By: Bong Soo Han
Korean Art of Self-Defense
By Bong Soo Han
(Ohara Publications, Inc., 1974, 192 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Hapkido is a martial art that is spoken about less frequently than many others, such as the various forms of karate, Shaolin, Tai Chi, or even its brother Korean art, Taekwondo. But when it is discussed, it is inevitable that the name Bong Soo Han is mentioned almost immediately. Han not only was a premier master of Hapkido, he did the most to spread its name worldwide.
Han was born on August 25, 1933, in Incheon, South Korea. He began learning Hapkido as a teenager, studying and earning his several black belts with various teachers over the years. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, he picked up judo and kendo. Later, he also studied various other martial arts, such as kung fu and Shudokan Karate, under a range of masters. Following a brief stint as bodyguard to a Korean presidential candidate, he assisted in opening the first Hapkido school in Seoul. He then became an influential teacher whose students included members of the Korean military and the presidential guard. During the Vietnam War, he taught hundreds of American and Korean military personnel as part of a demonstration team for the Korean Hapkido Association.
After the war, Han emigrated to the United States, where he opened his first school in 1968. The following year, after witnessing one of Han’s public demonstrations, writer/director/actor Tom Laughlin approached Han about participating in a movie project titled Billy Jack. That the character of Billy Jack—a Special Forces veteran of the Vietnam War—would know Hapkido was a logical conclusion given Han’s instruction of American soldiers in Vietnam at the time. Thus it was a bit of serendipity that Han himself choreographed the fight scenes and served as Laughlin’s double. The result was a film with some of the most realistic martial arts fights in Western cinema to date. Further, it allowed Han to demonstrate authentic Hapkido to Western audiences and showcase its power and versatility.
Han went on to a role in The Trial of Billy Jack, where his abilities were deliberately highlighted, and he also appeared in or choreographed fight scenes for a number of other movies. He then went on to found the International Hapkido Federation, for which he served as president until his death on January 8, 2007. He became so associated with the art that he often is referred to as “the Father of Hapkido in America." Hapkido: Korean Art of Self-Defense is his only book. (1)
As a martial art, Hapkido is highly eclectic and syncretic, and it employs the full range of fighting techniques, from long-range strikes and kicks to grappling, chin na, throwing, and so forth. It was developed out of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, itself a martial art drawn from several sources by Takeka Sokaku. Takeka’s most-prominent student was Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido. Hapkido is the product of another of Takeka’s students, Choi Yong-sool, whose own students also went on to found Hwa Rang Do, Kuk Sool Won, and several other lesser-known martial arts styles.
Hapkido opens with a one-page bio of Han. By contrast, the Wikipedia entry on him, dated forty-five years later, is much more complete at four pages. A short preface by the author is next, and that is followed by a one-page history of Hapkido and two pages on the philosophy behind the art—both subjects are contained in the eighteen-page Wikipedia entry on Hapkido.
Then Han moves beyond the background basics with a discussion of abdominal breathing, or, breathing from the tan jon—tantien in Chinese. His reasons for using abdominal breathing are the standard ones, but he succinctly lists them here, and he gives a simple chi kung-like exercise to enhance abdominal breathing.
Striking points are the subject of the next chapter, and Han demonstrates a great many of the positions of the hands and feet that can be used to strike in various ways. Unlike many such sections in other martial arts books, Han doesn’t just show the hand or foot position; he also includes photos of the strikes being used against an opponent. The material here is not an exhaustive survey of possible fists or foot postures, but the ones that are demonstrated are straightforward, simple, and effective.
Twenty-six pages of warm-up exercices come next, and the photos show a really great workout designed for flexibility as well as strength. You could do these, alone, every day and keep fit. Next, Han breaks down the basic fighting stance before moving on to several chapters that detail various martial techniques broken down by category: punching and striking, blocks, and kicks. The section on kicks is by far the largest, punching is next in size, and the one on blocking is only a few pages and the few blocks depicted are basic hard-style blocks. The relative sizes of the three sections indicates that Hapkido uses long-range kicks the most and middle- and shorter-range arm maneuvers second, and that it uses basic hard-style blocking to power through incoming force. Some of the photo sequences show only Han, while others show him demonstrating against an opponent.
The next chapter is on Hapkido defenses, and it shows defenses against fist attacks then defenses against kicking attacks. This material segues easily into a chapter on self-defense techniques.The eleven techniques depicted all show a woman defending herself against a male attacker who is trying everything from purse-snatching to physical assault. The last page contains a chart of striking points.
Hapkido is obviously a learner’s manual of interest mainly to students of Hapkido. It’s well done of its type, and at the time of its first publication, it contained more information about Hapkido than just about any other source in English. Now, as noted above, superior writing on Hapkido's background can be found readily on the Internet. But the length of the Wikipedia enty on Hapkido indicates the influence the art has had on the martial arts community, and this book is the source for Bong Soo Han’s masterful take on the art. That makes it a must for any student of Hapkido.
(1) “Han Bong-soo,” Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_Bong-soo