For those who don’t know me, I have a MA in Japanese linguistics, with some extra courses in classical Chinese and other, incredibly nerdy stuff. Back in the days I started writing this as a paper for one of my classes, but when I discussed the topic with my professor he advised me to focus on something more “contemporary” (which TBH was fair since the course focused on post-WW2 East Asia). So, the draft stayed in my Dropbox for several years, until last summer when I got in a heated online debate with the typical taekwondo-douche who stated that TKD had a “rich, 2000-year history”
Later on, I dug out the draft, completed the translations, and had a friend of mine post it on his blog back in December. It generated some nice feedback, so figured I would cross-post it here, with a couple of additions from the original post.
Paper/article/long-ass rant starts here:
The flower boys of old
If you have been involved with taekwondo for any period of time, you will undoubtably have been told that once upon a time, there were these mighty warriors in ancient Korea called " hwarang ". They are usually mentioned in the curriculum when trying to explain the ancient roots of the martial art, right after the cave paintings of Goguryeo (37BC-668AD) but before the unification of Silla (668AD) and the Goryeo-Khitan wars (perhaps more correctly explained as a series of unsuccessful attempts of invasion, spanning roughly from 993-1019AD). In the ITF Chang Hon syllabus there’s even a hwarang tul ( tul being the ITF suffix for their forms, comparable to poomsae in WT style taekwondo), complete with the following description: “It is named after the hwarang group of scholar-warriors that originated in the Silla Dynasty in the early 7th Century.” (Taekwondo Wiki).
The hwarang ideal has become a popular symbol in modern Korea. It has been used in the name of the Army Officers Training School, as the name of a high-ranking military decoration, as the name of multiple bars (one of which was frequented quite often during the author’s stay in Seoul in 2010-11 due to its 3-hours-long “happy hour”), and generally brings about a sort of national pride mixed with romantic ideals of earlier days, much the same way as Shaolin monks are revered in China. However, this way of thinking about the hwarang is relatively new. It is an idea that has grown parallel to Korean independence after the war, and as far as I have been able to work out, the source of this idea might have been Yi Son-gun (李瑄根), who in 1949 published “a study of hwarang-do” (花郞道研究, hwarangdo yon’gu ), which reads like a, frankly, speculative essay on hwarang ethics and ideals, and how these ideals influenced the entire Korean populace in the centuries after.
So, today I’d like to dig into these scholar-warriors and try to separate facts from fiction.
All translations are my own unless explicitly noted.
Let’s start with a couple of popular descriptions, to set the mood:
“The hwarang of Silla was a group of young boys who performed rituals for the Heavens, purified their souls, practiced martial arts and worked to defend their country. Because of their training the hwarang were the best suited to be soldiers and warriors. They were the elite, and the core of Silla’s defense, due to their fine personality, honesty and righteousness, and of course their ability to defend themselves and others.” (GM Cho Won Sup, " Taekwondo 1 ", 1994)
The Korean dictionary Tong-a’s New Encyclopedia offers a similar description (English translation by missionary and scholar Richard Rutt): “Hwarang. Leader of a military band of the Silla era. Chosen from the young sons of the nobility by popular election. Belonged in hundreds or thousands to the hwarang bands. Origin not clear, but presumably from the young mens’ bands of the Han tribes. Sadaham who raised an army for the suppression of Kara in 562 is the beginning of hwarang history. Basic ideal was complete loyalty to the nation, righteousness and bravery. Frequently visiting mountain beauty spots, they were also called kukson. Their activity was also called p’ungnyu or p’ungwolto. The five hwarang commandments were: serve the king with loyalty, serve parents with piety, be faithful to friends, never retreat in battle, preserve life when possible.”
However, these descriptions only give rise to more questions, such as “what were the selection criteria?”, “what did they actually do with their time?”, “what was their organizational structure?”, and “were they actually boys?”.
Let us begin by examining the two characters that make up hwarang . Since Sejong the Great hadn’t bothered to invent hangeul yet (to be fair, he was only born about 800 years later), all communication was in the form of classical Chinese. The characters in question then, are 花 (화, hwa ) and 郞 (랑, rang ).
