Korean martial arts history has never been a simple matter. Many of its twists and turns resulted from the painful Japanese occupation that lasted from 1910 to 1945, but others stemmed from matters as mundane as the Korean-English language barrier. Meanwhile, practitioners and scholars have argued, struggled and fought about the evolution of the various Korean styles.
The best way to conduct research while operating with a handicap like that is to interview people who actually participated in the evolutionary process. Unfortunately, as we advance into the 21st century, fewer and fewer of those legendary martial artists are still around to testify. Taekwondo’s Choi Hong-hi, hapkido’s Ji Han-jae, kuk sool’s Suh In-hyuk and hwa rang do’s Dr. Joo Bang Lee are among those living legends who trained and taught during the pivotal period that immediately following World War II and liberation from Japan.
In this exclusive interview, we spoke with with Joo Bang Lee to clarify some of the aforementioned inaccuracies and misunderstandings about the evolution of the Korean martial arts. Joo Bang Lee also offers insights into his training experiences with a Buddhist monk and hapkido founder Choi Yong-sul, and he provides a glimpse into the direction his comprehensive fighting art is taking in the new millennium.
Black Belt: What are the earliest origins of the Korean martial arts?
Joo Bang Lee: The origins of the Korean fighting arts [go back] some 5,000 years to the formation of a country called Ko-Choson, which means “Old Choson.” During those ancient times, people were focused on sheer survival—maintaining the integrity of their country and defending themselves against other countries and animals. Because of Korea’s peninsular position between the Chinese mainland and the sea, as well as its rugged topography, these early Koreans developed strong combative skills. Korea has been invaded more than any other place in Asia, but we’ve never been conquered. Even when the Japanese tried for over three decades to destroy our culture during their occupation, they didn’t succeed.
Black Belt: Let’s skip forward to the Three Kingdoms era. That’s supposedly when the Korean martial arts underwent a lot of growth.
Joo Bang Lee: Yes. Over 2,000 years ago, the Three Kingdoms period began. The Three Kingdoms were Paekche (18 B.C.-661 A.D.), Koguryo (37 B.C.-668 A.D.) and Silla (57 B.C.-660 A.D.). Each had its own king, army, subjects and combat methods. Because all three kingdoms were vying for supremacy on the peninsula, each had to develop a superior fighting system to give its warriors and soldiers the advantage in battle. The Hwarang culture was born within the Silla kingdom.
Black Belt: The Hwarang warriors are a famous part of Korean culture. How were they organized?
Joo Bang Lee: The Hwarang were the heroes of ancient Korean culture. All children learn about the Hwarang and their heroic deeds in elementary-school texts. The Silla period lasted from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D. [as the United Silla dynasty], making it one of the most long-lasting civilizations in history, and the Hwarang warriors were to Silla’s descendants like the knights of medieval Europe are to many Westerners. They were organized in bands, which were led by young men of royal descent called the Hwarang. They led bands that ranged in size from 300 to 5,000 young men. These student-disciples were called rang do, which means “disciples of the Hwarang.” The do in this term means “disciple,” not “way” as many martial arts historians incorrectly think.
Black Belt: Please explain the term “Hwarang.”
Joo Bang Lee: It consists of two Chinese characters pronounced in Korean. The first character, hwa, means “flower.” The second character, rang, is an ancient title of nobility for young men. Bringing the two characters together has the concept of noble boys who are growing, blossoming or flowering into a powerful state of manhood. It signifies the rite of passage that young Silla noblemen had to pass through to achieve their full potential as adults. I have to make something clear: These Hwarang weren’t just young brawling men who went around fighting the armies of other kingdoms. They spent a great deal of time really working to develop their potential on all levels: mental, physical and spiritual. Hwarang bands went to live on a mountain or [near a] river, training together and developing strong values that would serve any soldier or nobleman well: morality, wisdom, emotions, loyalty, respect, obedience and honor. Their training gave them the means to understand human nature and develop martial skills. They became the standard for Silla’s military at the time of King Chinhung in 540 A.D. The legendary Buddhist monk, Won Kwang Beopsa, gave the Hwarang their Five Codes to govern their behavior. Because of the Hwarang, the Silla kingdom was able to defeat Koguryo and Paekche, unifying the peninsula. A version of this Hwarang system later spread to Japan and gave rise to their shogun-samurai system.
Black Belt: What made up the training of a Hwarang warrior?
