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VIDEO: Must watch the video of Taekkyeon, a traditional Korean martial art.
1. What is Taekkyon
Unlike many hard, external Korean arts which are best suited for younger students, Taekkyon can be practiced well into old age. Because all movements are intended to harmonize with the structure of the human body, techniques are natural and minimally stressful. Part of the reason for this stems from the art’s abandonment of normal warm-up and stretching exercises. Instead, the basic techniques, interspersed with brief series of hand pats along the length of tight muscles, provide the necessary muscle stretch and circulation boost. Song Duk-ki proved Taekkyon’s therapeutic side effects by training daily until the age of 94. Shin Han-seung continued until he died at the age of 60.
More sensible is to strike a hard target with a softer weapon-the palm heel, for example. Conversely, Taekkyon teaches that an attack to the fleshy mid-section is more effective if the striker uses a hard weapon such as the knee or elbow. Lee Yong-bok explains that, unlike most other fighting styles which advocate performing a linear technique and then finishing it, Taekkyon teaches students to continue techniques past their potential point of impact.
Taekkyon fighters move with a rhythm which beginning students sometimes learn while traditional Korean drums and bamboo flutes keep time. This rhythmical motion into and out of attack range further differentiates the style from all others. Similar movements have been found in the “tal chum”, the centuries-old Korean mask dance. Herein lies another of Taekkyon’s differences: During this continuous body motion, the arms constantly move up and down, out and back, and from side to side, confusing the opponent as to exact target locations. When combined with nimble footwork in four directions and occasional evasive jumping, a Taekkyon stylist becomes more difficult to hit.
Taekkyon’s kicks have proved so effective that the style does not even include among its hand strikes a traditional jab or reverse punch. The kicks are so legendary that, for hundreds of years the name of the art was synonymous with foot-fighting. However, the kicks bear little resemblance to the typical spinning and jumping maneuvers glorified in tournaments and film. Instead, Taekkyon leg techniques are simple and direct, focusing on linear moves but including limited usage of circular and spinning kicks. Taekkyon has traditionally emphasized stepping and stamping techniques directed at the opponent’s lower legs and feet.
In conclusion, it seems obvious that Taekkyon is the only plausible candidate for the descendant of ancient “subak”. Its verifiable history of at least 150 years, during which its name was used in historical records, far exceeds that of any other Korean martial art. It is the only Korean fighting system that cannot be easily connected to modern Japanese and Chinese martial arts, and its skills and techniques greatly differ from those of other modern Korean styles. The evidence presented above persuaded the Korean Cultural Property Preservation Bureau that Taekkyon was a unique and historical martial art. Unfortunately, it is doubtful the arguments will ever convince masters or students of competing Korean styles that Taekkyon is Korea’s oldest fighting art.
Top 2. Origin of Taekkyon
The histories of the various Korean martial arts differ somewhat from those of other countries. Certain individuals claimed to have been the sole creators of most Japanese, Chinese and Okinawan styles. Koreans do not teach that their arts had a purposeful, directed creation, but rather a gradual evolution. And so it is with Taekkyon. One of the few current experts in the skills and history of Taekkyon is Lee Yong-bok of Pusan, Korea. According to him, the fighting arts have evolved alongside mankind ever since he has had to coexist with other men. Human nature itself made this necessary. One person alone cannot take responsibility.
It was more than 5,000 years ago when humans started migrating to the Korean peninsula from the adjacent parts of China. Quite some time after that, a distinct fighting art slowly began to develop. It was called “maen son mu yea” or empty-hand martial art. Whether it was brought in from China by immigrants or actually started in Korea is not certain. But over time, maen son mu yea must have diverged from any possible connection it might have had with another art, making it the first distinctly Korean style.
