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Korean martial arts

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Korean martial arts

Students from a Korean martial arts school in Calgary do a demonstration

Korean martial arts (Hangul: 무술 or 무예, Hanja: 武術 or 武藝) are military practices and methods which have their place in the history of Korea but have been adapted for use by both military and non-military personnel as a method of personal growth or recreation. Among the best recognized Korean practices using weapons are traditional Korean Archery and Kumdo, the Korean sword sport similar to Japanese Kendo. The best known unarmed Korean Martial Arts Taekwondo and Hapkido though such traditional practices such as ssireum - Korean Wrestling - and taekkyeon - Korean Foot Fighting - are rapidly gaining in popularity both inside and outside of the country. In November 2011, Taekkyeon was recognized by UNESCO and placed on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.[1] There has also been a revival of traditional Korean swordsmanship arts as well as knife fighting and archery. Today, Korean martial arts are being practiced worldwide. More than one in a hundred of the world's population practices some form of taekwondo.


  • History 1
    • Early history 1.1
    • Goryo Period 1.2
    • Joseon Dynasty Martial Arts 1.3
    • Modern Korean martial arts 1.4
  • Types of Korean martial arts 2
    • Taekwondo 2.1
    • Taekkyeon/Taekgyeon 2.2
    • Hapkido arts 2.3
    • Gungdo 2.4
  • Teaching methods 3
  • Terminology 4
  • Footnotes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7


Early history

Wrestling, called ssireum, is the oldest form of ground fighting in Korea, while subak/taekkyeon was the upright martial art of foot soldiers. Weapons were an extension of those unarmed skills. Besides being used to train soldiers, both of these traditional martial arts were also popular among villagers during festivals for dance, mask, acrobatic, and sport fighting. These martial arts were also considered basic physical education. However, Koreans (as with the neighboring Mongols) relied more heavily on bows and arrows in warfare than they did on close-range weapons.[2]

It appears that during the Goguryeo dynasty, (37 BC – 668) subak/taekkeyon or ssireum (empty-handed fighting), swordsmanship, spear-fighting and horse riding were practiced. In 1935, paintings that showed martial arts were found on the walls of royal tombs believed to have been built for Goguryeo kings sometime between the years 3 and 427 AD. Which techniques were practiced during that period is, however, something that cannot be determined from these paintings. References to subak can be found in government records from the Goguryeo dynasty through the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).

It is believed that the warriors from the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-668 AD) learned subak from the neighboring Goguryeo armies when they appealed for their help against invading Japanese pirates. But this remains a conjecture, as there is zero actual documentation of such in Korean records. There also remains no documentation of specific military training by the Hwarangˌ groups of Sillaˌ 74 護身術ˌ hosinsool

The Buddhist influence on the hwarang is most notably seen around 600 AD, when the moral code Sae Sok O-Gye (세속오계), written by Won Kwang (원광, 圓光), was documented. This code consisted of five rules :[3]

  • 사군이충 / 事君以忠 – Loyalty to one's king.
  • 사친이효 / 事親以孝 – Respect to one's parents.
  • 교우이신 / 交友以信 – Faithfulness to one's friends.
  • 임전무퇴 / 臨戰無退 – Courage in battle.
  • 살생유택 / 殺生有擇 – Justice in killing.

However, the link between this lay code and the Hwarangs is non-existent, except through a popular novel of the 1960s. The American Martial Art of Hwarangdo has propagated this code as the equivalent of a Korean code of Bushido among its commercial adherents.

Dae Kwae Do

The development of Subak continued during the Goryeo Dynasty (935–1392). Goryeo records that mention the martial arts always include passages about Subak. The Joseon government, however, outlawed the practice of Subak as a public spectacle in response to problems arising from the betting practices of large numbers of Korean farmers and landowners (these betting practices included wagering land and sometimes family members). As a concession to public pressure, the government allowed a lesser practice - Taekkyeon games - to be used as a form of civilian recreation. Joseon Dynasty records and books often mention taekkyeon, and taekkyeon players are portrayed in several paintings from that era. The most famous painting is probably the Daegwaedo (Hangul: 대괘도, Hanja: 大快圖), painted in 1846 by Hyesan Yu Suk (혜산 유숙, 1827–1873), which shows men competing in both ssireum (씨름) and taekgyeon.

