In 1789, King Chongjo, ruler of the Yi dynasty, ordered General Yi Duk-moo to compile an official textbook on all martial art forms then present in Korea to preserve them for future generations. The result, the Muye Dobo Tongji, is the only surviving classical text on the Korean arts of war. Based on the earliest known Korean martial arts treatise, the Muye Chebo written in 1599, the Muye Dobo Tongji clearly shows the influence of the neighboring Japanese and Chinese armies.
Through hundreds of wars and invasions, Korean soldiers adapted battlefield skills and tactics from their enemies, creating a unique system of their own. Organized into 24 distinct disciplines comprised of empty hand fighting, weaponry and horsemanship, this book is an accurate historical snapshot of the warrior arts of the hermit kingdom in the late 18th century.
The release of The Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts of Ancient Korea marks the first time this volume is available in English. Carefully translated from the original text and illustrated with reproductions of ancient woodblock carvings, this book provides fascinating insights into Korea’s martial arts legacy.
According to historic documents, archery was the only officially sanctioned martial art practiced by soldiers during the early years of the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), a period during which the practice of martial arts was looked downed upon and generally discouraged. After the Japanese invasion (1592-1598), King Sunjo (1567-1608) acquired a Chinese martial arts manual called Kihyo Shinsu written by Chuk Kye-kwang of the Ming Dynasty. He took a personal interest in the arts and subsequently invited the Ming military officers for a demonstration of their fighting methods. The king ordered his military officer Han Kyo to compile six fighting methods for further study. They were later published collectively under the title Muye Jebo (Martial Arts Illustrations).
During the reign of King Youngjo (1724-1776), the publication of Muye Jebo was revised and renamed Muye Shinbo (Martial Arts New Illustrations) with twelve additional fighting methods added. It was King Jungjo (1776-1800) who added six more fighting methods and completed the Muye Dobo Tongji (Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts) in 1790. He intended to strengthen the national military forces by training soldiers daily and systematically. It is interesting to note that they included not only Chinese fighting methods in the manual but also the Japanese sword methods which had been totally ignored at the beginning of the dynasty. According to his writings, King Jungjo believed that, “Through diligently practicing these methods and mastering strategy, the soldiers protecting the capital and the military officers will become agile warriors and loyal soldiers who will not abandon their country. My intention of publishing this expanded volume of military tactics is to record this instruction for posterity.”
Artist’s interpretation of the Muye Dobo Tongji
Volumes 1 through 3 focus primarily on polearms and swordsmanship. The fourth volume covers unarmed combat (gwonbeop “boxing”), blunt weapons (staff and flail) and equestrian skills.
Original to the 1795 Muyedobotongji are six methods of mounted combat: Gichang (spear fighting on horseback), Masang Ssanggeom (twin swords on horseback), Masang Woldo (crescent sword on horseback), Masang Pyeongon (flail method on horseback), Gyeokgu (ball game on horseback), Masang Jae (horsemanship specialties, such as riding stunts commonly seen in circus acts).
- Long spear or lance – Jang chang (Hangul: 장창, Hanja: 長槍) a 13-foot-long (4.0 m) spear made from the wood of the yew tree. It can also be made from a similarly soft wood, including bamboo in the right climate. It was considered the most effective conventional weapon on the battlefield due to its flexibility and length. The jang chang was widely used in the battle to retake Pyong-yang Fortress during the 1592 war between Chosun (Korea) and Japan.
- Long bamboo spear – Juk jang chang (Hangul: 죽장창, Hanja: 竹長槍) 14-foot-long (4.3 m) spear tipped with a 4-inch blade where the shaft was made of bamboo, resulting in more flexibility.
- Flagspear – Gi chang (Hangul: 기창, Hanja: 旗槍) A 9-foot-long (2.7 m) staff with a 9-inch-long (230 mm) blade at the end.
- Trident – Dang pa (Hangul: 당파, Hanja: 鐺鈀) Trident. The middle spear was longer for deeper penetration. It is between seven feet, six inches and eighteen feet long and has either an iron or wooden tip.
- Spear on horseback – Gi chang (Hangul: 기창, Hanja: 騎槍) Use of a spear (typically the Gichang) on horseback.
- Thorny spear – Nang seon (Hangul: 낭선, Hanja: 狼先) Spear with nine to eleven branches or thorns extending out from the main shaft, each studded with small metal hooks. These thorns could be dipped in poison
- Long sword – Ssang su do (Hangul: 쌍수도, Hanja: 雙手刀) Sword that had to be handled with both hands.
