Tang Soo Do

Tangsoodo or Tang Soo Do is an empty handed, traditional Korean martial art of self defense. Tang Soo Do (Hangul: 당수도) is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters 唐手道. In Japanese, these characters mean “karate-do”, but in contemporary Japanese karate-do is written with different characters (空手道). The Japanese pronunciation of both sets of characters is the same, but the newer version means “Way of the Empty Hand” rather than “Way of the T’ang (China) Hand”, although it could also be interpreted as “Way of the China Hand”.

Prior to the unification of the Kwans under the Korea Taekwondo Association, most of the major Kwans called their style Tang Soo Do, Kong Soo Do, or Kwon Bup.

The first recorded use of the term “Tang Soo Do” in contemporary history was by Chung Do Kwan founder, Won Kuk Lee. The Chung Do Kwan, along with the rest of the Kwans, stopped using the name ‘Tang Soo Do’ and ‘Kong Soo Do’ when they unified under the name Taekwondo (and temporarily Tae Soo Do).

The Moo Duk Kwan, being loyal to Hwang Kee, pulled out of the Kwan unification and remained independent of this unification movement, continuing to use the name ‘Tang Soo Do’. Some Moo Duk Kwan members followed Hwang’s senior student, Chong Soo Hong, to become members of a unified Taekwondo. Their group still exists today and is known as Taekwondo Moo Duk Kwan (Moo Duk Hae) with an office in Seoul, Korea.

The late Hwang Kee officially changed the name of the Moo Duk Kwan style to Soo Bahk Do as early as 1957, shortly after his discovery of Korea’s indigenous open hand fighting style of Subak. This change was officially registered, and the Moo Duk Kwan refiled with the Korean Ministry of Education on June 30, 1960. The organization was officially reincorporated as the “Korean Soo Bahk Do Association, Moo Duk Kwan.”

Most schools of Tang Soo Do use the transcription “Tang Soo Do”. However, scientific texts apply the official transcription ‘tangsudo’, written as one word. Some authors write “Tang Soo Do” and give “tangsudo” or “dangsudo” in the parenthesis.

Founder: The origin of Tang Soo Do can not be traced to any single person. However, the history of the Moo Duk Kwan (from which the majority of all modern Tang Soo Do stylists trace their lineage) can be traced to a single founder: Hwang Kee. Hwang Kee claimed to have learned Chinese martial arts while in Manchuria. He also was influenced by Japanese Karate, and the indigenous Korean arts of Taekkyon (택견) and Subak. Hwang Kee also was highly influenced by a 1790 Korean book about martial arts called the Muye Dobo Tongji (武藝圖譜通志 / 무예도보통지).

Early history: Much like Tae Kwon Do, historians have described ancient connections to Korean history to legitimize the art. According to texts published by Hwang Kee, the ancestral art of Korean Soo Bahk Do can be traced back to the period when Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo.

Goguryeo was founded in 37 BC in northern Korea. The Silla Dynasty was founded in 57 BC in the southeast peninsula. The third kingdom, Baekje (sometimes written “Paekche”) was founded in 18 BC.

Finally, after a long series of wars, the Silla Dynasty united the three kingdoms in 668 AD. During this period, the primitive martial arts (including an art known as Soo Bakh) were very popular as a method of self-defense in warfare. This is evident in the many mural paintings, ruins, and remains, which depict Taek kyon in those days. Among the three kingdoms, the Silla Dynasty was most famous for its development of martial arts.

A corps composed of a group of young aristocrats who were called “Hwa Rang Dan” (화랑단) was the major force behind the development of the art. These warriors were instrumental in unifying the Korean peninsula under the new Silla Dynasty (668 AD – 935 AD). Many of the early leaders of that dynasty were originally members of the Hwa Rang Dan. Most Korean martial arts trace their spiritual and technical heritage to this group. In fact, the names of some martial arts such as Hwa Soo Do, still reflect this origination.

The united Silla Kingdom was ultimately overthrown by a warlord, Wang Kun, in 918 AD. The new kingdom, Goryeo, lasted for 475 years (918 AD – 1392 AD). During the Wang Dynasty, the “Hwa Rang Dan” became “Gook Sun Dul” or “Poong Wal Dul.” “Gook Sun” or “Poong Wal” is considered as modern army general, each could have several hundreds to several thousands private armies to protect the country and the region.

