The history of Korean martial arts is just as storied and ancient as the more-well known martial histories of its neighbors, China and Japan. Korea has always been in the unique position of serving as something of a geographical bridge between the two nations, but was also even more so a cultural one. Though Korea has its own language, identity, and ethnic distinction, Korean culture was shaped by the intercourse of ideas and influences between these three countries over the centuries and even contributed substantially to the cultures of those same neighbors.
The epitome of the ideals of the Korean martial artist, from ancient times down to the present, are the hwarang warriors of the Silla kingdom, one of Korea's three ancient territories. The hwarang, which translates to "flowering knights," were a band of aristocratic warriors selected from noble families by decree of the king of Silla and trained in the arts of war as well as poetry and aesthetics. The training of the hwarang was heavily influenced by Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism from China, and at the height of their prestige the hwarang were well regarded for their wisdom and seen as a source from which to draw future ministers, statesmen, and generals. The hwarang lived by the following code, which according to a legend, was provided to them by a Buddhist monk:
Although there is a gap of several centuries between the hwarang and the traditional royal court arts of latter times that were handed down to us in Kuk Sool, the existence of the hwarang set a cultural precedent for the tradition of martial self cultivation as an aristocratic and royal pursuit in Korea.
This tradition was revived in the 17th and 18th centuries as a response to a period in which Korea suffered frequent foreign invasions. During these times, kings commissioned the creation of special books like the Muyejebo, Muyesinbo, and Muyedobotongi. These were pictorial works on martial arts which would serve as training manuals for the military and palace guards. These manuscripts are very unique and tell us much about Korea, as they depict the process of syncretization of foreign material and even foreign weapons into Korean martial arts. Much that is familiar in our present Kuk Sool practice can be seen recorded in these ancient manuscripts. With the institution of these works and the training that surrounded them, the development of a rich martial tradition was engendered, reflected in the highly and uniquely trained bodyguards of the royal court of the king of the Chosun kingdom.
The last royal dynasty of Korea was brought to an end in 1910 with the invasion of imperialist Japanese forces. During their occupation, the practices of all martial arts were forbidden, especially the native Korean ones. Many masters left the country or only kept the knowledge of the Korean traditions alive in secret. Eventually, the Japanese invaders allowed the practice and study of Japanese martial arts like judo and karate in Korea, and most would-be martial artists in Korea were left with only these choices for study. Many students did take to them, however, and to these "kong soo do" schools in the Korea of the 1920s and 1930s we owe the beginnings of Tae kwon do.
Though our martial art is not based on karate in the least, there is a portion of it which does come directly from Japan. Because the Korean people were regarded as inferior to the Japanese themselves, the Japanese had a very common practice of taking young Korean children to Japan to serve as slaves. One particular Korean boy, Choi Yong-sul, was taken to Japan at the age of 8 by a candy store owner.
Shortly after his arrival in Japan, the young Yong-sul was abandoned on the streets by his abductor. The police picked him up, and when it was discovered that he had no family in Japan, it was arranged that he be cared for at a Buddhist temple. He lived there in Kyoto under the care of the monk Kintaro Wadanabi. When the time came, the monk asked the young boy which direction he would like for his life to take. The temple was filled with murals and paintings of famous war scenes, so the boy pointed to the figures there on the wall and said that this is what he wanted to be--a martial artist.
The monk Kintaro was a close friend of a certain Takeda Sokaku, the head of Daito-ryu Aikijutsu, an old samurai art of joint locking and grappling. Takeda Sokaku was the instructor for the royal family of Japan and all of the palace officials and upper echelon military. The monk introduced Choi Yong-sul to the martial arts master. The master took pity on the young boy and his situation and adopted him as his son, giving him the Japanese name of Asao Yoshida. The young man lived and trained with his master, Takeda Sokaku, for 30 years and learned every secret and technique of Daito-ryu Aikijutsu in that time.
