Richard L. Mitchell

The Hwarang and the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do

All Korean martial arts stem from that tiny peninsula’s earliest history. The heroes whom embraced the Hwarang Codes are the ancestors of modern martial artists. The spirit and idealism of those rare individuals are the cornerstone of Tae Kwon Do; it is the rock upon which martial artists build their lives and their futures.

The ultimate test of competence for the martial artist is the ability to physically defend oneself. This test, however, should not be just a function of who is bigger, stronger or faster, but rather a test of refined technique and skill in physical combat. To attain this high level of skill in Tae Kwon Do requires great attention to the details of technique, theory and attitude.

For the dedicated martial artist, concentration in these areas of training and study ultimately results in a high level of proficiency. One aspect of this training not often addressed today is the development of moral character and ethical behavior. In short, many of us do not focus any of our training on the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do.
On close examination, one finds that the codes of conduct and tenets of any martial art are closely tied to the code of military behavior for the ancestors of that art. As the Code of Bushido is evident in the Japanese martial arts, so the
Code of the Hwarang is evident in the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do.
These tenets are:
Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.

Many students often consider the history of patterns a simple string of words to be memorized for testing. These historical events occurred on the other side of the world, often thousands of years ago, and seemingly have little to do with our lives today. Delving deeper into these histories, however, is beneficial in understanding the spirit of the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do as well as the basic philosophy of other Korean martial arts. They give us a picture of the meaning of the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do by illustrating some of history’s more shining examples. Unfortunately for students of Tae Kwon Do, the records of Korean historical figures are scarce. As a nation, Korea has suffered several major invasions and has lived under the domination of foreign forces many times. These occupations totaled hundreds of years under the rule of governments bent on the cultural genocide of the Korean people, often including the destruction of historical records and art. It is our great loss that the records of the greatest Hwarang heroes are not nearly as complete as those of their Samurai neighbors.

When striving for high ideals in daily life, such as those outlined in the Tenets of Tae Kwon Do, we can benefit by identifying people who are fine examples of the desired traits. It is worth taking note of these unique individuals, and using them as yardsticks of our own progress. However, because most of us are full of character flaws, good examples of moral character are hard to come by in our society; such exceptional individuals occur all too infrequently in the course of history. If we do not find individuals to inspire us in today’s world, the examples set by the Hwarang warriors are all the more valuable. The Hwarang warriors and their code of honor can be seen as excellent examples of the martial spirit of Tae Kwon Do.

The code of the Hwarang-Do is similar to the more commonly known code of the Japanese samurai, Bushido. Bushido was established in feudal Japan during the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries to serve as a social guide, rule of life and set of ideals for the samurai or military class.

The code of the Hwarang-Do played a similar role in the Korean kingdom of Silla approximately 1000 years earlier. Being established during the sixth to the tenth centuries, Hwarang-Do was considered more ancient and refined than Bushido. The Silla Dynasty lasted 1000 years, and the Code of the Hwarang, known as Sesok-Ogye, endured throughout the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Its influence led to a unified national spirit and ultimately the unification of the three kingdoms of Korea around 668 A.D.

The practice of Bushido appears to have perpetuated a feudal system in Japan for over 700 years with continual provincial wars, whereas Silla and Koryo thrived under the influence of the Hwarang. These Korean dynasties, based on Hwarang ethics, remained internally peaceful and prosperous for over 1500 years while defending themselves against a multitude of foreign invasions. This can be compared to the Roman Empire, which thrived for only 1000 years. Oyama Masutatsu, a well-known authority on karate in Japan, has even suggested that the Hwarang were the forerunners of the Japanese samurai.

The Hwarang youth group originated about 1350 years ago, and its members were leaders of military bands during the Silla Dynasty. Members were chosen from the young sons of the nobility by popular election. Silla, established in 57 B.C., was the smallest of the three kingdoms comprising what is now Korea. The citizens of Silla were outnumbered and under continual threat of military domination from the neighboring kingdoms of Paekche and Koguryo for over 700 years. One can keep these time scales in perspective by remembering that in the history of our country the transition from pioneers with muskets to nuclear weapons has taken only 300 years, and the span of time from the Civil War to now is barely more than 100 years.

6th Century Silla

The Hwarang were established by Chin-Hung, the 24th King of Silla (540 A.D.) who was a devoted Buddhist and loved elegance and physical beauty. He believed in mythical beings and male and female fairies (Sin-Sun and Sun-Nyo). These beliefs led him to hold beauty contests to pick the prettiest maidens in the country, which he called Won-Hwa (Original Flowers). He taught them modesty, loyalty, filial piety and sincerity so they would become good wives.