Joo Bang Lee: Hwarang training was geared toward developing a human being who used his maximum potential. You’ve heard of potential and kinetic energy, right? Potential energy is like having a rock on a high cliff. It’s useless until someone or something pushes it off the cliff. When it’s falling, the rock has kinetic energy, or energy of movement. It can crush anything below it. Human beings are the same. Most people have a lot of potential. They have the ability to achieve great things, but unless an event or force pushes them in a particular direction, that ability might never be used. Look at all the obese kids in America who would rather sit around playing video games [than] do some sort of exercise. They might have the potential to be great athletes, but they’re not using their potential. Nobody’s guiding them in the right direction. Hwarang training provided a direction for people. The noble youth trained under masters who taught them a vast curriculum. Imagine knowing someone who in today’s terms could do the work of a doctor, poet, musician, assassin, general, historian, priest and statesman all rolled into one. That’s basically what the Hwarang were trained for. They spent countless hours developing fighting skills, which involved every aspect of combat. This included kicking, punching, joint manipulation, throwing, grappling, internal-energy training, pressure-point attacks, acrobatics, breakfalling, horsemanship and 108 weapons.
Black Belt: Did they learn anything else?
Joo Bang Lee: They were also well-versed in traditional medicine, which involved treatment of the gamut of injuries they might cause or sustain in combat or training. This part of their training included bonesetting, acupressure, acupuncture, herbal remedies and ki (internal energy) healing. Their meditative practices gave them mental powers that would be considered incredible by today’s standards. They could withstand extreme pain and perform feats of mind-over-matter. They were distinguished outside the martial arts as well, developing a style of poetry known as hyang ga. They were the original Renaissance men.
Black Belt: What happened to the Hwarang after the fall of the Silla dynasty?
Joo Bang Lee: A Hwarang general named Wanggum assumed control of the country and renamed it Koryo. It lasted from 936 to 1392. The Hwarang institution continued but under different titles such as kuk son do and pung wol do. These titles carried the suffix “do,” which means “disciple.” The Korean language has many homophones—words that sound the same [but have] different meanings. This suffix does not mean the same thing as the “do” suffix of taekwondo, hapkido or karate-do. The “do” at the end of those names means “way.”
Black Belt: How has that observation affected martial arts research?
Joo Bang Lee: The public needs to understand that if someone says “hwa rang do,” they could very well be talking about the Hwarang disciples and not the martial art of hwa rang do. Without the benefit of seeing the Chinese characters for the terms, people often do not understand the Korean homophones. That’s why I tried using the spelling “hwarangdoes” to indicate the Hwarang disciples. As I mentioned earlier, the “rang do” were the soldier-disciples of the Hwarang generals. Thus, they could also be referred to as Hwarangdo, meaning Hwarang soldiers, followers or disciples. The martial art of hwa rang do is a completely different term. The later parts of this interview should clarify the confusion about this once and for all.
Black Belt: Getting back to the history …
Joo Bang Lee: In 1392, another Hwarang general, Yi Sung-gye, overthrew Koryo and established the Chosun kingdom, which is also known as the Yi (or Lee) dynasty. It lasted until 1910. It was during the Yi dynasty that the martial arts began their decline in popularity in Korea. Because King Taejong felt that the Hwarang bands were a potential menace to his supremacy and because he knew that Hwarang-trained generals overthrew two preceding kings, he declared that all Hwarang bands must fall under the direct control of the central government, stripping the local warlords of independent control. He then established Confucianism as the state religion.
Black Belt: What does the switch to Confucianism have to do with the growth of martial arts training?
Joo Bang Lee: This is important for all students of traditional Asian martial arts to understand. Buddhist monks were responsible for a lot of the development of the martial arts in East Asia. Just look at the Shaolin Temple in China. Taoists have their own self-defense methods as well. Confucianism also had a lot to do with the success of the Hwarang institution, but on a moral level. If you look at Won Kwang Beopsa’s Five Codes, you’ll notice that some of the rules of conduct have a decidedly Confucian message of filial piety, loyalty to the king and honor between friends. The last code is the only one with a decidedly Buddhist injunction against indiscriminate killing. The fourth code, which allowed no retreat in battle, imbued the Hwarang and their disciples with amazing courage and strength. However, orthodox Confucianism places a huge importance on academic learning and views the military with great disdain. In fact, Confucianism traditionally ranks people in society by four levels. In descending order of importance, they are scholars, peasants, artisans and merchants. Soldiers are not even considered part of society. So you can say that Confucianism really had a lot to do with the decline of the martial arts when it became a state doctrine.
