The Tao of Tang Soo Do

By Dominick A. Giacobbe, with Nicky DeMatteo

An American Master Investigates the Chinese Influence on the Korean Art

I have been a student of the 2,000- year-old art of tang soo do for almost 33 years—and an instructor for nearly 27 of those 33. I have always endeavored to learn as much as I could about the art and its origin, and in that quest I have heeded the advice of my first teacher, Jae Chul Shin: “To learn the truth about something, go back to the beginning.”

Through extensive readings, journeys to Asia and discussions with masters, I was led back to the tao. In this article, I will explain the result of all that research—specifically how tang soo do, a traditional Korean martial art, evolved from the Taoist principles of ancient China.


The Chinese word “tao” means “the way”—as in the way of nature, the way of harmony with others, the way of selfunderstanding and the way of the divine.

Taoism is the study of the way. As a philosophical teaching, Taoism dates back to about 500 B.C. It is based on the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu. Some 81 articles long, the text deals with all aspects of life and philosophy for those seeking truth, happiness and enlightenment. There is a religious form of Taoism, but this article will discuss only the philosophy of the way. Although it is related to the religion, it is possible for people of virtually any faith to understand and appreciate the fundamental philosophical principles of Taoism—and to apply those principles purely as a philosophy.


Tradition tells us that the martial arts began with monks. After years of meditation, their bodies became weak and frail. When they traveled the countryside to teach others, they fell victim to bandits. That caused the priests to devise and systematize the martial arts to develop their health and physical strength, as well as to enable them to physically stop aggression without injuring others.

In their quest for effectiveness, the monks studied animals—which are generally stronger, faster and more agile than human beings. Many of the ancient and traditional forms (hyung in Korean, kata in Japanese) are named after animals. Through constant and arduous physical training, along with diligent study and meditation, the monks achieved a balance of spirit, mind and body.

Some of those monks traveled extensively, passing on their knowledge to those wanting to learn. The many and varied martial arts that now exist resulted from differences in geography, topography and society. Tang soo do is Korea’s interpretation of this martial arts genesis. It borrowed the first syllable of its name from China’s Tang dynasty (618-907). The second syllable, soo, means “hand”; and the third, do, means “way.” (It is the Korean variant of the Chinese word “tao.”) This systematized development of the martial arts began shortly after Lao Tzu penned his Tao Te Ching.


At the time of the Tang dynasty in China, which coincided with the Silla dynasty in Korea, three schools of the philosophy of meditation were predominant: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Taoism was the only one that incorporated the martial arts into its practice. During certain types of meditation, the monks would surrender their bodies to naturally occurring movements using a principle called wu wei, which means “non-doing.” The term refers to the principle of effortlessness, of flowing with life. Those natural movements, most of which were circular, were found to promote health in the mind and body. Over the centuries, they evolved into the discipline that became known as tai chi chuan. A Taoist master named Chang San Feng, who lived during the 15th century, is believed to have founded the art, whose inspiration can be traced back to the Tao Te Ching.

Tai chi chuan is renowned as a soft style because the movements are smooth and flowing. Tang soo do evolved primarily as a hard style—its movements are quick, powerful and snappy—but it also includes soft, fluid, circular movements similar to those seen in tai chi chuan. The tao in tang soo do becomes apparent as we examine the art in the light of the Tao Te Ching.


The essence of Taoist philosophy is yin and yang, which symbolize negative and positive in a way that is opposite but equal. For every positive action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The yin-yang philosophy explains the balance of change between equals and opposites —for example, day changes into night and night changes into day. They coexist; in fact, one cannot exist without the other.

In tang soo do, movements have a positive and negative force. For instance, when a punch or block is executed with one hand, the opposite hand pulls back with equal force. This practice e n a b l e s the student to attain the full potential of the technique. Tang soo do emphasizes balance and the natural change from yin to yang and from yang to yin during the performance of techniques.


Taoism reveres nature. The changing of the seasons is among the most prevalent of nature’s ways: One season evolves into another in a natural flow.

The original belt system of tang soo do incorporates the beauty of that seasonal change. The white belt symbolizes winter, with the potential for growth that lies beneath the snow. The green belt represents spring, when that growth begins to bloom. The red belt signifies summer, when the growth is going fullforce. And the black belt (or the traditional blue belt) symbolizes autumn, the beauty of mature skill, wisdom and knowledge.

In the Taoist reverence for nature, animals have a dominant place. As stated earlier, the monks studied animals and incorporated their movements into various forms. Most traditional tang soo do forms are based on, or even named after, animals. The pyung ahn forms, for example, are based on the “attitude” of the turtle: calm, balanced, peaceful (pyung), safe, confident and comfortable (ahn). Many other tang soo do forms are named after animals: bassai after the cobra, naianchi after the horse, sei shan after the praying mantis, kong son koon after the eagle, wang shu after a wild bird and jian after the mountain goat. All these forms emulate the specific fighting techniques and characteristics of each animal as they were observed by the monks.

