How Much Tang Soo Do Curriculum is Enough?

By: Andy Ah Po


As you read this article, it is important to note that the opinions expressed are mine and mine alone. They are the direct result of observations that I have made in recent years relative to the continuing practice and teaching of the martial art of Tang Soo Do by a number of highly qualified Grandmasters, Master Instructors, and their students throughout the world.

It is not my intent to cause controversy or to appear critical of the approach being taken by other Tang Soo Do practitioners who continue to develop their curriculum in an attempt to incorporate the original teachings of the founder and while contributing to the further evolution of the martial art. Additionally, students at all levels who read this article should not use the comments and opinions expressed herein as a basis for questioning the teachings or curriculum developed by their Grandmasters or Master Instructors. To do so, would not be in keeping with our Moo Do discipline.

However, as a direct student of the late founder, Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee (with whom I had a very special and unique relationship), and a Tang Soo Do practitioner of nearly 50 years, I felt it necessary to express concerns that I currently have relative to the expansion of the current Tang Soo Do curriculum to include techniques, forms, weapons and other training elements from other martial arts whose historical roots are not directly linked to Tang Soo Do Soo Bahk Do as was originally developed by the founder.

As some of you may be aware, over the years I have sometimes been referred to as the “Godfather of Tang Soo Do” by many Tang Soo Do practitioners for a variety of reasons not completely known to me. I will assure you that this is not a label or image that I selected for myself. However, if one of the roles and responsibilities of a Godfather is that of being a “protector” or “caretaker”, then it is in this spirit that I have written this article, because I tend to be very protective of the life’s work of the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee. I want to ensure that we preserve, promote and perpetuate it as he intended.

The Tang Soo Do Curriculum

The basic curriculum of the martial art known as Tang Soo Do grew immensely over the 43 years that I was a member of the Moo Duk Kwan. Originally, the training curriculum consisted primarily of:

However, for those who had the opportunity to study and practice Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) under the guidance and constant development of its founder the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee (up until the time of his passing), we experienced a significant growth in the Tang Soo Do Soo Bahk Do curriculum that he developed. It now includes not only everything already listed above, but also the additional study and practice of:

These additional curriculum and training elements were an integral part of the evolution of Tang Soo Do under the guidance and constant development of Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee throughout his lifetime.

As a result, the original Tang Soo Do curriculum developed by Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee has more than doubled and is far more comprehensive today as compared to the time period from 1945 (when he first introduced the curriculum in Korea) to the late 1970’s (when he first began to introduce the additional curriculum listed above). Furthermore, in addition to developing and adding unique training elements to their current curriculum, many currently recognized Tang Soo Do Grandmasters have also integrated additional forms and techniques from other martial arts systems into their curriculum.

It is my opinion that initially these integrated techniques (i.e. grappling, Jiu Jitsu, Hapkido and Aikido, etc.) were actually added by some instructors in response to constant inquiries by their students as to which Tang Soo Do techniques could be used in situations where instead of kicks and punches, the attack may be a grab, a choke, a wrestling hold or with weapons. Additionally, since martial arts weapons training has become increasingly popular, many instructors have added it to their repertoire or curriculum to prevent students from having to seek this type of instruction elsewhere. This often results in the expansion of significantly more curriculum into their training regimen.

My personal opinion and philosophy about this recent phenomenon is that we need to seriously consider exactly what the overall impact could be on the development of today’s Tang Soo Do students and, more importantly, if having an overabundance of curriculum could ultimately lead to negative outcomes.

The fact is, that even before the standardized Ho Sin Sul curriculum was developed and added to the current Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) curriculum, we were all required in the “good old days” to utilize traditional Tang Soo Do techniques to defend against any type of attack, including grabs, chokes, wrestling holds and against weapons, rather than reverting to or utilizing techniques from other martial arts systems.

This motivated us not only to study and perfect our Tang Soo Do skills so that they would be effective in all self-defense situations, but it also challenged us to be more creative and spontaneous. In addition, we took great pride in the fact that Tang Soo Do as developed by Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee was already an all-inclusive martial art, which is exactly why I have never found it necessary to add techniques from other martial arts to the curriculum that he developed. As a result, I have now also dropped the standardized Ho Sin Sul practice (which I believe was not actually developed and introduced into the system by Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee but instead by his successor) from my current Tang Soo Do curriculum.

It is important at this point for me to reiterate that Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee was widely recognized as a “martial arts prodigy”. As such, he personally studied a number of martial arts and did a considerable amount of research during his lifetime which eventually led to the development of the current comprehensive Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) curriculum which he passed on to us.

Therefore, is it really necessary for us to continue to conduct more research or to add elements and techniques from other martial arts systems to the curriculum of a martial art which I believe is not only all-inclusive, but which has proven over time to be effective and efficient? Instead, shouldn’t we just focus on continuing to practice and engage in a more intensive and comprehensive study of Tang Soo Do as Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee originally intended and bequeathed to us as his martial arts legacy?

As a proponent and strong advocate of the concept of Ryu Pa (personal growth, development and creativity), I am not suggesting that today’s Tang Soo Do practitioners should refrain from or avoid utilizing their creativity in developing their current curriculum. I am simply suggesting that they consider ensuring that these developments strictly conform to traditional Tang Soo Do techniques, principles, and concepts and also to its primary Moo Do discipline.

If this approach is not followed, I believe that it could cause students to begin questioning the very basic tenants and legitimacy of Tang Soo Do as a comprehensive and all-inclusive martial art. This could occur because Grandmasters that they are associated with may invariably be leaving them with the mistaken impression that they are not confident that Tang Soo Do is an all-inclusive martial art and therefore still feel a need to continue borrowing from other martial arts systems in order to improve upon it.