This system was later adapted by the Japanese and became the Samurai (Hangul: 랑인, Hanja: 郞人) system. In 1392, the Yi Dynasty succeeded the Goryeo kingdom. The Yi Dynasty remained intact for 500 years. During the 1000 year period of the Goryeo Kingdom and the Yi Dynasty, what we today know as Taek kyon was increasingly popular with the military. More importantly however, the art also became very popular with the general public.

During this period, Taek kyon was referred to as Kwon Bop, Tae Kyun, Soo Bahk, Tang Soo and other names. The first complete martial arts book was written at this time, the “Mooyae Dobo Tongji”. It was written in 1790 and its illustrations show that Taek kyon had developed into a very sophisticated art of combat.

Although it was popular among the public, it was eventually banned by the Yi Dynasty due to fear of rebels. Therefore, the Korean traditional martial arts were taught as one teacher has only one student throughout the teacher’s life. Later, this forced the Korean martial arts practitioners to turn to the Japanese martial arts thus binding the two arts together to create Tang Soo Do.

The founder of Moo Duk Kwan (school of martial virtue) Grandmaster Hwang Kee, had his first exposure to traditional Korean martial arts when he was about 7 years old, when he witnessed a man defending himself against several attackers using techniques of Tae Kyon.  Hwang Kee was so impressed by the man’s performance that he asked him to teach him his fighting techniques.  The man refused to teach Hwang Kee however, saying that he was too young.  Hwang Kee would not be discouraged though, and he found out where the man lived.  He would go to a nearby hill overlooking the man’s house where he watched and imitated him practicing the various hand and foot movements of Tae Kyon.

Hwang Kee had a strong desire to have a formal teacher, and to learn traditional martial arts.  However, during the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1909-1945), many aspects of Korean culture, including the practice of indigenous martial arts such as Soo Bahk Ki, were prohibited by the Japanese.  Hwang Kee left Korea for Manchuria in 1935 to work for the railroad company.  In 1936 he had the opportunity to meet A Chinese martial arts master Yang, Kuk Jin.  Master Yang taught a few students out of his home, and eventually accepted Hwang Kee as a student.  Hwang Kee trained in what he referred to as the T’ang method, which included Tae Kuk Kwon (Yang style Tai Chi Chuan), So Rim Jang Kwon (Shaolin Long Fist), and Dam Toi (Tan Tui).

In 1936 Hwang Kee had to return to Korea where he continued his training in martial arts.  In 1939 Hwang Kee began working for the Cho Sun Railway Bureau.  He spent much of his free time in the library in the building where he worked studying books about martial arts.  Much of the literature about traditional Korean martial arts had been either destroyed or confiscated by the Japanese, so Hwang Kee studied books on Japanese/Okinawan karate.  The techniques and forms that he studied were similar to those taught by Master Humakoshy (Gichen Funakoshi) and Master Mabumi (Kenwa Mabuni).   He combined these skills with his Korean Soo Bahk, and the T’ang method and he called his system Hwa Soo Do (way of the flower hand), named after the Hwa Rang warriors of ancient Korea.

After the end of World War II in 1945, the Japanese occupation of Korea ended, and Hwang Kee formally founded his Moo Duk Kwan school and began to teach Hwa Soo Do on November 9, 1945.  Hwang Kee’s initial attempts to teach Hwa Soo Do were largely unsuccessful.  In 1947, Hwang Kee changed the name of his art to Tang Soo Do.  This term was more easily recognized and accepted by the Korean people who had been living under Japanese occupation for 36 years.  This is because the Chinese characters for “Tang Soo”, meaning “Chinese hand” are identical to the older Japanese characters for “To-Te”, a early term used to generically describe Japanese martial arts, which would later be referred to as “Kara-Te” (empty hand).  The first documented use of the term Tang Soo Do was by Master Won Kuk Lee, the founder of the Chung Do Kwan.  Hwang Kee changed the name to Tang Soo Do after meeting with Master Lee.

The term Tang Soo Do is actually a generic term.  Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan, however, refers to the specific style of Tang Soo Do which grew out of the Moo Duk Kwan.  During the time period after the Japanese occupation of Korea, many schools, or Kwans, of Korean martial arts began to emerge.  There were five major Kwans, of which Hwang Kee’s Moo Duk Kwan was one.  Several of these schools used the term Tang Soo Do to describe their art.  Eventually, in 1955, all of the major Kwans except Moo Duk Kwan, incorporated under one body under the direction of General Choi Hong Hi, and began to refer to themselves as Tae Kwon Do (literally, foot fist way).  In modern times, the term Tang Soo Do has come to generally refer to the one particular style which grew out of the Moo Duk Kwan.

