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A Brief History of Tang Soo Do

The history of Tang Soo Do dates back some 2,000 years, and is based upon techniques adopted from Chinese warriors of the T’ang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.). These techniques were then merged with native Korean fighting arts, such as Soo Bahk Ki, Tae Kyon, and the suite of military skills known as Kwon Bup. However, modern Tang Soo Do bears little resemblance to these ancient fighting systems.

Tang Soo Do literally means “China Hand Way” (Tang referring to the T’ang Dynasty mentioned above) which was once used to refer to a broad group of techniques which were taught by various kwans (martial arts schools) in Korea. These techniques were based upon techniques which came from T’ang Dynasty in China, and were also influenced by Okinawan and Japanese fighting systems. In its modern use however, the term Tang Soo Do has come to refer to the style of one particular martial arts school in Korea, known as the Moo Duk Kwan (House/School of Martial Virtue).

The more ancient history of Tang Soo Do dates back to the period of the “Three Kingdoms”(57B.C.-935 A.D.). During this time, the Korean peninsula and part of what is now China was divided into three separate kingdoms. These were: Koguryo (37B.C.-668 A.D.),Baek-Je (18 B.C.-660 A.D.),and Silla (57 B.C.-935A.D.). Through out their development each of nation had periods of war and peace with each other and their other Asian neighbor. In the 7th Century, the Silla began to grow in power, and had established a powerful fighting force known as the Hwa Rang (Flowering Youth), a group of young, aristocratic warriors.

During this time in China, the T’ang rose to power and overthrew the Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.). The T’ang Dynasty was instrumental in the development of the martial arts in China. Many martial arts theories, rituals, and techniques were developed during this time. It was during this time that early forms of Tae Geuk Kwon (Tai Chi Ch’uan) were being developed, and the monks of the So Rim (Shaolin) temple were beginning to craft their famous fighting systems. Many believe these early fighting systems grew out of exercises brought to China from India by a Buddhist priest called Dal Ma Dai Sa (Bodhidharma). Many modern scholars, however, dismiss this as mere myth.

The Silla formed an alliance with T’ang China, and conquered Baek-Je and Koguryo, uniting the Korean peninsula for the first time in 668 A.D. and began the Silla Dynasty (668-935 A.D.). The Hwa Rang warriors of the Silla Dynasty mastered many of the fighting techniques of the T’ang armies, and combined these techniques with the indigenous fighting systems of ancient Korea. These were sometimes referred to as Tang Soo Ki (Tang Hand Techniques). A monk named Won Kwa created a set of ethical precepts derived from Confucian principles, which the Hwa Rang used as a “warrior’s code. These principles passed down generation to generation, and are represented today in the Tang Soo Do Sae Sok Oh Kyae (Five Codes of Tang Soo Do).

In 935 A.D., Silla surrendered to the Koryo nation, forming the Koryo Dynasty (935-1392 A.D.). At this time in China, the T’ang fell to the Sung rule in 906 A.D. The Sung Dynasty held tremendous influence over all cultural development in asia, including the martial development in Koryo. The Koreans began to refer to their indigenous fighting systems as Soo Bahk Ki (Hand Striking Techniques), while the Chinese arts were referred to as Kwon Bup (Fist Method). Koryo lasted until 1392 when it was overthrown by General Yi Song Kee, and the last dynasty of Korea, known as the Chosun or Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) was created.

During the Chosun Dynasty, by order of the Emperor, Lee Duk Moo compiled the first known comprehensive text of Korean martial arts, known as the Moo Ye Dobo Tong Ji (Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts). This is one of the oldest surviving texts documenting ancient Korean martial arts. Toward the end of the Yi Dynasty, a fighting style known as Tae Kyon was developed, emphasizing many of the kicking techniques common in many modern Korean martial arts.