In one contest among 300-400 Won-Haw, two exceptionally beautiful young women were favored; Nam-Mo and Joon-Jung. Unfortunately, the two began to struggle for power and influence. Finally, in order to win the contest, Joon-Jung got Nam-Mo drunk and killed her by crushing her skull with a rock. When the unfortunate maiden’s body was found in a shallow grave by the river, the king had Joon-Jung put to death and disbanded the order of the Won-Hwa. Several years after this incident, the king created a new order, the Hwarang. “Hwa” meaning flower or blossom, and “Rang” meaning youth or gentlemen. The word Hwarang soon came to stand for Flower of Knighthood. Each Hwarang group consisted of hundreds of thousands of members. The leaders of each Hwarang group, including the most senior leader, were referred to as Kuk-Son. The Kuk-Son were very similar to King Arthur’s Knights of the Rounds Table in England around 1200 A.D.

The education of a Hwarang was supported by the king and generally lasted 10 years, after which the youth usually entered into some form of service to his country. King Chin-Hung sent the Hwarang to places of scenic beauty to absorb nature and to experience the cultural arts. For hundreds of years, the Hwarang were taught by Kuk-Son in social etiquette, music and songs and patriotic behavior.

The Hwarang were taught the martial arts and Buddhist faith, as well as being indoctrinated in the ways of cultured and chivalrous warriors. They climbed rugged mountains and swam rapid rivers in all months of the year to condition their minds and bodies. Much of their training was spent in the mountains, at the seashore, and on wilderness excursions. At those times they trained, meditated, composed songs and poetry. They were taught dance, literature, arts and sciences, and the arts of warfare, charioteering, archery and hand-to-hand combat.

The hand-to-hand combat was based on the Um-Yang principles of Buddhist philosophy and included a blend of hard and soft, linear and circular techniques. The art of foot fighting was known as Soo-Bak and was practiced by common people throughout the three kingdoms. However, the Hwarang transformed and intensified this art and added hand techniques, renaming it Tae Kyon.
The Hwarang punches could penetrate the wooden chest of armor of an enemy and kill him; foot techniques were said to be executed at such speed that opponents frequently thought that the feet of Hwarang warriors were swords. In later centuries, the king of Koryo made Tae Kyon training mandatory for all his soldiers, and annual Tae Kyon contests were held among all members of the Silla population on May 5th of the Lunar Calendar.

The rank of Hwarang usually meant a man had achieved the position of teacher of martial arts and commanded 500-5000 students called Hwarang-Do. A Kuk-Son was the master and held the rank of general in the army. Hwarang fighting spirit was ferocious and was recorded in many literary works including the Sam-Guk-Sagi and the Hwarang-Segi. The latter was said to have contained the records of lives and deeds of over 200 individual Hwarang; sadly, it was lost during the Japanese occupation in the twentieth century.

The zeal of the Hwarang helped Silla become the world’s first “Buddha Land” and led to the unification of the three kingdoms of Korea. Buddhist principles were so ingrained in the code of the Hwarang that a large number of monks participated in the Hwarang-Do, and during times of war, they would throw off their robes and take up arms to die for Silla.

Code of the Hwarang
(Sesok Ogye)

•  Loyalty to king
•  Obedience to parents
•  Trust among friends
•  Never retreat in battle
•  Justice in killing

The Hwarang code was established in the thirtieth year of King Chin-Hung’s rule. Two noted Hwarang warriors, Kwi-San and Ch’u-Hang, sought out the famous warrior and Buddhist monk Wong-Gwang Popsa in Kusil Temple on Mount Unmun and asked that he give them commandments that men could follow whom did not embrace the secluded life of a Buddhist monk.

The commandments, based on Confucian and Buddhist principles, were divided into the Code of the five Hwarang rules and nine virtues (humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom, trust, goodness, virtue, loyalty and courage). These principles were not taken lightly by the Hwarang.

Sul Won-Nang was elected as the first Kuk-Son or head of the Hwarang order. But the first recorded Hwarang was Sa Da-Ham. At 15 he raised his own 1000-man army in support of Silla in its war against the neighboring kingdom of Kara. He lead the attack against Kara in 562 that ended in triumph for him and his men.
He was offered 300 slaves and a large tract of land as a reward, but released the slaves and refused the land, stating that he did not wish to receive personal rewards for his deeds. However, when Sa Da-Ham’s best friend was killed in battle, he was inconsolable. As a youth, he and his friend had made a pact-of-death should either of them die in battle. True to his promise, Sa Da-Ham starved himself to death demonstrating his loyalty and adherence to the Hwarang Code.