A Joseon dynasty scholar named Shin Chae-ho devoted a great deal of his life to the history of Taekkyon. Among his conclusions was that this was the martial art of the nobility during the Goguryo period for reasons of both personal defense and physical well-being. The Hwarang warriors of the Silla dynasty were famous throughout Korea. Over the centuries, their martial art came to be known as hwarang-do, at least in the West. But Shin contended that these young warriors were really trained in Taekkyon, and it was only after their amazingly successful exploits became legend that their art’s name was altered in their honor. Another of his claims, sure to be disputed by followers of other arts, is that the ancient art of Taekkyon was, in fact, the inspiration for some styles in neighboring Japan and China. Specifically, judo’s locks and throws and drunkard-style kung fu’s hand techniques are identical to Taekkyon movements, he wrote.
But as all things in life do, Taekkyon reached its peak. The king and his court were practicing it. Soldiers drilled daily in the deadly aspects of it. And even the common man enjoyed it for its defensive techniques mixed with dance-like rhythms. But with the advance of technology came the introduction of firearms. No longer would hand-to-hand combat be so essential a factor in warfare. And so began the stagnation and eventual decline of Taekkyon.
The military abandoned it first, and then the royalty. Only commoners continued, until Taekkyon came to be called the martial art for the average man. And for quite some time after that, things remained as such.
Perhaps the darkest period in Korean history was from 1910 to 1945, when Japanese forces occupied the entire nation. All forms of art and culture, including Taekkyon, were suppressed in the hopes of destroying the people’s strong nationalistic spirit. Historical accounts tell how a sword-wielding Japanese soldier was attacked and killed by a Korean man. The victor was armed only with Taekkyon. Subsequently, the Japanese military outlawed all practice and teaching of it, partly out of revenge and partly out of fear. So, as with so many other martial arts in the world, Taekkyon went underground. It was secretly and diligently practiced, improved and handed down to a select few individuals. As the number of students at times fell to zero, the art balanced on the verge of extinction.
It was not until 1968 that the public was exposed to Taekkyon. It took that long for Song and Shin to completely organize and systematize the art and their teaching method, and to prepare the facilities necessary for instruction. It was also in that year that a kind of martial arts “feud” erupted between the followers of Taekwondo and Taekyon, which in a way helped with the publicity drive. Both tried for approval as Intangible Cultural Assets, and both claimed to be the only traditional martial art of Korea. Taekkyon declared that it was the original creation, while opponents insisted that Taekkyon was merely a subset of Taekwondo. In the end, an impartial board ruled that the two arts were, in fact, different, but neither one was proclaimed a cultural asset.
Top 3. History of Taekkyon
daegedo.jpgIt should be noted that many Korean writers use the terms “subak” and “taekkyon” somewhat interchangeably when describing martial arts prior to the Yi dynasty. In reality, subak is the correct term for this period because the name taekkyon was not recorded until the 18th or 19th century. Over the centuries, subak has been called “subak hi”, “subak ki” and “subyeok ta”, and taekkyon has been known as “takkkyeon”, “gak hi”, “gak sul” and “bigak sul”. Further illustrating the way some Koreans imprecisely apply one style name to other martial arts is Hwarang Kee’s use of the term subak ki to describe the martial arts of historical Korea, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, India and China. His English-language book uses the term tang soo do because that appellation is more popular in the West. In this article, the term subak will be used until historical records specifically name taekkyon.
Researchers generally believe subak was first practiced in Korea in the northern regions of the Goguryo dynasty (37 B.C. – A.D. 668). The territory, extending hundreds of miles north of the Yalu River, now forms part of Chinese Manchuria. Early in the 20th century, Shin Chae-ho (1880-1936), a Korean scholar exiled to China, wrote that Goguryo people practiced subak, swordsmanship, spear fighting and horse riding.
samsilchong.jpgSilla and United Silla Dynasties
History tells that the Silla kingdom (57 B.C. – A.D. 668), located in the southern portion of the Korean peninsula, received its first taste of northern subak from a battalion of soldiers and advisors sent by Goguryo. After Silla appealed for help against the continual harassment by the Japanese pirates, King Gwanggaeto, the 19th in the line of Goguryo monarchs, sent a force of 50,000 soldiers into neighboring Silla to help the smaller kingdom drive out the pirates. It is at this time that taekkyon [subak] is thought to have been introduced to Silla’s warrior class.
