Taekwondo>History>Chapter 7: Subak and Hwarang

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Chapter 7: Subak and Hwarang


The famous Korean historian, Dr. Danjee Shin Chae Ho, in his writings of ancient Joseon, describes the contests of skill and courage under grueling conditions:
"Dancing with swords and certain water sports were held on the frozen river to test a contestant's courage and perseverance. Archery and taekkyon contests were held to test skill and power. The winner of the hunt was given the title of son-bi. All of the above were judged to be necessary prerequisites of the warriors, and the winners were held in esteem by all."
Dr. Danjee states further, that the art of subak was eventually introduced to China as kwon bup and as a form of jujitsu to Japan.


Although subak first appeared in the Koguryo kingdom, the Hwarang-do is credited with the growth and spread of the art throughout Korea. When Koguryo became so strong that Silla was unable to defend itself, Silla saw the need for special warriors. Although it had an army, the soldiers were not of a high caliber, so through numerous battles, it could not defeat Koguryo or Paekche. So King Chin-Hung (534-576 AD), the 24th Silla King, in his 37th year of reign (reigned from 540-576), called up strong and patriotic youths throughout the country and form a national youth military group called the "hwarang-do." The problem was how to find and evaluate high caliber aristocratic men for the group.

One way to achieve this was to gather young men, teach them the higher levels of Buddhism, honor, and the arts, and then pick the exceptionally talented ones for the group. Kim Tae Mun in the Hwa Rang Segi (Annals of the Hwarang) states, "Ministers and loyal subjects shall be chosen from this group and good generals and brave soldiers will be born."

As a way to gather the young men, two beautiful court women, Nammo and Chunjung, were selected to attract men around them. The women did gather a great number of men, but the plan then failed. Chunjong became jealous of Nammo, poisoned her wine, and threw her into a river, killing her. Chunjong was subsequently put to death by the royal court and the group of men the women had gathered was disbanded.


King Chin-Hung's next selection method was to choose handsome male youths of noble birth, some as young as twelve years old. These youths were dressed in the finest clothing, their faces were attractively painted with elaborate make-up, and they were extensively instructed in Buddhism, poetry, and song. It was believed that those who did well in these activities had the grace to become competent warriors, so they were selected as hwarang trainees. Sor Won was the first to be selected for the hwarang and was made a "kuk-son" (general).

The best translation for hwarang-do is "way (do) of flowering (hwa) youth (rang)." Members of the group were also known as "flower knights" but the Hwarang movement had no similarities to the Knights of medieval Europe. Some believe the hwarang and the Japanese samurai were similar, but the hwarang movement pre-dates the samurai and did not have the political influence of the samurai. In addition, Silla youth did not remain hwarang for life, as did the samurai, and they were not born into the group and its privileges. The hwarang movement remains a unique spiritual and physical training that has never been duplicated in Korea or anywhere else in the world. The modern taekwondo hyung "hwa-rang" is named after the movement.

The Samguk Yusa (Legends of the Three Kingdoms) implies that Shinson, the spirit of the supernatural being, was often called Miruk by the Koreans. The people of Silla referred to the hwarang as "yonghwa hwarangdo." Traditionally, Yonghwa is a mountain in India where the Miruk lived. Linguists of today realize that the terms "hwarang," "miruk," and "shinson" may be used almost interchangeably.

The hwarang-do consisted of two groups: the leaders and the cadets. The "hwarang" (leaders) were selected from among the sons of royalty between the ages of 16 and 20. The "nangdo" (cadets) were assembled from the rest of the young nobility, totaling between 200 and 1000 at any given time, but sons of low ranking families were also members. However, not all Hwarang were men; women served in the upper hierarchy. Each band of Hwarang was led by a woman known as Won Hwa "original flower" who was a mother figure to the young men and only engaged in combat when necessary. The Hwarang were organized on a clan or village basis with a fixed social structure. They learned traditional values through communal life and rites, and learned mutual understanding and friendship through military arts, poetry, and music.

The young men were educated in many disciplines, including history, Confucian philosophy, ethics, and horse riding. They were taught to use the sword, staff, hook, spear, and bow and arrow. They were extensively trained in archery (mounted and unmounted), swordsmanship, military tactics, and of course, in Subak. The martial art itself was taught but the Buddhist ideals of self-sacrifice and compassion for the weak were also stressed. They were trained in the Buddhist doctrine of the Maitreyanna (Future or Messiah Buddha) sect. Many Buddhist priests, including the famed Won-hyo (617-686 AD), for whom the taekwondo hyung "Won-hyo" is named, were Hwarang during their youth. Other notable members were Kim Yu-Sin and Kim Chun-Chu, both of whom contributed to the unification of the three kingdoms.