- The long sword is handled with both hands. These frighteningly big, heavy swords were originally called “long swords” (jangdo), or sometimes “applying sword” (yonggum) or “plain sword” (pyunggum). Swords of this type came to be known during invasions of China since they were used by Japanese pirates invading China’s coastal areas. Wielding these swords, the Japanese pirates were capable of cutting long spears, or even enemy soldiers, in half with a single stroke. The long sword skills were therefore introduced to Korea in order to prepare its troops for combat against the Japanese pirates.
- Sharp sword – Ye do (Hangul: 예도, Hanja: 銳刀) Also known as dando or hwando. A double-edge sword was called a geom (劍) while a single-edged sword was called a do (刀).
- Japanese sword – Wae geom (Hangul: 왜검, Hanja: 倭劍) This chapter describes the use of Japanese swords. Their use was studied during the Imjin Waeran.
- Combat engagement – Kyo jun (Hangul: 교전, Hanja: 交戰) A Japanese method of practicing swordsmanship with a training partner.
- Commander sword – Jedok geom (Hangul: 제독검, Hanja: 提督劍) Was, just like the Yedo, carried around the waist. This sword can thank its name to commander Li Rusong.
- Korean sword – Bonguk geom (Hangul: 본국검, Hanja: 本國劍) Also known as sin geom; 신검 (combining the first syllable from Silla [Sin-Ra; 신라; 新羅], which undergoes assimilation in normal context, and sword [Geom; 검; 劍]). This section represented the swords used by the hwarang from the Silla dynasty. It bore close resemblance to the double edged sword of the Eastern Han
- Double sword – Ssang geom (Hangul: 쌍검, Hanja: 雙劍) A set of equally sized swords.
- A fighting skill using two swords, one in each hand. This was one of the most difficult skills to master. Twin swords on horseback required even greater prowess. The fighter could attack and defend at the same time using two swords. The smaller, saber‐size swords with round hand guards (hwando) were generally used for this technique. The swordsman kept a pair of swords, one referred to as male (or yang) and the other one as female (or eum), in a single scabbard to draw them quickly (note that the eum/yangdesignation also applies to left vs. right). The well-known double swords folk dance (Ssanggeommu) was derived from this skill.
- Double sword on horseback – Masang ssang geom (Hangul: 마상쌍검, Hanja: 馬上雙劍) This chapter describes the use of ssang geom from horseback.
- Halberd – Woldo (Hangul: 월도, Hanja: 月刀) A weapon, literally “moon knife”, which is often compared to a European halberd although it more closely resembles a glaive with a large head.
- Halberd on horseback – Masang woldo (Hangul: 마상월도, Hanja: 馬上月刀) This chapter desbribes how to use the wol do while mounted.
- Short halberd – Hyeopdo (Hangul: 협도, Hanja: 挾刀) Shorter version of the wol do.
- Shield – Deungpae (Hangul: 등패, Hanja: 藤牌) The use of a shield with a throw sword or throwspear. This chapter counts for two separate methods.
- Unarmed fighting – Gwonbeop (Hangul: 권법, Hanja: 拳法) This chapter is approximately 20 pages long with no discernible form patterns.
- Stick – Gon bong (Hangul: 곤봉, Hanja: 棍棒) This chapter describes how to use the long stick in battle. Staff techniques entail strike, stab, block, parry etc. These techniques are fundamentals of all weapon techniques. After mastering staff skills, the study of other pole arms such as spear, sword, trident, moon sword etc. is accessible.
- Flail – Pyeongon (Hangul: 편곤, Hanja: 鞭棍) This weapon is made out of a long and short stick connected with a piece of rope or chain. Instead of a steel ball of spikes, the short stick acted as a flail, overfitted with a steel skin that had many painful protrusions.
- Flail on horseback – Masang pyeon gon (Hangul: 마상편곤, Hanja: 馬上鞭棍) This chapter described how to use the flail while riding a horse.
- Korean polo – Gyeok gu (Hangul: 격구, Hanja: 擊毬) A game that resembles polo. Used to upgrade the riding skills of the cavalry, this sport was uniquely played by the Goguryeo cavalry as early as 400AD. The ball must be scored in a goal, but players must ride, hang or be in whatever position on a horse without touching the ground. Players may only touch the ball with a stick with a tightly bent loop on one end. They can balance the ball on the loop while riding, or throw it.
- Equestarian skills – Masang jae (Hangul: 마상재, Hanja: 馬上才) Six equestarian skills that the cavalry should master. This includes standing upside down on the horse, repetitively jumping from one side of the horse to the other, riding under the horse, riding two horses simultaneously, etc.