The citizens of Silla developed a great affinity for subak and refined the skills into a more effective military art. It was embraced by the military and widely taught throughout the kingdom. These taekkyon-trained warriors became known as the hwarang. They adopted taekkyon [subak] as part of their basic training regimen. The Hwarang … were encouraged to travel throughout the peninsula in order to learn about the regions and people. These traveling warriors were responsible for the spread of taekkyon [subak] throughout Korea during the United Silla dynasty, which lasted from A.D. 668 to A.D. 935.
No records specifically describe the martial arts of the Hwarang fighters. They probably called their empty-hand striking and grappling skills subak, just as Koreans had for the past several hundred years. It is uncertain if they had a special term to denote their weapons techniques. Lee Yong-bok points out that it is ridiculous to believe that the Hwarang relied mainly upon empty-hand martial arts in battle, as many Korean masters argue. Empty-hand skills would certainly have been but a minor adjunct to their military training and battlefield survival. Therefore, we cannot say subak was the martial art of the Hwarang; it was merely one portion of their combat repertoire.
The Hwarang’s greatest contribution to the fighting arts was more spiritual that martial. Before their existence, Korean fighting skills lacked a philosophical dimension. The Hwarang warriors’ dedication to Mireuk Buddha (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future, caused this to change. Han wrote: “Quite often Buddhist monks were instructors of the Hwarang. The monk Won Gwang, in fact, was the author of the famous Sesok Ogye, or Five Tenets”. Composed around 602, they constituted the Way of the Hwarang:
Serve one’s king with loyalty.
Look after one’s parents with filial piety.
Treat one’s peers with trust.
Withstand enemy attacks with courage.
Terminate life with discrimination.
The Five Tenets spiritually strengthened the knights and, by augmenting their fighting skills with Buddhist philosophy and moral precepts, transformed them into true martial arts. Some argue that only then did subak and the various weapons systems cease to be merely methods for destroying enemies and become true martial arts with philosophical value and an attitude of charity and compassion. Choi Hong-hi agrees: “It appears that the warriors of Hwarang added a new dimension to [subak] by … infusing the principles of the Hwarang-do. The new mental concept … elevated foot fighting to an art”.
In reality, the Gumgang Yuksa statues have no relationship to martial arts. Archaeologists have discovered the relatively common images across Buddhist Asia, from India to China to Korea. They actually portray Buddhist guardian deities, called Vajradhara in Sanskrit. Lee Yong-bok wrote, “The In Wang statues [Gumgang Yuksa] are from China and India; they are not evidence of Korean martial arts.” Lee explained that both guardians originally held a spear in their hands, but when the images were transplanted to Korea, artists did not replicate the weapons. The resulting clenched hands resemble closed fists, thus appearing as empty-hand martial arts poses. Had the spears been reproduced, supporters might not be so insistent. Even if die-hard proponents insist the carvings are actual martial poses, their documented presence in China and India would indicate that Silla-dynasty fighting arts had originated in one of those countries, not in Korea.
As the United Silla dynasty gave way to the Goryo dynasty (935-1392), subak continued to fare well among members of the Korean military. Numerous historical records in the Goryo Sa (History of Goryo) briefly mention subak while describing official court functions and military training. Another historical text reported that, during the 12th century, a man named Eui Mu was skilled in subak and loved by the 16th king of Goryo. Because of his martial arts ability, Eui Mu was promoted to general.