Goryo Period

With the Mongol conquest, the Korean military was reorganized around the mounted archer. Armor and weaponry became very similar to Mongol armor and weaponry. Acrobatic horsemanship (masangjae), falconry and polo (Gyeokgu) were imported. The Korean Composite bow (which is very similar to the medieval Mongol bow) was adopted at this time. The unique construction of the Korean Gakgung bow shows the original form of the Mongol bow, before the Manchus improved it with stronger and bigger ears.[4] As the military class in late Goryeo was almost entirely populated by ethnic Mongols in practice, the Joseon Army also carried on the mounted archer tradition. (Yi Seong-gye, the founder of the Joseon dynasty was a hereditary Mongol darughachi of Korean origin, administering the Mongol province of Ssangseong in N.E. Korea. Choi Young made his reputation fighting for the Mongols in northern China, putting down Han rebellions in the last days of the Yuan dynasty.) Until the publication of Muyedobotongji in 1795, archery remained a singular Korean martial art, testable during the military portion of the Gwageo (National Service Examination)

Joseon Dynasty Martial Arts

As the continuation of Goryo military, the Joseon military maintained the primacy of the bow as its main stay weapon. Gungdo remained the most prestigious of all martial arts in Korea. Gungdo was the single most important testable event in gwageo, the national service exam used to select Army officers from 1392 to Gabo Reform in 1894 when gwageo system was terminated.

"Siege of Dongrae" Japanese army armed with double swords attacking the town of Dongrae. All Korean Soldiers are armed with the composite bow.

During the Imjin War (1592–1598), Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched the conquest of China's Ming Dynasty by way of Korea. However, after two unsuccessful campaigns towards the allied forces of Korea and China and his death, his forces returned to Japan in 1598. but with heavy loss of men and cultural heritage. It was also during this war that the famous turtle ships (Geobukseon, 거북선) were used by Admiral Yi Sun-sin. These ships were covered with metal shields, much like the shell of a turtle, which could withstand the gun attacks of the Japanese.

In 1593, Korea received help from China to win back Pyongyang. During one of the battles, the Koreans learned about a martial art manual titled Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書), written by the Chinese military strategist Qi Jiguang. King Seonjo (1567–1608) took a personal interest in the book, and ordered his court to study the book. This led to the creation of the Muyejebo (무예제보, Hanja: 武藝諸譜) in 1599 by Han Gyo, who had studied the use of several weapons with the Chinese army. Soon this book was revised in the Muyejebo Seokjib and in 1759, the book was revised and published at the Muyesinbo (Hangul: 무예신보, Hanja: 武藝新譜).[5]

Korean Army under Gwon Yul attacking the Japanese Castle at Ulsan, commanded by Kato Kiyomasa. Note that the entire formation is archers, as painted by the Japanese.

During the Imjin war, three main weapons were identified by all sides as representative of their armies. The Japanese were known for their arquebus. The Ming Dynasty Chinese forces were known for their lance. Koreans were known for their Pyeonjeon used in conjunction with the Korean composite bow. During the war itself, Korea began adopting the Arquebus, eventually mastering it. Korean arquebusiers became so well known for their ability to kill tigers, which were rampant in Korea throughout its history until its final extermination in 1919, that Ming China requested the assistance of Korean arquebusiers against the rising Manchus in 1619. At the Battle of Sarhu, Korean order of battle was composed of 10,000 arquebusiers out of 13,000 total men. This event illustrates how Korea quickly adopted modern weaponry and discarded close quarter martial arts.

Following the 1636 Second Manchu invasion of Korea, where Manchu composite archers defeated Koreans, who were also mostly composed of archers, supplemented by arquebusiers, the Manchu Qing Dynasty demanded Korean arquebusiers in their battles against Russia in the late 1600s. In 1654 and 1658, Joseon deployed 400 of its best tiger hunters as Arquebusiers to fight the Russians along the Amur River during the Sino-Russian border conflicts. Again, no record of swordmen, empty hand martial arts being used or favored by the Korean Army during this period.

