Review of 5000 Years of Korean Martial Arts
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson, December 2010
Because I’ve been a student of Kuk Sool and of Master Barry Harmon since 1998, I bought one of the first copies of this book and had him sign it. I got it home and read the preface, looked at the images, and put it on my “read-this-when-you-have-more-time” shelf. That was in 2007.
Recently, Master Harmon asked what I thought of his book. I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t finished reading it yet. He said he’d appreciate it if I would review it when I got a chance. How could I say no?
Yet I was reluctant to review this book. What if I didn’t like it? I wouldn’t want to disappoint him. And would I be disrespectful of my teacher if I pointed out any literary shortcomings?
But, speaking as a writer, there’s nothing worse than writing a book that readers don’t respond to. So though I admit that Korean history is not something I had a burning desire to know, I was honored that he trusted me to give him an honest opinion. So what did I learn by reading 5,000 Years of Korean Martial Arts?
First, I learned that Master Harmon has an insatiable curiosity about the history of martial arts, and was willing to devote several years of his life to researching and documenting Korea’s indigenous practices and weapons. That alone is enough justification for any of his students to check out this book.
Next, l learned some of what he uncovered: that Koreans, who suffered a long history of invasion and attack, were nevertheless able to maintain a unique cultural identity, and that this identity is inexorably linked to their methods of defense.
He explains that the reason these martial arts are not generally recognized as having originated in Korea is that their practitioners guarded them carefully so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of enemies. He writes, “Asian masters recognized that the highly trained memories of their many students were the safest repositories of knowledge.” Therefore, in compiling this history, Master Harmon put more weight on oral histories from Korean instructors, including Kuk Sool Grandmaster Suh, In Hyuk, than written sources.
The book is divided into nine chapters moving chronologically from the distant past to present-day Korea. Black and white images illustrate the stories and legends of the Korean peninsula which, I learned, was divided into three kingdoms around 500 AD. The three kingdoms were the Paekche, Silla, and Koguryo. The chapters describe the rulers and wars of each period with subtitles and images providing visual breaks.
I especially enjoyed the story of General Ulji Mundok who used a poem to incite his Chinese attacker into a rage—forcing him to fast march and exhaust his army and lose the battle as a result. Ah, the power of the poem!
The book is full of brief historical accounts like that of a king who must decide to surrender his power and land to a kindly neighbor or fight an aggressive attacker to the death. Another is the story of the siege of Kujo where the Mongols are constantly thwarted and finally give up saying that the place is protected by heaven—but actually it was protected by very capable defenders.
I was intrigued to learn that the Buddhist monks of Korea were enlisted to fight the foreign invasion in the 16th century. Despite the Buddhist admonition against killing, it was considered a greater good to kill the invaders than stand by and allow the people to be massacred and the country enslaved. At the time, few people other than the monks had any martial arts training.
One chapter is devoted to Admiral Yi who invented the first iron-clad vessel called a turtle ship. His fleet of ships kept the Japanese away.
More familiar to Americans will be the lead up to the world wars and Korea’s subjugation by Japan. It was during the occupation by Japan that Korean martial arts were nearly lost.
The last chapter is all about weapons. The most unique to Korea is the moon knife that legend says was revealed by the reflection on a lake of the crescent moon and a shooting star. The lovely image for this legend is on the back cover of the book.
The book is well organized and easy to read. The maps of the Korean peninsula during different periods were very helpful, but I would have also enjoyed a timeline with key events and names of rulers marked on it. Also, an index would be a good addition.
In the preface, Master Harmon states that his goal in writing 5,000 Years is to “show that Koreans were fighters as much as fortifiers with a long roster of heroes who sought honor on the open battlefield and at sea.” After reading this book, I can honestly say that he has succeeded in this goal. And that doesn’t surprise me a bit.
I recommend 5000 Years of Korean Martial Arts to all of Master Harmon’s students (there are a lot of us!) and anyone interested in Korean history.
Title: 5000 Years of Korean Martial Arts
Author: R. Barry Harmon
Number of Pages: 231
Publisher: Dog Ear Publishing
Pub Date: 2007
Retail Price: $29.95