There are a great deal of myths and misconceptions regarding this book and one of the most common is that the unarmed fighting section shows Taekwondo (or insert your KMA here) and is therefore evidence of Taekwondo (or insert your KMA here) being an ancient fighting art.
The source of this chapter was written in 1584 and is therefore China’s oldest martial arts manual. The Kwon Bup or unarmed fightning in the Muye Dobo Tongji does not depict Taekwondo or Hapkido, Tang Soo Do, Kuk Sol Won or any other KMA. It comes from a Chinese manual written by a Chinese general and it is actually Chinese Gung Fu/Wushu/Chuan Fa. In fact the “Hanja” (Hanja are Chinese letters that Koreans used before their “Hangul”, the Korean alphabet, became widely accepted) used to write “Kwon Bup” is read “Chuan Fa” in Chinese. In the theory section before the patterns and techniques are presented there are a few references to Subak, but only in two short sentences saying Subak is a form of competitive wrestling.
Another misconception is that there are lists of secret vital points and charts, death touches etc. This is simply not the case. There is a reference or two to vital points, but nothing in the Muye Dobo Tongji says where to strike, how hard, at what angle and what the effects would be. The reference simply states that there are vital points and the manual then arranges them into three groups. That’s it ... no charts, no secrets no mysteries. If you are very interested in vital points I would recommend Marc Tedeschi’s Essential Anatomy for Healing and Martial Arts. You will find nothing of value in the Muye Dobo Tongji if you want to learn how to use and manipulate vital points.
“You can learn martial arts and easily defeat any martial art/artist by reading and researching the Muye Dobo Tongji”. I do not know where this myth comes from but in the martial arts world we do tend to view the ancient masters as superior in skill and knowledge, and so we naturally think that an ancient martial arts manual would somehow make you invincible. I have read it and I have researched it but I still get beaten in practice! I would suspect that the only secret in martial arts and the only way you can try to get invincible is to practice, practice, practice! No doubt you can learn many things from the manual, but the vague, poetic descriptions and lack of details in the illustrations of the techniques makes it almost impossible to learn the fighting arts simply from the manual. Remember that the manual was written for the military by the military and they took a lot of knowledge for granted. The manual was simply a reference, not a “how to do it in ten easy steps” manual.
So how has the Muye Dobo Tongji affected modern KMA? Technique-wise I do not think it has affected mainstream Taekwondo to any significant degree. The illustrations and descriptions of the techniques are, as I have said, poetic and vague, but it is possible that the founding masters of Taekwondo were inspired by it. A few techniques are almost identical to the poomsae we have today. The best example I can think of comes from our Kukki poomsae Shipjin, where you stand in long stance and while breathing you slowly raise your arms up and to the side of your face, stretching your arms and holding your hands open, palms facing outward.
Many of the founders of the original Kwans used the Muye Dobo Tongji to validate their “ancient” roots, and some have even said it does depict their style exactly. The manual was popular because it showed that Koreans had martial arts before the Japanese invasion in 1910 and it provided a link to Korean/Chinese martial arts at a time when Koreans struggled to find their national identity. This meant that most of the founders of the original Kwans in Korea actually read it and studied it to try to link their arts to ancient Korea. The Moo Duk Kwan, founded by Hwang Kee, called its art Tang Soo Do but changed its name into Soo Bak Do after finding the name in a reference to ancient Korean martial arts in the Muye Dobo Tongji. The Chil Sung forms of the Moo Duk Kwan are said to be derived from the Muye Dobo Tongji. The Kukkiwon uses the Muye Dobo Tongji whenever they need to make the case that Taekwondo is an old martial art. In the first world poomsae championship held in Seoul, illustrations from the Muye Dobo Tongji were seen on posters and as decorations around the hall where the competition took place. Different schools which teach weapons as part of their KMA list the Muye Dobo Tongji as a source of their weapons forms. Most Korean weapons martial arts are influenced by the manual, Gumdo being one of them.
Some groups have been working actively to revive the martial arts in the Muye Dobo Tongji;
Gyungdang, Shipalgi, are the two biggest groups at this time.
Gyungdang, which is an old name for one of Korea’s ancient warrior groups, was started in 1989 by Lim Dong Gyu. He was imprisoned in 1979 because he said that North and South Korea should become one country again. While in prison he acquired the Muye Dobo Tongji and relentlessly researched and practised its techniques using a broom stick. In 1988 he was granted amnesty and started teaching what he had found in the Muye Dobo Tongji as “Gyungdang”. Currently the group has about 5000 members in Korea (mostly university students) and is trying to expand to other parts in the world.
Shipalgi means something like 18 fighting arts and it comes from the Muye Shinbo written in 1759. The modern group that tries to revive the martial arts of the Muye Shinbo (and therefore also those of the Muye Dobo Tongji) was established by Kim Kwang Suk (born 1936) .
Although the Muye Dobo Tongji does not live up to most people’s expectations because of all the myths and misconceptions surrounding the manual, there are many things to be learned from it. It does serve as a fantastic historical reference of what the Korean military practised during the Yi dynasty and it does contain a great deal of information on different weapons and strategy. Many schools and modern KMA are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the manual, and many use it to validate their “ancient” roots, even though it is clear for everyone who reads it that this is simply not the case. Also, it is interesting to read one of the books that the masters who founded Taekwondo themselves consulted and researched. I hope this article clears up some of the most popular myths and that it gives a clear overview of what the Muye Dobo Tongji actually contains and where it comes from.
I hope you enjoyed the article and as always feel free to comment below:)