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Chapter 4: Ancient Korea


Korea and China have differing views about some parts of ancient Korean history. Korea is seeking to correct what it believes are misconceptions and untruths being promulgated by China about Korea history as it relates to China.


The Paleolithic Age in Korean history indicates that human inhabitants were present on the Korean peninsula half a million years ago, although they are not thought to be the direct ancestors of Koreans. These ancient people were pushed out of Korea into Japan and Siberia by a migrating group at the start of the Neolithic age. Paleolithic people were a hunting and gathering people. Archaeological evidence shows they hunted rhinoceros, cave bears, brown bears, hyena, and deer. Cave paintings of these animals indicate that written communication and art were capabilities of Paleolithic people.

Between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, tribes of Tungusic people migrated into the Korean peninsula from Central Asia and the Altaic mountain region. These people were of the Neolithic Age and are thought to be the direct ancestors of Korean people. Neolithic people in Korea began as a hunting gathers but by 2,000 BC, they were living in an agrarian society. They lived in pit dwellings, started to weave, began to sew with bone needles, and were capable of very detailed painting on their pottery. They believed in Animism (worship of animals) and thought all natural objects had spirits. Shamanism (spirit worship) was prevalent among these people as it was elsewhere in Asia during this period. Shamans were believed to have supernatural healing power and the ability to contact spirits to protect family and community from evil spirits.

The Tungusic tribes spoke a Ural-Altaic language. This language group extends from Scandinavia and the Balkans in the West, through Central, North, and Northwest Asia in the East. Though dialects of the Ural-Altaic languages vary greatly, they each share similar characteristics of syntax. This language group set the foundation for the modern Korean language.

Bronze Age

China introduced bronze into Korea in 108 BC. This introduction, combined with the fact Chinese military colonies with a greater understanding of agricultural sciences were pushing their way onto the Korean Peninsula, led to a rapid progression of both weaponry and farming for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula.

The Bronze Age in Korea lasted from about the ninth century BC to about the fourth century BC. However, this time span varies to some extent in different areas of the peninsula. Numerous menhir (large upright stones) from the age have caused this culture to be characterized as megalithic. The Bronze Age is characterized by a variety of bronze artifacts. Mandolin shaped daggers have been unearthed in tombs, as well as bronze mirrors. The pottery is the geometric motif of the Neolithic Age that indicates a transition period when the two cultures were in contact. The decorations on many bronze artifacts are similar to those found on pottery of the Neolithic Age.

Bronze Age people were slope dwellers, inhabiting high ground that overlooked flatlands along rivers suitable for agriculture. Rice cultivation began; evidence indicates that rice agriculture may have been transmitted to Korea from China. Bronze Age people also hunted and fished, although the sophisticated agricultural tools suggest a mainly agrarian society.

Bronze Age artifacts in Korea indicate a stratified society. The bronze daggers and mirrors would have been the possessions of only a privileged few, whose authority was symbolized by their ownership of the items. Some Dolmen (stone cyst tombs) have capstones weighing up to seventy tons, suggesting that the persons in the tombs had the power to command many, many people. Dolmen are found in clusters of as many as one hundred, built in an orderly fashion indicating a lineage of a stratified society.

Bronze Age people lived in tribal states or small walled-town states. These territories were not extensive; they consisted of narrow plains for farming. The people built earthen fortifications on hillside plateaus. These walled-town states were the earliest form of state structure to exist in Korea and represent the origins of Korean political culture. Societies with articulated political structures began to develop around the walled-town states. By about the fourth century BC, these states had developed to the point that they were known in China.


Modern Korean people trace their origins to the founding of the Gojoseon (ancient Korean) state. To research the establishment of Gojoseon, one must look back over four thousand years into the clouded past where history and myth begin to blend. The legendary beginning date of Gojoseon depends upon the source used. The myth "Tan-gun" sets the date at 2333 BC, while the myth "Ki-ja" sets the date at 1122 BC. The actual date is unknown. The Gojoseon patriarch was Dangun Wanggom. Gojoseon first developed with the Liaoning district as its center and gradually rose as a center of the East. The Gojoseon ended in 57 BC with the traditional beginning of the Three Kingdoms Era.

The Korean Peninsula is believed to have been first inhabited by Tungusic tribes from central Asia in about 3000 BC. These ethnically homogeneous Mongoloid people had a Paleolithic culture (used stones as tools) and followed a shamanistic type of religion.

Martial arts started as a natural outgrowth of techniques used by primitive people to find food and to protect themselves and their families from wild animals. Therefore, different areas of the world developed different kinds of combative arts based on their indigenous hunting and protective techniques. From many parts of the Korean Peninsula stone swords, stone knives, stone spears, stone arrowheads, stone axes, etc. have been unearthed. The range of the finds extends from Kyunghung Province; Hae Ju and Anak in Hwanghae Province; Yangyang and Choon chun in Kangwon Province; Ansung in Kyung-gi Province; Puyo in south Choonchon Province; Andong and Kyungju in North Kyungsang Province; and Mirang in South Kyungsang Province. It is reasonable to assume that early Koreans used these stone weapons for both hunting and self-protection against wild animals and savage enemies. The stone-throwing techniques of prehistoric Koreans have survived to present day where they are known as Too-suk-sool (stone-throwing arts). The effectiveness of these stone-throwing techniques was displayed in the battles at Hangjin and Chinju mountain fortresses during the Japanese invasions into Korea in the late 15th century under Hideoshi. Members of the royal family and high-ranking scholars of the Shilla Dynasty enjoyed a game developed for amusement called doo-ho (pitching arrows into a pot).

