Ellen Oh’s Prophecy trilogy follows the journey of Kira, a young female warrior in ancient Korea; this week the final book, King, is published.
By Ellen Oh
When I first started writing Prophecy, I wanted to develop a kickass girl warrior who was also a master martial artist. But this was set in the 3rd century, and Tae Kwon Do, as we know it, didn’t develop until after the Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945. In large part, this was because of the banning of all martial arts by the Japanese. And right there, I was fascinated. Martial arts banned. So how did Tae Kwon do form then? The answer led me to Taekkyon.
Taekkyon is one of the oldest martial arts of Korea, if not the oldest. Research is a bit divided on its relation to Tae Kwon Do. There are some that believe that Taekkyon is the source of Tae Kwon Do, but Taekkyon purists like to point out how different the two forms are from each other. I think the link is kind of clear, but in either case, the history of Taekkyon is fascinating.
Mural paintings dating back to the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (3rd century) show that Taekkyon was a popular art form practiced mostly by the ruling classes and military. In fact, it was part of the soldier’s exam up to the 10th century.
But by the 14th century, Taekkyon had spread to all classes and Taekkyon matches were popular contests at festivals and holiday events, along with archery, sword fights, and wrestling.
This photo above is dated between 1890 and 1900 and was taken by a missionary of a children’s Taekkyon match. Young children competed in Taekkyon and these would be the opening games for annual Taekkyon contests, before the adult matches began.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, 1910-1945, Taekkyon was completely banned and almost vanished. Legend has it that a sword-wielding Japanese soldier was killed by an unarmed Korean man using only Taekkyon. The Japanese immediately outlawed the practice, stating that it was too deadly, and killing anyone associated with or continuing the teaching of Taekkyon. After many years, the art was nearly forgotten until not that long ago, when an 80-year-old man was seen practicing the movements and an ancient art was reborn.
The truth is probably that Taekkyon was banished because the Japanese did not want Koreans to gather together in large groups — like the Taekkyon contests, and to prevent the spread of Korean nationalism. Because of the Japanese occupation, Taekkyon almost disappeared. After Korea regained her independence, Master Song Duk-Ki (1893∼1987) was the only remaining practitioner of Taekkyon. It was due to his efforts to continue to teach and train people in this ancient martial art form that allowed it to survive. It was designated by the Korean government as an “Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76” on June 1, 1983.
In the Prophecy Series, Kira and her brothers are trained in Taekkyon. It is an important part of their military training, but for Kira, it is also something special she received from her father. As she practices, she can hear her father’s voice in her head.
“How you fight in combat and how you practice forms are two very different things. The first is self-defense, but the second is art. It is your connection between mind and body.”
The movements of Taekkyon are graceful. They are, at their root, dance steps.
“She remembered when she was five years old her father had taken her to see saulabi practicing their taekkyon forms. As they watched the perfect choreography of the soldiers in motion, her father had said, ‘There’s no dance as perfect as this one.’”
King, the final installment of the Prophecy Series, is now out and I am both happy and sad to see the end of the Prophecy Series and Kira’s story. I loved every minute I spent in this fantasy Korea. And I especially loved the characters that peopled the story, especially Kira. I grew as a writer along with Kira (at least I think I did — and belief is a powerful thing!). Kira’s not strong because of her tiger spirit or her Taekkyon training or her proficiency with the bow; she’s strong because of family bonds and love and friendship and a growing belief in her own self-identity. We all have moments where we doubt ourselves and others. Nobody is perfect and nobody has it completely easy. But that is what makes each person so interesting, those moments of humanity where we mess up and learn a lesson. Yeah, I’m mostly talking about myself and my mistakes. :o)
I learned so much from traveling this journey with Kira and her brothers, Taejo and Jaewon, Brother Woojin, Nara and Gom. They will always hold a very special place in my heart. Thank you for letting me share their story with you.
Originally from NYC, Ellen Oh is Co-founder and President of WeNeedDiverseBooks and a former entertainment lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She also loves martial arts films, K-pop, K-dramas, cooking shows, and is a rabid fan of The Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra series. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy, The Prophecy Series. Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and three daughters and has yet to satisfy her quest for a decent bagel.
King is available for order here.