NOTE: This two
part history was originally written in 1966 when Korean karate was
practically unknown. Kim Soo was the first Korean
Black Belt Magazine and this was his first major
article for them.
Korean Karate - The Foundation
The Monks Were Afraid of Bandits and Wild Beasts
(Then) Master Kim Pyung Soo
Korean karate is one of the oldest in the world. In this two part
series its development and growth in Korea will be discussed.
Korea's contributions to karate are varied and fascinating,
and the art has had a rich and colourful history in that land. Yet Korean
karate is probably the least known in the United States of the four major
versions. The average budo fan is much more up on how the art developed in
China, Okinawa and Japan.
true especially of the Japanese styles of karate which have had such a big
impact in the United States. Yet from the standpoint of age, Japan is
strictly a newcomer to the art, having taken it up only in the 20th
century. Okinawans have been around the karate field longer, and can trace
their history back some 400 years.
ancestry of Korean karate can be traced back to the period of the Three
Kingdoms founded more than two thousand years ago. Not long after its
development in China, the early version of the art showed up in the Korean
peninsula. In those days the art was called Kwon Bop, a name which lasted
until recent times
today, Korean karate remains in some ways more faithful to Chinese
versions than do the Okinawan and Japanese. Karate came to Japan, for
instance, after having been filtered through 400 years of turbulent
history on Okinawa, which had adapted the original Chinese versions to its
is known about the early history of Kwon Bop except that it spread into
all parts of the peninsula of what is now Korea. Depending upon the
province, the art went by different names: Suba, Yusul, Sanghak,
the best pieces of graphic evidence we have of Kwon Bop showed up in the
middle of the eighth century in the two beautifully executed statutes on
these pages. By this time Kwon Bop had developed into a flourishing
fighting art, as can be told by an examination of the statues.
works are the best preserved of any major pieces of art on the early
development of Chinese-style fighting techniques. There are some wall
sculptures discovered in China from a century earlier, but certainly these
are nothing in comparison to the finely wrought beauty of these two
sculptures with their fine detail in expression and technique.
two sculptures stand guard outside a temple at Mt. Toham in Kyungju,
flanking the entrance to where a large stone Buddha sits staring
impassively at the art treasures surrounding him. The two sculptures are
called Kum Kang Ryuk Sa, and the forms they are demonstrating could be
considered the same as those of the Palsek (photo at left) and Sipsu
(right) forms of today.
Slaves to Tradition
courageous and hostile expressions of these two fighting men, together
with their challenging poses, stand in distinct contrast to those seen in
almost all other sculptures which emphasize the gentle in the Buddha and
his disciples. The protruding breast muscles and the expression of power
shown in the clenched fists, together with the girded robes, are all part
of the sculptor's efforts to express the dignity of a face contorted with
sculptures show hand techniques in the tradition of the Chinese boxing
style which is the historical taproot of Korean karate. But while the
Koreans remained faithful to basic Chinese styles art, they were not
slaves to that system. They subtly modified techniques even in those early
days, a process that has continued until our own time. The result has been
a style of karate that, while heavily indebted to the Chinese, has been
adapted to the Korean character to produce a unique Korean
instance, the use of foot techniques, which later came to be the
distinguishing feature of Korean karate, was first developed in the
southern provinces in a system called Taik Kyon. Another ancient technique
that is still used is one called Pakchiki, which was developed in the
Northwest provinces. In Pakchiki, the forehead is used for butting an
opponent. In its more vigorous application, a man will fly through the
air, forehead extended, to strike his opponent in the nose or chest, much
in the manner of a soccer player going for the ball with his
became a great national joke in Korea after World War II that when the
Russians temporarily moved into North Korea, they quickly became afraid to
engage in close conversation with the Koreans for fear of getting knocked
cold by a fast pakchiki to the head.
process of change started early. In ancient times, what is now Korea was
divided into three separate kingdoms, and each of them added their
embellishments to Kwon Bop. The Kingdom of Koguryo ruled in the north,
Silla in the southeast, and Paikche in the southwest. After a long series
of wars, Silla emerged victorious over its neighbours and in 668 A.D.
formed a unified kingdom. The Silla period lasted until 935 A.D. It was
overthrown in turn by the warlord Kyonghum, who founded the kingdom of
Koryo from which the western term, Korea, was derived.
lasted, the Sillan kingdom was a high point in Korean history. The period
of its unified rule was a golden age in Korean development, and there were
great achievements scored in science and the arts. The great stone
fighters guarding the temple of Suk Kul Am were sculptured early during
this period. Later numerous figures illustrating Kwon Bop techniques were
sculptured along the eaves of the National Museum at Kungju, ancient
capital of Silla.
