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Chapter 9: Joseon Dynasty


In modern Korea, the Joseon Dynasty, also known as Yi Dynasty by the Japanese occupiers, (1392-1910 AD) became one of the longest reigns by a single dynasty in world history. During the dynasty, various kings, under the influence of Neo-Confucianism, introduced many social and cultural changes. The dynasty was considered Korea's "Age of Enlightenment," but it was also the beginning of the "dark ages" for martial arts in Korea.

After his defeat of the Mongols and driving out the Red Turbans "armies of redheads" in 1364 AD, General Yi Song Gye emerged as a leader of the Korean people. Yi came from a family that, for generations, had supplied military leaders to the Hamyong province in the northeast and he had a distinguished military career from suppressing local rebellions. After the Mongol defeat, General Yi turned his attention to curbing the constant Japanese pirate attacks that were becoming intolerable. He repelled the pirate attacks in his own northeastern area and then fought a series of engagements over the next few years that reduced their power and kept them at bay.

These times were more a period of diplomacy than of continual war. When threatened from the north, Korea looked to Japan for assistance. When threatened from the south, she looked to China. Yi strongly supported Confucianism so he re-opened relations with China, re-established the central government, and provided the king with Confucian advisors. Confucianism began to replace Buddhism as a strong cultural force in Korea. With consolidated support from the ruling classes, General Yi rose to power.

Chinese instructors contributed to the Korean martial arts. For example, they taught the Shaolin style, which gradually changed to modern "sorim-kwon." During these times, new Buddhist styles also appeared. One of them was "hyoldo," which was based on medicine and had throws and holds based on the control of biologically active points. Another Buddhist style, "pulmudo," was similar to Chinese soft styles.

King T'aejo

In 1392 AD, the Supreme Council, the highest organization in the Koryo government, formally declared that the Koryo Dynasty had come to an end and that General Yi Song Gye was the rightful king (he was given the title King T'aejo). T'aejo established a dynasty that endured largely due to its recognition by the Ming emperor of China. The initial steps completed, King T'aejo further consolidated the country behind him by instituting sweeping reforms.

Confucianism was strictly adhered to as the orthodox code for the dynasty and it resulted in more power struggles and ideological confusion. The ruling class adopted Confucian guidelines in their political and cultural outlook as well as in their personal lives. All Buddhist festivals were rejected, and more importance was directed toward the literary art than toward the martial arts. Confucian thinking advocated classical Chinese learning and played down physical activity. According to the Confucian way of thought, the "superior man" should spend his time reading the Chinese classics, composing poetry, or learning to play musical instruments. Only "inferior, lower class men" engaged in strenuous physical activities such as the martial arts.

The King adopted ideals such as "a real man writes poetry, learns to play musical instruments, and reads Chinese classics." Civil officers gained higher esteem than did military officers, socially as well as politically. The military was reorganized and was commanded by a royal bodyguard. This led to an upsurge in cultural developments in mathematics, literature astronomy, and history. The people frowned upon valor. Political conflict and the de-emphasis of military activities, together with the advent of modern weapons such as gunpowder, led to Taekkyon losing central government support. Taekkyon was not as popular, nor did it figure as prominently, as it did in the Koryo Dynasty.

As non-aggressive Confucianism promulgated throughout the nation, preferential treatment was given to civil officials and contempt shown to military officials. The morale of the military officers dropped extremely, and things got to a point where the practice of martial arts was thought to be an embarrassing activity, unworthy of a true gentleman. The result of this state of affairs was that Japan invaded Korea twice (in 1592 and in 1596), and Manchuria invaded the Peninsula in 1637. However, something unusual happened during the time of the foreign invasions into Korea. In the face of these upheavals, persons from every part of the country suddenly rose up, filled with a deep feeling of patriotism, and formed Ui-Bying (righteous armies, a kind of militia force) to combat the enemy.

Among the countless leaders of local guerrilla bands who arose during the Japanese invasion were Kwak Chae-U, Kim Si-Min, and Kim Chon-Il who were all local Confucian scholars and widely respected by the inhabitants of their respective local areas. There were also great monk army leaders, such as Sosun Taesa and Samyong Taesa. It is recorded that these local militia leaders hoisted high the banner of national salvation and slew the Japanese hordes by using supernatural fighting techniques.

If martial arts are not something that may be learned in a day, then how is it possible that scholars who only studied books and monks or nuns who spent all their time concentrating on the way of Buddhism were able to run around during fierce battle and outfight the professional soldiers of the Government's Army? To answer this question, one must seek out and examine the fragmentary bits of recorded evidence concerning the private lives of these local militia leaders during their youth as well as the documented evidence on the successes of the martial artists of that period. Then, it can be established that each one of these individuals who led militia at that time had undergone rigorous physical discipline and martial art training.

