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The Origin Of Korean Martial Arts

Every culture has its own methods of how to fight regardless of religion or political beliefs. While you might want to take the moral high road and not fight there are people in this world who won’t give you that option, and than the only thing that remains is to fight. The nation of Korea like so many others found itself fending off invaders, and like others before them they developed martial arts. The two most prominent Korean martial arts styles in existence today are Taekwondo and Hapkido.

Taekwondo dates back to the Silla dynasty in Korea, and was developed for the military. Hapkido, though practiced prior to World War II, came into being after the war and is billed as a purely defensive art. Both of these Korean martial arts are now practiced around the world.

Taekwondo was first taught to the elite Hwarang warriors of the Silla dynasty, an ancient Korean kingdom. The style focuses primarily on kicks, and was included with a soldier’s traditional military training and education. The style was practiced openly for centuries, but the martial art was forced underground during the Japanese occupation and colonization during the early 20th century.

The Japanese were harsh invaders and did their best to change Korean culture, and make the Koreans more like them. The treatment was brutal, but the Japanese did share their martial arts training with the Korean people and those who had the opportunity to train in Japan and China would share what they learned and adapt Taekwondo accordingly. That Japanese influence would shape modern Tae Kwon Do.

When General Choi, the most commonly acknowledged founder of Tae Kwon Do, became older he went to Japan to study. Choi had been studying calligraphy and Taek Kyon in Korea under Han Il Dong and upon arrival in Japan he started to study Shotokan Karate as a student of a Korean named Kim Hyun-soo. After two years of intensive training he was presented with a first Dan Black Belt in Shotokan. He then went to Tokyo University where he was able to visit the Shotokan and perhaps train on occasion under Master Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan.

General Choi earned his second Dan (second degree black belt) in Shotokan and, around this time, he started teaching, and became an instructor at the Tokyo YMCA. (There are pictures of Gen. Choi as a student at the main Shotokan dojo when he was a student in Japan which has been published in “Taekwon-Do Times” magazine.)
Conscripted into the Japanese army in 1943, Choi was posted to Pyongyang where he became involved in the Korean Independence Movement, resulting in his imprisonment. Wanting to maintain good physical and mental health during his imprisonment, he practiced Karate, alone at first, then by teaching it to the staff of the prison and the other prisoners. Until his liberation at the end of the war he practiced and developed much of the martial art.

Becoming an officer in the new Korean Army after the end of the war, he continued to teach his martial art to his soldiers as well as to American soldiers serving in Korea.

His beliefs and his vision of a different approach to teaching martial arts led General Choi to combine elements of Taek Kyon and Karate techniques to develop a modern martial art. He called it TaeKwonDo, which means “the way of the feet and the hands”, and this name was officially adopted on April 11th, 1955.

Taekwondo would eventually be spread around the world by American military personnel stationed in Korea. Among those to train in Korea was a young Air Force enlisted man named Chuck Norris who would go to make martial arts history. As a sport Taekwondo can be exciting, but those with United States military training never saw it as a replacement for what they had already been taught which was Jujutsu. The lack of grappling the ability to deal with modern weapons limits someone who practices Taekwondo. That is not to say isn’t good to train in Taekwondo, but it won’t be an effective self defense system.

Hapkido is another popular Korean martial art that has close ties to the Japanese martial arts as well. Hapkido is a direct adaptation of the popular Japanese martial art Aikido. Many in Korea consider Taekwondo to be a hard martial art while Hapkido is a soft martial art. Just like those who practice Aikido, those who practice Hapkido consider the spiritual side very important and say the martial art is about uniting harmony and energy, and those who practice Hapkido pride themselves in that their martial art is purely self defense. A Hapkido student will try to use their attacker’s energy against them like in other martial arts, but unlike Jujutsu; they always allow the attack make the first move and try to react to the attack.

Korean Martial Arts for Self Defense

Like most martial arts, both Hap Kido and Tae Kwon Do take years to master. But once mastered, will they work in real life self defense. At the end of the day, a punch is still a punch and a kick is still a kick, so you have to look at where the system is today. Tae Kwon Do is an Olympic Sport, like Judo, Wrestling and Boxing; the focus is on the sport rules. Athletes are trained to avoid methods that would get them disqualified. The same can be said for mixed martial arts. While brutal in nature, they are designed for safety.

In the case of the Korean martial art of Hapkido, practitioners focus on less combat and more peace. Like Aikido, Hapkido was developed for people who seek a higher spiritual plane, not combat. The idea of “Combat Hapkido” is about the same as saying “Combat Buddhism”. It just doesn’t make any sense. Hapkido has spiritual intentions NOT combat roots.

Self Defense is not a style or a way of life it’s a skill, a skill that can be easily learned and recalled. If you wish to follow the path of the martial warrior, scholar, then a martial art is what you seek. If you want to know what works, then start training in hand to hand combat. If you want the best of both worlds, do both. A true warrior is a student first.

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