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About Tang Soo Do 당수도

Korean martial arts are military practices and methods which have their place in the history of Korea but have been adapted for use by both military and non-military personnel as a method of personal growth or recreation.

Tang Soo Do is a Korean martial art incorporating fighting principles from subak (as described in the Kwon Bup Chong Do), as well as northern Chinese kung fu. The techniques of what is commonly known as Tang Soo Do combine elements of shotokan karate, subak, taekkyon, and kung fu.


"Tang Soo Do" (당수도) is the Korean pronunciation of the Hanja 唐手道 (pronounced Táng shǒu dào in Chinese), and translates literally to "Chinese hand way" (the "Tang" refers to the Tang Dynasty). The same characters can be pronounced "karate-dō" in Japanese. In the early 1930s, approximately 55 years after Japan's annexation of Okinawa, Gichin Funakoshi in coordination with others changed the first character, 唐, which referred to the Chinese Tang Dynasty, to 空, signifying "empty"; both characters can be pronounced "kara" in Japanese. Funakoshi ostensibly wanted to avoid confusion with Chinese Kenpō. Funakoshi claimed Okinawan Karate could "now be considered a Japanese martial art" and found the China reference "inappropriate" and "in a sense degrading." The Chinese pronunciation of 空手道 is kōng-shǒu-dào, and the Korean is pronounced [koŋsʰudo] (공수도).

Outside of the Far East, the term "Tang Soo Do" has primarily become synonymous with the Korean martial art promoted by grandmaster Hwang Kee.


Between 1910 and 1945, Korea fell under Japanese occupation. During this time, the practice of native Korean martial arts was banned. Korean martial arts, however, were still practiced secretly, influenced by Japanese karate practitioners willing to share their knowledge during that time. Eventually, when the Japanese domination was lifted, martial arts schools began to appear across Korea, the first of which was the Chung Do Kwan, whose founder was Won Kuk Lee. Lee is regarded as the first to use the term "Tang Soo Do" to describe what became the Korean fighting art that has been influenced by so many other styles. The term "Tang Soo Do" (or "Dang Soo Do") is the Korean pronunciation of the characters 唐手道, "The Way of the Chinese Hand," which was in widespread use in Okinawa and Japan in the early 1900s. Beyond Won Kuk Lee, several other practitioners formed kwans in the area. By the 1960s, there were nine major kwans, which were based on an original five: the Chung Do Kwan (Won Kuk Lee), Moo Duk Kwan (Hwang Kee), Song Moo Kwan (Ro Byung Jick), Chang Moo Kwan (Yoon Byung-In), and Jidokwan (Chun Sang Sup). The history of the Moo Duk Kwan (from which the majority of all modern Tang Soo Do stylists can trace their lineage) can be traced to a single founder: Hwang Kee, who learned Chinese martial arts while in Manchuria.


During the late 1930s, Hwang Kee had mastered the native Korean martial arts of Soo Bahk Do and Taekkyeon. It was during this time that the Japanese occupied Korea, and the resident general, in an attempt to control the population, banned the practice of native martial arts, setting the penalty at imprisonment. In 1936, Hwang Kee attracted the attention of the Japanese secret police, forcing him to pack his bags and set out on foot for Manchuria, where he experienced scenes of lawlessness and destruction whilst working as a railroad worker. As a result, Hwang Kee decided to enter China, where he would live the next 20 years. He entered China at night from the southern end of the Great Wall of China, which he scaled and descended into China on the other side.

"I climbed the wall at night, I was in excellent physical condition at the time and there were parts of the Great Wall that were lower than others. I ran up the side of the wall two or three steps and then grabbed at the top. Once on top, I distracted the soldiers guarding the other side by throwing rocks away from where I climbed down."

- Hwang Kee in an interview with Bob Liedke, translated by his son H.C. Hwang

At this time in China, it was hard for any martial artist to find a master willing to take them on as a student. Despite this, Hwang Kee became acquainted with Master Yang, who taught Hwang Kee the northern style Yang kung-fu (Nei-ga-ryu), a stronger and more passive art than the southern style that can be used at close quarters. Following the conclusion of World War II, Hwang Kee returned to Korea.

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Founding of Original Kwans

Around the time of the liberation of Korea in 1945, five martial arts schools called kwans were formed by men who were primarily trained in some form of karate, but also had exposure to kung fu. The five prominent kwans and their respective founders were: Chung Do Kwan (Won Kuk Lee), Jidokwan (Chun Sang Sup), Chang Moo Kwan (Lee Nam Suk and Kim Soon Bae), Moo Duk Kwan (Hwang Kee), and Song Moo Kwan (Ro Byung Jik). Around 1953, shortly after the Korean War, four more annex kwans formed. These second-generation kwans and their principle founders were Oh Do Kwan (Choi Hong Hi and Nam Tae Hi), Han Moo Kwan (Lee Kyo Yoon), Kang Duk Won (Park Chul Hee and Hong Jong Pyo) and Jung Do Kwan (Lee Young Woo).

