History of Taekwon-Do

The earliest origins of Taekwon-do can be traced to the tribal states of what was once the kingdom of Koguryo after the Neolithic age [1]. This precursor system was probably developed for protection from wild animals. Because an attack could come from any angle, the system that was developed permitted the individual to instantly and reflexively protect himself from attack [2]. It is believed that the self defense movements imitated those of animals and were later systematized into the combat form known today as Taekyon [1]

There is some question as to whether Taekwon-do was developed from martial practices taught by the Bodhidharma, a Buddist monk from India who taught breath control and meditation techniques in China during the sixth century A.D. Because his followers were physically unable to tolerate the breathing and meditation exercises, the Bodhidharma taught methods of strengthening the body and spirit of his disciples. However, a mural presumed to have been painted during the second half of the 5th century or early 6th century in the Muyong-Chong tomb (3 A.D.–427 A.D.), dating to the Koguryo dynasty (37 B.C.– 668 A.D.) depicts two men in martial arts stances, proving that Korea was developing an indigenous martial art before the Bodhidharma arrived from China.

In the kingdom of Baekje (18 B.C.–660 A.D.), martial arts were supported by the ruling class. Records from this era indicate that horseback riding, archery, and barehanded fighting arts were popular among the military class and the common people [2].

It was in the kingdom of Silla (57 B.C.–935 A.D.) [3] located in the southeastern segment of the Korean peninsula that Taekwon-do’s roots began to take more formal shape. During the reign of Jin Heung, twenty-fourth king of the Silla, the warrior and aristocrat classes formed an elite fighting group, the Hwa-rang [4] (the way of the flower of manhood) [1].

The Hwa-rang trained in hand-to-hand combat, Soo bak, as well as cultivating physical and mental discipline that included instruction in swordsmanship, archery, staff and spear. To physically prepare themselves for the rigorous training, the Hwa-rang members would climb mountains and train in turbulent rivers during the winter months. So that purpose might be given to their actions, the Buddist monk, Won-Kang provided the Hwa-rang with a five point code of ethics:

  • 1. Be loyal to your king.
  • 2. Be obedient to your parents.
  • 3. Be honorable to your friends.
  • 4. Never retreat from battle.
  • 5. Make a just kill [4].

This code remains the philosophical backbone of Taekwon-do today [2]. The Hwa rang were greatly respected by by their adversaries and were instrumental in conquering Baek-je in 668 A.D. and Koguryo in 670 A.D. [2]. This marked the first time in Korean history that the three kingdoms were unified.

The Hwa-rang were also instrumental in introducing the martial arts of Taekyon and Soo bak as sports to be participated in during the festivals at planting and at harvest times. Imbued with the principles of Won-Kang, Soo bak, a combat art, became Soo bak-gi, a recreational sport [2,4].

During the Koryo dynasty (918–1392 A.D.), the study of Taekyon and Soo bak-gi reached its height. Soo bak-gi, now known as Soo bak-do, was formally given a set of rules for competition. The martial arts were technically organized and systematized by leading masters of the period. The royal family demonstrated very strong support for the competitions by conferring government posts to the champions. Also, special exhibitions were held in the royal court to provide skilled practitioners an opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency [2].

The Joseon dynasty (1392–1910 A.D.) brought a shift in cultural values. Confucianism replaced Buddism as the primary religion [3]. Consequently, the emphasis on military training and physical fitness was severely weakened and replaced with the study of literature, poetry, and music. Civil officials were held in higher esteem than military officials by the ruling class. The study of martial arts was all but extinguished [2]. However, there is some speculation that Soo bak was learned by trade envoys and transported to Okinawa. It is possible that Soo bak is a precursor to Okinawa-te. Also, a book was commissioned by King Chong Jo (1790 A.D.) that recorded all the martial arts forms of Korea [1]. General Lee Duk Mu compiled the book, known as the Muye Dobo Tongi. The Muye Dobo Tongi was about forty pages in length and included drawings from carved wood blocks illustrating the various art forms, including Soo bak and Taekyon [2]. During the latter half of this era, Soo bak was in decline due to the negligence of the royal court, which was torn by feuding political factions [1]. The study of martial arts was no longer organized. Forms were handed down from father to son or teacher to student, but always in great secrecy.

A crippling blow to the study of Soo bak and Taekyon came when Korea was occupied by the Japanese in 1910. The Japanese colonial government banned all cultural activities, including team sports and martial arts study, in an effort to destroy the Korean identity [2]. Some martial arts instructors, led by Song Duk Ki and Han Il Dong, managed to keep the art alive by practicing in secrecy [4]. It was during this period that Japanese karate and various Chinese forms were introduced to Korea. Instructors of Soo bak and Taekyon integrated some of the movements into their arts, creating a new art form, Tang Soo Do [2].