The hwarang were well trained in filial piety, loyalty to the kingdom, and sacrificial devotion to society. The hwarang-do was a philosophical and religious code followed by valiant warriors—not a fighting style in itself. In the beginning, the hwarang primarily fought using subak. They studied Subak as a systemized martial art at their learning houses and it gradually became popular among ordinary people. Their exploits were recorded in the Records of the Hwarang (Hwarang Segi) by the Eighth Century scholar Kim Tae-mun. Although this book has not survived, passages and synopses from it were recorded by Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151 AD), the Koryo historian said to have compiled the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi) in 1145 AD.

Just as sonbaes in Koguryo competed in Subak games at the time of their national festivals, Hwarangs in Silla also played Subak games, such as "dokkyoni" and "taekkoni," at such festivals as "palkwanhoe" and "hankawi." During the dan-o festivals (on the 5th of May of the lunar calendar), subak competitions were held along with games of Korean wrestling, tug-of-war, and hopping contests. In July and August, an annual national festival was held for thehwarang to demonstrate their martial art skills. Another game of amusement was "doo-ho" (a game of pitching arrows into a pot).

The Hwarang were warriors who were disciplined at an early age to endure all types of weather and hardships. As fighters, they were legendary. They further developed subak, which until then was primarily practiced as an art form, by adding hand techniques, kicks, mental discipline, and principles to transform it into a useful combat skill. Their extensive mountain running endurance training gave them strong legs, and as their leg muscles developed, they began to incorporate formalized kicking techniques into subak. They developed a martial art system of foot fighting named, "subak-gi," which is believed to be the initial source of the extensive number of kicking techniques used in Korean martial art styles.

The famous Korean historian, Dr. Danjee Shin Chae Ho, in his writings of ancient Korea, describes subak-gi contests of skill and courage under grueling conditions where certain events were held on the frozen river to test a contestant's courage and perseverance. The winner of a contest was given the title of son-bi was held in esteem by all. Dr. Danjee states that the art of subak-gi was eventually introduced to China as "kwon-bup."

A book that was written in 1923 by a historian named Choi Yong Nyon titled the Haedongjukchi gives the best description of the systemization of subak/taekkyon and the emphasis placed on difficult kicking techniques: "There was a fighting skill in which the players would try to knock each other down using the feet. The lowest skill level was kicking the opponents leg, the next highest was to kick the shoulder, and the highest recognition was given to the one who could kick the opponent's topknot." In 1895, an American anthropologist named Stewart Culin visited Korea for the purpose of studying Korean Games. In his book Korean Games, he includes a picture of two children engaging in a taekkyon match. Taekkyon had become so popular as a folk sport that people began to bet on the outcome of matches resulting in legislation from the conservative Neo-Confucian government banning its practice. Despite this, taekkyon was common until around the turn of the century when pressure from the Confucian authorities, who deemed it an inappropriate activity, seems to have lead to its gradual disappearance from the common culture.

Hwarang were known in the Korean peninsula for their courage and skill in battle, gaining respect from even their bitterest foes. Their feats of valor were legendary. Many of these brave, young warriors died on fields of battle in the threshold of their youth, as young as fourteen or fifteen years of age. Due to their superb fighting skills, Silla was victorious over Paekche in 668 CE and Koguryo in 670 CE, and the hwarang leader, General Kim Yu-Sin, unified the three kingdoms. A time of relative peace followed, which led to a decline of the hwarang as a military organization.

The Hwarang, along with their training in military skills, began receiving training in poetry, singing, and dancing. They were encouraged to travel throughout the Korean peninsula to learn about the regions and their people. The once great Hwarang were reduced to a disorganized band of effete dilettantes. Although these traveling warriors spread of subak throughout Korea, it was only practiced as a recreational activity.

The glorious days of the hwarang warrior were gone. The poet Siro (692-702 AD) captures the emotions and sense of loss many Koreans felt toward the lost glory days of the hwarang warriors:
All men sorrow and lament
Over the spring that is past;
Your face once bright and fair,
Where has it gone with deep furrows?
I must glimpse you,
Even for an awesome moment.
My fervent mind cannot rest at night,
In the hollow rank with mugwort.

Note: Mugwort refers to the tomb of the Hwarang warrior, whose passing, along with the greatness of his Hwarang brothers, is lamented by the poet.
Modern Koreans still remember the contributions the hwarang made to Korean history. The campus at the Korean Military Academy near Seoul is known as "Hwarang-dae" (Hwarang hill). Koreans look to the golden age of Silla and the exploits of its great hwarang warriors as exemplars of all that is honorable, just, and courageous.

Hwarang-do still exists, but it is much different from the original. Founded by Joo Bang Lee, modern hwarang-do is an eclectic mix of hard and soft techniques with linear and circular movements that uses jumping and spinning kicks, locks, throws, chokes, and basic wrestling. It uses weaponry, such as the spear, sword, sticks, and knives. The founder claims modern hwarang-do techniques were used by the original Hwarang, but there are no historical documents or archaeological records to support these claims. However, historical records do indicate that hwarang warriors, while skilled as archers and swordsmen, practiced only rudimentary unarmed combat skills.

