In the time since Martial Arts first formed into organised groups of people practicing a disciplined study of formal Martial Arts, there have been times of high interest in the Martial Arts, and times of lower enthusiasm. It is interesting to trace these periods of ebb and flow of the Martial Arts, and to see the changes in society that they reflect.
Viewing these changes on a large scale, in the Martial Arts as a whole, can also hold up a mirror to our own training, and the changing interest we sometimes experience in our own personal training regime.
Martial Arts were introduced to Korea with the spread of Buddhism through Asia. While it is unclear exactly when this occurred, there are some very early cave paintings that suggest fighting systems developed in prehistoric times in Korea, which as a peninsula of land was often required to defend itself against invaders.
After some time, martial arts in Korea appeared to organised itself into three main styles; Tribal Martial Arts which we re practiced in the remote, often mountainous areas. The style was known as Tae Kyon. Tournaments were arranged between neighbouring villages to keep skills sharp, and the practice of martial arts such as Tae Kyon made Korea an intimidating place to invade.
At the other end of the social scale, there was also a style of martial art practiced by the royal family and their court. This was a ceremonial style, that filled a role almost like jousting did in the European courts of the middle ages, a martial sport practiced by those who would be leaders in time of war. There were element of archery, horseback archery, musical training as well as the striking and kicking applications of the Martial Arts. This system was known as the Hwarangdo.
The other system of martial art was the Buddhist style of martial art, which was spread to Korea with the spread of Buddhism. Over time, these techniques blended with the local martial arts to give martial arts in Korea their own unique set of movements and principles distinct from the arts practiced in China and later in Japan.
The period 37BC – 1392 was known in Korea as the Three Kingdoms period, with the three kingdoms of Koguro, Paikche and Silla occupying the space known now as Korea. There were struggles for supremacy, and this time, including the time when the Silla dynasty took power, was a golden age for martial arts.
Martial Arts were practiced by people from all walks of life, and war and battles were a constant part of daily life, meaning that martial arts were a necessary skill for the defence of the land. Also assisting this time of popularity of martial arts was the fact that the common religion practiced at this time was Buddhism, which assisted the proliferation of martial arts by holding it up as not only a system of defence, but also of a way of conquering the body and it’s attachments to the comforts of the world.
In 1392 the Cho Sun dynasty came to power. (Other names for this time include Lee or Yi) This was a time of great change socially in Korea. The kingdoms were unified after the war of unification, so internal fighting was not so common. With the Mongols being the main invaders, and their chosen weapons being the Bow and Arrow, there was less need for the population in general to practice hand to hand combat. Additionally, the predominant religion of this time changed to Confucianism. This religion honour scholarly endeavours, and the respect and worship of ancestors and traditions, and looks down on physical endeavours as somewhat uncouth. Thus, over time, martial arts fell out of popularity. It was still practiced in remote areas, and some local tournaments kept the arts alive, however by and large the popularity dwindled over time.
Then in 1901 the Japanese invaded, and at this time any remaining martial arts, as well as many other aspects of Korean culture were forcibly repressed. Martial Arts was outlawed and it was forbidden to practice it or hold tournaments or displays of the martial arts.
This lasted until 1945, with the end of the Japanese Occupation with the end of WW2. At this time there was a resurgence in interest in the martial arts. The Korean people vowed that they would never again be occupied as they were by the Japanese. If they were invaded, every man, woman and child would rise up and defend their country against occupation.
This sentiment was very strong, and the government soon became involved, organising all the new schools that cropped up into a style called Taekwondo, with a unified syllabus and grading standards, and this style was taught in schools and in the military. While this unified approach was subject to tremendous political influence, with the leader of the Taekwondo organisation being a political appointment, not a technique or art based appointment, it did help spread the art very widely through the country.
Then with the Korean War, a large number of servicemen and women were involved in military action in Korea that they did not feel a strong connection with, and found it hard to come to terms with the fighting carried out there. Searching for some meaning in the nightmare of war, they found some comfort in the newly reinstated martial arts systems being practiced in Korea. For some, they offered some dignity and meaning to their time in Korea, and they took the skills back with them to the United States as a way of dealing with the stress of the situation they found themselves in.
At that time the government of Korea had a deliberate programme of sending Martial Arts masters to areas of the west to promote Korea and the martial arts to the west. This was the first wave of interest in the Martial Arts in western nations, and alongside the Brice Lee movies, the public was introduced to the study of Martial Arts.
After a time, interest began to wane in the martial arts. Everyone knew what it was, however it had somehow become relegated to a children’s activity, something that was good for discipline and physical activity, but not necessarily something that the mainstream considered a serious activity.
This changed when the movie ‘The Karate Kid’ brought the concept of martial arts back into the public’s mind. The movie showed martial arts as a path to self improvement, and a way of o overcoming obstacles by following a higher path. This has always been the idea of the martial arts, however this movie made the concept of martial arts recognisable as a serious pursuit.
Over time trends come and go, and interest waxes and wanes in the martial arts. This trend can also be seen in our personal training – sometimes we are in a state of excitement about our training, and other times we feel demotivated. This is a natural part of our journey towards Black Belt and beyond, and our ability to cope with this cyclical interest is an important test of our determination to achieve a Black Belt.
However, as we train there are many things that change, and that can help us through the times of lessening interest. It can be a seminar or special event in the school. It can be a new programme, such as Hyper Martial Arts, yoga or another tangent on our training.
It is great when there are new things to keep us motivated and on track as we move through the highs and lows of martial arts training, however the core martial arts that we study is always there, waiting for us when the season changes and our interest turns. Our martial arts remains the same and is the core of our practice, regardless of changing fads and seasons.