Thesaurus Linguae Sericae, which is the place to go for everything related to nerdy facts about the Chinese language (particularly semantics), offers the following information about these two characters:
花 huā *hɣɛ 曉麻平 **hŋʷraal (?) BLOSSOM n flower, blossom 郎 láng *lɑŋ 來唐平 **ɡ-raaŋ OFFICIAL n (YOUNG) ADULT who does WORK IN a PUBLIC OFFICE OR IN A PUBLIC FUNCTION.
Based on this, we can at least maintain that Wikipedia’s use of the term “flower youth” as a translation is decent, albeit not perfect. Still, better than “flower knights”, a term I’ve seen floating around the web.
At the same time, it is interesting to look at some secondary meanings, both for the first character (花), as for hwarang as a whole. Huā ( hwa in Korean) is as early as the 4th century used as “a dedicated person; a person solely dedicated to a single task or type of work”. Láng on the other hand, is in both classical Chinese and Japanese dictionaries listed with a meaning equal to君 “gentleman” (usually in the way of a high-ranking official or prince) or 旧时妻称夫或情人 “what an old wife calls [her] husband or lover”. Rang then seems to be designating the gender and/or status of the person.
In more modern dictionaries, you might also find some deviations such as hwarangi meaning “a nicely clothed artist or dancer” or hwarangnyon meaning “prostitute” (the nyon being the Korean reading of the Chinese character for girl). Similar to that last meaning, you can find words using various characters for flower to symbolize sex or the adult industry in Japanese as far back as the 15th century (though the most common one being 花魁 oiran , referring to a high-ranking and extraordinarily expensive courtesan in the pleasure quarters around mid-18th century). Lastly, hwarang has been noted as meaning “shaman” as far back as in a text for schoolchildren compiled in 1527 by Ch’oe Sejin (崔世珍). This last interpretation will be further discussed later in this text.
What then of the primary sources, if any? Well, there are two texts that we can consult. They are called Samguk Sagi (三國史記, History of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk Yusa (三國遺事, Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). Technically, there might be three sources, with the last one being Hwarang Segi (花郞世記, Annals of the hwarang ). This latter is mentioned as a source in Samguk Sagi and is said to be written by noted historian Kim Daemun (金大問) some time around 704-737. Consequently, it would be the go-to text for all questions regarding the hwarang , as it was written by a contemporary. However, this text disappeared around the 13th century and was presumed lost forever, until it suddenly re-appeared in the late 1980’s. Apparently, the text had been held by a man named Pak Changhwa (朴昌和), who worked at the Japanese Imperial Household Library during the Japanese Colonial period. No further information is given concerning the procurement of the document, so if it is genuine, it may be assumed that he stole it. However, the genuineness of this 16-part document is highly disputed. Noted Korea scholar Richard D. McBride II has gone so far as to judge the document as “leisure writing or [a] fictional work composed by Pak Changhwa” who “composed many other fictional writings” as well. If nothing else, the historical timing is peculiar, as the announcement of this remarkable discovery of an important historical document came only months after the 1988 Seoul Olympics and President Roh Tae-woo’s implementation of the Nordpolitik program and significant efforts of demonstrating the proud history of the Korean peninsula. Consequently, I have chosen to not rely on this document, to instead focus on Sagi and Yusa .
The two texts deal with similar periods in Korean history but are remarkably different. The Sagi is a rather short and to-the-point account of events, while the Yusa contains anecdotes, poems, and tales of supernatural occurrences. In such, they complete each other, and should give some insight into the hwarang myth. Starting with Sagi (4卷-新羅本紀4-眞興王-37年, volume 4, the annals of Silla, the 37thyear of King Chinhung), the text reads :
During the spring of the 37th year, he (King Chinhung) established the original flowers ( wonhwa ).
初, 君臣病無以知人, 欲使類聚群遊, 以觀其行義, 然後擧而用之.
In the beginning, the rulers and ministers did not have the [proper] knowledge about [their] people, so they gathered a large group of people from different places. After having observed their actions, they made public their recommendations.
遂簡美女二人, 一曰<南毛>, 一曰<俊貞>, 聚徒三百餘人.