Kim Yoo-Sin at Mount Dan-Suk

Another legendary Korean was general Kim Yoo-Sin who became a Hwarang at the age of 15 and was an accomplished swordsman and a Kuk-Son by the time he was 18. By the age of 34, he had been given the command of the Silla armed forces. He is regarded as the driving force in the unification of the Korean peninsula and the most famous of all the generals in the unification wars.
Kim Yoo-Sin was active on all fronts in the wars, and several times simultaneously conducted battles against both Paekche and Koguryo. Once when Silla was allied with China against Paekche, a heated argument began between Kim Yoo-Sin’s commander and a Chinese general. As the argument escalated into a potentially bloody confrontation, bystanders were startled as the sword of Kim Yoo-Sin appeared to have leaped from its scabbard into his hand. Because the sword of a warrior was believed to be his soul, this occurrence so frightened the Chinese general that he immediately apologized to the Silla officers.

Incidences such as this kept the Chinese in awe of the Hwarang. In later years when asked by the Chinese emperor to attack Silla, the Chinese generals claimed that although Silla was small, it could not be defeated.

Fall of the Hwarang

Unfortunately, the Hwarang life style and the martial arts fell out of favor during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), and adherence to the Hwarang code declined. Several noted Korean heroes, however, did choose to live by this code such as the great Admiral Yi Sun-Sin (1545-1598). He was reputed to have invented the first armored battleship (Kobukson) in 1592, which is said to be the precursor of the present-day submarine.

Admiral Yi is held in such high esteem that when the Japanese fleet defeated the Russian navy In 1905, the Japanese admiral was quoted as saying, "You may wish to compare me with Lord Nelson (one of England’s greatest naval officers), but do not compare me with Korea’s Admiral Yi-Sun-Sin...He is too remarkable for anyone.”

In 1597, Admiral Yi became a victim of Japanese espionage within the Korean royal court. As a result, he was unjustly relieved of command and placed under arrest, taken to Seoul in chains, beaten and tortured. Spared the death penalty because of his years of service to the king, he was demoted to the rank of common foot soldier. Yi Sun-Sin responded to this humiliation as a most obedient subject and demonstrated a remarkable ability to maintain his pride in the face of unwarranted demotion.

When the second Japanese invasion came, the Korean fleet was completely defeated. With the news of this disastrous defeat, a loyal advisor of the king called for Yi Sun-Sin's reinstatement. Yi was left with only 12 boats, but in spite of this, attacked and destroyed a Japanese fleet of 133 ships.

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin was a shining example of the Code of the Hwarang, but as such, he has not been alone in the history of Korea. The spirit of the Hwarang and the code was also present in Buddhist temples and part of the lives of the monks. In the sixteenth century, Su San-Daesa and Sa Myung-Dang, two monks who followed the Hwarang code, rallied a Buddhist army that was instrumental in driving another Japanese invasion force from Korea.

These stories of Hwarang warriors and their individual feats exemplify the code of the Hwarang, the type of ethics and morality essential to the evolution of the martial arts and the historical success of Silla as a nation. This code has profoundly affected the Korean people and their culture throughout history.
The lives and deeds of the Hwarang illustrate a level of courage, honor, wisdom, culture, compassion and impeccable conduct that few men in history have demonstrated. The dedication and self-sacrifice of the Hwarang were clearly based on principles much stronger than ego and self-interest. The basis was the Sesok-Ogye, the code of the Hwarang, which one can easily see is very close to the ideals embodied in the tenets of Tae Kwon Do.

As students of Tae Kwon Do, we should always endeavor to live by the tenets and improve our moral character. We should also be very proud of the examples set by the founders of our art and those who lived by the code of the Hwarang. The Hwarang not only set a standard for the ethics and conduct of the Japanese samurai which followed hundreds of years later, but offer a cultural guideline for today’s The Kwon Do students to examine and follow in their lives as martial artists.

About the Author: Richard L. Mitchell has over 17 years experience in Tae Kwon Do and is a fourth Dan affiliated with the U.S.T.F. and the ITF. He is also an MS in physics and has written the book, The History Of Taek Won-Do Patterns: The Chang-Hon Pattern Set Chon-Ji Through Chong-Moo, from which this article was taken. Copies of the book can be purchased for $7.95 (cost includes postage and handling) through: Lilley Gulch Taekwon -Do, 8693 W. Arbor Ave., Littleton, CO 80123.

For more information on the Hwarang warriors, visit the Hwarang-Do web site.