Black Belt: What happened to those Hwarang who wouldn’t follow King Taejong’s decree?
Joo Bang Lee: This is when many of the Hwarang fled into the mountains and remote places of Korea. They lived their lives like wandering hermits, devoting themselves to spiritual study, passing on their vast knowledge of religion, combat skills and healing techniques to only a select few disciples instead of to the huge bands that they did before. King Taejong’s edict requiring all Hwarang generals to place their soldiers under the direct control of the king meant that the soldier-disciples were no longer ultimately loyal to the Hwarang master who trained and led them, but to the king. This created deep disgust in the heart of many Hwarang generals, causing them to leave society permanently. The Confucian-based government still maintained a combat-skills tradition to protect the country. It even compiled the textbook called Mu Yea Do Bo Tong Ji. However, the Hwarang combat skills continued to be passed on only in secret from master to disciple. As a result, the vast body of knowledge that the Hwarang had developed began slowly dying out. These masters would occasionally accept disciples, but whenever a master did not find a student who was worthy of receiving the Hwarang legacy, he simply kept his skills to himself. In many instances, they took their wisdom to the grave. A great deal of traditional Hwarang combat skill began to vanish. This signaled the beginning of the end of Korea’s golden age.
Black Belt: The Yi dynasty ended in 1910; and from 1910 to 1945, the Japanese occupied Korea. What happened to the Korean martial arts during that time?
Joo Bang Lee: That time was disastrous for Korea in all respects, not just the martial arts. All aspects of our culture were subjected to a “revision” process. The Japanese forced Koreans to speak Japanese in public, dress in the Japanese manner and act Japanese in almost every way. We were forced to conduct ourselves as Japanese, yet [we were] treated as less than human. Anything that followed Korean tradition was banned. Traditional Korean dress, Korean speech, Korean writing, Korean martial arts and even our Korean names were outlawed. The Japanese murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Korean civilians, kidnapped and raped our women, attempted to rewrite Korean history [to] portray us as inferior to the Japanese and tried to destroy our identity by pressing us into lives of servitude.
Black Belt: How did all that affect Korean martial arts training?
Joo Bang Lee: Needless to say, anyone caught practicing or teaching traditional Korean combat skills was put in jail. Those combat skills were already in decline during the later years of the Yi dynasty because of King Taejong’s decree, but the Japanese occupation almost completely destroyed what little remained. Those who chose to publicly practice were forced to learn and teach Japanese martial arts, such as karate, judo or kendo. Luckily, some masters maintained their practice in secret, either training in private or living in such remote parts of Korea that the Japanese did not come into contact with them. That was the case with some Hwarang descendants who lived in the hills.
Black Belt: Let’s sidetrack for a moment and talk about your early martial arts training.
Joo Bang Lee: My earliest martial training began with my father, who studied judo and kendo under the occupation. That started as soon as [my brother and I] were old enough to walk. My most important training began a bit later with a monk who was a descendant of a particular Hwarang lineage. He was a dosa, which means “master of the way.” The Chinese use it to signify a Taoist master, but the Koreans use it to refer to a wandering hermit-monk who is learned in Korea’s three major religions: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Su-Ahm Dosa, my master, was the 57th-generation heir to one particular lineage of Hwarang training handed down from the Silla period. The martial section of his teachings was called um-yang kwon. It consisted of hard and soft techniques, including kicking, punching, joint manipulation, throws, acrobatics, grappling, ki (internal energy) development and a wide assortment of weapons. Just before the end of World War II, my father brought my brother and me to Sukwang Temple near where we lived in Anbyungun, Hamnam province, which is now part of North Korea. He asked Su-Ahm Dosa to accept the two of us as his students, and we became the only ones to learn from him. At the time of our acceptance in 1942, I was 4 years old; and my brother, Lee Joo-sang, was 5.
Black Belt: So the system you inherited from Su-Ahm Dosa was not hwa rang do?
Joo Bang Lee: That is right. I inherited the Hwarang combat system, which was called um-yang kwon. Remember, hwa rang do as a martial art name did not exist 2,000 years ago. I founded the name to identify this new martial art in 1960. It is possible that not all the Hwarang generals and rang do disciples practiced the same combat skills. However, before me nobody claimed any Hwarang combat skills, which proves that the only surviving lineage of the Hwarang warriors is from these um-yang kwon combat skills. Others who claim any Hwarang combat skills are [lying], if they arose after me.
