The History of Tae Kwon Do


World Tae Kwon Do Federation Headquarters (Kukkiwon)

WTFAs it is literally translated, Tae means “to kick” or “to strike with the foot”, Kwon means “fist” or “to strike with the hand”, and Do means “discipline” or “art.” Taken together, Tae Kwon Do means “the art of kicking and punching” or “the art of unarmed combat.” Modern day Tae Kwon Do, as it has come to be developed over the years, is a unique martial art incorporating both the quick, straight-line movements that characterize the various Japanese systems and the flowing circular movements of

most Chinese styles. But more than this, what truly distinguishes Tae Kwon Do are its varied and uniquely powerful kicking techniques that sets Tae Kwon Do apart from other martial arts systems. Yet Tae Kwon Do is far more than simply a system concerned with physical prowess, for it is also an art directed toward the moral development of its students.

The earliest records of Tae Kwon Do practice dates back to about 50 BC. Evidence of the practice of Taek Kyon (the earliest known form of Tae Kwon Do) has been found in paintings on the ceiling of Muyong-chong, a royal tomb from the Koguryo dynasty.

Although Tae Kwon Do first appeared in the Koguryo kingdom, it is Silla’s warrior nobility, the Hwarang, who are credited with the growth and spread of the art throughout Korea. Founded initally as a military academy for the young nobility of Silla, the society of the Hwarang-do (“the way of flowering manhood”) adopted Taek Kyon as a part of its basic training regimen. The society was an elite group, consisting among the sons of royalty between the ages of 16 and 20, and the Nangdo, or cadets, who were assembled from the rest of the young nobility. They were educated in many disciplines, including history, Confucian philosophy, ethics, Buddhist morality, riding, archery, sword play, military tactics, and of course, Taek Kyon. The guiding principles of the Hwarang-do education were based on the Five Codes of Human Scholar Wonkang. These axioms are:

  • Be loyal to your country.
  • Be obedient to your parents.
  • Be trustworthy to your friends.
  • Never retreat in battle.
  • Never Make an unjust kill.

Along with their training in fundamental education and military skills, the Hwarang were also skilled in poetry, singing and dancing, and were encouraged to travel throughout the peninsula in order to learn about the regions and people. These warriors were responsible for the spread of Taek Kyon throughout Korea during the Silla dynasty (AD 668 to AD 935). During the Koryo dynasty (935 to 1392), Taek Kyon became known as Subak and changed from a system designed primarily to promote fitness into a fighting art. During the Yi dynasty (1397 to 1907), the art was promoted among the population in general. Prior to this, the art had been restricted primarily to the military nobility. During this era, political conflict and the de-emphasis of military activities led to a significant reduction in the practice of the art.

In 1909, the Japanese invaded Korea, occupying the country for the next 36 years. During this time, the Japanese banned the practice of all military arts. Ironically, this very act sparked a renewed growth of Subak. It wasn’t until Korea’s liberation in 1945 that its own fighting arts finally took root and began to flourish.

The first kwan (“school”) to teach a native Korean style of martial art was opened in 1945. During the next 15 years, eleven other kwans were opened. On April 11, 1955, a meeting was convened to unify the various kwans under the common name of Tae Soo Do. Two years later, the name was once again changed to the familiar Tae Kwon Do. On September 14, 1961, the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association was formed.

On May 28, 1973, a new worldwide organization, the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF), was formed. Since that day, all Tae Kwon Do activity outside Korea have been coordinated by the WTF, the only official organization recognized by the Korean government as an international regulating body for Tae Kwon Do. The crowning achievement of Tae Kwon Do as a sport came when the art was designated an official Demonstration Sport for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea.

Today, Tae Kwon Do boasts an international membership of more than 20 million practitioners in over 120 countries, making it the most practiced martial art style in the world.

SOURCE: Tae Kwon Do

Written by Yeon Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park and Jon Gerrard. Published by Facts On File, Inc., 1989.

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