Chun Sik Kim, one of my first instructors, frequently told me, “If you understand nature, you understand tang soo do.” His statement emphasized that nature is an important component of training. To help me grasp the meaning, Kim would send me to the beach to study the waves. A wave starts from nothing, builds softly and fluidly, and then explodes with power. Kim would remind me that if I could simulate the dynamics of the wave in each of my movements, my techniques would be in compliance with nature.


Simplicity is another important Taoist principle. Don’t complicate life with a confusing and disturbing array of thoughts, words, feelings and actions. Exercise self-discipline and self-control. Follow the way of nature by adhering to that which promotes the good of the individual and society.

The principle of simplicity is evident in tang soo do dictum: Simple is effective. In defense and offense, the simplest of moves is often t h e most effective. For example, a front snap kick is simpler and frequently more effective than a 360-degree jump spinning kick.

An important philosophy of the art teaches students to clear their mind by dismissing from their consciousness all their daily responsibilities and focusing only on the class. That develops simplicity and peace of mind. When I was a beginner, my instructor always said, “If you want to be a great martial artist, you must forget about the outside world and fill your mind only with the study of tang soo do.”


Taoists believe that everything on earth is composed of the five elements: water, earth, wood, fire and metal. They also believe that all the natural movements in their meditation comply with the eight natural directions of the universe: north, south, east, west, northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest.

Similarly, the tang soo do concept of sip sam se incorporates that Taoist philosophy. Its name refers to the 13 influences of nature (five elements plus eight directions) which the practitioner strives to manifest in all movements. A natural example is the movement of the deer—graceful, flowing, smooth and not strained, stiff or forced. The deer is, without thinking about it, in harmony with the five elements and the eight directions.

“Go with the flow” is an expression that probably sprang from the Taoist reverence for nature. The tree bends with the wind. The wind blows the tree. The tree, in compliance with the wind, moves gracefully in all directions.

While doing a form, the tang soo do student feels a connection to the earth and the other elements as he flows in the directions mandated by the form. The mind is not distracted because the movements have become second-nature. In learning the moves, the mind does indeed direct the body.

Taoists call this yu wei, which means “conscious doing.” Once the moves become ingrained, the mind does not interfere; this is wu wei (non-doing).


In Taoist philosophy, a person is composed of body, mind and spirit. To explain the distinction between them, consider a car and its driver: The body of the car is comparable to the body of the person, the engine is the person’s brain or mind, and the driver is the spirit or ki (internal energy). The spirit controls the mind, and the mind controls the body. The body houses the mind, and the mind directs the body.

The ki directs the mind and gives it energy and life. Similarly, tang soo do has the concepts of neh gong (internal power), weh gong (external power) and shim gong (spiritual power). The spirit is the driving force that gets the student into the dojang (gym) and enables him to perform with enthusiasm and power. The mind enables him to comprehend, remember and execute the movements.

The body power is the outer, physical manifestation of shim gong and nae gong.


Taoist philosophy holds that the source of energy and power in the human body is the tan tien. It is the point located about two inches below the navel and midway between the front and back of the body. It is believed that the strength and energy of the body originate from it.

In tang soo do, that same point is called the tung gin. The practitioner learns to use it to increase internal strength and generate power. By concentrating on the point as the center of energy, strength and balance, all moves become more correct, powerful and effective.

The tung gin can also serve as a focal point during tang soo do meditation, which is described as “concentration on nothingness.” That nothingness refers primarily to the absence of dwelling on anything physical or material.

Instead, the focus is on the life-giving ki, which originates at that point. Concentrating on the ki at the tung gin enhances the student’s awareness of all things spiritual and helps prepare his mind, body and spirit to participate in the activities of the class.


Another important Taoist teaching is the water principle. Water does not resist. It goes downhill. It goes with the flow. It goes around or over obstacles.

In article 22 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu emphasized this principle: “Yield and overcome.” In article 43, he expounded upon that: “The softest overcomes the hardest.” In article 78, he added: “The yielding overcomes the strong, and softness overcomes the hard.”

In tang soo do, blocks are designed not to stop force, but to redirect it. For example, in the high block, the forearm is held at an angle that is meant to deflect the attacker’s force away from the head.


The ultimate purpose of Taoist meditation is to enhance life with longevity and good health. The ultimate purpose of the martial arts is to give life, not take it. In fact, a major precept of tang soo do reads: “The ultimate objective of the skilled disciple is to achieve victory without combat.”

One of the highest tang soo do forms is called tae guk kwon; its name comes from the Korean pronunciation of the term “tai chi chuan.” The form is said to have descended from an original tai chi form, which in turn evolved from Taoist philosophy and meditation.

The circle is complete and neverending. The tao is obviously in tang soo do, and tang soo do is obviously in the tao.