In early Korean history, three major tribes of "Tonkin" people dwelled on the Korean peninsula. Gojoseon rose on the banks of the Taedong River in the northwestern corner of the peninsula and prospered as a civilization possessing a code of law and a bronze culture. Leaders of Gojoseon bore the title of "Tan'gun Wanggom." The name suggests a religious and political function combined in a single person. Gojoseon combined with many other walled-town states to create a large confederation, the head of which was designated as king.

As human civilization advanced in Korea, an agricultural society gradually emerged. Ancient Koreans, who had originally lived around Mt. Bektu (between the borders of modern-day North Korea and Manchuria), began to migrate southward and settle where the living environment was more attractive. Because of an increased awareness of and a greater fondness for territorial possession, it may be assumed that it was necessary to cultivate new and improved types of combative skills. A sedentary lifestyle led to a collective social body. In the communal system, clan units merged together into tribal units with a clear distinction between the leaders and the followers. Feuds and struggles with other tribal units naturally resulted. Under these conditions, each clan would surely try to be mightier than other clans. To attain and maintain superior strength, people trained through running, wrestling, swimming, hand-to-hand fighting, and other such activities. It is natural to assume that the development of such weapons as staff, spear, swords, bow, and ax took place at this time.

The Gojoseon people gradually extended their influence not only over other tribes in the vicinity, but also to the north, conquering most of the Liaodong Basin. However, the rising power of the feudal state of Yen in northern China (1122-225 BC) not only checked Gojoseon's growth, but eventually pushed it back to the territory south of the Ch'ongch'on River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers, and took over the territory vacated by Gojoseon. The Chinese had discovered iron by this time and used it extensively in farming and warfare. The introduction of iron brought a variety of changes to Korea; iron hoes, plowshares, and sickles increased the ability for food production, thus, the gap between the ruling class, who monopolized the new sophisticated tools, and the poor increased.


The new name for the Korean Yen state was Wiman Choson. This confederated kingdom was grounded in the former Gojoseon power structure. The Yen ruler maintained some of the political, economic, and cultural features of the Gojoseon, keeping many of the high officials in place.
While this was occurring on the Korean peninsula, much of what subsequently became China proper was unified for the first time under Qin Shi Huangdi. Subsequently, Yen fell to the Qin state. The Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) was later replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). In 195 BC, a former Yen officer took over the Gojoseon throne by trickery, which he and his descendants ruled for eighty years.

In 109-108 BC, the Han attacked Gojoseon and destroyed it as a political entity. The Han then ruled the territory north of the Han River known as the Four Eastern Districts. The original territory of Gojoseon became Lolang (or Nangnang in Korean), a Chinese colony. During some 400 years, Lolang, the core of the colony, had become a great center of Chinese art, philosophy, industry, and commerce. The Chinese colonists were not known for oppression, they were content to exercise a small degree of control while allowing the Korean people considerable political freedom. Many Chinese immigrated to the area and Chinese influence extended beyond the territory it administered. The tribal states south of the Han River paid tribute to the Chinese and patterned much of their civilization and government after Chinese models.

The territory south of the Han River is relatively distant from the Asian continent; hence, the people living there were initially able to develop independently, without much involvement with events on the continent. The early settlers of this region gradually organized themselves into some seventy clan states that were in turn grouped into three tribal confederations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pyonhan. Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pyonhan in the southeast. Their economies were predominantly agricultural, and their level of development was such that they built reservoirs and irrigation facilities. These tribal states began to be affected by what was happening in the region north of the Han River around the first century BC.
Despite developing weapons to assist in the gathering of food and for self-defense, the people of ancient Korea continued to develop their minds and bodies through recreational games and competitions. Each tribe participated in warrior martial art contests during the ritual seasons, contests such as "Yongko," in the Puyo State, "Tongmaeng," in the Koguryo state, "Muchon," in the Ye and Mahan states, and "Kabi," in the Silla dynasty. These activities eventually developed into exercises that were used to improve health or fighting abilities.

Ancient Korean warriors trained in the military art "farando" (which used the head, elbow, and foot techniques to fight the enemy). They developed two special systems of training: borrowed strength and shorting of space. Borrowed strength referred to borrowing strength from some great being or thing, such as increasing one's power by having unity with the Great Spirit or using herbs or training devices. Space shorting referred to a special way of walking.

The long experience of ancient people in defending themselves against their enemies and animal attacks, as well as their imitation of the defensive and offensive positions of animals, slowly led them to develop more effective fighting skills of their own. Some believe this is the true beginning of modern taekwondo.

