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Tae Kwon Do / Moo Duk Kwan

At Ahn's Tae Kwon Do (Ahn's TKD) you will eventually come across the term "Moo Duk Kwan."  It may be on a black belt, on a flag, on a certificate, or a patch on an instructor's uniform.  So what is Moo Duk Kwan?  What does it have to do with Tae Kwon Do? In answering these questions one could broaden the explanation a bit and also explain the origins of Tae Kwon Do.  The following paragraph will provide a high-level synopsis.  If you require more detail then read beyond the following paragraph.

In Seoul, Korea in the 1940s, there were numerous martial arts schools or “kwans” in existence. These schools were commercial ventures and competed with each other in order to attract and to retain students. The style of martial art taught by these various kwans was very similar but, as you would expect from competing businesses, most kwans chose to differentiate themselves by uniquely naming their school (e.g. Moo Duk Kwan) and their martial art style (e.g. Tang Soo Do). By the 1950s Moo Duk Kwan, teaching Tang Soo Do, had emerged as the largest and most influential of the five major kwans (see list of kwans below). As the martial arts community grew in Korea it also began to emerge as a source of national pride. The government became keenly interested in Korean martial arts. At that time the sheer volume of school names, style names, and governing organization names was simply overwhelming and confusing. Inevitably, a power struggle ensued involving not only the martial arts schools/organizations but also the South Korean government. A unification and standardization effort, driven mostly by the government, commensed which resulted in several mergers and name changes. The details of this unification and standardization journey are beyond the scope of this paragraph, but the last name change will be noted: in 1965 the Tae Soo Do Association changed its name to Tae Kwon Do. For various reasons, Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan never merged into the mainstream unification movement that ultimately gave rise to Tae Kwon Do. However, beyond a doubt, if you look toward the "heart and soul" of Tae Kwon Do you will find Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan. Today Tae Kwon Do is internationally controlled by Kukkiwon (aka World Tae Kwon Do Headquarters) located in Seoul, Korea.


There is no question that Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan is a composite martial art developed in Korea by Hwang Kee in the 1940s. There is no question that Grandmaster Hwang Kee drew from Chinese, Japanese / Okinawan, and Korean sources to create his art. What is intensely debated is the degree to which he drew upon each. Direct influences are easily noted such as Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan’s Pyung Ahn forms which were directly sourced from Shotokan Karate. A detailed inventory and analysis of each influence upon Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan is beyond the scope of this article. However, one of the more controversial aspects of Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan will be addressed.  That is, did an indigenous Korean martial art system feed directly into Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan?

The text in italics below was sourced from: Tang Soo Do; The Ultimate Guide to the Korean Martial Art. Grandmaster Kang Uk Lee. Unique Publishers. 1999. ISBN 0-86568-170-8.  Grandmaster Kang Uk Lee was instructed in Seoul, Korea directly by Grandmaster Hwang Kee.  Grandmaster Lee held Grandmaster Ye Mo Ahn in such high regard that he sent Grandmaster Ahn a signed copy of this book.

The origins of Tang Soo Do as we know it can be traced to the period of the Three Kingdoms in Korea. Shilla 57 BC – 935 AD, Paekjae 18 BC – 660 AD, and Koguryo 37 BC – 668 AD. Many relics of martial arts from this era survive to the present day. One of the best known examples is the Koguryo wall painting depicting martial arts, which is at least 1,500 years old. It was found in Jip Han Yern, on the lower part of the Ap Lok river which forms part of the border between Korea and China. Koguryo murals in the royal tomb reveal the lifestyle of the time. One of the murals excavated during the period 1935 – 1940 depicts a scene in which two warriors are engaged in a hand to hand fight.

Many Shilla Buddhist sculptures, depicting monks practicing martial arts, also survive in Korea. The guardians carved at the entrance of Sokkuram Grotto display postures similar to those found in Tang Soo Do.

As entry in the 18th volume of the History of Koryo, written about 800 years ago, mentions We Moon Lee who was appointed to the post of army commander by King E Jong, the 16th king of the Koryo dynasty (918 AD – 1392 AD), for his expertise in martial arts. The Koryo army used martial arts as a combat technique as well as practicing martial arts forms training to maintain physical fitness.

Moo Ye Do Bo, one of the most influential books on martial arts in Korea, was written approximately 500 years ago during the Yi Dynasty and describes various martial arts techniques.

These ancient martial arts books and relics increased the popularity of Tang Soo Do among the general Korean public.

It’s evident that Koreans were engaged in the practice of martial arts well over a thousand years ago.  However, did a truly indigenous Korean martial arts system survive through the years with elements of this system finding their way into Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan (i.e. Tae Kwon Do)? It's doubtful that this question can ever be answered definitively and to the satisfaction of all.  But it is certainly possible that the answer to the question could be yes. 

To best understand the origins of Tang Soo Do / Moo Duk Kwan you must understand the life of the man who created it: Grandmaster Hwang Kee.
The remainder of text on this page was sourced from The History of Moo Duk Kwan. Hwang Kee. 1995. ISBN-10: 0963135872; ISBN-13: 978-0963135872

Hwang Kee (1914 – 2002)

Born November 9, 1914 in Jang Dan, Kyong Ki province, Grandmaster Hwang Kee was destined to become a part of martial arts history, alongside names such as Jigoro Kano (1860 - 1938, founder of Judo), Gichin Funakoshi (1868 - 1957, father of modern karate) and Morihei Ueshiba (1883 - 1969, founder of Aikido).

