Korean martial arts
Taekwondo at the 2014 Asian Games
Korean name
Revised RomanizationMusul
Alternate term
Revised Romanizationmuye

Korean martial arts (Korean무술 or 무예) are fighting practices and methods which have their place in the history of Korea but have been adapted for use by both military and non-military personnel as a method of personal growth or recreation. The history of Korean martial arts can be traced as far back as the prehistoric era.

Notable examples of unarmed martial arts include taekwondo, hapkido, ssireum, and taekkyon. For armed martial arts, Korean archery, Kumdo, Korean swordsmanship, and knife fighting exist. In November 2011, taekkyon was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.[1]


Early history

Further information: Subak and Taekkyon

Wrestling, called ssireum, is the oldest form of ground fighting in Korea, while Subak was the upright martial art of foot soldiers. Weapons were an extension of those unarmed skills. Besides being used to train soldiers, both of these traditional martial arts were also popular among villagers during festivals for dance, mask, acrobatic, and sport fighting. These martial arts were also considered basic physical education. However, Koreans relied more heavily on bows and arrows in warfare than they did on close-range weapons.[2]

It appears that during the Goguryeo dynasty, (37 BC – 668) subak/taekkeyon or ssireum (empty-handed fighting), swordsmanship, spear-fighting and horse riding were practiced. In 1935, paintings that showed martial arts were found on the walls of royal tombs believed to have been built for Goguryeo kings sometime between the years 3 and 427 AD.[3] Which techniques were practiced during that period is, however, something that cannot be determined from these paintings. References to Subak can be found in government records from the Goguryeo dynasty through the Joseon dynasty, until the 15th century, after which its popularity declined It reappears only in 1790 book about martial arts titled Muyedobotongji (무예도보통지).[4]


"Siege of Dongrae" Japanese army dual wielding swords while attacking the town of Dongrae. All Korean Soldiers are armed with the composite bow.

In 1593, during the 1592–1598 Japanese invasions of Korea, Korea received help from China to win back Pyongyang. During one of the battles, the Koreans learned about a martial art manual titled Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書), written by the Chinese military strategist Qi Jiguang. King Seonjo (1567–1608) took a personal interest in the book, and ordered his court to study the book. This led to the creation of the Muyejebo (무예제보; 武藝諸譜) in 1599 by Han Gyo, who had studied the use of several weapons with the Chinese army. Soon this book was revised in the Muyejebo Seokjib and in 1759, the book was revised and published at the Muyesinbo (무예신보; 武藝新譜).[5]

Korean Army under Gwon Yul attacking the Japanese Castle at Ulsan, commanded by Katō Kiyomasa. Note that the entire formation is archers, as painted by the Japanese.

In 1895, Emperor Gojong invited 40 sword masters from Japan to begin teaching the art of the sword to his Korean Army cadets and police officers. This was decided upon due to the lack of native sword masters in Korea at the time. Teachings continued well after the 1910 Annexation, until the art was formally named Kendo in Japan, and Kumdo in Korean.[citation needed]

In 1899, Emperor Gojong, with the encouragement of the visiting Prince Heinrich of Prussia, established gungdo as an official sport.[6]

During the Donghak Rebellion, much of the rebels used old matchlock arquebuses against the modern rifles of the Korean and Japanese Army. Although the rebels initially fought against the Korean government, following the fall of Jeonju, the Korean government had invited in the Japanese Army to help suppress the peasant rebels. With the annexation of Korea in 1910, all matchlocks were confiscated and destroyed by the Japanese. However, the Japanese did not stop the production and keeping of bows, which they did not consider as a threat to internal security. [citation needed]

Modern Korean martial arts

The two extant martial arts at the time of Japanese take over in 1910, ssireum and gungdo grew in popularity during the Japanese occupation period, both of them founding their current federations in 1920. Taekkyon did not enjoy much popularity during the occupation era.[7]

Currently these new arts such as taekwondo and hapkido created since 1945 remain the most popular in Korea. Other modern styles such as Tae Soo Do and Hwa Rang Do, which have a sizeable presence in the US and Europe, are almost unknown in Korea, as the founders relocated to the US and focused on operations in the US. Gungdo participation is limited by the high cost of the equipment, with a traditional horn made reflex bow costing upwards of $1000, and most gungdo clubs in Seoul charging over $1000 application fee for membership, similar to golf clubs. This limits participation to the upper and upper middle class. Many Korean junior high schools, high schools, and colleges maintain martial arts teams to include ssireum, kumdo (kendo), judo and taekwondo. Yong In University for instance, focuses on martial arts training for international competitions.[8]

Types of Korean martial arts


Main article: Taekwondo

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art which emerged in the mid-twentieth century, and has subsequently become one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world. The art is characterized by powerful hand strikes and kicks, which are used for unarmed self-defense or combat, or in organized sport competitions such as the Olympic Games. Taekwondo primarily focuses on fast, powerful, kicking and punching techniques, which are blended with sophisticated footwork, jumps, blocks, and avoiding actions. In recent years, some Taekwondo styles have begun to incorporate a limited number of joint locks, throws, and ground defenses into their curricula, to keep pace with the needs of modern society and the reality of contemporary self-defense. It has been estimated that there are more than 50 million Taekwondo practitioners worldwide. Since 1988, Taekwondo has been included in the Olympic Games, which has contributed to its phenomenal growth and popularity. [9]

Taekwondo is the national sport of both Koreas and possibly the most recognized of the Korean martial arts.[10]


Main article: Taekkyon

Taekkyon is acknowledged as one of the oldest martial arts of Korea.[11] Song Deok-gi was the last Taekkyon Master of the Joseon dynasty.[12]

On June 1, 1983, Taekkyon was made the Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea No. 76 by the South Korean government.[13][14] It is one of two Korean martial arts which possesses such a classification. In November 2011, Taekkyon was recognized on the UNESCO's Intangible World Heritage Art list.[15]


Main article: Subak

Subak[16] is an ancient Korean martial art.[citation needed]

Tang Soo Do/Soo Bahk Do

Main article: Tang Soo Do

Tang Soo Do is a striking martial art, which was developed during the 20th century, yet it has its roots in ancient Korean martial arts, as well as martial arts from other nations.


Main article: Hapkido

Hapkido is a Korean martial art which emerged in the mid-twentieth century and quickly grew to become an international style. Its founders created the art by selectively fusing a wide range of existing martial skills, with new innovations. As a result, Hapkido possesses one of the most complex, unique, and varied arsenals of self-defense techniques to be found in any martial art. These skills encompass all major martial categories: strikes, kicks, blocks, avoiding movements, holds, joint locks, chokes, throws, breakfalls, tumbling, ground fighting, weapons, meditation, and healing. Although Hapkido is often compared to Aikido, Taekwondo, Jujutsu, Judo, and Tai Chi Chuan, it has a much broader range of techniques, suitable in a wider range of situations. [17]


Hanmudo (한무도) is a hybrid Korean martial art developed by Dr He-Young Kimm. He founded the World Hanmudo Association in 1989.[18]


Heon Kim using a modern Korean composite bow

The reflex bow had been the most important weapon in Korean wars with Chinese dynasties and nomadic peoples, recorded from the 1st century BCE.[19] Legend says the first king and founder of the Goguryeo, Go Jumong, was a master of archery, able to catch 5 flies with one arrow. Park Hyeokgeose, the first king of the Silla, was also said to be a skilled archer.

Until the Imjin wars, the tactical superiority of the matchlock arquebus became apparent, despite its slow rate of fire and susceptibility to wet weather.[20] However, it was the Korean composite bow, referred to as the "half bow" by the Japanese, that halted the Japanese at the Battle of Haengju as well as at the Battle of Ulsan.

Korean swordsmanship

Korean spears

See also


  1. ^ "UNESCO Culture Sector – Intangible Heritage – 2003 Convention". Unesco.org. Retrieved 2014-02-19.
  2. ^ Draeger, Donn F. (1981). Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, pg 155. Kodansha International.
  3. ^ 亞洲文化. Vol. 3. Asian Cultural Center. 1975. p. 30.
  4. ^ "수박" (in Korean). Doopedia. Retrieved 2020-11-17.
  5. ^ Kim, Wee-hyun. "Muyedobo T'ongji: Illustrated Survey of the Martial arts." Korea Journal 26:8 (August 1986): 42–54
  6. ^ "Gungdo 국궁 | Taekwondo Preschool". www.taekwondopreschool.com. Retrieved 2023-10-16.
  7. ^ "Korean Martial Arts". MARTIAL ARTS INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION (MAIF). Retrieved 2023-10-16.
  8. ^ "Department of taekwondo". Archived from the original on 2014-03-30. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
  9. ^ Tedeschi, Marc. Taekwondo: Traditions, Philosophy, Technique. New York: Weatherhill, 2003. ISBN 978-1891640735.
  10. ^ Kim, Yu-jin (2021-10-30). "The Psychosocial Effects of Taekwondo Training: A Meta-Analysis". Int J Environ Res Public Health. 18 (21): 11427. doi:10.3390/ijerph182111427. PMC 8583609. PMID 34769961.
  11. ^ "Taekkyon is believed to be one of the earliest forms of Korean martial arts". 13 November 2017.[unreliable source?]
  12. ^ "Fortunately Song Deok-ki (1893–1987) preserved the art and handed it down to modern day Koreans".
  13. ^ Jin, Su-geon; So, Wi-Young; Seo, Dong-il (2022-10-26). "Comparative Analysis of Exercise Intensity in Taekkyeon Training Movements". Journal of Men's Health. 18 (10): 209. doi:10.31083/j.jomh1810209. ISSN 1875-6867.
  14. ^ "Taekkyeon (Traditional Korean Martial Art)". Cultural Heritage Administration – English Site. Cultural Heritage Administration. Retrieved 2023-08-17.
  15. ^ "Inscribed in 2011 (6.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity".
  16. ^ "World Martial Arts Styles".
  17. ^ "What is Hapkido?". hapkidowest.org. Retrieved 29 April 2024.
  18. ^ "About Hanmudo". hanmudo.com. Retrieved 2022-11-21.
  19. ^ Duvernay, Thomas. "Korean Traditional Archery". www.atarn.org.
  20. ^ Korean Traditional Archery. Duvernay TA, Duvernay NY. Handong Global University, 2007

Further reading