The Hwarang model of the intellectual warrior has influenced Korean history for generations. Although they were great warriors, their devotion to furthering the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole was their most enduring role. Stories of their bravery and ferocious fighting spirit were recorded for posterity in Hwarang poetry and literature and were formed the basis of Korean literature for the next thousand years. taekwondo.


From within the ranks of the Hwarang developed a dark and mysterious sect of fighters, the sulsa, who were specially trained, highly skilled fighters similar to the US Army Airborne, US Marine Recon, or US Navy Seal teams. They were experts in the trickery, diversion, killing, kidnapping, and survival, who specialized in the infiltration of enemy camps. Silla sent their sulsa into Koguryo and Paekche to integrate into their cultural and social environment. After being accepted into the society, the sulsa would wait patiently for an order to carry out a predetermined mission.

The sulsa trained in two aspects of warfare:
  • Jeong-do. The way of the true sword. Rather than relying on deception, its strategy was to overwhelm the enemy.
  • Am-ja. The way of darkness. It specialized in trickery, diversion, deceit, stealth, and camouflage to defeat the enemy. Am-ja was subdivided into three studies:
  • Jham-bok-sul. The study of camouflage for hiding for long periods of time. It focused on techniques of hiding by adapting and emerging the body and spirit into the environment until one achieves a balanced state where differences no longer exist and all things merge into one.
  • Jham-ip-sul. The study of infiltration and living amongst the enemy. Techniques in traveling swiftly, climbing, acrobatics, stealth, and camouflage were learned. Also learned were shin gong (mental power), bok shin sul (power to read minds, in sul (development of patience), choe myun sul (putting a person to sleep), and sa sang bop (the study of human types).
  • Bo-bop. The study of stalking, stealth, and fast movement.

Legend has it that the sulsa were able to walk on water and fly. These legends may be attributed the technique of Jham-soo-sul that allows a sulsa to survive under water for extended periods and to use boots containing large air sacks to walk on the water. The accounts of flying may be attributed the way sulsa would leap from tree to tree or rooftop to rooftop using ropes and special equipment.
The sulsa believed that, since they were involved in killing, they must also know about healing. Every sulsa studied herbal medicine and basic first aid, which was helpful to villagers as well as themselves.

The sulsa wore whatever clothing that helped them blend into a culture. They also wore a black uniform like that worn by the ninja, except, instead of a hood, the sulsa wore a three-foot by three-foot piece of cloth on their head, which, when not being worn as camouflage, was used as a carrying bag.

Hwrangdo Code of Conduct

Courage, self-sacrifice, and the steadfast ability to face death with reckless indifference were the foundation of hwarang character. They searched for the basic principles of the universe and for man's connection to the whole. They worked for complete harmony, inner calmness, and resolution derived from certainty and balance. This philosophy was reflected in their list of nine virtues: humanity, honor, courtesy, knowledge, trust and friendship, kindness, wisdom, loyalty, and courage.

Hwarang-do education based its guiding principles on the Five Codes of Human Conduct, a code of honor based on rigid loyalty to the nation, respect and obedience to one’s parents, interminable loyalty to friends, courage in battle, and prudence and restraint on using violence. The code was created by the Buddhist scholar, Won Kwang Bopsa. Two young hwarang warriors asked Won Kwang Bopsa for some commandments to guide men who could not embrace the secluded life of a monk. In response, he developed the five codes.

The Hwarang Five Codes of Human Conduct are:
  1. Loyalty to your country
  2. Obedience to your parents
  3. Trustworthiness to your friends
  4. Courage to never to retreat from the enemy
  5. Justice never to take a life without cause

The codes became a way of life for the young men and guided their moral behavior and the use to which they put their subak training. The codes formed the philosophical background for modern taekwondo, which is reflected in the so-called Eleven Commandments of Taekwondo. As with the original five codes, these modern axioms are used to guide the moral development of taekwondo students. Students must fully understand these tenets to master the true essence of taekwondo.

The eleven axioms are:
  1. Loyalty to your country
  2. Respect your parents
  3. Faithfulness to your spouse
  4. Respect your brothers and sisters
  5. Loyalty to your friends
  6. Respect your elders
  7. Respect your teachers
  8. Never take life unjustly
  9. Indomitable spirit
  10. Loyalty to your school
  11. Finish what you begin

Some of these forms of open hand fighting may have been eventually exported to Japan where they formed the basis for Japanese jujitsu and karate. The hwarang-do may have been the forerunners of the famed Japanese samurai. In his book This is Karate, Matutatsu Oyama, a well-known authority of karate in Japan, mentions that the etymology of kara may have been derived from the country of Kaya at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.

Toward the end of the Silla Dynasty, the Silla throne was so weakened it could not recover. By 918 CE, the Silla court was dead, sapped by internal corruption and the wasteful living of the ruling aristocracy. By 935 CE, even the name Silla had disappeared. A once great kingdom had surrendered to the strongest of many rebel forces eating away at its territory. The average citizen was not touched by this change in power and Korea's philosophic outlook continued to grow. As the Silla Dynasty ended, the Koryo Dynasty developed.

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