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Taekwondo History

- Ancient History -

Tae Kwon Do is the ancient Korean martial art of self-defense. Emphasizing strong moral development through physical and mental discipline. The Korean word ‘Tae’ means kicking, jumping, stepping or flying of the feet; ‘Kwon’ means punching, striking, or blocking with the hands or fists; and ‘Do’ means art, technique, or way. Tae Kwon Do, steeped in tradition and history has developed and evolved for thousands of years.

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The origins of TKD can be traced to around 50 BC, when Korea was divided into the kingdoms of Silla (founded in 57 BC), Koguryo (founded in 37 BC), and Baekche (founded in 18 BC). Paintings of combatants using Tae Kyun techniques nearly identical to modern day techniques, have been found in royal tombs of the early Koguryo dynasty; however, it is Silla’s warrior nobility, the Hwarang, that is credited with the initial proliferation and preservation of the art.

The Hwarang began initially as a social organization for Silla’s aristocratic youth, but evolved into a lifestyle and philosophical code focused on service and patriotism called Hwarang-Do. In addition to Tae-Kyun training, members of the Hwarang-Do were educated in Confucian philosophy, Buddhist morality, ethics, the arts and sciences, swordplay, and other military tactics. Buddhist priests served as advisors and teachers to these young men and developed a code of conduct that included loyalty to the King, obeying your parents, trustworthiness and loyalty to your friends, courage in battle, and a responsibility not to kill unjustly. Buddhism and Tae-Kyun training were intricately intertwined, and these highly trained and educated warriors were fiercely devoted to their country and way of life.

Both Buddhism and Subak, an evolved form of Tae-Kyun, were popular during the Koryo dynasty (918~1392), but the two were no longer tied to each other as they were under the Silla government. The practice of Subak shifted its focus more toward military training with less emphasis on cultural well-roundness.

Yi Dynasty [1392~1910 AD]

By 1392, the practice of martial arts had waned substantially as Confucianism replaced Buddhist philosophy as the prominent school of thought in the Yi dynasty (1392~1910). Under the influence of Confucian philosophy, which actually discouraged the practice of any form of martial arts, and the growing political instability and disorganization of the later half of the Yi dynasty, Subak’s popularity disintegrated, sustained only by a number of dedicated practitioners who retreated to monasteries in remote mountain areas to continue their training.

Ironically, the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1909 helped to resurrect the traditional Korean martial art. Once the country had been occupied, the Japanese banned the practice of all military skills, including Subak/Tae-Kyun. The occupation and ban forced Korean nationalists to go underground and make their way to the remote mountain retreats and monasteries where they could study and develop their martial arts skills without harassment. During the occupation, many other Koreans also traveled to other parts of the world such as China and Japan where they were exposed to the traditional martial art forms and philosophies of those regions.

20TH Century

After three decades of occupation, interest in several forms of martial arts was growing again. The Japanese may have banned the practice of traditional Korean martial arts, but they brought with them Japanese martial arts such as Kenpo, Jujitsu, and Judo. Other forms, such as Chinese Kung-fu, had also trickled into the country and was gaining a foothold. Shortly after Korea was liberated in 1945, the exiled Korean martial arts resurfaced and began to teach their fighting art. Training in secret, these men had become masters. The popularity of Korean martial arts spread quickly as several schools, or ‘kwan’ were established. The first kwan, Chung Do Kwan, opened in Yong-Chun, Seoul with two more, Moo Duk Kwan and Yun Moo Kwan, following shortly thereafter. Between 1953 and 1960, seven more schools opened, each one claiming to be teaching traditional Korean martial arts and emphasizing a certain aspect of Tae-Kyun/Subak.

Even with the dissension between schools, however, traditional Korean martial arts were becoming firmly entrenched, especially with the new Korean Armed Forces. Korean masters had started teaching the military as early as 1946, but it was not until 1953 that President Syngman Rhee made it part of standard military training after he saw a demonstration by a group of masters. He was so impressed that he sent one of the masters to the United States for military communications training and to perform demonstrations for both the American military and the general public.

During the Korean War, elite Black Belt commando divisions were formed. Special forces such as the Black Tigers were sent on many espionage missions behind enemy lines and even carried out a few assassinations. When the war ended, the Korean 29th Infantry Division became the centralized martial arts training center for the entire army.

By 1955, many of the kwans agreed to merge their styles into one, ‘Tae Soo Do.’ [Not all schools agreed to merge; but today, only Hapkido remains as a recognizable form.] Two years later, the name was changed to “Tae Kwon Do,” because it better described the art itself and more closely resembled the original name of ‘Tae-Kyun.’

The Birth of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation

regulatory body for all Tae Kwon Do activities outside of Korea. The WTF was officially established at Kook-gie-won with the participation of the representatives of 35 nations and under the leadership of Dr. Un Yong Kim, whom was elected President of the WTF for a four-year tem.

Tae Kwon Do in the U.S.

Tae Kwon Do was first introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1950’s. From then until 1973, there was a broad diversity of teaching methodologies and styles, which were brought from the six different major kwans (schools) of Tae Kwon Do in Korea. In May of 1973, the first biennial World Tae Kwon Do Championships were held in Seoul to inaugurate the WTF. Since then, the World Championship have been held in various places around the world and has helped strongly establish Tae Kwon Do an international sports. Along the path of the unification movement initiated in Korea under the leadership of Dr. Un Yong Kim, instructors in the U.S. organized and made possible the admission of Tae Kwon Do into the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States of America in 1974. From this birth of the National AAU Tae Kwon Do Union, all newly established technical standards, sanctioned by the WTF, were adopted into an official unified form of Tae Kwon Do in the U.S. Tae Kwon Do an official sport of the AAU USA Junior Olympics for the first time in 1983. Tae Kwon Do was adopted as a demonstration sport for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games held in Seoul, Korea and the 1992 Summer Olympic Games held in Barcelona. The 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia featured Tae Kwon Do as a full medal sport. Today, over 120 countries are official members of the WTF and Tae Kwon Do is practiced in over 140 countries.

Philosophy of Tae Kwon Do

Modern Tae Kwon Do has evolved into a powerful self-defense, fighting styles, and competition sport combined with a system of positive thinking and moral development. True martial artists learn and practice powerful fighting skills, but also strive to develop a positive spirit and inner peace that transcends every part of their lives. Drawing from the age-old, traditional morality system of Zen-Buddhism based on “duality”, Tae Kwon Do philosophy and physical training compliment each other and offer martial artists a way to achieve balance between themselves and the world in which they live. To accomplish this, martial artists work to achieve a positive mental attitude and live in harmony with nature. The idea is not to dwell in the past or focus only on the future, but to concentrate on the present and make the most of every opportunity.

Each and every person has the potential to achieve a balance and inner calmness. It is a constant process of throwing away excess negativity, such as anger and fear, and focusing on positive energy. Imagine, if you will, the image of a “big bowl.” The bigger the bowl the more room there is for positive energy. Martial artists continually work to rid themselves of unconstructive excess negative energy and allow positive energy and positive thinking to fill the bowl. It is a life-long process. If the cup is too small, there is not enough room for positive energy and it easily becomes filled with overwhelming negativity. True martial artists strive to keep their bowls large with positive thinking.

Strong physical and mental conditioning, a peaceful and harmonious coexistence with the world, and a positive attitude that can be shared with others are all goals of martial arts training. Early martial artists were well-rounded and dedicated to a way of life that bettered themselves as a person and bettered society as a whole. Today’s artists have the same responsibility to better themselves through physical training and mental discipline and contribute to their families and communities by living their lives with courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit.