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A history of taekwondo

Taekwondo is a popular martial art enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. In literal terms, it can be translated as ‘kick with the feet’ (tae) and ‘punch with the hand or fist’ (kwondo). It encompasses a set of skills that are used in unarmed combat. Through a combination of punches, aerial kicks, blocks, parries and dodges, it is a useful self-defence discipline.

Like many of the other martial arts, however, Taekwondo is a lot more than physical fight and defence moves. There is an important discipline part to it and it incorporates a strong ethical element. The moral code associated with Taekwondo is as important as the physical patterns and movements.

The origins of Taekwondo

The modern form of Taekwondo has developed from elements that can be seen in several different styles of martial arts that have been practiced in Korea, and other countries in the region, for millennia. Within Taekwondo, there are sudden and linear movements that are typical of karate, together with more flowing and circular patterns that are typical of kung-fu. There are also at least 50 circular movements of the hands that originate from China and also elements of many other martial arts, including T'ang-su and Judo.

It is thought that Taekwondo originated around 50 B.C in the Koguryo kingdom in Korea. Its first form was referred to as Tae Kyon. There are ancient paintings in historic royal tombs which show people using combat techniques that are just like those used in modern Taekwondo.

The Hwarang warriors of the Silla region of Korea are believed to have spread Taekwondo and developed it further. Silla was regularly attacked by pirates from Japan and elite warriors, trained in early Taekwondo (Tae Kyon) techniques, were instrumental in its defence. The Hwarang did not just study Tae Kyon, and they were also enthusiasts of ethics, Confucian philosophy and Buddhist morality. The warriors were highly principled and valued filial duty, loyalty, justice, trustworthiness and valour above all else. These were considered to be the ‘Five Codes of Human Conduct’ and they were disseminated around Korea as the Hwarang travelled around.

Eventually, the five codes evolved into the ‘Eleven Commandments’ of modern Taekwondo, namely:

  • Loyalty to your country
  • Respect for your parents
  • Faithfulness to your spouse
  • Loyalty to your friends
  • Respect for your brothers and sisters
  • Respect for your elders
  • Respect for your teachers
  • Do not take life unjustly
  • Indomitable spirit
  • Loyalty
  • Finish what you begin

Although the early form of Taekwondo was a recreational sport, its focus had changed to a combat technique by the 1100s. Sadly, by 1900, it was less popular than it had ever been and was hardly practised at all. In 1909, Japan invaded Korea. They introduced a ban on all military martial arts, burned books and even tried to eradicate the Korean language.

Ironically, this led to a resurgence of Taekwondo. Koreans formed underground resistance groups that practiced Taekwondo in Buddhist temples during the 36 years of Japanese occupation. The liberation of Korea was declared in 1945 and by then, the nature of Taekwondo had changed considerably.

The start of modern Taekwondo

In 1945, the first ever Kwan, which was the name given to a Taekwondo school, was set up in Seoul in Korea and was followed by many more over the next 15 years. They each claimed to be the only school that taught the traditional Taekwondo and each one focussed on a different part of the martial art. At this time, several different names for Taekwondo emerged, including Kang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do.

A second lieutenant in the Korean Army, called Hong Hi Choi, started to teach Taekwondo to soldiers at the military base at Kwang Ju, from 1945. This is where American soldiers were introduced to Taekwondo. Then, in 1949, a visit was made by Hong Hi Choi to a military school in Kansas, USA, where he gave demonstrations of Taekwondo.

In 1952, President Syngman Rhee of Korea ruled that all Korean soldiers had to train in martial arts. When a Korean commander travelled to Fort Benning in Georgia, he gave martial arts demonstrations which attracted the attention of the US media. At the same time, Taekwondo was increasingly used by soldiers (such as the Black Tigers) in Korea fighting against the North Korean communist forces.

Up until this time, it was mostly referred to as taek kyon, but in 1955, the name "Tae Soo Do" became the official name. Yet two years later, it was changed to "Taekwondo" which was the name favoured by General Choi.

There was considerable disagreement about its name and form, up until 1961 (September 14). This is when the new government of Korea decreed that the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) would govern the martial art. General Choi was the president.

In 1962, Taekwondo was recognised as an official event at the National Athletic Meet. Instructors were sent to many countries with demonstration teams. Jhoon Rhee was the first to establish a public Taekwondo club in the US. The U.S. Taekwondo Association was established in 1967.

Over the next few decades, the administration of Taekwondo underwent rapid changes. Several governing bodies were founded in various countries, hundreds of instructors were qualified and the popularity of the martial art grew.

In 1973, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was established in Korea and this coincided with the first World Taekwondo Championships in Seoul. Today, the WTF remains the single official regulating body for Taekwondo that is recognised by the Korean government.

Further efforts were made to standardise tournament rules and hold world class competitions. Following the 2nd World Championships in Seoul, the WTF affiliated with the General Assembly of International Sports Federation (GAISF) and links to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began to emerge.

Finally, at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, the IOC designated Taekwondo as an official demonstration sport. Today, it is practiced by over 30 million people in over 156 countries.