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History of the Hwarang, Korea's Warrior Knights.
You can still go there today.
Nestled high in a wooden dale, remote and hidden on Tansok Mountain, lies
the Korean temple Shinson, which means "Spirit of Supernatural Being."
Outside of Kyongju, past the small village of Ujunggok, climb down to the
stream and hike up through the pottery kilns of the village, following a
trail to the right of the stream through a terraced rice field. Near
several rock slides, the trail crosses the stream and begins a sharp
ascent up the left slope. This path reaches a higher valley to the left of
the main valley. Hike from the village over an hour, and like the Hwarang
warriors of old, enter the grounds of Shinson temple (Shinson-sa), which
gained fame during the Silla period when Kim Yushin used these mountain
ridges as his training area for the Hwarang.
Historians have been
fascinated by the Hwarang in recent years. While there is significant
historical material concerning the Hwarang warriors as an institution,
there are still considerable mystery and speculation as to their function.
We do know that generals from the Silla period - which took place from BC
57- 935 AD; Korean Silla Founder King Hyok Gosoi 1 to Korean Silla 56th
King Kyongsun 9 - claimed early training with the Hwarang movement.
Probably because of this, the Hwarang have become known as "Korean Silla
knighthood," with the word hwarang often being translated as "flower
knights," though it literally means "flower of manhood," or "flowering
Modern martial artists should
be wary of such simplistic interpretations, though, for the Hwarang
movement has no similarities to the knights of medieval Europe. Some
believe that Hwarang-do and Japanese Bushido are similar way of
warriorship, but the Hwarang movement pre-dates Bushido, and did not gain
the political influence of the Samurai class. Silla youth did not remain
Hwarang for life, as did the Samurai, and were not born into the class and
its privileges. Instead, Koreans and practitioners of Korean martial arts
may take special pride in the heritage of the Hwarang movement - a unique
spiritual and physical training that has never been duplicated in Korea or
anywhere else in the world.
The Hwarang were a group of
aristocratic young men who gathered to study, play and learn the arts of
war. Though the Hwarang were not a part of the regular army, their
military spirit, their sense of loyalty to king and nation, and their
bravery on the battlefield contributed greatly to the power of the Silla
It should be noted the
Hwarang-do was a philosophical and religious code followed by valiant
warriors - not a fighting style or combat technique in itself. Generally,
King Chinhung (534-576; 24th Silla King, reigned 540-576) is acknowledged
to have organised Hwarang-do as a philosophical study in the 37th year of
his reign. The Hwarang spread their influence throughout the Korean
peninsula and excelled in archery - mounted and unmounted. Though they
practised fencing, no set fencing or unarmed combat styles developed from
the Hwarang warriors. Instead, they focused on studying Chinese classics
and military strategies, as well as the fighting arts, and in July and
August, an annual national festival was conducted for the Hwarang to
demonstrate martial skills.
But it was in their devotion
to furthering the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole that the
Hwarang played their most important role. They went in groups to the
mountains - for physical training, to enjoy the beauties of nature, and to
make their peace with the Spirit of the Mountain. They were highly
literate, and they composed ritual songs and performed ritual dances whose
purpose was to pray for the country's welfare. They also involved
themselves directly in intellectual and political affairs.
The Hwarang movement appeared
to be a type of schooling for the sons of Silla's aristocrats; however,
there are cases of sons of low ranking parents belonging to this elite
group. The movement was certainly royally supported as kings themselves
served as Hwarang before taking their responsibilities on the throne. The
Hwarang movement was a Korean warrior corps that adhered to strict
philosophical and moral codes. Most of the great military leaders of the
Silla Dynasty had been Hwarang. Their exploits were recorded in The
Records of the Hwarang (Hwarang Segi) by the Eighth Century scholar Kim
Tae-mun. Although this book has not survived, passages and synopses were
recorded by Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151), the Koryo historian said to have
compiled the History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi) in 1145.
Today many Korean novels and
films have portrayed the Hwarang as a zealous military strategist whose
unflinching goal was the unification of Silla and protection of the
kingdom. In modern Korea, the Hwarang ideal continues in unfailing
patriotism and military prowess. The modern martial art, Hwarang-do,
claims its roots from this ancient practice and attempts to continue some
of its ideals.
The legends, history and
pageantry of ancient Silla have left a beautiful and mysterious legacy
across the Kyongju valley, where in a capital city of one million people,
kings and queens once reigned supreme for almost a millennium. The Silla
culture's vibrant achievements, carried to unprecedented heights, can
still be felt in today's society.
From 57 BC through the next
millennium of Silla Dynasty rule, geographic isolation somewhat delayed
the kingdom's cultural growth but undoubtedly saved the kingdom from
China's predatory advances. The brave young Hwarang warriors were equal to
the task of military defence while the rulers knew the advantages of
In the Seventh Century, Silla
turned to defeat the other two Korean kingdoms in a coalition with the
T'ang Dynasty (618-906) of China. Paekche fell in 660 and Koguryo 668.
Because China was unable to subjugate Silla, she soon left all the
territorial peninsula south of the Taedong River to Silla. Unified Silla
came to a peaceful end in the Tenth Century, leaving scores of undamaged
valuable remains for scholars in the Twentieth Century, and important
hints as to the real nature of Hwarang warrior culture.
From 632 to 654, two queens
inherited the throne in their own right, indicating a significant
difference between ancient Silla practices and China's male-dominated
hierarchy. Queen Son-dok (Silla's 27th ruler; reigned 632-647) quickly
established good relations with T'ang China, and introduced many foreign
customs which included Chinese fashions in court dress, improvement in
technological fields and cultural innovations which were in vogue in
China. She sent students to Chinese universities, built temples and
schools, and astutely patroned Confucianism and shamanism as well as the
state religion of Buddhism.