Following this, two beautiful girls were chosen. One was called “Nammo”, the other “Chunjong”. They had more than three hundred followers.
二女爭娟相妬, <俊貞>引<南毛>於私第, 强勸酒至醉, 曳而投河水, 以殺之.
The two girls became jealous of each other’s beauty, and “Chunjong” brought “Nammo” back to her home, where she forced wine upon her and got her drunk [until the point of becoming] unruly, then [she] pushed her into a river and killed her.
“Chunjong” was executed, and her followers lost their unity and became scattered.
其後, 更取美貌男子, 粧飾之, 名花郞以奉之.
After this, pretty young boys were brought, and they [put on] makeup and beautiful clothes, and they were established [as a group] with the name “flower boys” ( hwarang ).
徒衆雲集, 或相磨以道義, 或相悅以歌樂, 遊娛山水, 無遠不至.
They gathered large groups of followers, they helped each other [to practice] their moral virtues and ethics and entertained each other with song and music, and travelled over the mountains and over the waters seeking amusement, and there were no place they did not reach.
因此知其人邪正, 擇其善者, 薦之於朝.
Through this came the knowledge of who was good and who was bad, and those who were virtuous were recommended for court positions.
Here ends the direct summary of the hwarang history, but the Sagi also offers two quotes from earlier works, which will be brought into the analysis shortly. Now though, it seems about time to see what the Yusa text has to say:
The 24th King, Chinhung. He was of the Kim clan, and his [birth] name was Sammaekchong, sometimes written as Simmaekchong.
He ascended the throne in the sixth year of the Ta-tung period of the Liang dynasty.
[He] followed the will of his uncle Pophung (the previous ruler) by following the Buddha and building Buddhist temples in many places, and by encouraging people to serve as monks or nuns.
[The king] also had an innate tendency to greatly value the spirits (note: these are not Gods, but supernatural entities commonly found in Chinese Daoism or in fairy-tales in the West)
He selected beautiful women and decreed them to serve as the original flowers ( wonhwa ).
[The king] assembled a large number of people and selected the outstanding ones, then they were taught the Confucian moral injunctions of fidelity (these are, respectively: piety to one’s parents, respect to one’s older brother, loyalty to one’s monarch, faith to one’s male friends). They were of great assistance in governing the country.
Eventually, two young ladies by the name of Nammo and Chunjong (note: the name is here given with a different first character, 峧 as compared to 俊 in the Sagi ) were selected [as leaders]. Their followers counted between three and four hundred.
Chunjong was jealous [of Nammo], and when Nammo had taken in much wine and become drunk, she took her secretly to a river north of the city, struck her with stones and killed her.
The followers [of Nammo] did not know where she had gone, so they dispersed, weeping sadly.
But there was someone who knew about the plan [to kill Nammo], and taught the small children a song to sing about it in the city streets.
Nammos followers heard this [song], and when they investigated found her dead body in the river. So, Chunjong was killed.
As a result, the king gave the order to abolish the wonhwa [organization]. (note: I believe the Chinese text to have an error in punctuation, and that the two last characters actually belong to the next sentence, which you will see in the English translation)
Some years later, the king again became concerned with strengthening the country, and he decided that the first thing should be to organize the p’ungwolto . Again, he issued a decree and chose boys from good families who were of high moral and reused the band of the flower women (referring to the wonhwa organization).
The first to be admitted was Sorwon, and this was the beginning of the hwarang and kukson.
So, a [Sorwon’s] memorial stone was erected at Myongju (this area is called Kangung 江陵 in modern Korea), and from this time people started to respect their seniors and be gentle with their inferiors. Also at this time, the Five Constant Virtues ( wǔ cháng ), the Six Arts, the Three Instructors, and the Six Chiefs were spread throughout the land.
- The Five Constant Virtues (also known as the five principles of human relations): 仁 (benevolence), 義 (sense of justice), 礼 (respect, courtesy), 智 (knowledge, wisdom), and 信 (integrity, trust).
- The Six Arts: etiquette, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and mathematics.
