts opened to the public— most rooted in Japanese and Chinese systems. which grew in popularity and was deemed an appropriate “high culture” activity. 6 In this work. They found government support and in 1983 taekkyeon was designated Intangible Cultural Asset No. CPPL 5 Ibid. In fact. 4 . These terms. By the 1980s.

traditional folk events such as bridge crossing. Witdae was also known as sangch’on (higher village). For example. including the witdaepae and araetpae. contests between villages were called kyôllyôn taekkyeon. people from that area along with those from Chôlla-do gathered around on Tano (Buddhist All Souls' Day) and Ch’usôk (Fall Harvest Festival) to compete in ssirum (wrestling) and taekkyeon matches. Text Culture Since folk martial arts existed outside of the sphere of the elites only a few written culture sources document Chosôn folk martial art practice. was not an exclusively rural art form. and stone-throwing contests drew inhabitants from the capital region. which was published in 1530. The locale of these events was near the Cheonggyecheon stream. without weapons. in an article on Chosôn life in Seoul. the two groups. lotus lantern lighting. In taekkyeon. a village in the Unjin-hyôn region of Ch’ungch’ong-do. mainly by using the hands and feet. and p’younssam sôchôn (stone throwing). Araedae. t’alchum (mask dances). however.(Munhwajae pohobôp). practitioners won by felling their standing opponents. Folk activities at these festivals also included kune (swings). Accounts tell that outside the daily activities of domestic life. specifically this was the area north of the Kwangtongkyo Bridge that extended to Inwangsan. kite flying. the Cheonggyecheon stream banks served as a community focal point. One account is described in Dongkuk yôji sungnam (Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea). Early in the dynasty. which was an urban waterway flowing from east to west through the center of Seoul. With regard to martial arts contests. participated in taekkyeon competition. we find the name in common usage shifting from subak to taekkyeon. Taekkyeon. commonly known as the hach’on (lower village) was the area south of the Hyokyôngkyo 5 . It stated that in Ch’akji. On holidays.

taekkyeon matches began with children’s competition and advanced to adult level. taekkyeon was most commonly performed near the Hunginchimun. Cho noted the painting’s subject matter was indicative of activities prior to the mid-nineteenth century. 1846) two unmarried men engaged in a taekkyeon match (see Fig. 3 and 4) 7. Korea genre paintings are recognized as an accurate visual representation of culture and customs of Chosôn society. 210-212. The crowd of spectators. was popular and rooted in the daily lives of Korean 7 Portal. folk martial art practice is documented in genre painting (pungsokhwa) of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In Soo Cho. both commoners and yangban. p. 2000). pp. On the day of the contest. Korea. In the latter area.Bridge. Art and Archaeology. ed. a Korean art historian commented that many of the nineteenth century genre paintings were reproductions of artwork dating back many decades. Visual Culture Although limited text accounts exist. Kwanghuimun and Yôngdokyo Gates. Arts of Korea (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 132. Judith G. Thus. 6 . In Taek’aedo (Competition Painting) attributed to artist Yusuk (circ. conveys a feeling that taekkyeon. those with the highest skills performing last. Smith. This event continued regularly into the last days of the Chosôn Dynasty until it was banned under Japanese rule.

Fig. 4 Insert of taekkyeon match from Taek’aedo Colonial Suppression 7 . 3 Taek’aedo (Competition Painting) Genre Painting of Ssirum and Taekkyeon Matches Fig.

