Tang Soo Do is steeped in mystery. You walk into the martial arts dojo and almost immediately begin to take notice. Practitioners are doing acrobatic kicks and executing rhythmic forms with intense purpose.
Later, they point spar, moving in and out of harm’s way with ease, and then start in with pre-formulated fighting moves with a partner. What style is it? The Korean martial arts style of Tang Soo Do, of course.
The History of Tang Soo Do
This martial art started with the early Korean fighting arts, which paintings and murals tell us were utilized during the time of the three kingdoms in Korea. Eventually, these kingdoms were united under the Silla Dynasty, where evidence of the fighting arts in Korea became even greater. From the evidence, it appears that the arts continued to progress and be practiced, usually taught within families or passed down from one individual to another, until the Japanese took control of Korea between 1909 to 1945.
Looking to quell any opposition to their occupation before it started, the Japanese forbade Koreans from practicing martial arts. Some history was lost as a result.
That said, the arts were still practiced secretly, and were influenced by the rare Japanese karate practitioner willing to share his knowledge during the period. Eventually, when the Japanese domination was lifted, martial arts schools began to pop up across Korea, the first of which was the Chung Do Kwan, whose founder was Won Kuk Lee.
Lee is regarded to be the first to use the term Tang Soo Do to describe what had become the Korean fighting art that had been influenced by so many other styles. The term “Tang Soo Do/ Dang Soo Do” was initially a Korean pronunciation of “The Way of the Chinese Hand.” These days most Americans translate it as, “The Way of the Open Hand.”
Beyond Won Kuk Lee, several other practitioners formed kwans in the area, to the point that by the 1960s there were nine major kwans based from an original five, called the Moo Duk Kwan (leader: Hwang Kee), Yeon Moo Kwan (Lee, Nam Suk), YMCA Kwon Bup Bu (Lee, Nam Suk), Chung Do Kwan (Shon, Duk Song), and Song Moo Kwan (No, Byong Jik).
It is at this time that the country attempted to unify all of its arts under one name: Tae Kwon Do. All but one of these schools basically incorporated in theory—even if they continued to teach their separate curriculums without much change—and that school was the Moo Duk Kwan. Founder Hwang Kee stayed the course and refused to merge despite political pressures after realizing/believing that the move was designed to basically overrun his style and organization.
Though this decision cost him some members to the Tae Kwon Do movement, in 1965 and 1966 Kee won legal battles that allowed him to run his organization and begin to rebuild from Tae Kwon Do’s power play.
Therefore, Kee and his followers continued to follow a purer form. In the late 1950s, he changed the name of his organization to Korean Soo Bahk Do Association, Moo Duk Kwan.
Today, Tang Soo Do continues to flourish under numerous federations and organizations. There is no large umbrella organization regulating its practice.
The Way It Was Then
The fighting art of tang soo do is believed to have originated 2,000 years ago during Korea’s Three Kingdoms period. Silla, the smallest and least populated region of the peninsula, was under constant attack from the larger and more powerful Paekje and Koguryo kingdoms. After a few centuries, the Silla rulers are believed to have allied themselves with a skilled fighting force created by the Tang dynasty monarchs of China (618-907). It was then that the tang soo warriors were born.
For years, this elite group of combatants trained on the rocky beaches of southern Korea, where they honed themselves into a fierce fighting force. Their combat system was a combination of a traditional Chinese art known as the “Tang method” and a set of powerful kicks native to Korea. It was during this time that tang soo — the “hand of Tang” — became respected and feared.
The fighters garnered a reputation that was so intimidating that as recently as 30 years ago, Korean parents would discipline their children by threatening, “The tang soo man is going to get you!” To propagate their morality, the tang soo warriors developed the Sesok Ogye, or Five-Point Code. Its tenets were the following:
- Show loyalty to one’s king or master.
- Be obedient to one’s parents and elders.
- Honor friendships.
- Never retreat in battle.
- In killing, choose with sense and honor.
With the Five-Point Code as their philosophy, the warriors went on the offensive and eventually conquered Silla’s neighbors, unifying Korea for the first time. The consolidated dynasty lasted from 668 to 935 — cementing Korean solidarity through the Koryo dynasty (935-1392) and Yi dynasty (1392-1910). During the unification period, tang soo saw its greatest development.
Characteristics of Tang Soo Do
Tang Soo Do could be described as a Korean version of karate. It is a striking style of martial arts in that practitioners utilize hand strikes, kicks, and blocks to defend themselves. In addition, jiu-jitsu or aikido style wrist grabs are also practiced (known as self-defense moves). Tang Soo Do is a style that emphasizes breathing in its forms and practice, no contact or light contact sparring, and the building of character within its participants. It is not enough for a Tang Soo Do practitioner to learn the various physical moves within the art. In addition, they must learn about the style’s history and demonstrate respect for this and other people. Tang Soo Do is known for its kicking artistry.
The Way It Is Now
Because of the popularity of tournaments, modern tang soo do fighting is a “point-conscious” method of sparring. It usually involves standing upright with the hands held in front of the body for blocking purposes. Some 80 percent of the leg techniques used in competition are executed with the front leg because of its speed and control advantages.
The extra speed, generated at the expense of power, makes it easier to score. And because tournaments require maximum control — light contact or none at all, in most cases — sacrificing power is not a problem. Furthermore, with front-leg kicks there is less chance of being disqualified for excessive contact. Tang soo do in the modern era also emphasizes defending and countering.
The Styles That Contributed to Tang Soo Do
Moo Duk Kwan founder Hwang Kee is the person whom the majority of Tang Soo Do practitioners trace their lineage to. Throughout his life, sometimes on his own due to circumstances, Kee studied Tae Kyon (indigenous and ancient Korean fighting art), Okinawan karate styles including Shotokan, and Chinese martial arts styles like tai chi and kung fu. It is from these styles that Tang Soo Do was born.
Won Kuk Lee, another talented martial artist who influenced the art, also infused a significant amount of Shotokan into his teachings.
Basic Goals of Tang Soo Do
From a physical perspective, the practitioner would seek to stop an attacker with strikes as quickly as possible to prevent harm. That said, the philosophy behind Tang Soo Do is, like many other martial arts styles, one of peaceful confidence.
Tang Soo Do Training
Training consists of forms or hyeongs, one step sparring (pre-ordained), free sparring (no contact or usually light contact), line work (executing the various kicks, punches, and blocks in a line), and self-defense moves (wrist grabs, etc.).
Famous Tang Soo Do Practitioners
- Billy Blanks: Blanks is the man behind the famous Tae Bo series of videos, which are some of the most well-known cardio kickboxing products on the market. He started his martial arts training with Tang Soo Do.
- Hwang Kee: Kee was the founder of the Moo Duk Kwan Soo Bahk Do (Tang Soo Do) organization. Most schools trace their lineage to him.
- Chuck Norris: Norris, one of the most famous martial arts movie actors of all-time, began training in Tang Soo Do after joining the Air Force as an Air Policeman in 1958. He eventually achieved black belt status in the art.