In 1790, the Royal Korean Army published the richly illustrated Muyedobotongji (Hangul: 무예도보통지, Hanja: 武藝圖譜通志). The book does not mention ssireum, subak, or taekkyeon, but shows influences from Chinese and Japanese fighting systems. The book, deals mostly with armed combat like sword fighting, double-sword fighting, spear fighting, stick fighting, and so on. The chapter that deals with a style of empty-handed fighting called kwonbeop ("fist methods," a generic name for empty-handed combat; the word is the Korean pronunciation of quanfa) shows techniques that resemble Chinese martial arts—quite different from taekkyeon. According to the Muyedobotongji, empty-handed combat should be learned before armed combat, since it forms the basis of a martial education. It also states that internal styles are better suited for fighting than external styles. The name for the martial arts of the Muyedobotongji is shippalgi. This manual was intended as a training manual for Soldiers in the 1790s, as military arts had withered by that time. Despite the publication of this manual, it was never widely distributed, and there was no renaissance of martial arts in Korea.

In 1895, Emperor Gojong invited 40 sword masters from Japan to begin teaching the art of the sword to his Korean Army cadets and police officers. This was decided upon due to the lack of native sword masters in Korea at the time. The teaching of the Art of the Sword continued well after the 1910 Annexation, until the art was formally named Kendo in Japan, and Kumdo in Korean.

In 1899, Emperor Gojong of Korean Empire, with the encouragement of Prince Heinrich of Prussia, who was visiting Korea at the time, established Gungdo as an official sport, allowing it to flourish throughout the next century, being recognized by the Japanese Occupation government as a folk art in 1920. The Korean Gungdo Federation was established in Seoul in 1920. Along with Ssireum, Gungdo achieved nationwide popularity within Korea throughout the 1930s and 1940s, even as Japanese martial arts also garnered a large following on the peninsula.

During the Donghak Rebellion, much of the rebels used old matchlock arquebuses against the modern rifles of the Korean and Japanese Army. Although the rebels initially fought against the Korean government, following the fall of Jeonju, the Korean government had invited in the Japanese Army to help suppress the peasant rebels. With the annexation of Korea in 1910, all matchlocks were confiscated and destroyed by the Japanese. However, the Japanese did not stop the production and keeping of bows, which they did not consider as a threat to internal security.

Modern Korean martial arts

The two extant martial arts at the time of Japanese take over in 1910, Ssireum and Gungdo grew in popularity during the Japanese occupation period, both of them founding their current federations in 1920. Many of the oldest Gungdo clubs in Seoul, including Hwanghakjeong (near Gyeongbokgung Palace) and Sukhojeon on Namsan (Seoul) were founded in the 1930s. Taekkyeon did not enjoy much popularity during the occupation era. It has grown in popularity only in the 21st century through the continuance of Song Duk Ki. Most Koreans learned Japanese martial arts during the occupation period, which eventually evolved into Korean martial arts. These include Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido KukKi, Soo Bahk Do, Tang Soo Do, Moo Duk Kwan, hosinsoolˌ 護身術ˌ Kuk Sool Won* and Kumdo. The main indicator of their Japanese origin is in their uniform, ranking system, and rules. Traditional Korean clothing (Hanbok) has no belt. Belts used in judo and karate, to include the color code and Geup (Kyu) / Dan (rank) system were adopted wholesale by the Koreans. Rules, to include bowing to the flag, and to the master* are direct copies from Japanese martial arts and not found in Ssireum, Gungdo and Taekkyeon. the International Tang Soo Do Federation‹唐手道 南仁道›

Currently these new arts such as Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido created since 1945 remain the most popular in Korea, with most practitioners being children. Tae Soo Do and Hwa Rang Do, which have a sizeable presence in the US are almost unknown in Korea, as the founders relocated to the US and focused on operations in the US. Gungdo participation is limited by the high cost of the equipment, with a traditional horn made reflex bow costing upwards of $1000, and most Gungdo clubs in Seoul charging over $1000 application fee for membership, similar to golf clubs. This limits participation to the upper and upper middle class. Many Korean junior high schools, high schools, and colleges maintain martial arts teams to include ssireum, kumdo (kendo), judo and Tae Kwon Do. Yong In University south of Seoul focuses on martial arts training for international competitions.[6]