- The Three Instructors (also known as the three scholarly occupations): royal tutor, instructor, and teacher
- The Six Chiefs (also known as the six ways to serve the government): exalted minister, good minister, loyal minister, wise minister, virtuous minister and honest minister
While the two excerpts are quite similar in construction, we are given better insight as to what happened to Nammo and Chunjong. This in itself is interesting. However, what deserves a bit elaboration is the following three items:
Firstly, the “curriculum” for the wonhwa was Confucian in nature, and that it was about the same time that the wonhwa were established that a lot of other Chinese philosophical concepts such as the Five Constant Virtues were imported into Korean culture. Technically, this could put the establishment of the wonhwa as early as around 371-384, as the first National Confucian Academy was completed in 380 under King Sosurim. But I digress…
Secondly, the term p’ungwolto (風月道, occasionally referred to only as p’ungto 風道). A literal translation would state something like “the wind and moon way”, while it in modern Korean carries a meaning of “poetic” (a 風流客 is a poet whose works are concentrated on the mystical beauty of nature). Historian Yu Chai-Shin writes in his book The New History of Korean Civilization (2012) that the mythical Ch’oe Chiwon from the Silla dynasty founded a religious sect by the name of p’ungnyu (風流) by “merging ideas from Confucianism, Buddhism and ancient shamanism”, and that this religious sect can be tied both to hwarang and to the Korean creation myth of Tan’gun. This finds support in the Samguk Sagi , where it is written a few paragraphs below where I originally ended my translation that “In our country there is a monderous and mysterious ‘way’ called p’ungnyu . (…) It combines the three doctrines and teaches the people”. These three doctrines are further on described as that of the Minister of Justice of Lu (i.e. Confucius), that of the Recorder of Chou (i.e. Lao-tzu), and that of the Prince of India (i.e. Buddha). Yu also notes that the “singing and dancing” that the hwarang did, originated in Korean shamanism. There is no direct quote for this, but we may discover the origins in the Japanese book Chosen no fugeki (1932), written by Murayama Chijun (野村智順). This is a survey of Korean shamanism and spiritism, which lists hwarang or pharang as a male shaman. Similarly, the Japanese academic Akamatsu Chijou writes in 1936 that “a hwarang is the husband of a female shaman, who dances and sings along while she does her work”.
Thirdly and finally, the term kukson . Kukson is occasionally referred to as a rank, meaning “squad leader”. This, however, is very thinly documented. Regardless, if the hwarang were supposed to be elite soldiers, the core of the great Silla army, this makes no sense whatsoever. Son ( xiān in Chinese) is a strongly Taoist term in ancient China. While it occasionally is translated as “immortal”, the original meaning is no such thing. Taoism has always been a religion or philosophy for loners who lived frugal lives and communed alone with nature. In fact, it has been argued that it arose as a direct opposition to Confucianism and its rigid institutions. The Tao Te Ching has a line which can be translated “those who aim to take over the world and shape it to their will, never, I notice, succeed”. An early Chinese dictionary lists two separate yet connected meanings for the term xiān : 1) “to move into the mountains”; and 2) referring to those who “when they grow old, do not die”. Although, in Han Chinese times, the son had in many ways transcended, with the term now bringing about images of crazed hermits living alone in the mountains practicing alchemy, magic and wizardry. The son has now usually lived an abnormally long life (or has discovered immortality altogether) and is wise beyond reckoning (although the wisdom is usually accompanied with a generous helping of madness). In the earlier paragraphs of the Yusa as well, we see the combination 神仙, usually translated as “spirits”, but directly translated would end up being something like a “god-man-hermit”. A kukson then, at the time when the terminology seeped into the Korean peninsula, should be something like a “national hermit”, part sage and part madman, not exactly one who you’d want commanding your army.
So, based on the primary sources, what are we left with? Well, it seems far-fetched to say that the evidence supports the interpretation of the hwarang as warriors. Rather, the organization seemed to be more religious in nature. As the Samguki Yusa states, they “chose boys from good families” (選良家男子), meaning that the organization possibly could have functioned as a sort of prep-school for young nobles, educating them and preparing them for state functions. This interpretation of how the hwarang functioned finds support in the final part of the Sagi as well, in that “those who were virtuous were recommended for court positions” (擇其善者, 薦之於朝).