In 1910, the Japanese invaded the Korean peninsula as part of its imperial expansion into Asia. From 1910-1945, the Japanese occupied Korea exerting a tremendous amount of control over virtually all aspects of Korean culture. During the occupation, the practice of Korean martial arts was banned. The Koreans were only allowed to practice Japanese martial arts. Many Koreans traveled to Japan to study Japanese Karate, and brought Karate back to Korea. Karate, means “Empty Hand”, in the modern translation which is a homonym for an older term which meant “China Hand”, is a generic term used to describe the empty hand fighting systems developed in Okinawa based upon fighting techniques of the T’ang Dynasty in China. Japan was later introduced to Karate by Funakoshi Gichen, founder of Shotokan, performed a demonstration before the Japanese Emperor. These fighting arts were originally known by the Okinawans as “To-te” (China Hand), or simply “Te”.

The founder of Moo Duk Kwan, Hwang Kee was born during this era of strict Japanese control, on November 9th, 1914. Hwang was born Hwang Tae Nam, son of Yi Dynasty scholar Hwang Yong Hwan. Hwang’s first exposure to martial arts occurred at the age of seven, when he observed a tavern keeper defend himself against several young ruffians. He overheard several witnesses describing the techniques that the man used as being Tae Kyon. Hwang Kee was so impressed by the performance, that he sought out the tavern keeper and asked him to become his teacher. Hwang was turned away because his young age. Hwang was not easily discouraged and found a vantage point on a hilltop from where he could see into the man’s courtyard and observe his practice. There, Hwang imitated the man’s various movements. It is not clear how long Hwang actually maintained this practice regimen, how much, or how effectively he may have learned martial arts skills with this method. This was Hwang’s only martial arts training until he was in his early 20’s.

Hwang Kee had a strong desire to have a formal teacher, and to formally study traditional martial arts. However, this was difficult due to the restrictions put in place by the Japanese during the occupation. In 1935, after graduating from high school, Hwang traveled to Manchuria and found employment with the railroad. In May of 1936, while working at the Chao Yang Ch’uan Railway Station in Manchuria, Hwang met a Chinese martial arts master whom he referred to as Yang Kuk Jin. Some believe that this may have been Yang Zhen-Gou (Yang Jeng-Kou), of the famous Yang family of Tai Chi Ch’uan. Under the guidance of Yang, Hwang Kee studied DhamDoi Sip E Ro (12 Step Springing Legs), and Tae Geuk Kwon (Grand Supreme Fist). Hwang stayed in Manchuria until 1937, when he returned to Seoul. Hwang Kee returned to China only once more, in 1940, to again train with his Master Yang for three months. Hwang never saw or spoke with Master Yang again after that last training session.

Hwang Kee had his first exposure to the Japanese style Karate Do (called Tang Soo Do in Korean) forms in 1939, when he found Japanese texts on Okinawan Karate while studying in the library of the Cho Sun Railway Bureau. Hwang Kee eventually added the forms that he had studied from these textbooks into his particular version of Tang Soo Do, and refined them encountered other Koreans who had studied Karate in Japan.

On November 9, 1945, Hwang Kee opened his first Moo Duk Kwan Dojang (Training Hall) in a space located at the Ministry of Transportation in Yong San Gu (Dragon Mountain District). He called his art Hwa Soo Do (Flowering Hand Way), in reference to the Hwa Rang warriors of ancient Korea. His teachings were based primarily upon the Chinese techniques that he had learned from Master Yang. Hwang’s initial attempts to open a school were unsuccessful, his first two groups of students all eventually quit. The Koreans, having lived under Japanese rule for 35 years, were not familiar with non-Japanese martial arts, and therefore, Hwang had a difficult time both attracting and retaining students.

In 1946, Hwang Kee meting with two Koreans who had both earned dan (black belt) rank while studying in Japan, and who both operated schools that taught versions of Japanese Karate. These instructors were Chun Sang Sup of the Yeon Moo Kwan, and Lee Won Kuk of the Chung Do Kwan. Impressed by the success of these two masters, Hwang Kee began to rethink his approach.

In 1947, Hwang Kee made one last final attempt to open the Moo Duk Kwan, this time he offered a blend of Chinese and Japanese techniques, and used the more familiar Japanese/Okinawan style forms. In addition, Hwang began to call his art as Tang Soo Do (China Hand Way), a term coined by Lee Won Kuk. This name was more familiar to the Korean people, being the Korean pronunciation of the characters for the term “To-te”. With these changes in place, the Moo Duk Kwan began to experience success.