I am not suggesting that offering instruction on techniques or training methods from other martial arts systems should be completely avoided or not offered as a supplement to their Tang Soo Do training program. I am simply recommending that it not be included as part of their basic Tang Soo Do curriculum, or as part of their testing and certification requirements. The fact is that their students’ Dan rankings are officially linked to the martial art of Tang Soo Do, and not to the techniques or training methods of other martial arts systems.

In today’s martial arts business climate, it has become increasingly important and necessary for the full-time Dojang operator to be able to offer instruction in more than just a traditional martial arts system such as Tang Soo Do if they intend to survive. Therefore, offering weapons training, grappling, and other training programs such as Karate-robics, Tai Chi, Karate Kids and Tiny Tots programs and even programs that are designed specifically for the elderly are a necessity in order to compete with their counterparts and to ensure financial stability. It also allows them to offer a variety of diverse training programs to their students and to another clientele.

If these programs were offered as supplemental training programs to their students, rather than included as an integral part of their Tang Soo Do curriculum, it would allow their students to exercise the option of either participating or not participating in any of these supplemental training programs depending on their personal interest(s). This approach would also provide the studio owner with an additional revenue stream because they would be separate from their traditional Tang Soo Do program. This additional curriculum could also be offered to those who express an interest in becoming instructors (Kyo-Sa), future studio owners, and eventually Master Instructors (Sa-Bom), and could be used as the additional curriculum that would be required for instructor certification which has always been separate from Dan (ranking) certification(s).

As previously stated, I feel it is important to keep these supplemental programs and the training methods and curriculum that they consist of separate and distinct from the basic Tang Soo Do training and testing curriculum. To do otherwise would make us no different than mixed-martial arts advocates. Additionally, it could also eventually lead to a “watering down” or blending of our traditional martial arts system to the point where, in time, it may become unrecognizable. Therefore, I am appealing to those Tang Soo Do practitioners who have already taken this route to strongly rethink and reconsider what they are doing and to consider the potential ramifications.

Additionally, if the Tang Soo Do martial arts system becomes blended, as I have described, it automatically increases the amount of curriculum that the student is “required” to learn and demonstrate at Gup and Dan examinations. This situation could, I believe, pose additional problems for the studio owner as well as for the Kwans. These problems include the potential negative effect that this could have on the retention of students of the dojang(s) and ultimately the negative effect that some of the current Tang Soo Do organizations may encounter in attempting to recruit new members or independent studio owners who are neither familiar with the additional curriculum nor desirous of expanding their current curriculum.

Let me explain what I am basing my opinions on. In my last few years as a member of a large international Tang Soo Do federation, I conducted an informal national survey that was designed to elicit students’ primary reasons for recently deciding to discontinue their Tang Soo Do training. I conducted “exit interviews” of individuals from a wide cross-section of studios from across the country.

Much to my surprise, the number one answer given to this question was, “I felt pressured to constantly learn more and more material and curriculum, which caused me to be stressed out most of the time, and I actually began Tang Soo Do training to help me to alleviate the stress in my life.” Additionally, these individuals also stated that, “I didn’t feel that I was progressing because there was too much to learn and I wasn’t getting good at anything.”

Keep in mind that these responses were specifically related to the Moo Duk Kwan curriculum (particularly the standardized Ho Sin Sul) - and did not include any additional material that current Grandmasters may have added since. Therefore, I strongly suggest that the Kwan Jang Nim from all existing Tang Soo Do Kwans seriously take this into consideration whenever they decide to add material to the already extensive curriculum that was previously developed and bequeathed to us by Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee. Not to do so could prove to be fatal!

However, the fact remains that the content of any Tang Soo Do curriculum which is required and maintained by a Kwan is strictly the personal choice of its organizational head or founder. Therefore, I want to make it very clear that I in no way am attempting to tell them what to do or how to run their organization. In fact, I currently have students (some of whom are heads of their own Kwans) who have already expanded their curriculum in the manner described in this article. As a strong advocate of Ryu Pa, I have not and will not personally ask them to stop or change what they are doing. To do so, would not be in keeping with the philosophy of Ryu Pa and could discourage them from continuing to be creative or broadening their personal study of martial arts, which I firmly believe is an asset to them and their students.

Be that as it may, it is important for me to reiterate that I totally believe in the system that was handed down to us by the late Great Grandmaster Hwang Kee and I also believe in “Simplicity”. Thus, I have personally chosen to only include training material from his “original” Tang Soo Do (Soo Bahk Do) teachings as the core of my Tang Soo Do curriculum and, have in fact, even eliminated certain elements from my curriculum over the years that I had previously incorporated from other martial arts that I studied prior to becoming a Tang Soo Do practitioner.

I have also chosen not to include or incorporate any weapons training in my Tang Soo Do curriculum either because I distinctly recall Grandmaster Hwang Kee making a statement to the members of the Moo Duk Kwan back in the 1980’s that “we should be proud of the fact that we are a weaponless art and do not feel a need to rely on the use of weapons for any purpose.”

However, like other Kwan Jang Nim, I have added material to my curriculum that evolved directly from my intense and personal study of Tang Soo Do (as a manifestation of Ryu Pa) but not from other martial arts that I previously studied. Beyond that, however, I have never found it necessary to go outside of the study of Tang Soo Do to discover the answers that I was searching for or to become a better practitioner over all of the years that I have studied and practiced it. But then again, this is a matter of personal choice because I tend to be a “purist and traditionalist” when it comes to Tang Soo Do and I firmly believe that Kwan Jang Nim Hwang Kee left us more than a sufficient amount of curriculum which we just need to practice, study and ultimately perfect.

Tang Soo!