When I first came to Korea I was surprised to learn that in Korean there are three different expressions for “martial arts”: moosool (alternative Romanization: musul) 무술, mooye (muye) 무예, and moodo (mudo) 무도. Upon learning the meanings of these three expressions, I quickly understood the philosophical implications and this was confirmed in conversations with other martial artists.
You will notice that all three words have at its base the syllable moo- 무; it is therefore worth it to contemplate this root word. Moo / 무 is based on the Chinese character 武 and is usually used to express concepts of military, martial, or warlike. However, a closer look at the character 武 reveals a slightly different meaning. 武 is made up of two characters 戈 and 止. The former means “spear” and the latter “stop”; together they denote stopping a weapon or stopping violence. Although it would not be incorrect to translate moo / 武 / 무 as military, martial or warlike, it is noteworthy that the precise meaning contains the idea of stopping violence. It is therefore a defensive concept, rather than an offensive one.
Moosool / 무술 / 武術
A person enrolled into a martial art school will learn a variety of fighting techniques (moosool / 무술), and through lots of dedicated practise will get good at it. This term is focussed primarily on physical ability.
Mooye / 무예 / 武藝
The term -ye / 예 / 藝 means art, talent or craft. It is mooye / 무예 that is the expression we use in English, namely “martial art.” Art suggests a creative use of the techniques. Almost anyone can learn some skill, but not everyone has made it such a part of themselves, that they can use it artfully, where you can use it in an improvised way.
Before you can achieve this level where you can truly apply the skills you have learned in a creative, intuitive way, you have to have mastered your discipline. Such mastery takes about 10, 000 hours. Daniel Levitin in his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession explains:
“The emerging scientific picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”
Ten thousand hours is about three hours of training per day for ten years.
Usually, after about ten years of training you would be a fourth degree black belt in ITF Taekwon-Do and considered a full instructor. Some other Korean martial arts like WTF Taekwon-Do, Tang Soo Do, and Hapkido actually use the term “master” for someone with a fourth degree black belt.
Moodo / 무도 / 武道
The final way to express martial art in Korean is moodo / 무도. The term Do / 도 / 道 literally means path or way, but has a much deeper meaning in the Orient. It is the same character on which the philosophy of Taoism is based. Actually, the character for Tao is 道, and is pronounced do / 도 in Korean. So pertinent is the idea of the Do / 도 / 道, that it makes up part of the names of many martial arts, for instance Taekwon-Do (태권도 / 跆拳道), Tang Soo Do, Hapkido, Judo, and Aikido.
Directly translated, Moodo / 무도 / 武道 means “martial way.” From Korean to English it is also sometimes translated as chivalry or knighthood. Koreans speak about moodo-in / 무도인; that is, “martial way person.” In Japanese the term for moodo / 무도 is budo, which is closes related to the concept of bushido / 武士道; i.e. the way of the warrior.
Moodo / 무도 not merely suggests learning fighting techniques, or even mastery of the art (mooye / 무예), but rather a way / Do / 도 of life. One's practise in the discipline has transcended skill and art (aesthetics) into ascetics. Your practise has become a spiritual discipline, a path towards enlightenment.
In summary, there are three ways to talk about the discipline of fighting in Korean: moosool / 무술, mooye / 무예 and moodo / 무도. All three contain the root word moo / 무, based on the Chinese character 武, which means to stop a weapon or stop violence and is usually translated as military, martial or warlike. Moosool / 무술 refers to the specific fighting techniques one learns. Mooye / 무예 suggests that after years of practise, the techniques have become such a part of you that you can use it in a creative, improvised way. It evokes a level of mastery. Finally, moodo / 무도 pertains to the martial arts as a way of life, an ascetic discipline. Each of these suggests a different phase in the growth of the martial artist. First he learns techniques. After years of dedicated practise his discipline becomes so ingrained that it manifests in the intuitive, improvised creativity that is a testimony to his mastery of the techniques. Finally, he becomes his practise—it is a way of life, that reveals to him something of the natural order of things, of the way of the universe.