Inside Kung Fu April 1984

Tae Kwon Do's Forms of Survival
by Hee Il Cho


To find the deeper, hidden meanings of tae kwon do's forms (hyung) you must look deep into the history and culture of Korea - even beyond, into the history of China.

For, as is frequently said, "Shaolin is the cradle of the martial arts." And those Shaolin-trained monks who had mastered the martial arts eventually brought their religion - and self-defense skills - into the northern provinces of Korea during the fourth century. This evolved into the early form of tae kwon do, called tae kyon.

At first the art flourished only on temple grounds, with the spiritual aspects intricately entwined with the physical techniques. Later, in the seventh century, the skills were passed on to the general public for self protection. This period was especially violent due to the intense fighting between the three kingdoms that comprised the area presently known as Korea.

After a prolonged struggle, the kingdom of Silla emerged victorious, and in 688 AD the kingdoms were unified under a central overnment. The Silla period lasted until 35 AD and was considered the golden age Korea's history. It was a time of building and creativity. Two stone sculptures depicting martial art techniques, the forerunners of present-day forms, still exist. These statues, which date to the mid-eighth century, stood guard at the entrance to a temple housing a Iarge stone Buddha. Their presence suggests close association between religion and tae kwon do as it existed at the time.

Also during the Silla period, another group sprang up which proved to be as important to the growth of tae kwon do in area as were the Buddhist monks. They called themselves the hwa rang do, and their purpose was to cultivate moral and patriotic ideals among Korean youth. Membership in this exclusive organization was restricted to educated young men of noble birth. The members led an existence which as conducive to moral improvement as they traveled throughout the country training their bodies and spirits. Tenets of their moral code, which resembled that of the European knights or the samurai of Japan, were as follows:

1. Loyalty to the king.
2. Faithfulness to one's friends.
3. Devotion to one's parents.
4. Bravery and absolute obedience on the battlefield.
5. A prohibition against wanton killing of any form of life.

There was a natural affinity between the principles of hwa rang do and those of the tae kyon. Before long, the latter became part of the official training of the hwa rang do and contributed much to its character. The eventual wedding of the two groups resulted in a martial art which, according to Western standards, has a paradoxical basis of magnanimity, sympathy and love (respect for the worth of one's opponent). This kind of emotional foundation exists in all forms of martial arts, but continues to be particularly strong in the modern Korean style.

The greatest era in the history oftae kyon, ironically, came after the end of Korea's golden era. In 935 AD, the kingdom of Silla was overthrown by the warlord Kyonghum who then established the kingdom of Koryo from which the Western name of Korea was derived. Founded as it was by a warlord, Koryo remained strongly martial in spirit. This period produced some of the nation's finest soldiers, who time after time successfully defended their homeland against invaders. Being dedicated students of tae kyon, the men sometimes trained by slamming their fists into walls or blocks of wood in order to strengthen their hands. This practice is still performed by many devotees of martial arts.

Inevitably, the Koryo dynasty declined after 500 years of rule, and the practice of tae kyon declined as well. In the 15th century the era of the warrior princes ended and was replaced by the Yi dynasty, which held learning and scholarship in high esteem. Confucianism replaced Buddhism as the state religion and the military arts fell into disrepute. For four centuries, the political fortunes of Korea declined along with its interests in tae kyon. The final blow came in 1910 when the Japanese overran Korea. Tae kyon was barely alive at the time. Bent on destroying the national identity of the Koreans in the hope that it would then be replaced by loyalty to them, the Japanese banned the practice of tae kyon. Their orders were generally obeyed. Only in the remote rural areas did the practice of tae kyon continue. The order, however, was not as detrimental to the development of tae kwon do as one might expect. Finding their life oppressive at home, many Koreans left to study and work in China and Japan, where there were no restrictions on the practice of martial arts. As a result, for the first time in over a thousand years, the practitioners of tae kyon were exposed to other forms of martial arts.

The end of World War II brought an end to Japan's 36-year occupation of Korea. It also brought home thousands of Koreans who were fired by intense feelings of patriotism and national pride. As part of the national movement to restore Korean traditions, interest in self-defense methods was revived and many experts opened dojangs (martial arts schools). They returned from all parts of the Orient, bringing with them many new techniques gleaned from Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese martial arts. Wisely,they proceded to blend the various new and old styles into the modern Korean system practiced today.

The leaders of the dojangs decided to search for a new and more meaningful name for the Korean art of self-defense. Finally, in 1955, the term tae kwon do was adopted by the leading masters of the art. Suggested by Choi Hong Hi, this name accurately describes the techniques of this self-defense method. Translated, tae means to kick or smash with the feet; kwon refers to punching with the fists; and do is the art of destroying with the fists and feet.

This choice proved wise for two reasons. First, it sounds very much like the ancient term tae kyon, which provided historical continuity and helped the Koreans bolster their national pride. Second, the name is descriptive of both hand and foot techniques, thus being a more accurate term than martial arts, which refers solely to the hands.

The history of tae kwon do, from early to modern times, is today embodied in the art's forms. To the discerning eye, these hyung show the complementary importance of both spiritual and physical disciplinečan integral part of tae kwon do. And many of the forms specifically refer to a historical figure of great importance in Korean history.

One such historical form is called po eun. PoEun(1337-1392) is also known as Mong Ju Chung. He was a scholar and a faithful public servant for the king in the Koryo dynasty. At the age of twenty-three he took three different national qualifying examinations which were used to select public servants, and received the highest scores on all three. He participated in various national projects because the king had much confidence in his wide knowledge and good judgment. From time to time, he also visited Japan and China as a diplomat for the king, and was most knowledgeable about human behavior. He also founded an institute devoted to the theories of Confucianism.

At this time, Sung Kae Lee headed the armed forces of the Koryo dynasty. In reaction to Sung Kae Lee's increasing military power, many contemporaries of Mong Ju Chung plotted to dethrone U-Wang, the king of the Koryo dynasty, and replace him with Sun Kae Lee. Mong Ju Chung faithfully I supported the king up to the last minute, but : was assassinated by his opponents. The 474-year-old Koryo dynasty ended with the death of Mong Ju Chung, and was followed by the new Lee dynasty. The death of Mong Ju Chung symbolizes faithful allegiance to the king.

The po eun form includes fast defensive and offensive moves to the right or left without changing the body position. You attack the enemy simultaneously in the front or back using the elbow and leg.

© copyright Inside Kung Fu April 1985