Black Belt: What did your um-yang kwon training consist of?
Joo Bang Lee: A typical training session with my master was actually a full-day affair, not at all like the way people train these days. We trained every day: waking at 5 a.m.; washing with the cold, mountain water; warming up and training for an hour; making breakfast and serving our master; cleaning up by 8 a.m.; training with our master for three or four hours; cooking and eating lunch; napping for an hour at 1 p.m.; training for another four hours with our master; and then cooking dinner. After cleaning the dinner bowls, Su-Ahm Dosa would teach us shin gong, which are the mental skills, and in sul, which are the ancient healing methods.
Black Belt: When did Su-Ahm Dosa give you and your brother black belts in um-yang kwon?
Joo Bang Lee: The original Hwarang combat skills weren’t organized like modern martial arts are. Um-yang kwon was just a continuous process of training without belt ranks. Our training consisted of many different skills. Su-Ahm Dosa taught us how to develop our ability in kicking, punching, jumping, breakfalls, [doing] bone and joint breaks, submission locking, choking, grappling, acrobatic leaping, throwing, pressure-point striking and pressing, and ki training. There were 260 categories with over 4,000 techniques, along with 108 traditional weapons broken down into 20 categories. In addition, Su-Ahm Dosa taught us the stealth training used by ancient Hwarang spies called sul sa. Once we had learned all these skills, we were recognized as masters.
Black Belt: What happened to your martial arts training when the Korean War broke out in 1950?
Joo Bang Lee: My family and Su-Ahm Dosa relocated to Seoul in 1948. My master made his new home on O-Dae mountain, living in solitude in the Yang Mi Am [hermitage]. Some monks are so engrossed in their own mental and spiritual development that they leave the rest of the world behind, choosing to live in seclusion where they can continue to develop their mental skills. My brother and I trained with him daily until our family relocated farther south in 1950.
Black Belt: There’s a lot of disagreement about how the post-World War II Korean martial arts came about. It is claimed that many styles were practiced in Korea prior to the Japanese occupation and only resurfaced after the country was liberated. How did the most well-known Korean martial arts—taekwondo and hapkido—come into existence?
Joo Bang Lee: Let’s talk about them one at a time. Some taekwondo people say that their art came from a style called su bak do, which was the name of the combat skills practiced in the Koryo kingdom. Others claim that it came from tae kyon. Tae kyon is the soft-style civilian foot-fighting skill from the latter part of the Chosun dynasty. Here’s the reality: During the Japanese occupation, a lot of Koreans were forced to learn karate-do, which was pronounced in Korea as kong soo do or tang soo do. Some of these Korean karate students became masters, and they founded the seven kwan: Son Byong-in of the yon mu kwan, Hwang Kee of the moo duk kwan, Ro Byong-jik of the song mu kwan, Um Un-kyu of the chung do kwan, Lee Nam-suk of the chang mu kwan, Lee Jong-woo of the ji do kwan and Choi Hong-hi of the oh do kwan. In 1964, these founders united and brought kong soo do, tang soo do and taekwondo together under the taekwondo banner. Gen. Choi Hong-hi held a great deal of political power at the time, and his federation had a growing membership. Claiming taekwondo as a Korean national martial sport gave the Korean people a martial art to identify with. It capitalized on the post-occupation nationalism.
Black Belt: Were there any other reasons why taekwondo grew so quickly?
Joo Bang Lee: Eventually, President Park Chung-hee took a strong liking to taekwondo, and he established it as the national sport in the early ’70s. After that, the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), which was Gen. Choi’s group, fell out of favor with the new regime; and the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) came to power. It is the WTF that controls Olympic taekwondo now. In 1968, President Park ordered Ji Han-jae and me to unify all the Korean martial arts. President Park’s goal was to make two unique martial organizations: one a martial sport organization and the other a martial art organization. However, there were many differences between these martial arts, and the unification effort was unsuccessful. As a result, I left Korea to spread hwa rang do to the United States.
Black Belt: How did hapkido develop in Korea?
