History of Tang Soo Do

Why Should We Study History?

“The progress of the past is our blueprint for the future. The successes and failures of yesterday are our building blocks for tomorrow.” Anon

Everything we do, both as students of Tang Soo Do and in our private lives, is based in what has occurred previously. We can learn how to improve ourselves and our art by studying past performance.


The exact origin of Tang Soo Do, Karate, and other styles of martial arts in general is uncertain. Martial arts arose from the needs of combat. In fact, martial arts can be divided into 3 periods:

  • Instinctive
  • Conscious
  • Systematic

Instinctive: (One million plus years ago) During the primitive age when human beings first appeared an earth, they had only their mental and physical qualities to survive. No conscious actions were involved in defense. Our ancestors used their natural instincts to fight with animals or other human beings for food and survival.

Conscious: (Approximately 500,000 tears ago)This time is referred to as the Stone Age. It was during this time that human beings acted consciously to develop methods of protecting their bodies and acquiring their daily needs. Through the use of their inherent wisdom, human beings advanced from instinctive action to thoughtful, planned action. They used stones, sticks, and other natural resources to hunt and protect themselves. These types of martial arts migrated from the Asiatic continent where it originated to the European area. During this migration, men established martial arts according to their own tradition and style, depending on their leaders.

Systematic: (10,000 years ago lasted for approximately 7,000 years) This is the period of most interest to us. Also known as the Iron Age. It was the period when self-defense methods were consciously developed, systemized, and refined. People began using iron and copper in their daily life. By this time, martial arts had spread all over the world. Games had been developed that used martial arts skills.

For example:

  • In the Greek Olympics there was a game called Pancratium, which was a vicious sport utilizing hitting, kicking, strangling, limb twisting, and struggling an the ground until one contestant gave up. The only fouls were biting and gouging.
  • Japan had Sumo wrestling whose earlier rules were probably like Pancratium.
  • Korea used a method called Farando that included head, shoulder, arm, hand, knee, foot strikes, a strike using the long braided hair, called Queue, the warriors had hanging down their back. Also, there was a grapple called Soo Bahk, Tack Kyun, and Kwon Bop.
  • China used a method of hand and foot fighting called I-Chi-Ching, and a method called Soo Bahk (Kwon Bop) developed in Korea.


Under various dynasties struggling against invasion from other lands, methods of unarmed combat developed quickly. In the early days, Korea was divided into several kingdoms. The ones of most interest to us are:

  • Koguryo (37 BC to 668 AD)
  • Silla (57 BC to 935 AD)
  • Korye (918 to 1392 AD)
  • Yi (1392 to 1910)

Koguryo Dynasty: This dynasty, with help from China in the fourth century, was very powerful. It was during this period that Buddhism was introduced into the northern kingdom of Koguryo. T he Buddhist Monks were quick to adopt the Kwon Bod styles. Since the monks had to do a lot of traveling, they practiced Kwon Bop to protect themselves on the road. As in China, the art was practiced and grew on temple grounds, which were located in mountainous areas. In this type o isolation, the monks had time to train and refine many techniques. During the Koguryo Regime, Soo Bahk, Tae Kyun, and Kwon Bop were the most popular martial arts.

Silla Dynasty: It was during the reign of Chin Heung, 24th king of this dynasty, that a warrior corps was formed to protect the kingdom from their enemies. These young warriors called themselves Hwa Rang Dan, and trained themselves by practicing mental and physical discipline throughout the years in rugged mountains and seashores. Their training was unmerciful, so to guide them and give them purpose, they incorporated a five point code of conduct set forth by their country’s greatest monk, Won Kwang, which has become Tang Soo Do’s basic principles.

  1. Be loyal to one’s King (Master)
  2. Obedience to parents and elders
  3. Honor Friendship
  4. Never retreat in battle
  5. In killing, choose with sense and honor

NOTE: We still use this code today, however, since we are not at war and not divided into Kingdoms with kings and masters, we use the following code:

  1.  Loyalty to country
  2. Obedience to parents
  3. Honor friendship
  4. No retreat in battle
  5. In fighting, choose with sense and honor

The Hwa Rang Dan became known for their courage and skill in battle, gaining respect from even their bitterest foes. They obtained their strength from their respect for the code, enabling them to attain feast of legendary valor. These warriors inspired the people of Silla to rise, unite, and eventually conquer the other kingdoms at that time. The Korean peninsula became united for the first time in its history. The original primitive art of self-defense called Soo Bahk Ki (Foot and Body fighting) was popular among the people and military. Soo Bahk was combined with different self-defense techniques and fused into a style known as Tae Dyun.

Koryo Dynasty: The Koryo Dynasty ushered in a golden era for Korea and its people. Ceramics, as well as other cultural aspects of Korean life, enhanced refinement. The soldiers of this dynasty were among the finest ever produced by this country. According to an old authoritative history book entitled “Koryosa,” the king of Koryo held a match every May for unarmed posts with the government. King Ui Jong, 16th king of the Koryo Dynasty, admired the excellent Soo Bahk Ki winners. Thus the art, having its inception in religious discipline, received royal patronage and became a permanent segment of national life.

Yi Dynasty: Yi Sung Kye, who was the founder of the Yi dynasty, defeated The Koryo Dynasty. It was a serious and rapid decline for Korean martial arts. Feudal lords suppressed all martial arts because of the danger of rebellion. In fact, many of the famous warriors ended up in prison. A small group people continued to practice Soo Bahk and improved it. The people used Soo Bahk Ki and Tack Kyun to describe their style. An important, fully illustrated martial arts record book was written in this period. The book is called Muye Dobo Tang Ji and contains illustrations that substaniate the theory that Soo Bahk Ki quickly developed into a sophisticated form of combat techniques art.

Japanese Occupation

As mentioned earlier, martial arts was suppressed, which declined the strength of the country. It was at this time that Toyotoni Hideyoshi invaded Korea. Seven long years of war ensued and left the nation in desolation.

The Japanese were now in control of Korea and outlawed the practice of any martial arts. However, thanks to many dedicated practitioners, martial arts secretly survived by going underground and were successfully passed on to a handful of students. Meanwhile, many Koreans emigrated from Korea to other parts of the world including China and Japan. No restrictions on unarmed martial arts training existed in these countries. One of these individuals was a Korean named Hwang Kee, a master in Soo Bahk Ki.

In 1945, Korea recovered its independence; and many people who had left started returning to their homelands bringing with them other styles, such as Kwon Bop, Hwa Soo Do, Kong Soo Do, and Soo Bahk Do. Master Hwang Kee enhanced his skills while in China from 1936 to 1945 by studying the Chinese Tang method. On his return to Korea, he introduced a style that he called Tang Soo Do, a combination of the best techniques from Soo Bahk Ki and the Tang method. This was the first time the word Tang Soo Do was officially used.