Until recently, the terms Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do (hand fighting method), were used interchangeably to refer to Hwang Kee’s art.  In 1995, Hwang Kee’s organization, known in the United States as the U.S. Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation, officially adopted the name Soo Bahk Do to reflect the arts Korean heritage, and became the U.S. Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation.  Along with the name change came some stylistic changes, to the extent that today, Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do are no longer the same art, but are, instead like distant cousins.   The founder of the Moo Duk Kwan, Hwang Kee, died peacefully on July 14, 2002, yet the legacy that he has left behind will not soon be forgotten.

20th Century: During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), many Koreans were exposed to Japanese versions of Chinese martial arts such as Karate. As the Japanese moved deeper into the continent, Karate was adopted and mixed with more traditional Korean martial arts such as Taekkyon, as well as traditional Chinese martial arts studied by Koreans in Manchuria and China.

The First Tang Soo Do Dojang (Seoul Korea, 1945)

Around the time of the liberation of Korea in 1945, five martial arts schools were formed by men who were mostly trained in Japanese Karate. They taught an art they called Kong Soo Do or Tang Soo Do, and their schools were called the Kwans. The Kwans and their founders were the Chung Do Kwan (Lee Won Kuk), Jidokwan (Chun Sang Sup), Chang Moo Kwan (Yoon Byung In), Moo Duk Kwan (Hwang Kee), and Song Moo Kwan (Roh Byung Jick).

Around 1953, shortly after the Korean War, four more annex kwans formed. These 2nd generation kwans and their principle founders were: Oh Do Kwan (Choi Hong Hi and Nam Tae Hi), Han Moo Kwan (Lee Kyo Yoon), Kang Duk Kwan (Park Chul Hee and Hong Jong Pyo) and Jung Do Kwan (Lee Young Woo).

In 1955, these arts, at that time called various names by the different schools, were ordered to unify by South Korea’s President Syngman Rhee. A governmental body selected a naming committee’s submission of “Taekwondo” as the name. Both Sun Duk Song and Choi Hong Hi both claim to have submitted the name.

Early Moo Duk Kwan Members

In 1959, the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in an attempt to unify the dozens of the kwans as one standardized system of Taekwondo. The first international tour of Taekwondo, by General Choi Hong Hi and Nam Tae Hi (founders of the Oh Do Kwan) and 19 black belts, was held in 1959. In 1960, Jhoon Rhee was teaching what he called Korean Karate (or Tang Soo Do) in Texas, USA. After receiving the ROK Army Field Manual (which contained martial arts training curriculum under the new name of Taekwondo) from General Choi, Rhee began using the name Taekwondo.

Despite this unification effort, the kwans continued to teach their individual styles. The Korean government ordered a single organization be created and, on September 16, 1961, the kwans agreed to unify under the name ‘Korean Tae Soo Do Association’. The name was changed back to the ‘Korean Taekwondo Association’ when Choi became its president in August 1965.

Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee (Founder of the Moo Duk Kwan)

Modern Tang Soo Do: Tang Soo Do continues to expand and flourish under numerous federations and organizations that, for various reasons separated from the Moo Duk Kwan. It can be argued that Tang Soo Do is one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the United States, although no official “census” of martial arts practitioners exists. Despite the style’s nation of origin being different, many Tang Soo Do schools continue to advertise themselves as Karate schools, for reasons that can usually be traced back to the ease of marketing under that moniker.

Belt System: By and large, Tang Soo Do uses the colored belt system instituted by Jigoro Kano, with minor deviations according to organization and/or individual school. One differentiating characteristic of the style however, is that the traditional black belt is frequently replaced by a Midnight Blue Belt for students who attain Dan rank, although many schools and organizations opt to use the black belt.

The reason for the midnight blue belt is due to the belief in Korean culture, that black symbolizes “Death”, or a finishing point. Practitioners of Tang Soo So believe that receiving ones black belt is another step, rather than the higest level of your training. Furthermore, Tang Soo Do incorporates a red-striped midnight blue (or black) belt to denote individuals who have reached the rank of Sabeomnim (사범님/師範님), or Master Instructor (usually awarded at Fourth Dan).