The Ancient Hwa Rang
Historians have been fascinated by the Hwarang and their quasi religious/military order for more than seven decades. While there is significant historical material concerning the Hwarang warriors and their institution, there is still considerable mystery and speculation as to their true function. We know that military generals from the Silla period from 57 BC to 935 AD claimed early training with the Hwarang. Probably because of this, the Hwarang have become known as a type of “Korean knighthood,” with the word Hwarang often being translated as “flower knights,” though it literally means “flower of manhood,” or “flowering manhood.”
Modern Korean historians say that the Hwarangdo and Japanese Bushido are a similar way of the warrior. This could be true in some aspects, but the aristocratic youth of the Silla dynasty did not remain Hwarang for life as did the Samurai and their Bushido. The Korean people and practitioners of Korean martial arts can take special pride in the heritage of the Hwarang movement – a unique spiritual and physical training institution that has never been duplicated anywhere else in the world. The modern traditional Korean martial arts in part owe their existence because of the foundations set forth by the militant Hwarang warriors of Korea’s ancient past.
It is a historical fact that the Hwarang were a group of aristocratic young men who gathered in the mountains of Korea to study art, literature, poetry, the great Chinese classics and the study of the arts of warfare to defend the nation. Though the Hwarang were not a part of the regular army, their military spirit, sense of loyalty to king and country and their bravery on the battlefield contributed greatly to the power of the Silla Dynasty’s military establishment.
It should be noted that the original Hwa Rang Do organization was a philosophical and religious/military group that produced valiant warriors – not a fighting style or combat technique in itself. It is recorded in ancient Korean history that King Jinhung, the 24th king of the Shilla Dynasty is acknowledged to have organized the Hwa Rang Do (花郎徒) as a philosophical study in the 37th year of his reign. The Hwarang spread their influence throughout the Korean peninsula.
Though they practiced martial arts, no particular set of unarmed combat techniques developed specifically from the Hwarang warriors as far as we know. Instead, they focused on studying Chinese classics and military strategies as well as the martial arts of the period, which most likely was a combination of native military arts and borrowed arts from neighboring China.
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 and to enjoy the beauty of nature. They were highly literate, composed music 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 pure Korean warrior corps that adhered to strict philosophical and moral codes. Most of the great military leaders of the Silla Dynasty had been Hwarang trained. Their exploits were recorded in The Records of the Hwarang called Hwarang Segi by the 8th Century scholar, Kim Tae-mun.
Today, many Korean novels and films have portrayed the Hwarang as zealous military strategists whose unflinching goal was the unification of their country and protection of the kingdom. In modern Korea, the Hwarang ideal continues in unfailing patriotism and military prowess. The modern Korean marital art called Hwa Rang Do (花郞道 화랑도) attempts to continue some of the same martial art practices and ideals that the ancient Hwarang founded over a millennium ago.
Hwarang Legend General Kim Yu Shin
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 Dynasty’s vibrant cultural achievements, carried to unprecedented heights, can still be felt in modern Korean society.
From 57 BC through the next millennium of the Silla Dynasty’s timeline, the kingdom was put in geographic isolation that delayed the kingdom’s cultural growth. This undoubtedly saved the kingdom from China’s predatory advances and it was during this time in Korean history that the brave, young Hwarang warriors were put to the task of military defense while the rulers knew the advantages of strategic alliances.
In the 7th Century, Silla (with help from the Hwarang warriors and General Kim Yu Shin) turned to defeat the other two Korean kingdoms in a coalition with the T’ang Dynasty of China. Both the Paekche and Koguryo kingdoms were conquered because China was unable to subjugate the Silla kingdom and she soon left all the territorial peninsula south of the Taedong River to Silla. Unified Silla came to a peaceful end in the late 10th century, leaving scores of undamaged valuable remains for scholars in the 20th century and important hints as to the real nature of the Hwarang warrior culture.
Had it not been for these accomplished warriors, the ablest of whom was General Kim Yushin, the Silla kingdom might have been conquered by T’ang China in the succeeding years. General Kim Yushin was a remarkable military leader who led the Silla troops with the aid of the Chinese T’ang troops when they defeated the two other kingdoms in the year 660 AD. A stabilizing force in society, the Hwarang were a special group that trained together and pledged to the same ideals and goals much like today’s modern Special Forces. It was among the Hwarang that the Silla royal court could find its leaders in times of peace and generals in times of war. Modern South Korea pays tribute to this tradition at the Korean Military Academy near the city of Seoul, where the campus itself is known as Hwarang-dae, or “Hwarang Hill.”
Another legend tells that the young Hwarang leader Kim Yushin dreamed that a bearded mountain master (Nansung 難勝) appeared and presented him with a mystic sword (Sin’gŏm 神劍). Picking the sword up, he severed the rocks beside him. The mountain was thus named Tansok (Divided Rock) because of this feat. Another legend indicates that the teacher of Kim Yushin presented this famous sword to the young Hwarang warrior and through the power of this special sword, the young Hwarang leader was able to unify his nation. Today in Korea near the small temple of Shinson-sa, there is a cluster of columned granite rocks which form what is considered the remains of Korea’s oldest temple grotto. The roof has long ago collapsed, but many tile pieces can still be found.
The north wall is severed with one rectangular column standing thirty feet high with a fifty foot girth. Between this portion and the main rock is a four foot passageway. The surface is smooth and straight as if cut by a sharp blade.
The Shinson Temple outside of the city of Kyongju in South Korea is the location of the old Silla capital. Out from the wooded valley, a visitor can imagine witnessing the Hwarang warriors in training. Far below in the valley, the mist permeates the steep cliffs while the wind rustles the dry leaves under the aged oak trees. The mist reaches the higher slopes while the blue-green mountains on the horizon appear to lose identity. Yet like the Hwarang warriors of long ago, they still belong to this country once called Silla. And the spirit of the Hwarang warrior is still present in the strength of the Korean people and their martial arts.