Even the sports of today that have been developed out of martial arts are impossible to learn without the guidance of a teacher or coach. If that is the case, then how is it possible for someone to master the numerous types of martial arts techniques, which are far more complex and difficult to understand? There is only one answer. There must have been either textbooks containing secret esoteric martial arts techniques that were handed down within a family from generation to generation, or the knowledge was transmitted orally through a teacher who secretly taught family members.

King Sunjo

If one or both of the above-stated conditions did not exist, it would have been impossible for the martial arts to survive. The grounds for this assertion become sufficiently clear if one takes a close look at the society and political structure of that time in Korean history. During the reign of Sunjo (14th King of Joseon Dynasty, 1567-1608), Han Kyo scientifically researched the secret techniques of Korea's traditional martial arts and compiled a book called Mu-yae Tong-ji (Comprehensive Manual of Martial Arts). He gave martial art instruction to more than 70 individuals so that the arts could be used against the Japanese invaders of that period. Perhaps this is the first recorded instance of a martial art training hall, or dojang, as they are known today.

Because of the corrupt government at the end of the Joseon Dynasty, social chaos broke out everywhere. Korea found herself in a helpless position against the powerful foreign nations. In this situation, Korean martial arts flourished for a brief while, thanks to a few patriots who were aware of what was happening to their nation. However, the ancient classical weapons inevitably disappeared in the face of the modern weaponry (guns, cannons, etc.) and only the empty-handed martial arts seem to have stood out in the minds of the people.

Subakhui was still popular, but more as a folk game at festivals rather than a selection process for the armed forces. However, tournaments sponsored by the "Ue-hung-bu" (Organization of National Defense) were used to choose shield soldiers and guards. The Annals of Joseon Dynasty tell stories about subakhui contests being ordered by local officials for selecting soldiers. The ue-hung-bu ordered that any man who beat three other contestants in a subakhui would automatically be selected as a shield soldier or guard. Common people and slaves continued to practice Taekkyon and enter these events in the hope of defeating three opponents and being selected for the guard.

In foreign policy, King T'aejo followed the practice of his predecessors by attaching himself to the paramount power in China. The country adopted the name Choson (Chaohsien in Chinese) and, in 1395 AD, T'aejo transferred the capital from Kaesong to the city of Hanyang, which is the modern-day city of Seoul. By 1397 AD, the Joseon Dynasty was fully established both internally and externally and was to endure two major Japanese invasions, the fall of the Ming dynasty, the Manchu invasions, and the entire span of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1616-1909 AD).

King Sejong

With the accession of King T'aejo's grandson, King Sejong (1418-1450 AD), the Joseon Dynasty acquired its greatest monarch and entered its greatest period of culture and creativity. King Sejong was the wisest and the most humane of the Joseon monarchs. He was a firm believer in the Confucian doctrine that cultivation of the literary arts was the path to individual virtue. Among his many achievements, King Sejong sponsored the creation of the Korean alphabet "Hangul," the first indigenous Asian language to be independently developed and written with its own phonetic script.

For the first time in their history, the Korean people had a convenient and efficient system for writing their language. Chinese works were translated into Korean making them available to a wider audience. Native Korean literature, long confined to folk songs and poetry, could now be written and preserved, leading to the birth of true Korean literature. King Sejong also sponsored the publication of the Confucian Classics using a moveable, metal type machine. Characters were printed in moveable type 50 years before the Gutenberg press was invented. Literature and the arts flourished, and the 16th century became known as "the century of the scholar."

Records of the practice of taekkyon during the Joseon Dynasty are sparse. During this time, the art reverted to its former role as a recreational and fitness activity, with the exception that it was now practiced by the general population, not the nobility. Since Confucianism was the basis for the entire government, the purely intellectual arts rose in stature and the general policy was that of "favoring the arts and despising arms." With this prevailing attitude, martial arts fell into decline.

Some warriors were even banished and forced to take refuge in Buddhist temples. Taekkyon as an art became fragmented and diffused throughout the country, and its practice continued to decline until only incomplete remnants remained, but it did not die out. It may be that, like Tai-chi in China, the more violent aspects of taekkyon were disguised to preserve it from repression by despots. Although no organized instruction was available, what limited knowledge there was of taekkyon was handed down from one generation to the next within individual families or from teacher to disciple, always in the greatest secrecy. During this time, taekkyon was again referred to as Subak. This dismissal of the martial arts was to have severe repercussions for Korea by leaving it without adequate military leadership or trained forces to defend itself against attack.

