The History of Hapkido

Korea’s Martial Past

Evidence of martial training in Korea far pre-date the earliest form of written evidence found in the Samkuk Saki (3 Kingdom History) written in the 12th Century. In 1935, excavations of the Muyong-Chong tomb found the earliest known evidence of martial arts on ceiling murals. Other tombs, notably the Anak Tomb (Koguryo) and Sambo-Chong Tomb dating from the early to late 4th Centuries, depict other caricatures of sparring, blocking stances and what appear to be older versions of dobok with black waist sashes. (3) Further, other paintings in another well-known Koguryo Tomb, the Samsil Tomb, show evidence of a Taekyun match (formerly known as Subak) (5) and another picture clearly showing a Korean wrestling/grappling match, likely the ancestor of Ssireum. (1)(2)(13) This depiction is corroborated by references to Korean wrestling in the Book of later Han written in the 5th Century.

Samil TombFrom the 3 Kingdom’s Period through the United Shilla and Koryo Dynasty’s, a time spanning roughly 1,400 years, Korean fighting styles continued to develop. Through both internal and external conflicts, these fighting styles evolved and became more organized and structured. The same could likely be said for Korea’s closer neighbors (Japan, China) as well, as both war and commerce led to continued exchanges between them for well over a millennia.

Although the practicing and perception of martial-arts saw a sharp decline beginning in the Yi Dynasty (1392-1919) due to the influence of Confucianism, (4) from the 12th Century until approximately the 18th Century, multiple manuals and books of martial arts were written to further document and codify Korea’s martial traditions. These various texts provide us with further evidence and insight into the history of their development. The earliest known work, the Samkuk Saki (3 Kingdom History) was written in 1145 and is widely accepted to contain early and factual data by Korean scholars. Although this book is a general history book, multiple references to Korean martial arts are found within its pages, one of the most well known was the documenting of a 10-day long empty-hand fight between General Jung Ryang and Queen Jin-duk’s troops which took place in 647AD. Approximately a century later, the Samkuk Yusa (3 Kingdom’s Memorabilia) was written and within its pages, contained a history of the establishment of civil service testing during the Koryo Dynasty, of which part consisted of graded martial arts contests. At this time, the art of Subak is already found in governmental records of the time, indicating that it had already existed in its current form for at least a generation or two, arguably longer. It is also believed by some researchers that it was at this time that the art of Subak began to split into separate and distinctive arts, one being Yusool (locks/grappling) and the other being Taekyun (kicks/striking) (5) (5a)

Samsil TombThe Ji Xiao Xin Shu (New Book Recording Effective Techniques) was written by the Chinese strategist, Qi Jiguang in approximately 1560. This book contained a variety of weapon arts with a cursory mention of Chuan Fa (Kung-Fu). The compilers of this record saw unarmed combat effective for the basic training of soldiers but saw little use of it on the battlefield. (6) This is important because this manual became the blueprint for the KoreanMu Ye Je Bo, written only a decade later in 1598 during the Imjin War (1592 – 1598). This Korean text was the precursor to the Muye Dobo Tongji which went on to be the best the most complete source of Korean martial arts until the present time. A passage in the introduction to Kwon Bup (Subak) mirrors this belief…

“Kwon Bup is not adequate for large scale combat, however, it is an excellent way for beginners to start martial arts training to learn the way of the hands and feet and discipline.” (11)

The Mu Ye Je Bo went through a revision in 1610 and added 4 volumes (from the prior 7) from a Japanese martial arts manual and 12 more battlefield methods were added in the last revision in 1759 called the Muyesinbo. These 23 arts formed the basis for the 24 art compilation found in the Muye Dobo Tongji, commissioned by King Jung-jo in 1790 and exists to this day. In honor of Korea’s martial traditions, the art of Muye 24 Ban is still practiced today in Korea and is believed to be a reflection of the skills and tactics contained within the pages of the Muye Dobo Tongji.

1910 – 1945

The Japanese Army invaded Korea in 1910 and ruled the country until they were expelled by Allied Forces in 1945 at the end of World War II. During that period it was not uncommon for Korean families and treasures to be relocated to Japan. One such person was Hapkido’s founder, Yong Sool Choi.