Subak’s popularity did not last long, however, for the next king, Chung Mok (r. 1344-1348), outlawed its practice by civilians. He was motivated by frequent incidents in which onlookers wagered outrageous prizes, including money, houses, even wives. Chung Mok set the penalty for betting on subak matches at 100 strikes across the buttocks with a wooden paddle. Recipients of the beatings often died of infection.Researchers have discovered no specific records of any other martial arts in the early part of the Goryo dynasty, so we can assume that subak still included all its original kicks, punches, joint locks, throws and pressure-point strikes. Even though evidence indicates the art spawned the grappling sport of ssirum as early as the Goguryo dynasty, subak training in the Goryo dynasty still consisted of striking and grappling.
Yet during the later part of the Goryo dynasty, or possibly during the early years of the Yi dynasty, masters specializing in different aspects of subak went their separate ways. Park wrote, “Subak as an art became fragmented and diffused throughout the country, and its practice continued to decline until only incomplete remnants remained”. Sources indicate that yu sul, a soft art ultimately derived from the Chinese art of sho buo (subak), became popular in the 12th century, then went extinct early in the 19th century. In 1945 historian An Ja-san wrote a text titled Chosun Mu Sa Yeong Ung Jeon, in which he detailed the lives and exploits of military heroes of the Chosun (Yi) dynasty. Choi Hong-hi wrote that An’s book stated, “The yu sul school was known under the name of subak ki .
Scholars cannot pinpoint the exact date on which the Yi-dynasty (1392-1910) text titled Man Mul Bo (a.k.a. Je Mul Bo) was written, nor can they verify that Yi Seong-ji, the suspected author, was actually responsible for those four volumes of Chosun-dynasty lore. However, they have examined in detail the work’s contents (history, law, medical learning, etc.) and found a short entry under taekkyon. It may have been the first time the fighting art’s name was rendered in Hangul, the phonetic script created in 1446 by King Sejong. Before that, the name had always been written in Chinese as subak.
As the Yi dynasty progressed, specific references to taekkyon began to occur more frequently. Historical documents tell how the third king of the dynasty (r. 1401-1408) recruited experts in taekkyon, ssirum wrestling and archery to help organize the army. The 32nd volume of Tae Jong Shil Lok recorded that, beginning in 1410, the court organized several military parades which featured taekkyon demonstrations. Centuries later, such a performance might have inspired Kim Hong-do, a popular 18th-century Korean folk artist, to create his royal palace grounds painting of a crowd of aristocrats observing a taekkyon sparring match.
A better-known Korean folk painting dating from the later Yi dynasty again shows taekkyon and even refers to it by name. Its title is Dae Kwae Do, or competition painting, and it now hangs in the Seoul National University museum. Painter Hye-san Yu-suk, who lived from 1827 to 1873, is thought to have created the work around 1846. Dae Kwae Do depicts two men sparring and two others grappling, while a group of “yang ban,” or aristocrats, looks on. The painting’s legend specifically names the arts as taekkyon and ssirum wrestling.
Decline of taekkyon
The introduction of firearms in Korea initially suppressed martial arts practice as guns replaced swords, bows and spears both in military training camps and on the battlefield. Officers could see little need for their men to practice seemingly antiquated empty-hand fighting skills when more advanced weaponry was becoming available. But later, when guns could not be produced in sufficient quantities and never became available to the masses, taekkyon enjoyed a slight resurgence in popularity.
In an account in Joseon Sang Go Sa, Shin Chae-ho confirmed that taekkyon, once famed throughout the Goryo dynasty, nearly died out during the Yi dynasty. In Joseon Mu Sa Yeong Ung Jeon, An Ja-san also intimated that taekkyon was waning. In spite of these pressures, the art did not succumb. Park wrote that taekkyon, facing Neo-Confucianism’s effect on the government and military, was able to survive only because of its popularity among the general public. A large number of practitioners spread across the peninsula ensured the art’s survival, if only in remote locations. In his writings about the later Yi dynasty, Shin noted that archery and taekkyon contests were still held in some locations to test the skill and strength of soldiers.
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