Korean history never lingers in peace for any length of time. In the 1500's, Emperor Hideyoshi of Japan was in search of new worlds to conquer. He was preparing to invade China and he requested that the Korean government give free passage to his army. The Koreans refused, so in 1592 AD the emperor retaliated by dispatching one-hundred and fifty thousand infantrymen (armed with muskets) to invade Korea. His plan was to sweep through the peninsula and then conquer China. Seven-hundred soldiers of the Gumsan region fought the Japanese using mostly only Subak.

Korea was completely taken by surprise. Because of the decline of its military, it was not powerful enough to stop Japan, so Japanese troops began to advance north towards Seoul. The Koreans were outnumbered and daunted by muskets, so the Japanese invaders easily took Pusan and eventually Seoul.

However, the Korean people again refused to be conquered. Righteous armies of patriots, called "iybyon" (army of justice), composed of those who had kept the martial arts alive despite governmental disapproval, arose to defend their country. Using guerrilla warfare tactics, they harassed the Japanese troops so effectively that they were forced to retreat to the south.

Admiral Yi

The most noted hero of the invasion was Admiral Yi Sun Sin for he was the man who played the greatest part in defeating the Japanese. A man of great ingenuity, he developed the kobukson "turtle ship," probably the first ironclad battleship in history. The galley was decked over with iron-clad panels to protect the rowers. The ship was so named because it was armed with a large, iron, ramming device in the shape of a turtlehead. These ships were almost impervious to any weapons that the Japanese could muster and so the ships were able to sink many Japanese ships. To illustrate the effectiveness of these ships and the brilliant tactics of Admiral Yi, we need only look at one of the many battles he won.

On September 16, 1597, he led 12 turtle ships against 133 Japanese ships in the Myongnyang Straits. The Koreans sank 31 enemy ships and sent the others fleeing in this victory. The Japanese were forced to give up their invasion (after seven years), but the struggle had devastated Korea. Whole towns had been looted and destroyed, crops were ruined, and famine and disease swept the country. After the war, the royal government revived strong defense measures by strengthening military training and martial arts practice.

Unfortunately, Admiral Yi never got to see the rewards of his heroic efforts and brilliant strategy. On November 19, 1598, Admiral Yi was shot during the final battle of the war. He commanded that his body be hidden by a shield, so his enemies could not see that he had fallen. To his oldest son, he whispered, "Do not weep, and do not announce my death. Beat the drum, blow the trumpet, and wave the flag for advance. We are still fighting. Finish the enemy to the last one." He was 54 years old when he died. Admiral Yi kept a careful record of daily events in a diary, and it is from these entries, along with the reports he sent to the throne during the war, that much about the man has been learned. These works have been published in English as Nanjung Ilgi: War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, and Imjin Changch'o: Admiral Yi Sun-sin's Memorials to Court. (Translated by HA Tae-hung, Yonsei University Press) In these writings, we can find many useful lessons for today. From Admiral Yi's writings, we may infer that a warrior must master three roads, four obligations, five skills, and ten keys to security.

Besides being remembered as a tactical genius, Admiral Yi is also remembered as a man of personal integrity. His posthumous title, Ch'ungmu-kong (Lord of Loyalty and Chivalry) is used in Korea's third highest military honor, the Order of Ch'ungmu. He believed in three essentials for the warrior: humility, discernment, and courage. He embodied all of them and lived with integrity throughout his life. When Admiral Son Ko-i died in 1598, a letter was found among his possessions. It was from Admiral Yi Sun-shin, and in the letter, he wrote,
 "My life is simple, my food is plain, and my quarters are uncluttered. In all things, I have sought clarity. I face the troubles and problems of life and death willingly. Virtue, integrity, and courage are my priorities. I can be approached, but never pushed; befriended but never coerced; killed but never shamed." 

Admiral Yi Sun-shin is truly one of the great warriors of the past, and his legacy and teachings are a blueprint for success for any modern martial artist and warrior. His patriotism and integrity can be a role model for all. There is a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin in the middle of Sejongno in downtown Seoul, next to the Kyobo building.