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In 1964, the Korean Tae Soo Do Association was formed which, in 1965, became the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association. Because of its political influence, the Tae Kwon Do group, led by its second president, General Choi Hong Hi, tried to unify it with the Korean Soo Bahk Do Association. Kwan Jang Nim's organization was the largest martial arts system in Korea at the time. Grandmaster Hwang Kee agreed to discuss unification but, when it became clear that the move was designed to gain control over his organization, he ultimately refused. The result was a weakening of the Moo Duk Kwan as the Tae Kwon Do movement grew in strength, absorbing many Moo Duk Kwan members in the process.

In 1960, Jhoon Rhee was teaching what he called Korean Karate (or Tang Soo Do) in Texas, in the United States. After receiving the ROK Army Field Manual (which contained martial arts training curriculum under the new name of Taekwondo) from General Choi, Rhee began using the name "Taekwondo". There are still a multitude of contemporary Taekwondo schools in the United States that teach what is known as "Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo". This nomenclature reflects this government-ordered kwan merger.

Tae Soo Do Association

To restore national identity after the protracted occupation of Korea by Japanese forces, the Korean government ordered a single organization to be created. On September 16, 1961, most kwans agreed to unify under the name "Korea Tae Soo Do Association". The name was changed back to the "Korea Taekwondo Association" when General Choi became its president in August 1965.

Despite this unification effort, the kwans continued to teach their individual styles. Hwang Kee and a large constituent of the Moo Duk Kwan continued to develop a version of Tang Soo Do that eventually became what is now known as "Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan". This modified version of Tang Soo Do incorporates more fluid "soft" movements reminiscent of certain traditional Chinese martial arts. The World Tang Soo Do Association and the International Tang Soo Do Federation teach systems of Tang Soo Do that existed before the Taekwondo "merger" and before the development of modern Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan. These versions of Tang Soo Do are heavily influenced by Korean culture and also appear to be related to Okinawan Karate as initially taught in Japan by Gichin Funakoshi.

Recognition of Tang Soo Do

Due to political in-fighting and splintering, Tang Soo Do has seen several members break off from their origin, although the Moo Duk Kwan as founded by Hwang Kee continues to represent Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) worldwide, and is headed by Hwang Kee's son, Hyun Chul Hwang. The Amateur Athletic Union Taekwondo recognizes Tang Soo Do ranks, permits Tang Soo Do hyeong in competition and hosts non-Olympic-style point-sparring to accommodate the various traditional Korean stylists.

Actor Chuck Norris popularized Tang Soo Do in the Western world, and from it evolved the martial art Chun Kuk Do.

Ranking Systems

Tang Soo Do uses the colored belt system that was instituted by Jigoro Kano and first used in Karate-do by Gichin Funakoshi. However, minor deviations according to organization and/or individual school are commonplace. One differentiating characteristic of the Moo Duk Kwan style is that the black belt, or dan rank, is frequently represented by a midnight blue belt for students who attain dan rank. The reason for the midnight blue belt is the belief in Korean culture that black symbolizes perfection. As no one is perfect, the belt for the dan rank is a midnight blue color. It was also a belief of the founder of Moo Duk Kwan, Hwang Kee, that black is a color to which nothing can be added, thus blue signifies that a dan holder is still learning.

Many schools and organizations still opt to use the black belt. The Moo Duk Kwan lineage of Tang Soo Do incorporates a red-striped midnight blue (or black) belt to denote individuals who have reached the rank of Sa Beom Nim (master 사범님/師範님), or 4th dan. In other systems, the 7th through 9th dan ranks are signified with two red stripes running along the length of a midnight blue (or black) belt. The original non-dan, or geup, belt colors established by Hwang Kee were white belt, green belt, and red belt. In the 1970s, an orange belt was added after the white belt, along with either one or two stripes on the orange, green and red belts, encompassing ten geup (student) levels, and is currently the system in use in the Moo Duk Kwan. In the mid-1980s, a yellow belt was placed between the white and orange belt in some other organizations. Many variations of this ranking system are still used and typically employ other colors (such as yellow, brown, purple, and blue). However, this is primarily a western influence.

The black belts (or midnight blue belts) are called dans and each degree has its own specific name. The dan rank ranges from 1st through 9th degree. In the Moo Duk Kwan, dan level is known by its Korean numeration, such as cho dan (1st), ee dan (2nd) and sam dan (3rd), and onward. In many organizations, the titles of kyosa (instructor 교사/敎師) and sa bom (master 사범/師範) are separately awarded after successfully demonstrating ability, knowledge, understanding and character for that level in a dan simsa (심사/審査), or test. One may not test for kyosa (certified instructor) until 2nd dan, or sa bom (master instructor) until 4th dan or above. Dan levels from 4th dan onward are known as ko dan ja (고단자/高段者), whether sa bom or not. Also in the U.S., a simple timing structure was created for the dan ranking system. If in constant study, then it was easy to measure when testing for the next rank. The next dan number was equal to the minimum number of years that must be spent training to achieve that dan. For example a first dan would have two years before they could be a candidate for second dan, and so on.

