The martial art that almost diedThey may own a cutting-edge IT infrastructure, but Koreans are not known for their free and frank sharing of information: Ask any foreign investor about difficulties in the local business environment, and transparency is certain to be near the top of the list. But at least today’s Korean corporations are beginning to understand that disclosure is in their best interests.
Consider, then, the frustrations experienced by a man who has made it his life’s work to delve into perhaps the most secretive aspect of Korea’s deeply conservative culture: traditional martial arts.
“Taekwondo and modern martial arts are normally very commercialized,” says Yook Tae-ahn, today the sole active master of Korea’s oldest extant martial art, subyok chigi (literally, “striking or clapping with the hands;” also romanized as subak), a practice first mentioned in the Koryosa, or “History of Goryeo,” of 1147. “But the real, traditional systems were kept hidden from the outside world.”
How secretive are these arts? Few know they even exist.
It was during the 1980s, in the midst of Korea’s economic boom, that Mr. Yook, then a hapkido student in his 30s, decided to search out the old, native martial arts rather than Korea’s modern, Japanese-influenced styles. His recommendations came by word of mouth ― “I would hear of a guy who did certain practices” ― but when he traveled to meet the person in question, he often found the master had already died or was too sick or old to teach.
Those who did have a background were intensely secretive. “These were not mystical masters on mountaintops; these were regular guys with regular jobs, but sometimes even their families did not know they practiced,” Mr. Yook says. Such men would not teach an outsider.
Tradition of secrecy
Their closed doors had a long tradition. “In the Goryeo Dynasty, martial artists were respected persons,” says Mr. Yook. “But when Goryeo was overthrown in 1392 and the Yi Dynasty established, martial artists were forced into the army or were looked down upon in favor of scholars.”
He believes that it was during this dynasty, and later during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), that practitioners became so intensely secretive. “Martial artists were suppressed [by the rulers] during those eras; I believe some became assassins,” he says.
However, he states that the real damage to Korea’s home-grown martial traditions took place from the 1950s onwards.
“Many practitioners were killed during the Korean War, and after the war, they had no food, no money, and so could not practice.” He also hints that from the 1960s to 1980s, the dominant organizations marketing Korea’s modern martial arts, both locally and internationally, deliberately suppressed the older styles.
By the late 1980s, his search for these lost arts had become dispiriting ― until he met Shin Han-seung. Mr. Shin was one of the last two masters of taekkyun, a traditional folk martial art.
“I wanted to learn taekkyun from him,” says Mr. Yook, “but when I met him, he was researching subyok chigi. He wanted to pass on what he had learned.”
Mr. Shin had tracked down a practitioner of that art, but he died in 1987, of cancer. All Mr. Yook was left with were some of Mr. Shin’s personal notes on subyok. Among these was a single sheet of A3-sized paper on which were scribbled a series of notes and sketches. Also on the sheet were names and contact details.
And at the bottom, a cryptic message: “Live like a grinding stone.”
Mr. Yook traveled to the address mentioned in the notes, in the central Korean market town of Chungju. He knocked on the door. It was opened by an older man.
As soon as he saw him, a strange shock of recognition hit Mr. Yook: “I just knew this man was a master.”
He immediately requested instruction. The man flatly denied any knowledge of martial arts, and made to close the door. Mr. Yook begged entrance, telling him he had traveled far. The host grudgingly acquiesced, and the two sat down to drink tea.
As they drank, the man told Mr. Yook, “Life is like a stone bean curd bowl: When you are grinding bean curd, you must turn the pestle only one way. If you turn it the opposite way, it will splash up. Always go with the flow, the natural way.”
The scrawl at the bottom of Mr. Shin’s notes made sudden sense. It was the first lesson. Mr. Yook had finally found his man.
Mr. Yook later returned to Chungju with Mr. Shin’s notes. He asked the old man again if he had any martial arts knowledge. The man conceded, guardedly, that he might. After a series of meetings, the master at last admitted his skill and slowly began to reveal it.
He was, indeed, a master of subyok chigi. His nickname was “Il-dong.”
Over the course of five years, Mr. Yook was initiated into subyok. It took him that long to learn the material on that one sheet he had inherited from Master Shin.
At Il-dong’s house, he was only once introduced to another practitioner of subyok, though he never learned his name. That man confided that Il-dong had other students, though he had never met them.
At the end of the five years, the master told Mr. Yook, “I have taught you everything. Don’t come again, not even to my funeral. I live on in the movements I have taught you.”
Even so, Mr. Yook continued to visit, though he learned nothing more. His teacher still lives in Chungju, but is today not teaching at all, preferring to spend his time with his grandchildren.
“He was uneducated, and hence of a low social status,” muses Mr. Yook. “I think that is why he did not make his knowledge public; he did not want people to look down on this art.”
Mr. Yook now considers his life’s work to be the creation of a rational syllabus that will lead to a resurrection of the art.
The moves he demonstrates in his well-maintained southern Seoul training hall are fluid and rhythmic. No observer would confuse it with taekwondo or hapkido, though he says martial artists with previous experience are a step up in learning it.
He calls subyok “sword fighting without a sword,” and extensive use is made of the stabbing hand. Unlike modern martial arts, kicks are kept generally low. There is a range of trips and throws, and short swords and sticks are also utilized.
Subyok’s warm-ups exercise the spine, and, uniquely, include a number of clapping movements, which Mr. Yook claims help in unifying body, mind and spirit. He has published books on the art’s health-giving side, and has also demonstrated subyok at festivals in Avignon, France; Amsterdam, Holland, and Brussels, Belgium.
“There are no set 1-2-3 form sequences in subyok,” explains Mr. Hong Jun-eui, 37, a salaried man who came to the martial art after training in taekwondo and hapkido. “Nor are there forceful moves like taekwondo and karate; it is natural movement, and movement principle. But once you learn the principles, you can create 1,000 forms of your own.”
Mr. Hong also says the art is culturally suited to Koreans, who will immediately recognize movements and rhythms from Korean dance.
Paradoxically, power is built into the softness. “Although we do not do hard, breaking exercises, I was surprised to find, after training in subyok, that I could hit the punching bag with greater force,” says Mr. Hong.
Mr. Yook is not in favor of the trend toward no-holds-barred martial arts. Instead, he prefers to teach the artistic and healthful aspects.
“This art is not about fighting, it is about finding your central equilibrium,” he says. “Sparring and fighting are parts of martial arts, but not the whole.”
While he does not keep subyok secret, he does not take on beginners: Only those with extensive experience in other martial arts, as well as actors and dancers, are accepted for training. He says the art he took so much trouble to find and learn is profound.
“Martial arts cannot be sport,” he says. “They are mankind’s pinnacle of achievement in the blending of physical culture and spirit.”
by Andrew Salmon