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History of the Hwarang -

Korea's Warrior Knights



Copyright 1995 David Bannon, Ph.D; first published in Mudo Dojang Magazine, Pacific Rim Publishing, 1 800 628-06552. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Who were the Hwarang?
By David Bannon, Ph.D.

You can still go there today. Nestled high in a wooden dale, remote and hidden on Tansok Mountain, lies the Korean temple Shinson, which means "Spirit of Supernatural Being." Outside of Kyongju, past the small village of Ujunggok, climb down to the stream and hike up through the pottery kilns of the village, following a trail to the right of the stream through a terraced rice field. Near several rock slides, the trail crosses the stream and begins a sharp ascent up the left slope. This path reaches a higher valley to the left of the main valley. Hike from the village over an hour, and like the Hwarang warriors of old, enter the grounds of Shinson temple (Shinson-sa), which gained fame during the Silla period when Kim Yushin used these mountain ridges as his training area for the Hwarang.

Historians have been fascinated by the Hwarang in recent years. While there is significant historical material concerning the Hwarang warriors as an institution, there are still considerable mystery and speculation as to their function. We do know that generals from the Silla period - which took place from BC 57- 935 AD; Korean Silla Founder King Hyok Gosoi 1 to Korean Silla 56th King Kyongsun 9 - claimed early training with the Hwarang movement. Probably because of this, the Hwarang have become known as "Korean Silla knighthood," with the word hwarang often being translated as "flower knights," though it literally means "flower of manhood," or "flowering manhood."

Modern martial artists should be wary of such simplistic interpretations, though, for the Hwarang movement has no similarities to the knights of medieval Europe. Some believe that Hwarang-do and Japanese Bushido are similar way of warriorship, but the Hwarang movement pre-dates Bushido, and did not gain the political influence of the Samurai class. Silla youth did not remain Hwarang for life, as did the Samurai, and were not born into the class and its privileges. Instead, Koreans and practitioners of Korean martial arts may take special pride in the heritage of the Hwarang movement - a unique spiritual and physical training that has never been duplicated in Korea or anywhere else in the world.

Hwarang Beginnings

The Hwarang were a group of aristocratic young men who gathered to study, play and learn the arts of war. Though the Hwarang were not a part of the regular army, their military spirit, their sense of loyalty to king and nation, and their bravery on the battlefield contributed greatly to the power of the Silla army.

It should be noted the Hwarang-do was a philosophical and religious code followed by valiant warriors - not a fighting style or combat technique in itself. Generally, King Chinhung (534-576; 24th Silla King, reigned 540-576) is acknowledged to have organised Hwarang-do as a philosophical study in the 37th year of his reign. The Hwarang spread their influence throughout the Korean peninsula and excelled in archery - mounted and unmounted. Though they practised fencing, no set fencing or unarmed combat styles developed from the Hwarang warriors. Instead, they focused on studying Chinese classics and military strategies, as well as the fighting arts, and in July and August, an annual national festival was conducted for the Hwarang to demonstrate martial skills.

But it was in their devotion to furthering the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole that the Hwarang played their most important role. They went in groups to the mountains - for physical training, to enjoy the beauties of nature, and to make their peace with the Spirit of the Mountain. They were highly literate, and they composed ritual songs and performed ritual dances whose purpose was to pray for the country's welfare. They also involved themselves directly in intellectual and political affairs.

The Hwarang movement appeared to be a type of schooling for the sons of Silla's aristocrats; however, there are cases of sons of low ranking parents belonging to this elite group. The movement was certainly royally supported as kings themselves served as Hwarang before taking their responsibilities on the throne. The Hwarang movement was a Korean warrior corps that adhered to strict philosophical and moral codes. Most of the great military leaders of the Silla Dynasty had been Hwarang. Their exploits were recorded in The Records of the Hwarang (Hwarang Segi) by the Eighth Century scholar Kim Tae-mun. Although this book has not survived, passages and synopses were recorded by Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151), the Koryo historian said to have compiled the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi) in 1145.

Today many Korean novels and films have portrayed the Hwarang as a zealous military strategist whose unflinching goal was the unification of Silla and protection of the kingdom. In modern Korea, the Hwarang ideal continues in unfailing patriotism and military prowess. The modern martial art, Hwarang-do, claims its roots from this ancient practice and attempts to continue some of its ideals.

Modern Hwarang-Do

Founded by Joo Bang Lee, modern Hwarang-do is an eclectic mix of hard and soft techniques with linear and circular movements that loop or follow an oval, and can be used offensively or defensively. Hwarang-do also utilises fantastic jumping and spinning kicks, locks, throws, chokes, and basic wrestling. Weaponry includes spear, sword, sticks, and knives. Famous modern Hwarang-do practitioners include the first female world champion of professional full-contact karate, Graciela Casillas (1956-), and author and instructor Michael Echanis (1950-1978). Finally, Hwarang is also a Korean form or hyung, named after the Hwarang warriors, which is purported to have originated in the Silla Dynasty.

Modern Hwarang-do, or Way of the Flowering Knights, is a purely Korean moral and philosophical code that includes a series of physical techniques claimed by its founder to have been practised by the Hwarang warriors of the Silla Dynasty. This claim is also made by many Tang Soo Do stylists, who argue that the precursor to their art, called Tae Kyon or Subak (So Bahk), meaning "unarmed combat," was originally the preserve of the Hwarang warriors.

Unfortunately, there are no exact historical documents nor archaeological records to support these claims. Indeed, historical records indicate that the Hwarang warriors, while remarkably adept archers and accomplished swordsmen, practised only rudimentary unarmed combat skills, and left no existing records of a fencing school, or a complete unarmed combat system.

However, the lack of historical documentation should in no way detract from the practice of modern Hwarang-do, a legitimate and respectable martial art for any serious Korean combat stylist. Indeed, all Korean fighting arts owe a debt to the Hwarang's illustrious traditions.

Hwarang Legends

The legends, history and pageantry of ancient Silla have left a beautiful and mysterious legacy across the Kyongju valley, where in a capital city of one million people, kings and queens once reigned supreme for almost a millennium. The Silla culture's vibrant achievements, carried to unprecedented heights, can still be felt in today's society.

From 57 BC through the next millennium of Silla Dynasty rule, geographic isolation somewhat delayed the kingdom's cultural growth but undoubtedly saved the kingdom from China's predatory advances. The brave young Hwarang warriors were equal to the task of military defence while the rulers knew the advantages of strategic alliances.

In the Seventh Century, Silla turned to defeat the other two Korean kingdoms in a coalition with the T'ang Dynasty (618-906) of China. Paekche fell in 660 and Koguryo 668. Because China was unable to subjugate Silla, she soon left all the territorial peninsula south of the Taedong River to Silla. Unified Silla came to a peaceful end in the Tenth Century, leaving scores of undamaged valuable remains for scholars in the Twentieth Century, and important hints as to the real nature of Hwarang warrior culture.

From 632 to 654, two queens inherited the throne in their own right, indicating a significant difference between ancient Silla practices and China's male-dominated hierarchy. Queen Son-dok (Silla's 27th ruler; reigned 632-647) quickly established good relations with T'ang China, and introduced many foreign customs which included Chinese fashions in court dress, improvement in technological fields and cultural innovations which were in vogue in China. She sent students to Chinese universities, built temples and schools, and astutely patroned Confucianism and shamanism as well as the state religion of Buddhism.


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