After WWII, Takeda Sokaku is said to have starved himself to death out of shame for the Japanese defeat by the United States. Since most of the inner circle of Daito-ryu had been killed during the war, Asao would be the likely successor to the Daito-ryu lineage. Before he died, Takeda Sokaku strongly suggested that Asao return to Korea, as it was dangerous for him to stay in Japan as the Korean inheritor to a Japanese martial lineage. He did so and took up his original name of Choi Yong-sul. He opened up an Aikijutsu gym in Korea and began to teach.
The Korean pronunciation of the characters "Ai-ki-do" is "Hap-ki-do", so Choi Yong-sul began to teach his art as Hapkido in Taegue city in Korea. Hapkido has since proliferated worldwide, but Hapkido in all of its forms is rooted in the teachings of Choi Yong-sul.
Mr. Choi taught many Korean students the art of Hapkido; however, there were seven disciples of prime importance: Ji Han Jae, Lee Han Chul, Ming Je Nan, Huh Il Wang, Lee Joo Bang, Suh In Hyuk, and Kim Woo Tak.
These masters were founders of entire movements and schools that exist within the family of Hapkido arts. The men at the beginning of the list are all patriarchs of modern arts that have retained the name "Hapkido," and most Hapkido franchises or schools that one encounters nowadays can be traced back to one of them.
The last three men on the list, on the other hand, were interested in adding to the Hapkido with other martial arts and techniques they had gathered from other sources, especially native Korean arts. In 1960, Lee Joo Bang, Suh In Hyuk, Kim Woo Tak and several others all gathered together under one school to practice a mixture of hapkido and revived native Korean traditions. They called this school the Han Kuk Mu Sool Hyup Hwe, the Korean Martial Arts Association, or Kuk Sool Hwe for short.
The Kuk Sool Hwe was a true potluck of Korean martial arts. Along with hapkido, rare training techniques for kicking which some of them had acquired from Buddhist temples were introduced. Palm striking arts from "shippalgi" and forms from the royal court, which Kim Woo Tak and In Hyuk Suh had family histories in, were shared along with animal forms from Northern white crane and Praying Mantis styles. Weapons were trained, along with Buddhist and Taoist methods of cultivating ki.
In 1964, Kuk Sool Hwe was split. Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh left to found his own Kuk Sool Won Hapkido, and Grandmaster Dr. Lee Joo Bang consolidated his knowledge into the art Hwarangdo, then called "Hwarangdo and Hapkido". Grandmaster Lee Han Chul founded "Bul Mu Do". Grandmaster Kim Woo Tak then founded his own school as Kuk Sool Kwan.
Kuk Sool Won and Kuk Sool Kwan flourished in Pusan and Seoul, respectively. Between the years 1964 and 1974, one could train in the two arts interchangeably, especially if one traveled between Seoul and Pusan. It was during this time that Grandmaster Huh Mon Gil was trained under Yong Q Seo, himself a student of Kim Woo Tak. The open relationship between Kuk Sool Won and Kuk Sool Kwan came to an end when Grandmaster In Hyuk Suh brought his Kuk Sool Won to the United States in 1974, and Grandmaster Kim Woo Tak emigrated to Canada to create an acupuncture clinic in 1975.
In 1982, Grandmaster Huh Mon Gil came to the United States, bringing Kuk Sool Kwan with him. After some adventures in Los Angeles, he eventually settled in Orange County, CA, where he ran small martial arts schools in Anaheim Hills, Orange, and Yorba Linda until 1995. Grandmaster Yong Q Seo followed shortly thereafter, opening his own Kuk Sool Kwan school in Nevada. Grandmaster Yong Q Seo now runs a chain of acupuncture clinics in Seoul, and Grandmaster Huh has settled into a private antiquing business, leaving teaching to a new generation of Kuk Sool Kwan instructors.
As we learn the higher-level forms and techniques of Kuk Sool Kwan, we reflect on how many of them have their roots centuries and even millennia ago in Korean history. As martial artists, we are carrying forward in time the legacies of generations of individuals who devoted their lives to being their best and to testing the limits of their potentials to the fullest. As they have passed such arts down to us for our benefit, so must we insure their legacy for proceeding generations. We owe it to ourselves, to our ancestors, and to humanity at large.