This article first appeared in Taekwondo Times, July 2002 and republished in Moosin magazine with permission from original author, Scott Shaw
As anyone who has studied or researched the Korean martial arts readily understands, Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido are two very different systems of self-defense. If one were to compare these systems, the differences would be overwhelming. Yet, as they were both born in post World War II Korea, there are many instructors who teach both of these systems in their schools.
How is this possible? To understand how these systems have come to interact over the decades, we can begin by defining their origins, their differences, and then move forward into a discussion on how each system can aid in the self-defense applications of the other.
The Foundation of Tae Kwon Do
Tae Kwon Do began its formation at the end of World War II when the Korean Peninsula was liberated from the occupying forces of Japan. With newly acquired liberation, the Korean people vowed to never again be overthrown by a foreign power. Thus, they began to develop not only a powerful military but to focus upon the realms of personal self-defense as well.
As the practice of the indigenous Korean martial arts had been banned during the Japanese occupation, the majority of the ancient manuscripts on these systems had also been destroyed. The Korean people had very little to link them to their historic systems of self-defense. In reality, during Japanese occupation, the only system legally practiced in Korea was Judo.
During this era, many Koreans relocated to Japan during the occupation. While there , many studied various systems of Japanese martial arts, most commonly, Shotokan Karate. Upon Korean independence, several of these practitioners returned to their native land and began to teach the system of self-defense they had studied abroad.
Won Kuk Lee, a Shotokan black belt, opened the first school of self-defense in the newly liberated Korea. It was known as Chung Do Kwan. Sang Sup Chun, founder of Yung Moo Kwan, quickly followed him. Chun originally studied Judo in his Korean homeland and while attending college in Japan, became a Shotokan black belt as well. Byung In Yoon, a black belt in the Okinawan based system of Shudokan Karate, taught at Chun’s school for approximately one year until he left and founded his own school, the Chang Moo Kwan.
While living in China and working on the Southern Manchuria Railroad, Hwang Kee founded the system that eventually became known as Tan Soo Do Moo Kuk Kwan. Kee is said to have studied systems of Japanese and Chinese self-defense that laid the foundations for his art.
Song Moo Kwan, founded by Shotokan stylist Byung Jick Ro opened a school soon after Hwang Kee. Ro had earlier attempted to open a school of self-defense in occupied Korea. He did not succeed due to the repressive conditions laid down by the occupying Japanese military. He successfully reopened his school post World War II.
With these initial kwans, all established by 1946, the birth of Tae Kwon Do was set in motion. When General Hong Hi Choi, also a Shotokan black belt, began to unify these varying systems under the banner of Tae Kwon Do, there were more similarities than differences. This is in no small part due to their common Japanese heritage.
Tae Kwon Do: The Japanese Connection
At the root of Tae Kwon Do is Japanese Karate. Though many historians wish to negate this face, historical Tae Kwon Do began this way. Once the newly born Korean schools of self-defense began to take hold, however, several of the founders did reach back into Korean history and integrate any remaining knowledge of the ancient Korean martial arts into their twentieth century systems. As with many systems of self-defense, Tae Kwon Do practitioners have continued to expand upon the roots of the art and have taken Tae Kwon Do to a new, more expansive level than what can be seen in traditional Japanese Karate. It is for this reason that only rudimentary similarities remain between the Japanese and Korean martial arts.
The Foundation of Hapkido
Yong Sul Choi formalized the art that eventually became known as Hapkido. While living in Japan for nearly forty years, Choi worked for the patriarch of Daito Ryu Aikijitsu, Sokaku Takeda. He learned and mastered the art of Daito Ryu from this source.
After the death of Takeda, Choi returned to Korea and worked as a roadside rice cake salesman and hog farmer. As fate would have it, one day he went to a brewery owned by Dong Jin Suh. His son, Bok Sup Shuh witnessed Choi, then in his forties, rapidly defeat several young men who attacked him. When Suh inquired about this style of self-defense, Choi told him that it was Daito Ryu. Choi’s abilities so impressed Suh, who was already a black belt in Judo, that he became his first student. This set the development of Hapkido in motion.
