The originating influences of Tang Soo Do date back many centuries to early Korean military culture, much of which exists with very little detail or documentation. The modern Tang Soo Do that we study, however, has origins that are considerably more well-known. It is important to learn about the International Tang Soo Do Federation and its goals and mission, as well as the history of Tang Soo Do to fully appreciate our art's origins.

The Early History of Tang Soo Do

The fighting art of tang soo do can trace its roots back almost 2000 years to Korea's Three Kingdoms period. The smallest of these three kingdoms, Silla, was under consistent and relentless attack from the larger and more powerful Koguryo and Paekje kingdoms. The Silla rulers found respite in the form of an alliance with an elite fighting force from China's Tang dynasty. This force, the tang soo warriors, trained on the rocky beaches of southern Korea and honed their skills to become ever more indomitable.

Their method of fighting evolved into a combination of a traditional Chinese art commonly referred to as the "Tang method" and a set of powerful kicks with origins in the Korean culture. This combination -- tang soo, or the "hand of Tang" -- produced excellent results in combat and this success ensured its continued refinement.

In addition to combat techniques, the tang soo warriors developed a moral code -- the Sesok Ogye, or Five-Point Code. This code has the following tenets:

1-Show Loyalty to one's king or master
2-Be obedient to one's parents and elders
3-Honor friendships
4-Never retreat in battle
5-In killing, choose with sense and honor

This moral code bonded the tang soo warriors like no fighting force Korea had seen. The tang soo warriors of Silla attacked and conquered their stronger rival kingdoms and unified Korea for the first time.

The tang soo art was a combat art -- its emphasis was on fighting techniques, and there were no hyung, or forms. Its central theme was drawn from point 4 of the Five Point Code: never retreat in battle. Tang soo warriors were taught to be continuously on the offensive, charging and attacking their opponents with kicks and punches. This onslaught would cause the opponents to retreat into positions where they were unable to defend against further attacks, much less counterattack, thereby yielding victory to the tang soo warrior.

Following the establishment of a peaceful dynasty, the tang soo warrior art was extended to include a "way", or "do", of studying these martial arts. Hence the term "tang soo do" to refer to the art which we continue to study today, albeit somewhat different from that studied in tenth-century Korea. Subtle changes were made in this transition to a peaceful art, such as changes in the Five Point Code to replace words like "killing" with "conflict", and a deeper emphasis on the moral and spiritual aspects of training.

A Modern History of Tang Soo Do

This essay was written by Adrian Bates (1st Gup, Pyle Tang Soo Do) to satisfy the terminology requirements of the Chodan test, taken 2nd February 2003 at Bridgend, South Wales, UK.

It covers the history of Tang Soo Do from the time the name was first used, which is as recent as 1945. The roots of Tang Soo Do, however, date back thousands of years, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. In order to gain a better understanding of the events and external influences that led to the creation of Tang Soo Do, we must first look back nearly half a century earlier than 1945.

The Korean peninsula had been under Japanese rule since 1909, when the Japanese had invaded, forcibly ending the Yi dynasty, which had ruled for over 500 years. Japanese rule in Korea was very oppressive, and all forms of Korean culture were suppressed. The Korean people were forbidden to practice any martial art, and the only martial arts the general public was aware of were the Japanese arts of Gum Do (Kendo) and Yu Do (Judo). However, traditional ancient Korean martial arts such as Tae Kyun were practised secretly by a handful of students; among them a young boy called Hwang Kee, who, as we shall see later, had a pivotal effect on how the Korean martial arts of Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do spread around the world.

The story of Hwang Kee’s life is fascinating, and as he sadly passed away in July of [2002, Ed.], I shall include a brief précis of it here.

Kwan Jang Nim (Head of School) Hwang Kee was born on November 9, 1914 in Jang Dan, Kyong Ki province of Korea. His father, Hwang Yong Hwan, had a dream in which he saw the bright star (Sam Tae Song) before his son's birth. He named his son "Tae Nam", which means "Star Boy". Later he changed his name to "Kee." His father was a scholar who had achieved a high level of academic recognition from the last King of the Yi Dynasty, Ko Jong.

Young Master Hwang Kee was not exposed to the martial arts until he was 7 years old. This was in 1921, during the traditional Korean festival of “Dan O”. While visiting a neighbouring village, where there was archery, wrestling and other attractions, he saw a group of seven or eight men arguing heatedly with a single man. The argument soon developed into physical violence, but the single man prevailed using hand and foot techniques the young Master Hwang Kee had never seen before. With grace and agility the man avoided and countered their attacks until he had defeated them all. Hwang Kee asked other bystanders what these techniques were, and they answered him “That is Tae Kyun”.

