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The History of the Hwa-Rang

During the 6th century AD, the Korean peninsula was divided into the three kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. The smallest of these kingdoms, Silla, was constantly being harassed and invaded by its two more powerful neighbours, and so in 576 Chin-Hung, the 24th king of the Silla dynasty, established the Hwa-Rang (meaning "flower of youth") warriors from groups of talented young noblemen who were exceedingly loyal to the throne, who could be extensively trained in all forms of warfare and then successfully go into battle to defend the kingdom.

Each Hwa-Rang group consisted of hundreds of thousands of members chosen from the young sons of the nobility (some as young as 12) by popular election. The leaders of each group, including the most senior leader, were referred to as Kuk-Son. These Kuk-Son were similar to the legendary Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur's reign.

Trainees learned the five cardinal principles of human relations (kindness, justice, courtesy, intelligence and faith), the three scholarships (royal tutor, instructor and teacher) and the six ways of service (holy minister, good minister, loyal minister, wise minister, virtuous minister and honest minister). After completing their training, which usually lasted around ten years, candidates were presented to the king for nomination as a Hwa-Rang or Kuk-Son.

The Hwa-Rang trained to improve their moral principles and military skills. To harden their bodies, they climbed rugged mountains and swam turbulent rivers in the coldest months. The youths were taught dance, literature, arts and sciences, and the arts of warfare, chariot driving, archery and hand-to-hand combat.

The hand-to-hand combat was based on the Um-Yang principles of Buddhist philosophy and included a blending of hard and soft, linear and circular techniques. The art of foot fighting known as Subak, practised by common people throughout the three kingdoms, was adopted and transformed by the Hwa-Rang. They intensified it and added hand techniques - it was said that the Hwa-Rang punches could penetrate the wooden chest armor of an enemy and kill him, and that their foot techniques were said to be executed at such speed that opponents frequently thought that the feet of Hwa-Rang warriors were swords. They called this new art Taek Kyon.

The Hwa-Rang code was established in the 3Oth year of king Chin-Hung's rule. Two noted Hwa-Rang warriors, Kwi-San and Chu-Hang, sought out the famous Buddhist warrior-monk Wong-Gwang Popsa and asked that he give them a set of commandments that men who could not embrace the secluded life of a Buddhist monk could follow. These commandments, based on Confucian and Buddhist principles, were divided into five rules (loyalty to the king and country, obedience to one's parents, sincerity, trust and brotherhood among friends, no retreat in battle and justice in the killing of living things) and nine virtues (humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom, trust, goodness, virtue, loyalty and courage).

The Hwa-Rang were the first group of trained warriors ever to posses a spiritual attitude toward warfare. This spiritual warrior code was passed on to Japan in the late 6th century AD, and it was from these roots that the famous "Bushido" Samurai tradition was eventually born.

The zeal of the Hwa-Rang helped Silla to become the world's first Buddhist kingdom, and eventually led to the unification of the three kingdoms of Korea. The battles won by the Hwa-Rang brought about the unification, but history would not be served, however, if it were not acknowledged that this unification was only achieved by a series of very bloody conflicts in which a large percentage of the Korean population was killed.

After the unification of Korea and the defeat of the invading Chinese Tang dynasty, the thoughts of the Korean people began to move away from conflict and on to more philosophical ideas. As warriors, the Hwa-Rang fell into decline by the end of the 7th century. Their refined knowledge of healing caused them to become known as a group specialising in Buddhist philosophy, healing and poetry, but no longer did they enjoy the exalted status of royal warriors.
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