In 1945, Korea was liberated from Japanese rule. Choi Hong Hi, imprisoned during the war by the Japanese for plotting the overthrow of the Japanese army at Pyongyang, was freed and received a commission in the Republic of Korea army. He began instructing his troops, the 29th Infantry Division, on Che Ju island off the Korean coast [1] in a new art form that blended techniques from Soo bak gi, Taekyon, Japanese Karate, Jujitsu, and Kung-fu [4]. Also during this period, in an effort to restore Korean traditions, the practice of martial arts was revived among the general public. Kwans [schools] were established that taught different styles of what was termed “Korean Karate. ” While it is not clear how many kwans were established, eight are generally recognized as assisting in the formation of modern day Taekwon-do [5].

On April 11, 1955, the martial art of Taekwon-do was officially recognized by the Korean government. A board of historians, political officials, and instructors selected the name as it described the art: tae (foot), kwon (hand), and do (art or way). Also, the name bears a close resemblance to the precursor art of Taekyon. This gave the martial art a sense of nationalism and legitimacy that previous names, such as Tang-soo, suggesting a Chinese influence, could not [4].

Due to the efforts of Choi and his students, Taekwon-do was spread to many other countries, including Malaysia, West Germany, Vietnam, England, Brazil, and the United States [4]. On March 22, 1966, the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) was formed truly uniting the practitioners of Taekwon-do under one association [4]. In 1972, the headquarters of the ITF was moved from Korea to Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The cause for the relocation of the ITF’s headquarters traces its origins to the deposal of South Korea’s president, Sygman Rhee by Park Chung Hee in 1961. Under Rhee, Choi attained the rank of two-star general and was appointed as an ambassador to Malaysia. Choi had great influence in the Korean government because of this status [4]. Park, however, held an inferior rank to Choi and resented the political power that Choi possessed [6]. Consequently, Park used his powers to restrict Choi’s travel to other countries to spread the art of Taekwon-do. Angered by the restriction, Choi began denouncing Park, adding to the hostility between them, and earning banishment from Korea for his actions. It is important to understand that Choi was not against the government of Korea, but against Park Chung Hee. Political muscle was being flexed to resolve a personal dispute [6].

Desiring to keep some claim to Taekwon-do, Park authorized the formation of the World Taekwon-do Federation (WTF) under the direction of Dr. Un Yong Kim in May 1973 [1, 6]. In September 1977, Dr. Kim invited Master Choi to attend a WTF championship tournament in Chicago. It is possible that Kim hoped to unite the two federations into one strong association. Choi refused the invitation, stating that he did not recognize the WTF [6].

After the assassination of Park in October 1979, the new president of South Korea, Choi Kyu Ha , was a friend and colleague of Master Choi. The Master was urged to return to Korea and re-establish the ITF into power. The WTF had gained considerable strength since its inception six years earlier. Master Choi returned to Korea in 1981, but made his most grave political mistake by returning to North Korea rather than South Korea. The reasons for Choi’s trip to North Korea are subject to speculation. Some believe that his visit was a result of being rejected by South Korea. Also, it is believed that Choi wished the ITF to become universal, establishing chapters in each country, even those under Communist control [6].

Because of his trip to North Korea, Choi was immediately branded a Communist by the South Korean government and permanently banned from his homeland. Anyone associated with Choi was also considered a Communist sympathizer and banned from South Korea. Further, Master Choi’s patterns, the Chang-Hun series, were removed from practice. Only recently has the Chang-Hun series of forms begun to be practiced by the WTF. Prior to this, the WTF adopted the Taeguk and Palgue series of forms in their schools. In this way, Master Choi has all but been separated from the art of Taekwon-do of which he was a major influence in developing. The ITF lost much of its strength. His forms, while regaining acceptance, are no longer the primary patterns practiced by most schools. Most importantly, Master Choi’s association with the development of the art of Taekwon-do has been decreased significantly. In fact, the Taekwon-do book published by the WTF does not acknowledge Master Choi at all.

Unfortunately, politics and personal desires have stained much of the luster Master Choi and his practitioners had envisioned for the art of Taekwon-do. However, it is important to remember the words of Master Nam Tae Hi, “We do not belong to General Choi, or to Nam Tae Hi, but to Taekwon-do itself. Taekwon-do is an art; and, art should be above politics.” In support of Master Nam’s statement, Taekwon-do was admitted to the 1988 and 1992 Olympic games as an exhibition sport and is currently an official Olympic competition.[5] There, nations of varying political views may lay aside their differences and participate in athletic competition. Top

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  • 1. John Corcoran and Emil Farkas, Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People, (New York, NY: W.H. Smith Publishers, 1983), pp.126-130.
  • 2. Daeshik Kim, Background Readings in Taekwon-do and the Martial Arts, (Na Nam Publishing Co.), pp. 16-19.
  • 3. Korean Overseas Information Service, Facts About Korea, (Seoul, Korea, 1983), pp. 28-37.
  • 4. Choi Hong Hi, Taekwon-do, (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada: International Taekwon-do Federation, 1986), pp. 17-19, 513, 517.
  • 5. John Corcoran, The Martial Arts Companion, (New York, NY: Mallard Press, 1992), pp.44-47, 52-57.
  • 6. Nam Tae Hi, Interview, January 4, 1983.