What is Tang Soo Do?

 Tang Soo Do? Karate? Tae Kwon Do? Kung Fu? What exactly is Tang Soo Do, and how is it different from other martial arts?

The quick answer:

Many of the Asian martial arts share lineage and techniques to some degree, across the nations of Korea, China, Japan & Thailand, as each of these cultures influenced the others. To the untrained eye, it can be very difficult to tell the difference, from a technique standpoint, at least. Some arts focus more on striking techniques, others on throws and grappling, while others may focus on one aspect while blending elements of the others.

Tang Soo Do is a Korean art, and has a shared heritage with Tae Kwon Do as descendant arts of Soo Bahk Ki and Tae Kyun, as well as Okinawan Karate, and various influences from the Chinese martial arts (Kung Fu.) From a technique standpoint, training includes punching, kicking, traditional forms, free sparring and self defense, while also incorporating some joint locks and throws. Both Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do, as formalized systems, are relatively recent martial arts.

From a technique standpoint, we often tell people these arts have evolved to a point that Tang Soo Do, generally speaking, is a middle-ground between what is usually thought of as the “flashiness” of Tae Kwon Do and the “straight-forwardness” of Karate.

In fact, when Tang Soo Do first came to the United States, many instructors simply called it “Korean Karate.” That nickname is still widely used to this day.

The nerdy answer:

Some will tell you that Tang Soo Do is very ancient, and dates back over 2,000 years. While this makes for fascinating lore, at LTMA, we want to be as accurate as possible. The truth is, there’s a lot of mystery regarding the true roots of Tang Soo Do, due to what amounts to idolization of certain figures associated with the beginnings of the art.

The martial art known as Tang Soo Do is actually relatively modern, being only about 70-90 years old (depending on who you ask and how you look at it) and has strong Chinese and Okinawan influence. It does, however, have some characteristics and roots that date back thousands of years in Korea. Like most cultures, the need for a system of combat has almost always existed, and you can find through research that some of the techniques in what is now Tang Soo Do began to develop in the three kingdoms era of ancient Korea (circa 57 BC – 935 AD). During this time, Korea was divided into three kingdoms: 

Silla – Founded 57 BC in the Southeast 

Koguryo – Founded 37 BC in the North 

Paekche – Founded 18 BC in the Southwest 

After many wars and conflicts, the Silla Dynasty united the three kingdoms in 668 AD. It was during this time that primitive martial arts were used during warfare. Mural paintings and statues from this time have depicted movements similar to those found in Korean martial arts. A corps of young aristocrats was formed during the Silla Dynasty called the Hwa Rang Dan. These warriors were instrumental in keeping the peace in the unified Silla Dynasty. The Hwa Rang Dan can be thought of as the Korean equivalent to the Japanese Samurai. Most Korean martial arts trace their spiritual and technical heritage back to the Hwa Rang Dan. Our 5 codes of Tang Soo Do were created by the monk Won Kwang, a Hwa Rang Dan. 

In 935 A.D., the military leader Wang Kun overthrew the unified Silla Dynasty and formed the Koryo Dynasty. The Koryo Dynasty lasted about 500 years until the Yi family ruled during the Choson Dynasty. The Choson Dynasty lasted until 1910 when the Japanese occupation of Korea began.

During the Koryo and Choson Dynasties, martial arts became very popular amongst both the military society and the general public. Several names such as Kwon Bop, Tae Kyun, and Soo Bahk, were used at this time. During the Choson Dynasty, in 1790 AD, the Mooyae Dobo Tongji was written and is considered the very first complete Korean martial arts book.

From 1909 to 1945, the Japanese military-controlled Korea and the practice of martial arts was restricted. After the end of World War II in 1945, these restrictions were lifted, and martial arts schools (Kwans) were established. The most prominent were: 

  • Moo Duk Kwan by Hwang Kee 
  • Ji Do Kwan by Kwai Byung, Yun 
  • Chung Do Kwan by Duk Sung, Son 
  • Song Moo Kwan by Byung Jik, No 
  • Chang Moo Kwan by Nam Suk, Lee 
  • Yuk Moo Kwan by Sang Sup, Chun 

These Kwans would form the foundation of today’s modern Korean martial arts: Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Hwa Rang Do, etc. 

The modern art of Tang Soo Do is linked to Moo Duk Kwan, founded by Hwang Kee. Grandmaster Hwang Kee was an avid student, having studied Soo Bahk and Tae Kyun extensively, as well as the Mooyae Dobo Tongji. Grandmaster Kee certainly incorporated this into his “moo do,” that is, his martial way, but it is clear from studying evident history that this was not his sole basis for the Moo Duk Kwan.

After Korea regained its independence, Grandmaster Hwang Kee returned to Korea after having fled to Northern China during Japanese occupation and opened his first school in Seoul, Korea on November 9th, 1945. He called the style he taught Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do. From examination of Master Gichin Funakoshi’s Karate-Do, which originated in Okinawa and then traveled to Japan in the 1920s, it is clear that a significant portion of what we call Tang Soo Do is rooted in Karate-Do. The Moo Duk Kwan incorporates both the Okinawan Karate-Do as well as elements of Soo Bahk, Tae Kyun, and what he learned from the Mooyae Dobo Tongji and his time in Northern China.

The words Moo Duk Kwan can be translated to mean Institute of Martial Virtue. About 60% of Tang Soo Do is kicking techniques, likely taken from Tae Kyun. The other 40% is hand techniques which come from Tang system (probably, more accurately, Karate-Do.) The 40% hand techniques are broken down further with 30% hard techniques (linear striking) and 10% soft techniques (circular flowing). 

The words Tang Soo Do can be literally translated into “The Way of the Chinese Hand”.  Tang refers to the Tang system or Tang Dynasty of China. Soo is empty hand and Do is the way.  Tang Soo Do is often referred to as Korean Karate. While accurate, this can be confusing since the word Karate is Japanese. The original kanji (which has since been changed to mean “open hand way”) for Kara Te Do can also be translated to “The Way of the Chinese Hand”.

In fact, the kanji for Tang Soo Do and the original kanji for Kara Te Do are identical. If you study Karate and Tang Soo Do, you will see most techniques are the same, just executed a little differently. The majority of the hyung/kata (forms) are the same.

Tang Soo Do is also frequently compared to Tae Kwon Do since both are Korean arts with strong kicking techniques. In fact, Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do were both one and the same many years ago. In 1957, Grandmaster Hwang Kee started promoting Soo Bahk Do and successfully registered the Korean Soo Bahk Do Association with the Korean government on June 30th, 1960. In 1965, various Korean martial arts systems were unified and named Tae Kwon Do under the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association. Tae Kwon Do was adopted as the national sport of Korea and included in the Olympics in 1984. While some Tae Kwon Do groups remained very traditional and, to this day, are virtually identical to Tang Soo Do, the most recognized Tae Kwon Do groups became more focused on sports competition. Tang Soo Do (as well as some TKD groups) remained focused on the traditional martial art. 

Today, there are many different Tang Soo Do organizations and affiliations around the world. There are minor variations in technique amongst these organizations however they all uphold the philosophy of Tang Soo Do training to improve the entire self, mentally, physically, and spiritually.