Joo Bang Lee: There’s controversy only because there are people out there who didn’t participate in the growth of the system, yet they go around and act as if they were the ones who invented it. The absolute truth about hapkido is that it began in Korea as a style called dae dong ryu yu sool, which is daito-ryu yawara or daito-ryu jujutsu in Japanese. The term means “great Eastern-style soft skills.” Choi Yong-sul, the man who is often credited with founding hapkido, was a house servant to one of the last great Japanese combat-skill masters: Takeda Sogaku. Choi was taken to Japan during the occupation and lived there with Takeda until the liberation of Korea. Takeda was the headmaster of the daito-ryu yawara system. It’s important for people to understand that yawara is the same as jujutsu in Japanese. The Chinese characters are the same, but they can be pronounced two different ways. A judo player named Suh Bok-sup was the first person to “discover” Choi and get him to teach. Suh was hanging out at his father’s brewery in a loft. Pig farmers used to take the distilled grains that the brewers were going to throw away and feed them to their pigs. One day a guy came in with a wheelbarrow to get some of this pig feed, and a scuffle ensued with some local troublemakers. Suh heard the commotion and looked down from the loft. He was amazed when he saw the man send the thugs flying and breaking their joints. As soon as the attackers were dropped, the man picked up the wheelbarrow and started walking away. Suh jumped down from the loft and chased after the man to find out what kind of incredible martial art he was using. The man pushing the wheelbarrow was Choi Yong-sul, and he accepted Suh as his first Korean student. In 1953, after the Korean War, Choi opened his first public school in his home and began teaching dae dong ryu yu sool.
Black Belt: So Choi Yong-sul actually taught a Japanese system?
Joo Bang Lee: Absolutely. He made no other claims. Some people today are saying that hapkido is an indigenous Korean system. If Choi had no problem saying he was teaching a Japanese system, why should his descendants? Choi called his art “yu sool,” which means “soft skills.” But it’s just the Korean pronunciation of jujutsu or yawara. He made no secret that he had learned it from a Japanese master. The name “hapkido” is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters that the Japanese use for aikido. At the time we were training with Choi, he only spoke of his art as dae dong ryu yu sool—never anything else. But when aikido was founded, Korea cut off relations with Japan. So when Morihei Uyeshiba, another prominent student of Takeda, came out with his art called aikido, we didn’t know about it at first. One of my friends in Taegu named Kang Moon-jin [saw] an aikido text or something [that mentioned] that there was a similar style in Japan using the characters meaning “way of harmonious energy,” and he thought it sounded appealing. So he started using the hapkido name for his school in 1959; but six months later, Choi took the signboard off the school and closed it down. Regardless of how it came about, I know that he was the very first to use the term “hapkido” in Korea.
Black Belt: Who else was involved with hapkido in those days?
Joo Bang Lee: In 1959 Ji Han-jae opened his Yawara Dojang and was teaching in Seoul under that name, and in 1960 I was teaching under the Hwarang Mu Sool banner. In 1961 Kim Mu-hong came to Seoul and opened his school under the name Shin Mu Kwon Hapkido. At the same time, I changed the name of my school to Hwarangdo and Hapkido, and Ji Han-jae switched and founded Sung Mu Kwon Hapkido. So we three masters were the first to use the hapkido name in Seoul as of 1961. In the winter of 1962, I met Suh In-hyuk while he was visiting Seoul following his military service. It was at that time that we [my brother and I, along with five other charter members] created an organization called the Kuk Sool Hoi, which was the short way of saying Han Kuk Mu Sool Hyeop Hoi (Korean Martial Skills Association). Then Suh In-hyuk went to Pusan and opened his first school, calling it Kuk Sool Hoi Hapkido. The Kuk Sool Hoi organization that we formed at that time was the first hapkido organization in Korea.
Black Belt: So you also trained with Choi Yong-sul?
Joo Bang Lee: Yes. In the 1950s during the Korean War, my family moved farther south to Taegu. I met him there. He taught private and group lessons; my brother and I took private lessons from him. It’s possible that Ji Han-jae and others might have trained at the same time. But we trained at a different time than they did. When we got to Choi’s house, it was only the two of us with him. Because my brother and I already had a strong background in the Hwarang martial skills that we learned from Su-Ahm Dosa, the joint locks, grappling techniques and throws of yu sool were easy to pick up. So in 1956, my brother and I received master-level [rank] in yu sool, and our family moved back to Seoul. It is no secret that I trained in yu sool, and anyone who trained in Korea between 1960 and 1968 knew that I was a hapkido founder as well as the hwa rang do founder.