Young Master Hwang Kee was very impressed, and followed the man home. He sought audience with the man, and asked to be his student. Refused because he was considered too young, Master Hwang Kee did not give up, but watched the man practice outside his home and tried to copy his movements. As he grew into an adolescent man and graduated from high school, he never forgot the strange man and his fighting techniques, and he never stopped practicing his Tae Kyun diligently. The experience was to shape his entire life.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, many Koreans escaped oppression at home by emigrating to study and work in other countries, including China and Japan. No restrictions on unarmed martial arts training existed in these countries, and for the first time in over a thousand years, Tae Kyun students were exposed to other forms of unarmed self-defence.

Hwang Kee left Korea in 1935 (after his graduation from ‘high school’) to work for the railway company in Manchuria, China. A huge advantage of working for a railway company was that it allowed one to travel; with the added bonus that such travel was free of charge.

While in China, he met a gifted martial arts master called Yang Kuk Jin, who, after much persuasion, taught him the Tang method of martial arts. Hwang Kee was already a master of the traditional Korean martial arts Tae Kyun and Soo Bahk Ki at the tender age of 22, and later blended these martial arts with the Tang method into what we now recognise as Tang Soo Do.

Master Hwang Kee studied with Master Yang until 1937, when he had to return to Seoul. He was able to return to China once more in 1941, but this was the last time that young Master Hwang Kee was to see his instructor. The creation of Communist China in 1946 prevented free movement – just as Korea was being freed from oppression, so China entered into it.

Always thirsty for knowledge, Hwang Kee also studied Okinawan karate, from books that were available to him when he worked for the Cho Sun Railway Company around 1939. The only books permitted in those days were Japanese, and the Cho Sun railway happened to have a small library.

Back to 1945 – the 2nd World War ended, and with it also ended the long Japanese occupation of Korea. At last, Korea became an independent state. In Seoul, on November 9th, 1945 (his 31st birthday), Hwang Kee finally realised his dream, and formally registered a new martial arts school called Moo Duk Kwan, of which we are still a part today.

Moo Duk Kwan has more than one possible meaning. “Moo” can mean “martial “ (i.e. anything to do with war), “to stop spear”, “not want war” – seemingly contradicting terms. However, this makes incredible sense, as the basic precept of Tang Soo Do is to avoid fighting if at all possible, and even then only to fight in self-defence or the defence of others. Also, Tang Soo Do does not only consist of attacking techniques, but has just as many defensive techniques. The first technique a beginner learns is Hadan Mahkee (low defence), which reinforces this point. “Duk” means benevolent, or virtue. “Kwan” means school or institute. So Moo Duk Kwan can mean “Benevolent martial arts school”, “Institute of martial virtue”, etc.

The Moo Duk Kwan philosophy is based on Do (Tao), No Ja (Lao Tzu) and Lee Do Ja (Confucius).

Grandmaster Hwang Kee also borrowed the Five Doctrines of the Hwa Rang ("the flowering youth corps"), an ancient Korean fighting society:

1) Be loyal to one's country.

2) Be obedient to parents and elders

3) Honour friendship

4) Kill only in justice and with honour

5) Never retreat in battle.

These principles became the "literary" foundation of Tang Soo Do, and remain as part of our 10 Articles of Faith to the present day.

As head of the school, Hwang Kee takes the title Kwan Jang Nim.

Contrary to popular opinion, Tang Soo Do was not Kwan Jang Nim’s first choice of name for his new art. His first choice was "Hwa Soo Do" (art of the flower hand). He had meditated long and hard on this name, which celebrated the flowering independence of the newly re-established state of Korea; the “Hwa” also hinting at a connection with the Hwa Rang. Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee tried very hard to perpetuate his teaching of Hwa Soo Do, but the general Korean public refused to accept the new art, opting for the more popular Gum Do (Kendo) and Yu Do (Judo). One day Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee met two gentlemen in Seoul, both prominent martial arts instructors. One was the founder of Yeon Moo Kwan (later changed to Ji Do Kwan), and taught an art known as Kong Soo Do. The other gentleman founded the Chung Do Kwan and called his art Tang Soo Do (An open handed style heavily influenced by Okinawan Karate).