Techniques and Patterns

Forms (hyung) vary depending upon the founder or head of the different federations of Tang Soo Do. Tang Soo do forms are a set of moves demonstrating a defensive or aggressive action for every movement taken mainly from Japanese shotokan karate kata. They are based on an offender attacking and one demonstrating the form reacting to their attack. They are generally memorized and demonstrated at a test for ranking up or a tournament.

Traditionally, nine forms are included in the curriculum of most Tang Soo Do schools, which are required study to earn the midnight blue belt. These hyung are:

Kee Cho forms: kee cho il bu, kee cho ee bu, kee cho sam bu. The Kee Cho series comprises basic forms by Hwang Kee based upon those of Gichin Funakoshi, from shorin ryu karate.

Pyung Ahn forms: pyung ahn cho dan, pyung ahn ee dan, pyung ahn sam dan, pyung ahn sa dan, pyong ahn oh dan. The Pyung Ahn series was adopted from Okinawan & Japanese karate, where they are called Pinan/Heian and are the creation of Yasutsune Itosu.

Bassai (also known as Pal Che). The Bassai form is also from karate, where it is called Passai/ Bassai Dai, and was created by Bushi Sokon Matsumura.

According to Hwang Kee, he learned these forms from studying Japanese books on Okinawan karate. Most scholars agree that the primary text Hwang Kee relied upon was Gichin Funakoshi's karate-jutsu published in Japan in 1939.

However, almost all original 5 kwan instructors taught these same forms and had them in their curriculum as they were direct students of Japanese Karate masters, like Funakoshi or Toyama, or they were friends and students of the other kwan leaders.

View Tang Soo Do Forms for more information.

One-Step Sparring

One-step sparring (il su sik dae ryun) techniques are best described as a choreographed pattern of defense moves against the single step of an attack. Usually performed in pairs, this begins with a bow for respect. One partner then attacks, often with a simple punch, and the other person will perform a series of premeditated techniques, often in a block-attack-takedown sequence.

Free Sparring

Though variation is extensive, Tang Soo Do free-sparring is similar to competitive matches in other traditional Okinawan, Japanese and Korean striking systems and may include elements of American freestyle point karate. Tang Soo Do sparring consists of point matches that are based on the three-point rule (the first contestant to score three points wins) or a two-minute rule (a tally of points over one two-minute round, but see also AAU Taekwondo point sparring handbook). Lead and rear-leg kicks and lead and rear-arm hand techniques all score equally (one point per technique). However, to encourage the use of jumping and spinning kicks, these techniques may be scored with a higher point value than standing techniques in some competitions. Open-hand techniques other than the ridgehand (see AAU Taekwondo point sparring handbook) and leg sweeps are typically not allowed.

As in Japanese karate-do kumite, scoring techniques in Tang Soo Do competition should be decisive. That is, all kicking and hand techniques that score should be delivered with sufficient footing and power so that, if they were delivered without being controlled, they would stop the aggressive motion of the opponent. There are also similarities between American freestyle point sparring (see North American Sport Karate Association [NASKA]) and Tang Soo Do point sparring. Much of the footwork is the same, but the position of the body when executing blows is markedly different between the styles of competition.

Rapid-fire pump-kicking seen in American freestyle point sparring is sometimes used in Tang Soo Do competition. However, in order to score, the final kick in the pump-kick combination should be delivered from a solid base (with erect posture) and with sufficient power, or the technique is not considered decisive. Consequently, the pace of a Tang Soo Do match can be somewhat slower than would be seen at a typical NASKA-type tournament, but the techniques, theoretically, should be somewhat more recognizable as linear, powerful blows that are delivered from reliably stable stances and body positions.

Variation between Tang Soo Do competitions is extensive, but are typically standardized within the various associations. Because of the close historical relationship between Tang Soo Do and Taekwondo, many of the powerful rear leg and spinning kick techniques seen in both International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) and World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) Taekwondo matches are commonplace in traditional Tang Soo Do competitions. The main difference is that they are not delivered with full contact to the head in Tang Soo Do.

Tang Soo Do sparring is a contact event. Though often billed as "light" or "no-contact," the typical level of contact is moderate, being controlled to both the body and head (in dan divisions). Most Tang Soo Do practitioners feel that contact in sparring is essential to understanding proper technique and necessary for developing mental preparedness and a level of relaxation critical to focused performance in stressful situations. Unnecessarily or disrespectfully harming an opponent in Tang Soo Do sparring is not tolerated.

Health and longevity of practitioners are major goals of Tang Soo Do practice. Consequently, serious injuries are counterproductive because they retard a level of physical training that is needed to foster emotional and intellectual growth. However, minor injuries, such as bumps, bruises and the occasional loss of wind may be invaluable experiences. Each match should begin and end with respect, compassion and a deep appreciation for the opponent. Though Tang Soo Do sparring is competitive, traditional competitions are more of an exercise, or way of developing the self, than they are a competitive and game-like forum. Introspection and personal growth are fostered through free sparring.


This article uses material from the Wikipedia article "Tang Soo Do", which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.






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