Bandits and Wild Beasts
development of Kwon Bop in Korea bears two striking parallels to the
history of the martial arts in China and Japan. Similar to what happened
in China, the Buddhist monks were to be extremely important in the early
growth of Kwon Bop in Korea. And as in Japan where the code of bushido
arose, so in Korea, a code of principles was developed that was to give
Kwon Bop its moral armor plating.
was introduced into the northern kingdom of Koguryo in the fourth century
as part of a general Chinese cultural invasion of the Korean peninsula.
The Buddhist monks were quick to adopt the Kwon Bop fighting styles. As in
China, the art flourished in temple grounds. The monks saw in it a way to
train both their body and spirit.
there was also a practical aspect. Koguryo at that time was a turbulent
area, infested with bandits and wild beasts. The monks did a great deal of
travelling, and to protect themselves on the open road many took up Kwon
monks also had the time to train in the art and they perfected and refined
many techniques. Living by themselves alone in the mountains, they could
train quietly and with the intense concentration demanded by
interesting footnote to history to observe that the Kwon Bop developed in
Koguryo laid stress on free-style sparring 1500 and more years before it
was extensively practiced elsewhere. The only remaining sculpture of Kwon
Bop we have left from the Koguryo kingdom shows two fighters standing face
to face with spear hands upraised. One is poised for offense and the other
for defense in the style of Nalchiki still used today. The sculptures from
the Silla dynasty, in contrast, shows only single fighters doing
emphasis on free-sparring is another great hallmark of Korean karate.
Koreans today engage in numerous free-sparring practices and participate
in tournaments on a scale as in no other country.
Kwon Do association, for instance, holds 10 nationwide tournaments each
year and four promotional meets to select a national champion. Koreans
also don't believe in holding back but attack with enthusiasm. They wear
chest protectors and make hard contact with each other.
during the Silla dynasty that there arose the other great development that
affected Kwon Bop. This was the establishment of the Hwarang-do, a
patriotic group dedicated to cultivating the spirit and the health of
Silla's youth. Infused with the spirit of Buddhism, the Hwarang-do laid
down a moral code that bears many resemblance's to the code of bushido
formulated in Japan.
major commandments of the Hwarang-do were (1) loyalty to the throne, (2)
devotion and duty to one's parents, (3) faithfulness to one's companions,
(4) the prohibition of any retreat from the battlefield, and (5) a bar
against killing any living creature except for defense or
Prepared to Give Their Life
requirements for entering the Hwarang-do were strict. One had to be of
noble birth, learned, and pure in mind and spirit. The organization did
much to shape the future life of its members and set the moral tone of the
of life of the Hwarang-do was moral improvement. The Hwarang (members of
the organization) made pilgrimages throughout the country, noting the
beauty of the majestic mountains and rivers as they trained their bodies
and emphasized the spirit of knighthood. They considered their life to be
as nothing and were prepared to give it on the battlefield in an
only natural for such an organization to be attracted to the study of Kwon
Bop, and many of its members were devoted to the art. Thus Kwon Bop became
part of the official training of the Hwarang-do.
greatest period of Kwon Bop came after the establishment of the Koryo
kingdom in 935 A.D. The kingdom was strongly militaristic in spirit, a
fact necessitated by the need to defend the country against foreign
enemies on many occasions. Founded by a warlord, the soldiers of the Koryo
dynasty were among the finest the country had ever produced, and their
martial spirit and bravery has been an inspiration ever since.
soldiers were enthusiastic practitioners of the art. One of the most
ardent lovers of the art was King Chung Hae, a daring military figure who
was perhaps too bold a man to be unduly concerned about the moral side of
Kwon Bop but who was unstinting in his approval of the physical aspects.
Every Spring and Fall, the king organized competitions which were held in
soldiers of Koryo carried to its furthermost extreme the practice of
toughening up their hands, and the possession of powerful fists was highly
prized. They slammed their fists into blocks of wood and wooden walls.
According to legend, some struck with such force that their hands stuck in
the walls. It was said that the sole reason that two giants of their time,
Lee Yi Min and Kyong Sung Du, were appointed as premier by the king was
because of their powerful fists.