Often referred to as a "martial arts prodigy" the Grandmaster was widely acknowledged as a gifted martial artist, due in large part to his inquisitive nature and scholarly approach to the development and the refinement of his art. At the age of seven, he attended a traditional holiday festival and witnessed a confrontation in which a single man defeated eight attackers using a combination of martial techniques. Hwang Kee followed the man to his home and a few days later began to observe the man, from a distance, attempting to imitate what he saw as the man engaged in martial arts practice. Eventually, the seven year old Hwang Kee approached the man seeking instruction but was refused due to his young age. This did not discourage Hwang Kee and he continued to observe the man at a distance and attempting to emulate the techniques he witnessed.


The Moo Duk Kwan Story

The Japanese Occupation - 1910 to 1945

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the only martial arts permitted were the Japanese (i.e. Kendo and Judo). Therefore, from 1921 to 1936 Hwang Kee studied on his own. In 1936, while working with the railroad in Manchuria, he was introduced to a Chinese master, Master Yang with whom he trained until his return to Seoul in August of 1937.

In 1939, Hwang Kee began work with the Cho Sun Railway Bureau. There he had access to a library that contained with many books on martial arts, particularly Okinawan Karate. Through the books, Hwang Kee studied Okinawan Karate which later influenced Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan and evidenced by inclusion of the Pyung Ahn forms as well as Bassai and Kong Sang Kun.


The Development Period - 1945 - 1960

With the end of Japanese occupation of Korea, Hwang Kee was free to publicly pursue his martial arts goals. On November 9, 1945 he founded the Moo Duk Kwan (school of martial virtue) and named his art Hwa Soo Do (art of the flowering hand). Initially he met with little success and struggled to both gain and keep students. At this time Hwang Kee met Won Kuk Lee, the founder of Chung Do Kwan, whose art was named Tang Soo Do (the way of the Chinese hand). Lee had received Karate training while residing in Japan and his martial arts school was very successful. The two schools were combined. Because Tang Soo Do had such established name recognition, Hwang Kee decided to combine Hwa Soo Do with Tang Soo Do as well as mix in what he had learned from books on Okinawan Karate. The end result was Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan and Hwang Kee began teaching his new art to the public in 1947.

The Korean war (1950 – 1953) temporarily disrupted the development and growth of Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan.  Hwang Kee returned to Seoul, Korea in 1953 and continued his work. In 1955 he leased his first commercial space which eventually became known as the legendary "Joong Ang Dojang" (pictured to the left).  Dojang loosely translates to martial arts training studio.

In the mid 1950's Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan’s popularity soared and several dojangs sprang up. Eventually, Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan was taught in schools, to the police and to the military.  Hwang Kee personally delivered the instruction at the Republic Of Korea Air Force Academy.

In 1957, Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan was first introduced to U.S. servicemen. Classes were held at the U.S. 8th Army's Trent Gym in Yong San, Seoul. By 1960 it had spread to five other U.S. military bases and this led to the introduction of Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan into the United States as US servicemen returned home after active duty in South Korea.

In 1957 Hwang Kee discovered a 300 year-old Korean manuscript titled "Moo Yei Do Bo Tong Ji" that documented Korean martial techniques known as Soo Bahk. This was a fortunate find as Hwang Kee had always maintained the dream of locating a truly Korean martial art and developing a traditional Korean martial arts organization. In Korea in 1957 there were five original Kwans (i.e. schools). Ji Do Kwan, an offshoot of the Yeon Moo Kwan, merged with Moo Duk Kwan and on June 30, 1960 they were officially registered as the Korean Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Association, with Grandmaster Hwang Kee as its head. However, the name Tang Soo Do had been in circulation for so long that a name change to Soo Bahk Do was difficult for most to absorb.  Consequently, the Tang Soo Do name persists to this day.

  • Moo Duk Kwan                   - Kee, Hwang
  • Yeon Moo Kwan                 - Yun, Kwei Byong
  • YMCA Kwan Bup Bu          - Lee, Nam Suk
  • Chung Do Kwan                 - Shon, Duk Song
  • Song Moo Kwan                 - No, Byong Jik
More Turbulent Times - 1961 - 1966

1961 marked the beginning of another round of hardship for Moo Duk Kwan. On May 16th, a military revolution led by Lt. General Chong Hee Park took place. Hwang Kee was removed as instructor for the Republic Of Korea Air Force base and the national police, and was prohibited from publishing his monthly publication, Moo Yei Si Bo. Between 1961 and 1965, operation of the Moo Duk Kwan association became very difficult as the government exercised great political control over it. In 1964 the Korean Tae Soo Do Association was formed, which in 1965 became the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association.

Due to its political influences, the Tae Kwon Do Association, led by its second President, General Hong Hee Choi tried to unify it with the Korean Soo Bahk Do Association. Moo Duk Kwan was the largest of any martial arts organization in Korea at the time. Grandmaster Hwang Kee agreed to discuss unification, but it quickly became apparent that the move was designed to gain complete control over Moo Duk Kwan. So Hwang Kee refused and this led to the gradual weakening of Moo Duk Kwan and the gradual strengthening of Tae Kwon Do. Over time many Moo Duk Kwan members (both organizations and individuals) were absorbed into Tae Kwon Do.

In 1965 and again in 1966, Hwang Kee won two legal battles that allowed him to run his organization without outside interference and so began a process of rebuilding. As a testament to the Grandmaster's perseverance in the face of great adversity, Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) is today practiced in 45 countries around the world.