It should also be considered that Korean martial arts are still in a state of evolution as witnessed by recently emerging arts such as Teuk Gong Moo Sool and Yongmoodo.[note 1] There is now also the development of Korean arts influenced by Western boxing, Muay Thai or Judo, these would include Gongkwon Yusul and Kyuk Too Ki.[note 2]

Types of Korean martial arts


Taekwondo (태권도; 跆拳道) is a success amongst the Korean martial arts. It is practised by over 70 million people, in most countries of the world. As a sport, it is an event in every major, multi-sports games, including the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games and the World University Games.

Taekwondo is a synthesis from many different martial arts (both Korean and foreign) and is constantly evolving, taking the best of other arts and adapting them. Its popular success is perhaps due to this eclectic and scientific approach (as opposed to the metaphysical approach and Oriental mysticism of some other martial arts) and to the group efforts of the many Korean masters who created it.


The oldest Korean martial art was an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje.[7] Young men were trained in unarmed combat techniques to develop strength, speed, and survival skills. The most popular of these techniques was subak, with taekkyeon being the most popular of the segments of subak.

As the Goguryeo kingdom grew in power, the neighboring Silla kingdom became comparatively weaker, and an effort was undertaken among the Silla to develop a corps of special warriors. The Silla had a regular army but its military training techniques were less advanced than those of the Goguryeo, and its soldiers were generally of a lesser caliber. The Silla selected young men, some as young as twelve, and trained them in the liberal arts. Those who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in the new special warrior corps, called the hwarang. It was believed that young men with a talent for the liberal arts may have the grace to become competent warriors. These warriors were instructed in academics as well as martial arts, learning philosophy, history, a code of ethics and equestrian sports. Their military training included an extensive weapons program involving swordsmanship and archery, both on horseback and on foot, as well as lessons in military tactics and unarmed combat.

In spite of Korea's rich history of ancient and traditional martial arts, Korean fighting methods faded into obscurity during the Joseon Dynasty. Korean society became highly centralized under Korean Confucianism and martial arts were lowly regarded in a society whose ideals were epitomized by its scholar-kings.[8] Remnants of traditional martial arts like taekkyeon were banned from practice by the general populace and reserved for sanctioned military uses although folk practice by the common populace still persisted into the 19th century. .[7]

Although the art nearly vanished, taekkyeon survived through underground teaching and folk custom.[9] Taekkyeon had been secretly handed down only by the masters of the art until the liberation of the country in 1945. Song Duk-ki, one of the then masters, was still alive at the age of over 80 and testified that his Widea Taekkyeon master was Im Ho, who was reputed for his excellent skills, "jumping over the walls and running through the wood just like a tiger." Im Ho was known as a scholar and undefeatable in Seoul. Also noteworthy was the use of the term "pum" which signified a face-to-face stance preparing for a fight. The masters of Taekkyeon were also under constant threat of imprisonment, which resulted in an eventual cessation of Taekkyeon as popular games.

Taekkyeon has had a slight resurgence in recent days, getting the classification Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea No. 76" on June 1, 1983. It is the only Korean martial art which possesses such a classification. In November 2011 Taekkyeon was inscribed onto UNESCO's Intangible World Heritage Artforms list, being honored as the first martial art recognized by UNESCO.

