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Subak is either a specific or generic ancient Korean martial art. Historically this term may refer to the old Korean martial art of taekkyeon, but historians are still uncertain since little is known about it. It is acknowledged, however, that Subak flourished 500 years ago specifically during the Yi dynasty (A.D. 1392-1910), the time when a book was published to teach the game as a martial art. Since then, Subak has contributed to the evolution of Korean martial arts, which also included the yusul.
Originally, Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Silla in the southeastern part of the country, Goguryeo (Koguryo) in the northern part, and Baekje located west of Silla. Subak emerged as an amalgamation of the martial arts practiced in these regions. For example, Goguryeo contributed to the emphasis of kicks and throws due to the mountainous terrain of the north, which may have assisted in the development of the fighters' legs. Then, the art was further refined as the kingdom of Silla adopted subak as part of the military training of its special warrior corps called Hwarang. It was during this period when hand techniques began to be integrated. Its institutionalization also contributed to its spread in the Korean peninsula.
By 18th century, even the king practiced Subak, as the text Dongsa-gangmok (동사강목) from this time suggests:
The king himself went and watched a match of Subak (왕이 상춘전에 나가 수박희를 구경하였다)
At this point, Subak was not only considered martial art but was also practiced as an organized sport that was staged as a form of spectator entertainment.
The word Seonbae (also romanized as sonbae, literally: "elders" - 先輩/선배) is sometimes translated to mean "a man of virtue who never retreats from a fight" because it was the term used to signify a member of Koguryo's warrior corps. Members of the Seonbae lived in groups and learned archery, Gakju (ancestor of ssireum) and Subak (ancestor of taekkyon), history, literature, and other liberal arts. Although they were constantly training in combat, during peace time they helped construct roads and fortresses, assisted after natural disasters, and so on.
In the year 400, in an attempt to dominate the entire southern portion of the country, Baekje invaded Silla. King Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo is said by some accounts to have sent 50,000 Seonbae troops to Silla's aid. Later he would attempt to dictate Silla's internal affairs because of this assistance.
Subak took a heavy blow during the Joseon period, which was founded on the ideology of Confucianism, stressing literary art over martial art. Subak was only allowed to be practiced in competitions called subakhui (수박희). After three consecutively successful subakhui bouts, only then could the winner become employed as a soldier.
Perhaps during the beginning of the Joseon dynasty Subak became Taekkyeon. Yusul (means "soft art" and Taekkyeon has "yusul" movements. Some authors, such as Robert W. Young, think that Subak became Taekkyeon, the same martial art just renamed. Yusul [유술/柔術] is written with the same Hanja as Jujutsu and since 柔 means "soft/pliable/yielding" any yusul techniques would naturally "redirect" an opponent's force rather than meet it head on. Kwonsul [권술/拳術], is the contrasting term and although it literally means "fist technique" it no doubt included strikes made with the feet as well as the hands. Taekkyeon 택견 was a term regarded more in line with a game or idle training methodology, whereas kwonsul [권술/拳術] or kwonbeop [권법/拳法] was the terminology usually associated with hand-to-hand fighting techniques. A similar argument could be made regarding ssireum [씨름] (a game) and japgi [잡기] (grappling skills).
- Soo, Kim Pyung (2002). Palgue 4 5 6 of Tae Kwon Do Hyung. Santa Clarita, California: Ohara Publications. p. 12. ISBN 9780897500135.
- Crudelli, Chris (2008). The Way of the Warrior: Martial Arts and Fighting Styles from Around the World. Penguin. p. 126. ISBN 9780756651855.
- Crudelli, p. 126.
- Hill, Robert (2008). World of Martial Arts!. Lulu.com. ISBN 9780557016631.
- Soo, p. 12.
- Robert W. Young The History & Development of Tae Kyeon - Journal of Asian Martial Arts 2:2 (1993)
- Hwang, Kee (1992). Tang Soo Do Soo Bahk Do: Vol 1 & 2. Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Headquarters. ISBN 978-0963135803.