Last week’s column ended by introducing the presence of some spectacular “Hwarang-like” martial arts and derring-do on display at Cheonjeyeon Waterfall back in 1702. These were dramatically captured in illustrated map images drawn by Kim Nam-kil, an artisan in the entourage of Magistrate Yi Hyong-sang. Yi, an uncompromising Neo-Confucian ideologue, was at the time undertaking a belligerent circumnavigation of Jeju Island in order to search out and put to the torch all Buddhist temples and Shaminist/Animist shrines.

Korean Hwarang lore reaches back to an elite corps of “chivalrous knights” emergent at the time of Silla. Though the uncontested translation of “Hwa Rang” in English is “Flower Boys,” and notwithstanding their characteristic “precious mannerisms” (the annals of the Chinese describe them as “beautiful”), their cloistered regimental upbringing instilled the highest order of martial virtue, camaraderie, loyalty and esprit de corps through specialized rites of passage and covert mysteries. They were formed into the perceived aristocratic image of an Ideal Manhood for their time and day and the oldest Korean historical documents claim them as the driving force behind the 7th Century unification of the Three Kingdoms (Silla, Goguryeo, Baekje). Jeju Island at that time and until the 13th Century appears as Tamna in the histories, and as a distinct Kingdom with trading and tributary relations with Unified Silla. Its own aristocracy cannot have been oblivious to the Silla Hwarang elite cadet corps and perhaps wondered about or even tried to emulate the secrets leading to Hwarang-enhanced military prowess.

My guess is that no few of the loyal readers of Jeju World Wide resident to the island are studying local crafts including martial arts in their spare time; taekwondo, for example.  I myself considered joining a martial arts dojo in 1973, when Peace Corps assigned me to the island. One reason I opted out of the martial arts possibility in favor of body conditioning (See “Mr. Bu’s Jeju Island dojo,” Parts 1, 2, 3) was that the martial arts landscape, much as it is portrayed in martial arts movies, seemed rife with bickering and competition between martial arts schools fighting each other for validity, authenticity, claim-to-fame, and – sad to say – market share.

Then, as now, it seems intriguing and remarkable how many and the extent to which some self-validating dojo histories reference and elaborate their origins, uniqueness and superiority as forged in Hwarang traditions and lore. “Hwarang awareness” in the Republic of Korea (ROK), as I understand it, was far from mainstream in the public consciousness prior to World War 2. Thereafter and down to the present “following the Hwarang path to victory” has been deliberately nurtured by succeeding military governments. Beautiful “Flower Boys” and their martial arts skills seem everywhere displayed on screen these days in Korean historical dramas.

Our Peace Corps contingent (K-25) was the 25th to train in Korea and we trained for three months (November-February) in mountainous Chuncheon, east of Seoul. I traveled to Seoul several times during those three months by train. Leaving Seoul, the last train stop was the Hwarangdae Station (now closed). Step off the train there and you face the front gate of the Korean Military Academy. I never did, but if I had and were it permitted at the time, I would have walked through those gates to soon find myself at the Hwarang Parade Ground, where graduation ceremonies, festivals, celebration of national holidays and the remembrances for the dead take place. The profound and pervasive significance of Hwarang lore and symbolism to the ROK Army, in particular, cannot be overstated. Here is their flag:

Figure 1: Flag of the Army of the Republic of Korea. An embodiment of profound Hwarang and hibiscus flower lore and symbolism.

Figure 1: Flag of the Army of the Republic of Korea. An embodiment of profound Hwarang and hibiscus flower lore and symbolism.

The ROK first deployed a few “support” troops under this flag to Vietnam in 1964, and then thousands of combat troops – mainly the famed Korean Capital “Tiger” Division – in 1965. Also arriving, the 11th Infantry Division (Mobile) also called “the Hwarang Division.” By the way, those initial few ROK “support” troops in Vietnam were “M.A.S.H.”-type hospital units – and taekwondo instructors!

I am wondering what the North Vietnamese thought on that first occasion they faced the Tiger division and saw their flag: “Flowers and a bow?” “This should be easy!” Any uninformed attempt to interpret the insignia might be forgiven for having not discovered any militant or intimidating symbolism anywhere within it. If I had seen this insignia on a panel truck in the city before I learned about the Hwarang and proud ROK military traditions I might have guessed in my ignorance that it was delivering flowers or diapers.

However, the specific flower on the ROK Army flag is the hibiscus (mugunghwa). Deceptively fragile, it proves to be triumphantly immortal. Hibiscus valorizes the immortal bond of love, including brotherly love. In war it is the symbol of invincibility. No wonder it is the flower of Korea and its Hwarang tradition. Other enigmatic and untranslatable Korean concepts including han, chong, kibun, and kosaeng can all be discovered to have hibiscus/Hwarang associations.

What the North Vietnamese discovered to their grief about the Tiger Division throughout that war was that Tiger Division troops were a Viet Cong soldier or sympathizer’s worst nightmare. It is 20th Century military legend that the Turks with their curved swords were the fiercest fighting force on the ground during the Korean War, and by far the most feared by the Communist North Koreans and Chinese. The members of the ROK Tiger Division earned that same dubious distinction for the Vietnam War, and did a lot of the damage with their bare hands and feet. All this is to say that when the Tiger Division was deployed to Vietnam, they took all their Hwarang fighting skills with them – but forgot to bring along their “precious Hwarang mannerisms.” The Viet Cong thought they were literally fighting demons at the time. Meanwhile the ROK grunts of the Tiger Division took pride in their hand-to-hand combat kills. Every one demonstrated his mastery of their shared martial art – taekwondo.

While diverse taekwondo schools worldwide claim Hwarang history and lore as part of their provenance and exceptionality, at least one tradition has a verifiable connection to Jeju Island. Before earning his rank, ROK Army General Choi Hong-hi (1918-2002), was tasked with forming the 29th Infantry (so-called “Fist”) Division based on Jeju in 1953. The crack 29th Division was trained to carry the fight to the enemy with or without weapons. The “Fist” Division produced ample highly trained taekwondo instructors for the rest of the Korean Army. Those ROK taekwondo instructors sent to train troops in Vietnam in 1964 were a legacy of General Choi’s dedicated organizational efforts on behalf of advancing martial arts training for military troops and civilians. Honoring the memory of the 29th Infantry Division, the Choi style of taekwondo training taught around the world today has 29 moves at the red belt testing level. He named this 29-step movement “Hwarang.”


Next week: “The Tiger Division meets ‘Travelling Sam, Peace Corps Man,” Part 2

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