Hapkido arts

Though various forms of grappling have been known in Korea for generations, Hapkido is essentially a 20th-century development, based on Japanese Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu but incorporating Korean striking techniques. The foundation for Hapkido was established by Choi Yong Sul. Returning from Japan in 1946, Choi began teaching material reportedly taught to Choi by Sokaku Takeda. Choi called his style Yawara [柔], but modified the name to Hapki Yusul [合氣 柔術] and later to Hapki Yukwonsul [合氣 柔拳術] to distinguish it from Japanese aiki-jujutsu, which was written in the same characters, and from which much of the early hapkido techniques were derived. Choi's practices were later renamed to Hapkido [合氣道ˌ護身術] and students of Choi Yong Sul, such as Ji Han Jae, the late Myung Kwang-sik, the late Han Bong-soo and others helped to spread this art both inside and outside of Korea. Since the hanja are identical to those of Aikido, it is very common that Japanese Aikido and Korean Hapkido are often confused and stylistic differences do cause these separate arts to approximate each other in many ways. In like manner, some variants of Hapkido such as Kuk Sool Won, Hwa Rang Do and Hankido have adopted a range of Chinese practices and execution. hosinsool Along with Taekwondo, Hapkido has helped to revitalize traditional Korean martial arts by providing systemization and incorporating into other styles. This process complemented the other modern Korean martial art, Taekwondoˌ hosinsoolˌ 護身術.


Korean Horse Back Archery in 5th-century

The [Reflex] bow had been the most important weapon in Korean wars with Chinese dynasties and nomadic peoples, recorded from the 1st century BCE.[10] Legend says the first king and founder of the Goguryeo, Go Jumong, was a master of archery, able to catch 5 flies with one arrow. Park Hyeokgeose, the first king of the Silla, was also said to be a skilled archer. Rumors of archers in Goguryeo and Silla presumably reached China; the ancient Chinese gave the people of the north east, Siberia, Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, the name of Dongyi (東夷), the latter character (夷) being a combination of the two characters for "large" (大) and "bow" (弓).[11]

However, the word 夷 was first used in Chinese history referring to the people South of Yellow River over 5,000 years ago. Later, when Yi 夷 people joined the tribes of Hua Xia [華夏] Chinese, 夷 meant outsiders. By that time, DongYi refers to Korean, as in Outsiders from the East

With the Mongol Conquest of Korea, archery became the main stay of Korean military. Sword and spear of Korea and China did nothing to stop the Mongol archery, so were quickly discarded in favor of the ultimate weapon, the composite bow. Yi Seonggye, the founding king of Joseon was known to have been a master archer. In a battle against Japanese pirates, Yi Seonggye, assisted by Yi Bangsil, killed the young samurai commander "Agibaldo" with two successive arrows, one arrow unhelmeting the warrior, with the second arrow entering his mouth. In his letter to General Choi Young, Yi Seonggye lists as one of five reasons not to invade Ming Dynasty as during the monsoon season, glue holding together the composite bow weakens, reducing the effectiveness of the bow.

Founding of Joseon dynasty saw the retention of the composite bow as the main stay of the Joseon military. Archery was the main martial event tested during the military portion of the national service exam held annually from 1392 to 1894. Under Joseon, archery reached its zenith, resulting in the invention of pyeonjeon, which saw great service against the Japanese in 1592 and against the Manchus in the early 1600s.

Master Heon Kim using a modern Korean composite bow.

Until the Imjin wars, archery was the main long-range weapon system. During that war, the tactical superiority of the matchlock arquebus became apparent, despite its slow rate of fire and susceptibility to wet weather.[12] However, it was the Korean composite bow, referred to as the "half bow" by the Japanese, that halted the Japanese at the Battle of Haengju as well as at the Battle of Ulsan. Although Joseon adopted the arquebus during the Imjin War, the composite bow remained the main stay of its Army until the reforms of 1894. Under King Hyojong's military reforms, an attempt hosinsoolˌ‘護身術’ was made to revive horse archery as a significant element of the military. It was also practiced for pleasure and for health, and many young males and a some many females - including the king - would spend their free time practicing it.

Teaching methods

The traditional Taekkeyon system has no fixed curriculum. Every student is treated individually and thus the lesson is always different, although all of the basic skills are eventually covered. The basic skills are taught in temporary patterns, that evolve as the student learns. Basic skills are expounded on and variations of each single skill are then practised, in multiple new combinations. When the student has learned all the variations of the basic movements & techniques, and can intermix all of them proficiently, they're encouraged to perform the Taekkyeon Dance. Taekkyeon is a Ten-year technique.

