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Muye Dobo Tongji
By Oerjan Nilsen
Muye Dobo Tongji, The Comprehensive Manual Of Martial Arts... The very title conjures up a mental picture of an ancient text, containing all the secrets of Korean Martial Arts (KMA), and the bullet-proof evidence of the existence of Taekwondo in ancient Korea. Instant death touches, secret poomsae/tul/hyung, ancient wisdom and strategy are all wrapped up in this manual. Unfortunately this mental picture we have of this book is not accurate. It is widely suggested by martial art books authors of different KMA but the truth is somewhat different.
In this article I want to shed some light on its history and evolution, give an overview on its contents, debunk some of the myths and misconceptions associated with the manual, and show how it has affected modern KMA.
The Muye Dobo Tongji is a widely referenced text in KMA circles.
I first saw a reference to this martial arts manual while reading my teacher Cho Woon Sup’s book simply entitled “Taekwondo”. In the history section he writes: “In 1790 the king ordered a manual about the martial arts to be written for the military. Taekwondo was prioritised as number 4 which show Taekwondo’s importance”. That book was written about 15 years ago and it is truly an excellent book, but here he simply restates what the WTF and the Kukkiwon has always tried to do: making Taekwondo appear to be 2000 years old, by inserting “Taekwondo” where other names/styles should be in the history of Korean martial arts. In this case the name should be “Kwon Bup” or “Fist Law”/“Fist Method”.
This was a short reference and it did not reveal much about the contents of the book, but later I would find references to the Muye Dobo Tongji in almost every book I read containing information on KMA. This sparked my curiosity and I started thinking about how fantastic the information in this book must be. Sang H. Kim translated the Muye Dobo Tongji in 2000 and I acquired a copy of it soon after.
The Muye Dobo Tongji was written in 1790 during the Yi dynasty by order of king Jungjo. General Yi Duk-moo, Park Je-ga and Pak Dong-soo were given the task of compiling and writing this new manual and got free access to the royal library.
Although the Muye Dobo Tongji was written and compiled in 1790 much of the manual is based on older texts. One of them is the Muye Jebo, Martial Arts Illustrations, written in 1599, which is the oldest known KMA manual. The Muye Jebo was written by the Korean military officer Han Kyo and consisted of 6 fighting arts:
- Long stick (Kon bang)
- Shield art (Dung pae)
- Multiple tip bamboo spear (Nang sun)
- Long spear (Jang chang)
- Triple tip spear (Dang pa)
- Long sword (Ssang soo do)
The Muye Jebo evolved into the Muye Shinbo, Martial Arts New Illustrations, which was a revised edition of the Muye Jebo written in 1759. This edition added another 12 fighting arts:
1. Long bamboo spear (Juk jang chang)
2. Flag spear (Kee chang)
3. Short sword (Ye do)
4. Japanese sword (Wae gum)
5. Combat engagement/Examples of combat (Kyo jun)
6. Crescent sword (Wol do)
7. Spear sword (Hyup do)
8. Twin swords (ssang gum)
9. Admiral’s sword (Je dok gum)
10. Shilla kingdom sword (Bon kuk gum)
11. Fist fighting method (Kwon bup)
12. Flail method (Pyun kon)
These two manuals are again based primarely on the Kihyo Shinsu, New Book On Effective Military Techniques written in 1584 by Chuk Kye-kwang (perhaps better known in the west as General Qi Ji Guang, one of the greatest generals in China during the Ming Dynasty) and the Mubiji, Book of Military Preparation written by Mo Won-ui.
In 1790 General Yi Duk-moo, Park Je-ga and Pak Dong-soo added 6 more fighting arts making the total to 24, and completed the Muye Dobo Tongji. The last six arts were:
- Spear fighting on horseback (Masang ki chang)
- Crescent sword on horseback (Masang wol do)
- Twin swords on horseback (Masang ssang gum)
- Flail method on horseback (Masang pyun kon)
- Ball game on horseback (Kyuk ko)
- Horsemanship (Masang jae)
|Weapons play a dominant part|
in the manual. Here is an
example of long stick.
The motivations for making the Muye Dobo Tongji were to strengthen the Korean army and to prepare for future invasion attempts from hostile neighbours. Japan had already tried to invade Korea, and Japanese pirates was always a threat to national security (Korea being a nation surrounded by sea on three out of four sides). The manual was written by the military for the military and so its focus is on weapon based training and not unarmed fighting like so many modern authors would like you to believe. The manual is divided into 4 books, with the only chapter on unarmed fighting being in book 4. This is what my teacher meant when he wrote “Taekwondo was prioritised as number 4”. As you can see in the first edition of what was to become the Muye Dobo Tongji, the 6 fighting arts consisted of spears and sticks with only one chapter on the use of the sword (long sword). The second edition, which added another twelve fighting arts, rounded up the manual nicely. Now it included spear, lance, flail, Japanese/Chinese/Korean sword techniques, and unarmed fighting. The last edition (Muye Dobo Tongji) added cavalry techniques, and training aids for the cavalry.
The manual starts with the king’s foreword where he outlines his motivations for ordering the Muye Dobo Tongji to be written. It continues with an introduction from the authors where they explain the organisation of the book and some facts on what their sources were. The documentation of military strategies follows the introduction and it consists mainly of short footnotes with the chronological historical events of the Yi dynasty (1392 to 1790). Conversation on Strategy and Art follows the historical events and this is, in the author’s opinion, an important text just as relevant for unarmed combat as it is for armed combat. I think the manual says it best in the words of Hu Yu-kyuk:“Techniques are simple but the principle is profound”. This section warns us against relying too much on one type of weapon. There is an excerpt from an older source named Kumkyung, Book of the Sword which takes place as a conversation between a general and a guest. The guest asks the general why he has not equipped his camp only with the long spear, and the general explains that the long spear is great but it can be defeated with another weapon. The guest then asks why the general has not equipped the camp with this other weapon but the general once again says that this other weapon is great but it can be defeated by yet another weapon. The conversation continues for a while until the general says that you can not rely on one type of weapon but rather let the long weapon kill the short weapon and the short weapon save the long weapon.
When I first read this I remembered my teacher saying the same thing to me talking about unarmed combat. If you rely only on kicking skills (long weapon) you will be taken out by a good puncher/boxer. If you rely only punching you will be taken out by a good kicker. If you rely only on striking you will have trouble with a skilled grappler and if you rely only on grappling you will be taken out by a skilled striker. You must have a balance in your training. This is a good example of the earlier quote: “Techniques are simple but the principle is profound.” Personally I find this section on strategy as enlightening as Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, but you do have to read it a couple of times and think about what you are reading. The lessons are in fact quite simple but they are universal and therefore very important.
After the strategy section the 4 books follow. Every book consists of some fighting arts and every fighting art starts with the history and theory of the weapon, followed by an illustrated pattern and sometimes illustrated combat. Book one contains all the “spear fighting arts”, book two has the long sword, the Japanese sword arts (4 patterns) and illustrated combat. Book three has most of the Chinese sword arts and the only Korean sword art (Bon kuk gum), while book 4 shows unarmed fighting, long stick, flail, ball game on horseback and horsemanship.
Go to part two of this article by clicking here