At times. Vermont. 1996).With the exception of grand events such as Seoul’s kyôllyôn taekkyeon. noted American ethnologist Stewart Culin. See also Ch’oe Yông-nyôn. 414. Charles E. 11 The author. pp. 1998). 1995). the matches resulted in serious injuries and eventually the authorities banned public matches. widespread public martial arts practice appears to have declined in its popularity during the last decades of the Chosôn Dynasty. Taejong 14 (1925). The journalist and pioneer of nationalistic history work stressed the distinct identity found in Korean culture. based the book on research that stemmed from the Korean exhibit at the 1893 8Lee (Yi) Yong-bok. And. iii. (Cambridge. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization. 11Stewart Culin. 1958) p. Japan (Rutland. 369-370. 9 Significantly. vol. p. mentions taekkyeonhui. author Ch’oe Yông-nyôn. China. Chosôn sanggosa (reprint: Seoul: Ilsin Sojôk Ch’ulp’ansa. 8 . 1984). A New History of Korea. which was published in the 1920s. Tuttle and Company. Wagner. 10 In addition to Korean sources a western work published in 1895. Sin noted taekkyeon’s ancient past and one time popularity. Games of the Orient: Korea. 15. the Haedong chukchi. lists taekkyeon as both children’s folk activity and wagering sport for adults. p. In one account of the public matches. MA: Harvard University Press. 8 The Haedong chukchi reported that there was an old tradition of wagering on which opponent would fall to the ground after being tripped or kicked. Korean Games with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan. 9Ki-baik Lee. Taekkyeon (Seoul: Taewon. 10 Sin Ch’ae-ho. trans. Edward W. Peter Lee. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press. An additional Korean account of the period from Sin Ch’ae-ho’s Chosôn sanggosa (1931) (History of Ancient Korea) also mentions taekkyeon. Haedong chukchi (Kyôngsông: Changhaksa.

Internet. 13Ibid. 2004.. See also “Korea in the White City: The Kingdom of Korea at the World’s Columbian Exposition. His feet. Contemporary taekkyeon practitioners call this stepping movement: pum-bap- gi. (Fig. 12 Under section “XXXII Htaik-Kyen-Ha-Ki [sic]– Kicking. 14 Most of the delegation sent by King Kojong to represent the Hermit Kingdom at the exposition spoke no English. This can be done on the right or the left side. always stand in one of three positions.Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 5) The image depicts children performing a taekkyeon movement. shifting weight on to the other leg and continue. They take their positions with their feet apart. the lower lead-leg positions are also consistent with martial arts techniques used to trap and trip an opponent. and is caught with the hands. Interestingly. p. The object [of catching the high kick] is to throw the opponent. the arm positions of the players. p. He moves that leg back and kicks in turn. accessed July 4. the feet are moved in a triangle motion. In this basic stepping motion.’ Available at http://www2. facing each other. therefore. 9 . Moreover. and each endeavors to kick the other’s foot from under him. One leads with a kick at one of his opponent’s legs. 39. are similar to that of the genre paintings. chiefly with the feet. A player may take one step backward with either foot to a third place. The actual movement is done by taking one step forward.htm. A high kick is permitted. This visual record also supports written accounts about early twentieth century taekkyeon and shares that the folk activity was one even children still” Stewart writes: Htaik kyen-ha-ki is a combat between two players. The delegation relied upon the translations skills of Pak Yôn- kin who already lived in America.hawaii. back and forth. 12 Ibid. a trademark of taekkyeon. v. 13 14 A final record of popular taekkyeon practice is found in a missionary photograph of the early 1900s.

The validity of inferring from static visual art forms and limited historical text a strong link to modern Korean martial practice. In addition. Two forthcoming articles will look at: 1. as noted. Fig. 2. Analysis of these sources show folk martial arts was highly integrated in popular society—despite marginalization by the Neo-Confucian intelligencia. The impact of Japanese Colonialism. 5 Children Performing Taekkyeon Conclusion By 1909. Nevertheless. A decade later in 1920 practice of taekkyeon was outright forbidden under bolder Japanese assimilation policy. Japanese Colonial policy in preparation for formal annexation forbade the practice of Korean military and combat arts. public taekkyeon matches were stopped. About the Author Don Southerton has held a life-long interest in Korea and its rich culture. He has authored 10 . modernity. records of Korea’s popular indigenous martial arts traditions have been preserved in text and illustration. and modern era South Korean government policy on folk martial arts and its revival.

provides consulting and training to Korea-based global business. 11 . Southerton has been an avid student of traditional martial arts for nearly 40 years.-Korean business ventures. and early U.9 books which topics center on culture. entrepreneurialism. Bridging Culture Worldwide. His firm.S. Southerton also extensively writes and comments on modern Korean business culture and its impact on global organizations.