Choi Yong Sool (1904 - 1986)Choi was interviewed by Jong Bae-Rim and Joseph Sheya in 1982 which was later translated and published in 1999, it was his only known interview. Choi asserts that he was born in Yong Dong in Choong Chung Province, Korea in 1904. At about the age of 8, he was taken to Japan by a Japanese business owner and later abandoned. Choi states that he was taken to Kyoto and came under the care of a temple monk named Kintaro Wadanabi. Choi stated that he was fascinated by the murals of martial arts and battles within the temple and when asked what direction he wanted his life to go, Choi pointed to the murals. Unknown to Choi at this time, Wadanabi was close friends with Sokaku Takeda. In addition to a proficiency in Ona-Ha Itto-Ryu swordsmanship, Takeda was also the 37th generation Grandmaster of Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu, an art which emphasized the use of joint locks, strikes and nerve attacks to neutralize an opponent.

Takeda SokakuMany great warriors, in accordance with ancient traditions, undertook annual pilgrimages throughout Japan to improve their martial arts skills. During their travels they visited local temples to offer prayer and donations. It was during one of Master Takeda’s visits that Wadanabi and the resident monks, seeing an opportunity, asked Master Takeda to take the young Choi as a disciple.

It’s important to note that Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu was originated by Shilla Sahm Lang (third son of Shilla in translation), who was believed to be a Korean bureaucratic official from the united Shilla Dynasty of Korea, who taught this art to Japan’s Minamoto Shogunate, the ruling family of Japan during the Kamakura feudal era. (See insert) This art was passed to members of the Takeda Clan where it remained for over 35 generations. (22)


Aiki-Jujitsu Dojo
Please See Bibliography #23 for Detailed Translation


Choi went to live with Takeda at his home in the Shin Su Mountains as his personal servant and lived with him, traveling and training for 30 years until Takeda’s death in 1943. (9)

Modern Times

The Japanese occupation of Korea ended with their defeat in 1945. This event coincided with Takeda’s death and Choi decided to return to his homeland of Korea. Choi brought back with him the art Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu which was the “Yusool” of the Shilla kingdom and long forgotten in his own land. It should also be noted that the “Yusool” of Hapkido that has been developed in Korea after Choi’s return should not be considered as Daito-Ryu anymore. In fact, it is believed that Choi wanted to develop a system that is comparable to modern society as a practical martial art, instead of teaching the original Daito-Ryu which is an ancient battle field system with special consideration of fighting an armored opponent.

Approximately three years after his return to Korea, on February 21, 1948 while waiting in line for free grain at the Suh Brewery, he caught the attention of the chairman of the brewery at the time, Bok Sub Suh after a physical altercation Choi had with several individuals. Suh noticed something special about the man and after a brief discussion regarding Choi’s art and background, and a brief demonstration, asked to be his student. (8) He was accepted and three short years later, on February 12, 1951 Suh and Choi opened up their first dojang together. At this time, the school was called “Yu Kwon Sool Hapki Dojang.”

Suh indicated in his August, 1994 interview with Michael Wollmershauser that Moo-Hyun Kim developed many of Hapkido’s kicks that were later added to the art. However, by his own admission, Suh himself used kicking techniques in a 1954 altercation with a local criminal that gained him some notoriety. Suh had been a Yudo black-belt at the time he met Choi so likely had little exposure to kicking prior to meeting Choi. This is anecdotal evidence to support the fact that kicking had begun to be added into Hapkido’s curriculum even before this time. It’s largely accepted that one of Choi’s most senior students, Ji Han Jae, along with Moo-Hyun Kim, was also responsible for developing many of Hapkido’s kicks when Kim stayed with Ji at the Sung Moo Kwan dojang which Ji established in Seoul in 1957. (16)

Michael Wollmershauser, himself a Hapkido master, traveled to Korea multiple times over a 20 year period and he was able to train and speak to Choi himself during many of these trips. Interestingly, at this time, Wollmershauser indicated that sword lessons were commonplace during their Hapkido training. (19) Another one of Choi’s first students, Jong-Bae Rim, echoed the fact during an interview when he said, “he liked the sword.” Further, Master Rim also indicated that during his training with Choi, weapons were regularly practiced and Choi would often practice with Dan Bong (short stick), Jang Bong (staff), sword, rope, cane, belt and throwing weapons. (15)

There have been attempts to discredit various parts of Choi and Suh’s story regarding the evolution of Hapkido and its true history. Indeed, there has been controversy around the development, its symbols and even the name itself. It should be noted however, that these discrepancies did not originate until after the founder’s death.