Yi's roads, obligations, skills, and keys

  • The three roads are:
  1. Knowledge of the world.
  2. Understanding of things as they are.
  3. Wisdom toward humanity
  • The four obligations are to:
  1. Provide national security with minimal cost.
  2. Lead others unselfishly.
  3. Suffer adversity without fear.
  4. Offer solutions without laying blame.
  • The five skills are to:
  1. Be flexible without weakness.
  2. Be strong without arrogance.
  3. Be kind without vulnerability.
  4. Be trusting without naiveté.
  5. Have invincible courage.
  • The ten keys to security are:
  1. Purity of purpose.
  2. Sound strategy.
  3. Integrity.
  4. Clarity.
  5. Lack of covetousness.
  6. Lack of addiction.
  7. A reserved tongue.
  8. Assertiveness without aggression.
  9. Being firm and fair.
  10. Patience.


The Manchus invaded Korea in 1627 AD. The invasion was not welcomed but at least it left the country relatively independent of China, who had exacted tribute from the people and kept the Korean government weak.

From the late 17th to the early 19th century, Korea began a period of isolation, closing her borders to all foreigners in an attempt to secure some peace. Korea became known as the "Hermit Nation" because it turned away foreigners, particularly the Europeans who were expanding their own empires during this time. Toward the end of the 19th century, Korea set up relations with many western nations in an effort to offset Japanese influence.

Treatises had been written on the most effective fighting techniques, defining them as sets. The first of them was Mooyae Chebo, written in 1599 AD, which included sets of pole techniques (used by Buddhist monks in Korea), sword and shield techniques (using "broom of wolf's tail"), long spear, trident, and long-blade sword. A second treatise, Mooyae Singbo, created about fifty years after the Manchus invasion, included bare-hand combat, exercises with Japanese and Korean swords, spear, military flail, and different blades with a long shaft. However, the greatest Korean book on the martial arts was the Muyedobo-tongji.

In 1790 AD, the King T'aejo ordered General Lee Duck Mu and scholars Back Je Ga and Back Dong Soo to compile an official textbook on all the current Korean martial arts, the Muyedobo-tongji, which is now considered a classic of Korean martial arts literature. It was the first book widely available on taekkyon and it helped promote the art among the general population. Before this time, the art had been restricted primarily to the military nobility. The book used drawings made from carved wooden blocks and consisted of about forty pages of Korean style paper. It illustrated many facets of martial training, outlined the proper equipment and uniform, and recorded various empty hand and weapons hyung. The book described how taekkyon enabled one to build strength by training the arms and legs, as well as the body, to be adaptable to any critical situation.

The Muyedobo-tongji included 18 techniques from the two previous treatises, four sets for horsemen (with a double sword, spear, flail, and big sword), including horseback acrobatics, and a game similar to horse polo. Techniques using the shield and sword indicate the influence of the Chinese strategist Qi Jiguang and the empty-hand combat techniques are considered Chinese in origin.

Muyedobo-tongji became the standard text for military instruction. The fourth volume "Hand Fighting Techniques" contained the illustration of 38 motions that resemble modern taekwondo forms and basic movements. However, those motions cannot be directly compared with contemporary taekwondo forms that have been modernized through scientific studies.

While King T'aejo was not able to reverse the trend of disinterest in the martial skills, the publication of Muyedobo-tongji led to the subsequent popularizing of the art among the public. The book was responsible for the survival of taekkyon during this era and it provided a written record of native Korean martial arts for future generations.

Although desirous of peace during the latter part of the 18th century, Korea was drawn yet again into world events and consequently was to suffer severely. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a money economy and a market system were established. The resulting political and social changes severely strained Korea's political and social system, which in the 19th century began to break down. Christianity, introduced in 1784 AD from China, put native institutions and values under even greater stress.

Korea was open to invasion, powerless, with a population of twelve million people and a standing army of a mere six thousand men. The Confucian government's obstinate disapproval of the military establishment was sorely felt. In 1864, Taewongun seized power, outlawed Christianity, and repelled military interventions by France (1866) and the United States (1871). These reforms, however, triggered the downfall of Taewongun himself.

Progressive elements within the Korean court, with the aid of the Japanese, staged a series of revolts beginning in 1882. In 1894, the Tonghak Rebellion brought both Japanese and Chinese troops onto Korean soil to protect Korea's interests and to influence the Korean monarchy.

Sino-Japanese War

In 1894, Japan and China went to war (Sino-Japanese War) for possession of Korea, with the Japanese promising Korea freedom if they were victorious. Japan won the war in 1895 but did not keep its promise; it kept Korea under Japanese control. When Queen Min was murdered by Japanese agents in 1896, King Kojong sought protection from the foreign legations, and the Russian legation sheltered him from the Japanese for nearly a year. Russia, which had a growing interest in Korea, seized on Japan's broken promise to Korea as an excuse for military intervention and went to war with Japan in 1904 (Russo-Japanese War). Japan moved many more troops into Korea to strengthen their military forces and emerged victorious against Russia in 1905, but it left Korea under even tighter Japanese control.