However, it should be undeniable that, like all able-bodied Silla men of that period, the hwarang had to join the army in wartime. After all, they were a state-supported organization, if nothing else than because the king himself had decreed them into being! And, the hwarang were established in a time where great changes were reverbing through Silla and the Korean peninsula. In and around year 500, Chinese customs started to be imported wholesale. In 503 did the king and his advisors decide upon the correct Chinese characters for their own state name (新羅). In 520, king Pophung (mentioned in the translations above) established a court, complete with colors and markings to signify internal rank. And in 536, Silla took its first trying steps towards an expansion policy, when they invaded the small state of Karak. It is definitely possible that the hwarang educated multiple scholars-turned-warriors in the one-hundred-and-forty-something years between its establishment and the Silla unification wars (in fact, some are noted in the final pages of both the Sagi and Yusa ), but these seem to be unique cases.
The first specific mention of hwarang partaking in military activities is in 562, when Kim Sadaham (mentioned in Sagi , chapters 4 and 44, but also in the quote from the Tong’A New Encyclopedia in the start of this text) partook in Sillas annexation of the small state of Kaya. Being a minor (his actual age is unclear, but assumed to be 15-16) at the time, he could only go to war after receiving a special royal permission, which was given “quite reluctantly”. Consequently, we must conclude that the encyclopedia quote portraying Sadaham as some kind of general in shining armor is complete fabrication. At best, he would have been a low-to-mid rank commander, or perhaps only a deputy of some sort. Furthermore, even after obtaining this special permission, it hardly seems like Sadaham did much actual warfare, as the original author of the biography of Sadaham (which is quoted in Sagi ) praises not his fighting ability, but rather his merciful attitude towards Kayas prisoners of war!
Honorable mention goes to Kim Yu-shin (金庾信, accepted into the hwarang ranks around 610-613), who is described as a “master of fencing”. As most other hwarang never seemed to earn such a description, it could easily be that Yu-shin was naturally more inclined to swordplay than studying, and that we need to be careful generalizing from a source pool of just one man.
The most famous (or infamous) hwarang in terms of military ability seems to be a lower-grade warrior by the name of Kwanjang, who in the year 660 single-handedly carried out a raid into enemy Baekje forces. It is not written how many enemy soldiers he killed, and Kwanjang died during the raid, but apparently his sacrifice stirred up the moral of his fellow Silla soldiers so much that Silla finally dealt a lethal blow to Baekje. This battle, known as the battle of Hwangsan, became the beginning of the end for the kingdom, and they submitted to Silla later that same year. However, is it really fair to praise him for his military ability when his primary contribution seems to have been self-sacrifice? It’s not like we praise the Japanese kamikaze pilots for their excellent flying ability when their primary target was just to crash into something that looked important…
As I started this text by stating that hwarang are mentioned in the taekwondo curriculum across the world as an attempt to “attach” taekwondo to two thousand years of Korean history, let me be extremely clear: the available evidence does not in any way, shape, or form support any notion of the hwarang as an elite martial arts troupe. And it especially does not offer any support to the claim that taekwondo is an ancient fighting style. In fact, taekwondo should not be taken as anything but a post-WW2 creation! The first explicit mentions of the hwarang as a mainly military or fighting organization seems to, as mentioned in the very beginning of this text, have occurred sometime after the Second World War and Koreas independence. Looking at their occupier, it is easy to see where Korea might have gotten some, ahem, “unintended inspiration”, as Japan itself spent much of the early 1900’s re-inventing a number of key items within its history, as well as nationalistic terms such as 大和魂 ( yamato damashii , the indigenous “Japanese spirit”), 武士道( bushido , “way of the warrior”), and 国体 ( kokutai , “national essence”). There is no space here to fully describe here all the nonsense that has been written about the samurai and their code of ethics, but suffice to say that their narrative has been very neatly changed to fit into a story about the uniqueness and exaltedness of Japanese culture and morals. Based on the available evidence and what has been discussed in the above pages, I would conclude that it seems like a similar thing has happened to the hwarang .