The earliest influence on Korean martial arts from another country is believed to have been a form of Chinese hand and foot fighting called "kwon-bop" (punching and butting, which was based on kung-fu). Some believe that during China's Sung and Ming Dynasties, "nei-chia" (internal kung-fu) and "wai-chia" (external kung-fu) were also introduced into Korea. However, if the statues and murals in ancient Korean temples and tombs do indeed depict ancient martial arts movements (as many believe), then they predate any kung-fu influence.

Temples and tombs

Many claim that the roots of taekwondo may be traced to the Koguryo Dynasty in 37 BC. They claim that murals in some Koguryo Dynasty royal tombs depict men practicing taekwondo style techniques. This interpretation of the mural images apparently began with the Study of Culture in Ancient Korea, by Tatashi Saito, in which Saito said about one mural:
“The painting either shows us that the person buried in the tomb practiced taekwondo while he was alive or it tells us that people practiced it, along with dancing and singing, for the purpose of consoling the dead.”
However, interpretation of these murals many times reflects what the interpreter wishes to see. The Koguryo tomb murals do not clearly depict the practice of any type of kicking and punching art, taekwondo included.

Muyong-chong and Kakshu-chong are two royal tombs built in the Tenth Kingdom of the Koguryo Dynasty (late fourth century) that were discovered by Japanese archaeologists in 1935 in Tungku, Chain County, Tunghua Province, in Manchuria. Since Muyong-chong was excavated in the ancient Koguryo capital of Tungku and, since Tungku was the capital only until 427AD, it is assumed that this tomb was constructed between 3 and 427 AD. Some believe that murals on the Muyong-chong ceiling show two men practicing taekwondo-like techniques. The murals show two men, with goatees, mustaches, long hair, and wearing loincloths, who are at least four feet apart with their outstretched hands a foot away from each other (see figure 1 for an example of the mural drawings). Similarly, the paintings on the ceiling of Kakchu-chong show two men who are apparently dancing or wrestling (these figures date from the age of San-Sang, the tenth King of Koguryo).

Some say these murals depict men sparring in the art of Subak (an ancient ancestor of taekwondo). One could also interpret that these murals show stretching, dancing, or possibly Mongolian style wrestling, but they certainly do not resemble modern taekwondo.

The ceiling of Sambo-chong Tomb shows a man in a deep horseback-riding stance wearing a costume similar to the modern-day taekwondo uniform (loose trousers and a jacket held together with a belt tied around the mid-section). The man appears to be blocking high with one arm and blocking low with the other arm. The figure may also be interpreted as a man who appears to be pushing walls apart. Some claim this mural depicts the practicing of a taekwondo hyung (pattern) but it is difficult to accept this interpretation since the mural only shows a single figure and there are other logical explanations for the position of the man.

Guarding the Sok Kul An Buddhist Cave Temple is a carved statue of Kumgang Yuksa, a famous warrior from the reign of King Hye-Gong (742-762 AD). The clenched fist, a strong knife-hand, and muscled legs which may have been the result of heavy training. The warrior also appears to be in a typical martial art pose, but again, this is open to interpretation.

A mural painting at the Samsil Tomb shows two warriors engaged in a face-to-face match in an apparent Subak stance. Another painting at the same tomb shows the scene of an apparent Korean wrestling bout, which some feel clearly distinguishes it from the Subak painting.

Some also cite, as evidence of early taekwondo history, the Buddhist images inscribed on the Keumkang Ginat Tower at the Sokkuram Cave in the Pulkuk-Sa Temple, in Kyongju (see figure 2). These two giant Buddhist "diamond warrior" stone relief carvings from the Silla Dynasty (circa 751 AD) show the warrior Kum Kang Yuksa posing fiercely with one hand stretched low and the other held near his ear in a fist, protecting Buddhism from devils. Archaeologists have discovered these relatively common images across Buddhist Asia, from India to China and Korea. They actually portray Buddhist guardian deities, called Vajradhara in Sanskrit. Lee Yong-bok writes, The In Wang statues (Kum-kang Yuksa) are from China and India; they are not evidence of Korean martial arts. Lee explains 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 (1990:47). Had the spears been reproduced, those who argue that the statues are in martial poses might not be so insistent. Some believe the position of these giants represents the early developments of subak. The present-day poomse (form/pattern) "keumgang" is named for these warriors and it uses the double blocks they depict.

In reality, the Kumkang Yuksa have no relationship to martial arts. Archaeologists have discovered these relatively common images across Buddhist Asia, from India to China and Korea. They actually portray Buddhist guardian deities, called Vajradhara in Sanskrit. Some think 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, those who argue that the statues are in martial poses 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 may be seen in figures 1 and 2, it is easy to interpret the positions of the men as performing almost anything you desire. It could be said that they depict the earliest examples of aerobic exercise.

Some think these tomb paintings testify to Subak/taekwondo being well established during this time, and to it being a popular activity that was not limited to noblemen or warriors but was also practiced by peasants and farmers. However, as pointed out, the figures are open to other interpretations.

The history of Korea and taekwondo may be traced with some confidence to the Three Kingdoms Era of Korean history. Korean history is sketchy before the Three Kingdoms Era.

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