The system that Choi initially taught was a very pure form of Daito Ryu. It later became integrated with the Judo knowledge that Suh possessed. Thus, one can trace many of the Hapkido sleeve and lapel grab defenses to Suh’s mastery of Judo.
Though many people wish to falsely date the origin of Hapkido to centuries ago in Korea, this is not the case. Choi never made that claim. Initially, he called his system Dae Dong Ryu Yu Sool. This is the Korean translation for Daito Ryu Jujitsu.
Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido: The Differences
At the root of the differences between Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido is their defensive methodology. Tae Kwon Do, particularly the style practiced by the World Taekwondo Federation, is essentially an offensive art. its techniques are devised to encounter an opponent, penetrate his defenses, and offensively strike him in the most powerful manner possible. Hapkido is just the opposite.
The basis of Hapkido is founded upon defense. Even at its most elementary level, Hapkido techniques are designed to teach the student to deflect punches or remove themselves from the various holds an attacker may have upon his body, and then send the opponent to the ground with a well-placed joint lock, throw or a powerful counter strike.
The stance is the next highly differing element that separated Tae Kwon Do from Hapkido. As detailed, the root of Hapkido is Daito Ryu Aikijitsu. Daito Ryu is very different from many other forms of the Japanese martial arts, particularly Shotokan, that influenced the birth of Tae Kwon Do. The fighting stances of these arts demonstrate the differences. Whereas many hard style schools of Japanese karate use a very stiff and firm stance, Daito Ryu is just the opposite, it employs a very free flowing from of movement – with less reliance upon the firm and locked stance.
To understand the differences between the stances of the two arts, all one needs to do is observe the formalized stances practiced in Tae Kwon Do forms. In Tae Kwon Do, almost every offensive or defensive movement is delivered by first entering into a very firm front, side, or back stance — only then is the defensive or offensive movement deployed.
Conversely, Hapkido allows its practitioner to move in a free flowing, natural stance pattern. This allows the Hapkido stylist to effortlessly flow from one technique into the next until an opponent is defeated. This is not to say that Hapkido uses no stance. This is the mistake many make when attempting to define Hapkido. Hapkido does use stances – they are simply far less rigid than those employed by Tae Kwon Do. For example, the Hapkido practitioner does not enter into a deep front stance before performing a straight punch.
Linear Verses Circular
The final defining difference between Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido is their style of movement. Tae Kwon Do uses a linear pattern of movement while Hapkido employs a circular structure for its defense.
Many Tae Kwon Do stylists will immediately comment, “We use circular techniques. We have the roundhouse kick, the spinning kick, and so on.” Though these techniques are circular in nature, the overall delineation of the art is to move in a linear, straight-to-the-target pattern. This is especially illustrated in the way WTF Taekwondo has redefined several of its elementary kicks. No longer is the sidekick or roundhouse kick swung out and then in towards its target. Today, it is initially brought up in essentially a front kick pattern and then it is unleashed from the central axis of the body, making it more rapid and directly targeted.
Alternatively, Hapkido embraces a circular pattern of movement as the source-point for its techniques. What this means is that the Hapkido practitioner is taught to never encounter an opponent directly. Instead, by circularly pivoting out of the way of an attack or by side-stepping and then circularly deflecting an attack, the practitioner of Hapkido maintains control over an opponent by utilizing the attacker’s own expended energy. The Hapkido stylsit emerges victorious from a physical altercation without ever entering into a blow-by-blow fight.
Merging Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido
Now that the differences of Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido have been defined, the question can understandably be asked: How are these two very different systems of self-defense be taught as one art? The simple answer is by synchronizing the best of what both of these arts have to offer.