Modern Korean martial arts' systemization and presentation are very similar to their Japanese counterparts (i.e., barefoot, with uniforms, classes executing techniques simultaneously by following the teacher's commands, and sometimes, showing respect by bowing to a portrait of the founder and/or to national flags). Many modern Korean martial arts also make use of colored belts to denote rank, tests to increase in rank, and the use of Korean titles when denoting the teacher. These include:

  • Kyosanim: teacher.
  • Sabomnim (사범님 / 師範님): Master instructor in some styles/systems but not all. i.e. Kuk Sool Won.
  • Kwanjangnim (관장님 / 館長님): training hall owner/ kwan leader or master instructor in many, such as Kuk Sool Won.
  • Dojunim (도주님 / 道主님): keeper of the way. It is, typically, used to imply a founder of a style or system as in Ji Han-Jae Dojunim of S(h)in Moo Hapkido, for example

NOTE: remove the word "nim" for the actual titles as "nim" is an honorific meaning "sir" or its equivalent.

These Korean terms are based on Confucian rank systems (with the same Chinese characters). Many schools also make use of Korean terminology and numbers during practice, even if located outside of [South] Korea.


Korean martial arts are usually practiced in a dojang (도장), which may also be referred to as cheyukkwan (체육관 / 體育館, i.e., gymnasium). The practitioners wear a uniform or tobok (도복) with a belt or tti (띠) wrapped around it. This belt usually shows which grade the practitioner has attained. A student usually starts with a white belt and moves through a range of coloured belts (which differ from style to style) before reaching the black belt. The grades before black belt are referred to as geup or kup (급), while the grades of black belts are referred to as dan (단). In some cases, students less than 16 years old are not given dan grades, but rather "pum" or poom (품) or "junior black belt" grades. Some styles use stripes on the black belt to show which dan the practitioner holds. It is common for a system to have nine geup grades and nine dan grades. While it might only take a few months to go from one geup to the next, it can take years to go from one dan to the next. Most of the above terms are identical to those used in Japanese styles such as judo and karate, but with the Chinese characters read in Korean pronunciation, with a few exceptions (tobok and tti have been altered to fit the Korean language).

In some styles, like taekgyeon, the hanbok is worn instead of a tobok. The v-neck of many styles of taekwondo uniform was supposedly fashioned after the hanbok, but may simply be a modification for a pullover top to accommodate the modesty of female practitioners (standard jacket construction often requires females to wear a T-shirt, leotard, or sport bra underneath the jacket, whereas the pullover v-neck jacket does not).


  1. ^ Also known as Yongmudo
  2. ^ Also known as Kyeok Too Ki, Kun Gek Do, Gyeok Tu Gi, Gweon Gyeok Do or Gwon-gyokdo


  1. ^ "UNESCO Culture Sector - Intangible Heritage - 2003 Convention :". Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  2. ^ Draeger, Donn F. (1981). Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, pg 155. Kodansha International.
  3. ^ 세속오계 : 지식백과 (in 한국어). Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  4. ^ "". 
  5. ^ Kim, Wee-hyun. "Muyedobo T'ongji: Illustrated Survey of the Martial arts." Korea Journal 26:8 (August 1986): 42-54
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Capener, Steven D. (2000). H. Edward Kim, ed. Taekwondo: The Spirit of Korea (portions of). Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Republic of Korea. 
  8. ^ Cummings, B. (2005). Korea's Place in the Sun. New York, NY: W.W. Norton. 
  9. ^ "Taekkyon Korea" (in 한국어). Taekkyon Korea. Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  10. ^ Korean Traditional Archery
  11. ^ From English Wiktionary夷
  12. ^ Korean Traditional Archery. Duvernay TA, Duvernay NY. Handong Global University, 2007
  • / HapKiDo指導資敎本
  • / International hosinsool敎本
  • / «우리의 武藝 唐手道»

Further reading

  • Adrogué, M. (2003). "Ancient military manuals and their relation to modern Korean martial arts".  
  • Della Pia, J. (1994). "Korea's Mu Yei Do Bo Tong Ji.". Journal of Asian Martial Arts 3: 2. 
  • Henning, S. (2000). "Traditional Korean martial arts". Journal of Asian Martial Arts 9: 1. 
  • Kim, S. H. (2001): Muye Dobo Tongji. Turtle Press.
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