The United States tacitly recognized Japanese control of Korea with the Taft-Katsura Agreement signed On July 31, 1905, by Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura (1848-1913) and U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft (1857-1920) under U.S. presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). There was little attempt by the Koreans to revolt, except for the assassination of Japanese Prince Hirobumi Ito in 1909 and the disastrous Declaration of Independence in 1919 in which thousands of Korean demonstrators were killed by the Japanese army. Since Korea had virtually no army left with which to defend itself because of the Confucian government's lack of concern for military development, the Joseon Dynasty eventually fell.

The Korean emperor Kojong was forced to abdicate in 1907 and his son became the powerless, puppet emperor of Korea. Kim Kojong's son, the last prince of the Chosun Dynasty, was installed as King Sunjong (1874-1926). He was a pro-Japanese and approved the Annexation Agreement signed on August 22 and promulgated on August 29, 1910, that meant Korea was officially annexed to Japan. Japan annexed Korea to enhance the prosperity of the Japanese people and to serve as a springboard for a later Japanese invasion of China. The signing of the annexation treaty by the Prime Minister happened without the approval of the Korean people. A week after the treaty was signed, King Sunjong was forced to issue a proclamation yielding both his throne and his country.

The Chosun Dynasty that had been founded by Yi Sung Gye 519 years before, now became a part of Japan. Many of the pro-Japanese Koreans were rewarded with Japanese royal titles, were given large tracts of land, and they became rich and powerful under Japanese rule. Segregated Korean and Japanese schools were established, with the Koreans receiving an inferior education. Many Koreans who grew up in that era still cannot read the Korean language.

After 1905, Japan's assertion of power was accomplished substantially at Korea's (and after 1931, at China's) expense. Nonetheless, Korean resistance to Japanese colonialism grew strong. The Japanese estimated that there were almost 70.000 Korean guerrillas in 1908 engaging Japanese forces in nearly 1,500 separate confrontations. Between 1905 and 1910, Korean people's resistance to Japanese occupation led to the killing of at least 18,000 protesting Koreans, 12.000 of them from 1908 to 1910 alone.

Japanese Prince Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909), the first general resident in Korea, was assassinated in 1910 by Ahn Jung Gun (1879-1910), on the railway platform in Harbin (Manchuria). Ahn Jung Gun was captured and executed in Lui Shun prison on March 26, 1910. He is regarded as a hero in South Korea while North Korea thinks his act led the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910.

Another attempted revolt was the disastrous Sam il Anti-Japanese March on March 1, 1919. Led by young students and Christians, nearly two million students, patriots, and Christians demonstrated their support of Korean identity with the "Korean Declaration of Independence." A Declaration of Independence, patterned after the American version, was read by teachers and civic leaders in tens of thousands of villages throughout Korea.

The native Koreans were not aware that the American President Wilson was not quite the good person he claimed to be. America had years earlier agreed to Japan's annexation of Korea. The 33 organizers of the movement were mostly Christian idealists and had no experience in mass movement, so the March failed disastrously. The Japanese suppressed the movement with brutal force, firing into groups of Korean Christians singing hymns. Christian leaders were nailed to wooden crosses and were left to die a slow death "so that they can go to heaven." Mounted police beheaded young schoolchildren and police burned down churches. The official Japanese count of casualties included 553 killed, 1,409 injured, and 12,522 arrested, but the Korean estimates are much higher, over 7,500 killed, about 15,000 injured, and 45,000 arrested.

As a part of the occupation, the Japanese government banned the practice of martial arts in Korea, but the pursuit of martial arts by Koreans was not completely eliminated, though it was restricted to the Japanese military.Taekkyon existed in underground schools and it was practiced by Korean citizens living abroad. One of the more common places for Koreans to go to learn martial arts was Japan, and several Koreans who were to become influential in the development of taekwondo began their martial art study in Japan.

Buddhism was dominant in the Silla Dynasty and in the following Koryo Dynasty, while Confucianism dominated the subsequent Joseon Dynasty. While Koreans may admire Koguryo for strength and Paekche for refinement, they seem to regard Silla's mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism (Taoism) and native shamanism as having been uniquely Korean.

When Japan entered World War II, the Koreans were drawn into the war because of their occupation by the Japanese. After the war ended, the Japanese were forced from Korea by the allies and Korea was divided between the allies, thus beginning another occupation.

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