Undoubtedly, one of the first practitioners to begin the integration of Tae Kwon Do with Hapkido was notably Grandmaster Han Jae Ji. After studying with Yong Sul Choi for a number of years at Hapkido’s base near Taegu, South Korea, Ji relocated to Seoul in 1957 where he opened a school. Central to the location where the various schools of the modern Korean martial arts were congregating under the banner of Tae Kwon Do, Ji began to integrate the various understandings utilized by Tae Kwon Do into Hapkido. He was the first to add the advanced kicking arsenal, commonly associated with Tae Kwon Do, into the Hapkido curriculum. Keep in mind, Choi never taught this style of elaborate kicking offense within his schools of Hapkido.
Integrating The Stance
Now that it is understood how the birth of Tae Kwon Do – Hapkido integration was set in motion, we can now take a closer look at how certain factors of each art may aid the other and help the practitioner become a more refined martial artist. To begin this process, we can view the stance.
As described, Tae Kwon Do focuses primarily upon a formal “hard stance” for the majority of its techniques. The Hapkido practitioner can benefit from this understanding when entering into certain joint locking, throwing or striking techniques. The more formalized stances of Tae Kwon Do can be very useful to the Hapkido stylist because as one enters a firmer stance, a technique, such as a joint lock or throw, can be delivered in a more substantial and deliberate manner.
Traditionally, the Hapkido practitioner executes many of his joint locks or throws from a low, informal stance or one that has him place one knee upon the ground. Though this style of stance is very useful for certain types of throwing techniques, there is a limitation to its usage. First of all, as the Hapkido stylist placed himself low to the ground, he must raise himself up to his feet in order to rapidly reestablish himself, if for example, his opponent quickly moves or releases himself from the impending joint lock or throw. This takes time, which is not always available in a fight.
If the Hapkido practitioner locks into a more rigid footing, such as a front stance, when delivering a strike or a throw, he is then more upwardly mobile as he has not gone on one knee or positioned himself low to the ground. if he must rapidly redirect his actions, he can do so in a much simpler pattern of movement as he has remained standing on his feet.
Though a rigid stance may help some techniques, just the opposite is true of others. This is where the Tae Kwon Do stylist may use the Hapkido natural stance. For example, it is not always necessary for a person to enter into a formal front stance when delivering several of the more common strikes, such as the straight punch, front kick or sidekick. The Tae Kwon Do stylist therefore can use the Hapkido understanding of the loose natural stance for many of these offensive actions. They will then be able to move in a more rapid and less restricted pattern.
Traditional Hapkido does not possess forms. many modern practitioners of Hapkido exposed to Tae Kwon Do integrate the practice of teaching a prescribed pattern of movement into their overall Hapkido curriculum.
There has been a long-standing debate in the martial arts as to the effectiveness of form training. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss this controversy. None-the-less, form training has been proven to be effective in educating , particularly novice students, in some of the ways defensive actions may precede offensive techniques. This stated, the Hapkido student may learn the advanced precision of executing and perfecting fighting techniques that can be mastered by performing a prescribed set of formalized movements.
In the early stages of Tae Kwon Do’s development, hand-to-hand combat techniques were a staple. As time progressed, especially among WTF stylists, joint locks and throws have virtually disappeared from Tae Kwon Do training. This is where the traditional Tae Kwon Do student can gain enormous depth in his understanding of self-defense – integrating the vast knowledge of deflection, joint locks, ground fighting, and throws inherent to Hapkido into defensive methodology.
Conversely, Hapkido possesses a plethora of advanced throwing techniques. Though many of these techniques are beautiful to watch in a demonstration environment, many of them are useless in the random kill-or-be-killed confrontations that happen on the street. For this reason, the Hapkido stylist can learn from the Tae Kwon Do stylist how to streamline techniques and use only the most rapid and penetrating of offensive and defensive methodologies by removing any application that is too slow, too elaborate or too difficult to perform.
The Evolving Korean Martial Arts
As you now understand, though Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido are highly developed, individualized arts, they can each benefit from integrating their defensive ideologies. As we progress into the twenty-first century, these martial arts will continue to evolve. However; there will obviously be some controversy among the traditional hard liners about this fact. Nonetheless, as the integrating of Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido has already been set in motion, this pattern will continue with each art learning from the other.