Further, there is evidence of note that is important for any student of Hapkido history to understand in the light of much of the debate around these issues. During an interview with current Doshu of Aikido, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Kisshomaru admits to a few interesting facts. He acknowledged that his father, Morehei Ueshiba (Aikido’s founder, also a student of Takeda) had told him that Choi had attended seminars by Takeda held in Hokkaido. He also indicated that “this Korean” had returned to Korea after Takeda’s death and spread Daito-ryu. He went on to say that this art was later called Hapkido and many Koreans studied it (20). He alluded to the fact that this was after many factions broke off into different directions; a “politicizing” of Hapkido which has been well documented and discussed among multiple first-generation Hapkido masters as Choi struggled to maintain a centralized continuity of this new art. Additionally, in 1989 during an interview, Takeda’s son, Tokimune, said the following, “…he [Takeda] traveled from the Karafuto and Chishima Islands in Hokkaido, all the way to Okinawa and even to Hawaii.” (21) Choi had indicated in his interview that he traveled with Takeda to Hawaii, a fact many have sought to discredit. Takeda’s presence in Okinawa is a well documented fact in both Daito-ryu and Aikido circles.

There is no doubt that many of this era’s great masters; Ji Han Jae, Bong Soo Han and Kwang Sik Myung to name a few, have significantly added to the development and proliferation of Hapkido around the world. Chung Do Kwan’s founder, Won Kuk Lee once said, “The evolution of any martial art has been influenced by many masters over time as they taught their own special variations.” (7) There is no doubt that Hapkido, like all arts, have followed the same path and continue to do so as they evolve based on the skills, philosophy and predilections of each Master. Today, it is not uncommon to be able to determine a particular student’s lineage based on the way they do certain throws or kicks.

Despite its variations, the major core of Hapkido’s techniques has remained consistent since 1948 and no matter how you seek to examine or debate the questions posed above, one thing is certain, all roads lead back to Doju Yong Sool Choi as the “Founder of Hapkido.”

4th century Korea


1. HAPKIDO: Traditions, Philosophy & Technique, By Marc Tedeschi (2000) Interview: Ji, Han Jae (1996 & 1998)

2. Fighting Arts of Korea (VHS). Turtle Press (SKU #823327205923)

3. International TKD & Budosports Federation. http://www.itbf.de/index.php?id=54

4. Hapkido: Korean Art of Self-Defense, By: Scott Shaw (1996). Charles E. Tuttle Co.

5. TKD History: Informal History of Chung Do Kwan TKD. By: Robert Dohrenwend. http://lptkd.com/html/tkd_history.html

5a. Existing evidence may contradict this in that the earliest known written evidence for Taekyun is found in the book Manmulmo which was written in 1790 by Sun Ji Lee. At this time, only Kwon Bup (Subak) is mentioned in the Muye Dobo Tongji which would seem to indicate that these were somewhat separate and distinct martial-arts at the time.

6. Ji Xiao Xin Shu: Book of Recording Effective Techniques. ISBN: 7101012302

7. TKD Times (1997), Interview: Won Kuk Lee

8. Michael Wollmershauser – American Hapkido Association, 1996. Interview: Bok Sub Suh

9. TKD Times, 1982. Interview: Yong Sul Choi. By: Joseph Sheya & Jong-Bae Rim.

10. Complete Transcript: Yong Sul Choi Interview. http://www.tkdforum.at/Interview3.html

11. Muye Dobo Tongji: The Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts of Ancient Korea. By: Yi, Duk Moo and Park, Je-ga

12. (Kwan History) www.allmartialarts.com/KIXCO/History/history/map.htm

13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ssireum

14. Yahoo Korean Encyclopedia

15. HAPKIDO: Traditions, Philosophy & Technique, By Marc Tedeschi (2000) Interview: Jong-Bae Rim

16. Hapkido, By: Dr. He-Young Kimm (1991)

17. Samkuk Saki: 3 Kingdom History (English), 2008. ISNB: 1596543485

18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hapkido (some basic details on Hapkido)

19. American Hapkido Association, Interview: GM Wollmershauser

20. The Early Days of Aikido, by Stanley Pranin (Aiki News #77) Interview: Kisshomaru Ueshiba

21. Daito-Ryu Online: Sokaku Takeda biography. Interview with Tokimune Takeda. By: Stanley Pranin. www.daitoryuonline.com/article?articleID:227

22. Interview with GM Jung (2011)


Right Side: Shilla SahmLang Won Eui Gwang Sunsaeng
(DaitoRyu Jiujutsu Originator)

Left Side: Takeda Sogaku Won Jung Wui Sunsaeng
(DaitoRyu Aikijujutsu Father of Restoration)