History of Taekwondo

The Origins of Taekwondo

Taekwondo can trace its origins back thousands of years. The oldest historical document detailing Korean martial arts is found painted on the wall of a tomb, dated from 50BC. Around this time the Korean peninsula was inhabited by three rival Kingdoms – Baekje (18 BC – 935 AD), Goguryeo (37 BC – 668 AD) and Silla (57 BC – 935 AD). There is considerable historical dispute as to whether or not the Goguryeo kingdom is in fact the oldest of the Three Kingdoms of Korea as there is evidence that it may have been founded as early as 2 BC. Whatever the case, the Goguryeo kingdom inhabited the northern part of the Korean peninsula, spilling over into the modern provinces of Guandong in China and the Russian Maritime Province.

The Goguryeo was the most advanced of all the kingdoms and its warriors were famous for their martial arts prowess, learned as a consequence of border wars with neighbouring China. The martial art they practised was called Taekkyon with its practitioners known as Sonbae. Subak focused on kicking and disabling an opponent at range as opposed to the punching and grappling favoured by their Han Chinese enemies. Flying kicks could be used to dismount cavalry where the rider could be finished off on equal ground. Perhaps because of the mountainous terrain they lived in, the Goguryeo had naturally strong legs and were predisposed to using them in combat.

Goguryeo Taekkyon fighters were distinguished warriors versed not only in combat but also in the liberal arts. In war time they were warriors, but in peace time they undertook civil duties – rebuilding, coordinating defences etc. Nevertheless, the term Sonbae can be translated as ‘a virtuous man who never runs from a fight’, highlighting where their strengths specifically lay.

Around 400 BC the Baejke kingdom made a play for domination of the southern portion of the Korean peninsula. In alliance with the Japanese, they invaded their rivals the Silla. They gratefully received help from the Guguryeo ruler, King Gwanggaeto the Great, who sent some 50,000 troops to their aid. This gift came at a high price, however, and after the Guguryeo had expelled the Japanese from Silla and routed the Baejke forces, Silla was bound into obedience.

The Silla realised that to survive they were going to have to modernise their fighting force. No doubt heavily influenced by the resident Sonbae, they embarked on a programme of warrior training centered around elite troops called the Hwarang. Boys as young as twelve were selected to be members of the Hwarang, where they were trained in the liberal arts such as philosophy, history and ethics. Additionally the Hwarang learnt horsemanship, archery, weapons skills and unarmed fighting. In this last discipline the Silla extended Taekkyon’s kick-centric syllabus to include hand strikes and grappling, which came to be known as Subak. This is taken a generalised term for unarmed Korean martial arts and thus can be considered the foundation of modern day Taekwondo.

Take a look at this martial arts video of modern Taekkyon to see for yourself some of the incredible flying kicks.

The decline of Korean Martial Arts

Ravaged by years of war, internal conflict and Mongol invasion, the Goguryeo Kingdom finally crumbled, giving way to the Kingdom of Joseon. The Joseon dynasty consolidated Korea into a single entity and lasted 500 years until the Japanese took control of Korea in 1910.

During the Joseon reign, Korean martial arts suffered. The Neo-Confucian principles upon which orderly conduct was based subjugated martial training to the domain of the military, banning it from popular use. Official Subak matches were held and after three successive wins a fighter was allowed to join the military. Nevertheless, Korean martial arts did survive during this period, being kept alive in folk culture where unsanctioned matches featuring Taekkyon and Ssireum (Korean wrestling) would take place at village markets and celebration days.

The influence of other martial arts

Taekkyon suffered even worse treatment under the hands of the Japanese, as it was officially banned during the occupation between 1910 and 1945. The Japanese attempted to eradicate every trace of Korean culture, replacing it with their own. Again Korean martial arts were driven underground where it survived in folk customs and secret training groups. However, during this period, Korean martial artists were heavily influenced by Japanese martial arts, such as Karate and Jiu-jitsu, and to a lesser extent Chinese disciplines, such as Kung-fu.

Many Koreans achieved high grades in these foreign systems and after the end of World War II, in a now free Korea, martial arts schools (kwans) opened up under new names such Tang Soo Doo. These new styles synthesized traditional Korean martial arts with foreign influences, they were named as followed:

  • Chung Do Kwan
  • Moo Duk Kwan
  • Yun Moo Kwan
  • Chang Moo Kwan
  • Oh Do Kwan
  • Ji Do Kwan
  • Chi Do Kwan
  • Song Moo Kwan

The emergence of modern Taekwondo

By the end of the Korean War in 1953, nine different kwans had opened up. Dissatisfied with the fragmented system, the president called for the kwans to unite under a single name and put their differences aside. Following a variety of submissions, the word Taekwondo was accepted by a governmental committee on the 11th of April 1955.

The Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formalised four years later to represent the art worldwide. Shortly thereafter, Taekwondo became popular in the United States. However, the attempt at unification was failing, as different styles of Taekwondo were being taught by different kwans. The KTA faltered, was renamed and replaced.

Finally in 1972, the Kukkiwon (which translates as National Training Centre) was founded. The Kukkiwon exists today as the global Taekwondo headquarters. It regulates and oversees Taekwondo training, teacher certification and the Taekwondo syllabus.

In 1973 the World Taekwondo Federation was formed to organise and oversee Taekwondo competitions worldwide and the Olympic committee recognised it as the sport’s governing body. Taekwondo was first seen as a demonstration event in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was made a full medal event 2 years later in Sydney. Olympic Taekwondo is limited to sparring – no patterns, breaking or other elements of the syllabus are included. Outside the Olympic circuit though, Taekkyon has enjoyed something of a revival in Korea and survives largely free from foreign influences; a testament to the unique attributes of Taekwondo and its durability.