The following passage is quoted from History of the Moo Duk Kwan, by Hwang Kee, 1995:

"After he met with these gentlemen, the Kwan Jang Nim meditated and re-evaluated the future of the Moo Duk Kwan. It was here where Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee discerned that the natural flow of the thoughts of the Korean people was centred on Japanese influenced martial arts. Although Tang Soo Do was not as popular as Gum Do or Yu Do, it was at least recognisable to the public as a whole. Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee humbly accepted and followed the law of the great nature, and Tang Soo Do was then integrated into the teaching of the Hwa Soo Do discipline”

It should obvious by now that Tang Soo Do is a blend of the best attributes of several martial arts: its main constituents are Soo Bahk Ki (60%), Northern Chinese (30%) and Southern Chinese (10%). Its kicking techniques are based on Soo Bahk Ki, and the soft flowing movements from the Southern Chinese Systems.

There are many possible translations of Tang Soo Do – some say that Hwang Kee included “Tang” in the name to show the influence that his studies of the Tang method in China had upon him. Other meanings for “Tang” are “Chinese” – i.e. relating to Tang dynasty, which was a very good time for China, or “worthy”.

“Soo” means hand, and “Do” means art, way or method. “Do” suggests not just a technical method, but more a way of life, covering spiritual as well as physical aspects. Soo and Do used together can mean “knife hand”, e.g. Hadan Soo Do Mahkee (low knife hand defence), giving yet another possible meaning.

So Tang Soo Do can mean “Chinese hand method”, “Chinese knife-hand way”, “Art of worthy hands”, etc.

Tang Soo Do gained in popularity in Korea, but it was first noticed by the government during the Korean War (1950 – 1953). South Korean military leaders soon noticed that Korean soldiers trained in Tang Soo Do did much better in hand to hand combat than those trained in other martial arts. They won many battles, often outnumbered ten to one by the North Korean communists. The Korean president, Syngman Rhee, ordered that all soldiers should be trained in Tang Soo Do, as well as their normal military training.

The Korean government was not happy with the name Tang Soo Do, because of the Chinese connotations of “Tang”, so a research group was formed in 1955 to come up with a name for a Korean national martial art. This art was intended to unite all Korean martial arts under a single name and governing body. The group was composed of archaeologists, historians, masters of the martial arts and scholars. They suggested the name Tae Kwon Do, which derived from Tae Kyun and means; Tae, to kick or strike with the feet, Kwon refers to punching with the hand or fist or knuckles, Do means way or method of life and philosophy.

Most of the Korean martial arts schools joined the new Tae Kwon Do Association, but Grandmaster Hwang Kee was not happy with the idea, and decided to keep Moo Duk Kwan independent, in order to preserve its purity of form and traditional values. Part of the Ji Do Kwan also stayed independent.

In 1957, Grandmaster Hwang Kee discovered in the warehouses of the National University of Seoul a copy of the ancient “MOO YEI DO BO TONG JI” (Martial arts manual from the 17th century), written in ancient Chinese characters. This book included ancient Korean techniques from over 2000 years before the colonial occupation, records of which were all thought to have been destroyed during the Japanese occupation.

The Moo Yei Do Bo Tong Ji described in detail: soo balik (damaging hand) techniques and Soo Bahk forms and techniques. Hwang Kee recognized what he had found and incorporated the ancient Korean martial arts teachings into Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan. On June 30th 1960, he renamed his art in honour of his discovery as Tang Soo Do Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan. The ancient Soo Bahk techniques that Hwang Kee discovered are different from those of today. They represent ancient teachings and ancient ways from thousands of years ago. Hwang Kee published what he discovered in Korea and in the United States so that others would be aware their existence and their significance.

Another blow came in 1965, when the Korean government wanted to reduce the influence of Moo Duk Kwan, as it was presenting too much competition for the government-sponsored Tae Kwon Do. Moo Duk Kwan’s application to join the Korean Athletics Association was turned down, and many senior Moo Duk Kwan members voted to join the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association.

This literally split Moo Duk Kwan in two – Tae Kwon Do on the one side, and Tang Soo Do/Soo Bahk Do on the other. The Tae Kwon Do break-away group also kept the name Moo Duk Kwan.

Hwang Kee successfully appealed against the Governments decision in the Supreme Court of South Korea in June 1966.

Several attempts were made to reunite the two Moo Duk Kwan organisations, but all failed. In Hwang Kee’s lifetime, Tang Soo Do gradually spread across the world, and is now taught in at least 36 countries, including Korea, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Italy, Greece, Thailand, Malaysia, Formosa, and, surprisingly, even Japan.

Moo Duk Kwan Grandmaster Hwang Kee died on Sunday, July 14, 2002 at 7:05 pm Korea time, at the age of 88. He passed away at Joong Ahn Gil Byong Won Hospital in InCheon, South Korea, where he had been ill since June 29th. He is survived by his son, Master Hwang, Hyun Chul, and his two daughters.

Tang Soo!