Hwang Kee discovered the Moo Ye Dobo Tong Ji (Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts), in 1957, at the National Library in Seoul, Korea. Based upon references within the text, Hwang began to use the pseudonym Soo Bahk Do (Hand Fighting Way) along with Tang Soo Do to refer to his art. The two names were used interchangeably until 1995, when Hwang officially dropped the Tang Soo Do name in favor of Soo Bahk Do.

In 1945 when Korea was liberated from the Japanese at the end of World War II, several Korean martial arts schools, known as “kwans” began to emerge. In the beginning, there were five kwans: (1) Chung Do Kwan, founded by Lee Won Kuk, (2) Moo Duk Kwan, founded by Hwang Kee, (3) Yeon Moo Kwan (later changed to Ji Do Kwan), founded by Chun Sang Sup, (4) Chang Moo Kwan, founded by Yun Byong In, and (5) Song Moo Kwan, founded by No Byong Jik. Rivalries and political infighting eventually developed among several of the kwans during the years of internal instability following the Korean War (1950-1953). On April 11, 1955, a conference of several of the kwan leaders and prominent martial artists was held in an effort to unify all of the kwans together under one umbrella organization. They decided to refer to their arts generically and collectively under the name of Tae Kwon Do (Foot Fist Way or Way of the Hand and Foot), a name suggested by General Choi Hong Hi, an influential political and military leader. On September 14, 1961, the member kwans were officially consolidated with the support of the Korean government, as the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA), and they established their headquarters at the Kuki Won (National Technique Organization) in Seoul.

Hwang Kee did not agree with the decision to consolidate and withdrew from the negotiations early on. Hwang remained autonomous and continued to call his art Tang Soo Do. Some time later, the Ji Do Kwan also withdrew from the Tae Kwon Do movement, and aligned with Hwang Kee’s Moo Duk Kwan under the banner of the Dae Han Soo Bahk Do Hoi (Greater Korean Hand Strike Way Association). A faction of the Moo Duk Kwan, headed by Hong Chong Su, broke away from Hwang Kee’s school, to form a branch of the Moo Duk Kwan aligned within the KTA. This branch would later call itself Tae Kwon Do Moo Duk Kwan. Because the term Tae Kwon Do was being used by all of the other kwans, the term Tang Soo Do became almost synonymous with the particular lineage and style of the Moo Duk Kwan school.

Rivalries eventually developed between Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do. Factions within the Tae Kwon Do movement, allegedly supported by the Government, attempted to block the Soo Bahk Do Hoi from operating sucessfully. In 1975, this dispute went before the Korean Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Hwang Kee and the Moo Duk Kwan.

The Moo Duk Kwan continued to grow, and eventually began to establish schools within the United States, by means of U.S. Servicemen who had trained at one of the several Moo Duk Kwan dojangs in Korea. Shin Jae Chul was sent to Springfield, N.J. to officially establish a United States branch of the Moo Duk Kwan, known as the U.S. Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation. In 1978, Hwang Kee sent his son, Hwang Hyun Chul to the U.S. to take over as the head of the Federation. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1980’s, Shin broke away from the Moo Duk Kwan and formed his own organization, known as the World Tang Soo Do Association. Following Shin’s departure, numerous other Korean and American run schools began to leave the parent organization. Many other organizations were established and Tang Soo Do was no longer under a single unified banner.

In 1995, the Moo Duk Kwan began to refer to its as Soo Bahk Do, instead of Tang Soo Do, and officially changed its name to the U.S. SooBahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation. In addition, to the change in name, there were fundamental changes made to technique, with new forms more indicative of the Chinese influence were integrated. These new forms are the Chil Sung (Seven Star), and Yuk Ro (Six Path) series, and Hwa Sun Hyung (Pure Flower Form). These changes increased the trend of senior yudanja (black belt/dan members) to break their ties with the Moo Duk Kwan and go out on their own.

With failing health, the Founder of the Moo Duk Kwan, Doju Nim Hwang Kee finally succumbed peacefully on July 14, 2002, leaving his son Hwang Hyun Chul as his designated heir to the Moo Duk Kwan. His tremendous impact on the martial arts world will not soon be forgotten, and his legacy will continue to live on through the thousands of Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do practitioners in the world.