The History Of Taekwondo: Everything You Need To Know

Two people doing karate

The competition is fierce Image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Hoops & Tkd Photos by vagmak via Visual Hunt

We are about to go on a journey through time. Considering its current popularity, when you learn about the long history of Taekwondo, and you find out just how old it really is, you are in for a surprise.

You see, American football is only a little over 100 years old, and baseball got started around 1839.

Basketball has only been around since 1891.

The only modern sport we can even compare to Taekwondo is soccer -- and that one has been around for over 2,000 years.

So, what is the history of Taekwondo, anyway?

Let's Get Serious About Taekwondo

First, let's take a look at what the word "Taekwondo," means.

To understand the word in English, you must break the Korean word into three pieces:

"Tae," means leg, foot, or step on; "Kwon," is fist or fight; and, "Do," means the way or discipline.

So, when you put all three of those words together, it describes what makes this fighting style stand out from others.

You see, Taekwondo goes beyond teaching someone how to fight -- it also enhances one's life and spirit by training the mind and body.

Here's the thing:

The whole premise behind modern Taekwondo is not only to teach someone how to use their hands and feet to fight but also how to use their mind to calm a situation when possible.

Let's Get Serious About Taekwondo

To begin to learn about the history of Taekwondo, you should first understand that the practice began around the same time that Jesus came on the scene.

Indeed, to look at the full history of Taekwondo, we must travel back to Korea before it became Korea.

"Protecting yourself is self-defense. Protecting others is warriorship." -- Bohdi Sanders

In 2333 B.C., the national founder of "Old Korea," a.k.a. Asada l, was a man named Tangun.

Like many other ancient nations, at first, the people lived communally on Asadal. However, before long, those communities shifted into individual tribes.

It's widely known that the people of that time did have a means of both protecting themselves as well as hunting food.

However, without evidence, we don't know for sure whether they used ancient Taekwondo or not.

Nepal buddhism monks training traditional costumes

Image: Public Domain from JessicaBlueElephants via Visual Hunt (Image via pixabay)

When David Beat Goliath

Unfortunately, those three kigdoms fought with each other continually starting at around 50 B.C.

We know too that the people of that time used an ancient form of Taekwondo because someone found paintings, carvings, and statues from that period:

Costume play

2012 World Taekwondo Hanmadang 20th World Image: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Jeon Han via Visual Hunt

At the time, Silla was the smallest of the three ancient Korean kingdoms.

Silla's leader, the 24th king, named Chin Heung knew that if his kingdom were to survive, he needed a plan.

"Your spirit is the true shield." – Morihei Ueshiba

So, Heung formed a group of warriors called the HwaRang.

HwaRang

HwaRang warriors devoted their lives to learning fighting skills that included weapons like the sword, bow, and spear.

But that's not all the HwaRang warriors of the time did -- and the things they added define not only the history of Taekwondo but also Korea itself.

HwaRang warriors also learned a form of fighting using their hands and feet called Subak -- and they became experts.

Heung knew, however, that if he wanted to beat back the larger nations, his soldiers needed even more.

So, Heung put a Buddhist monk and scholar named Won Kang on the job hoping he would be able to create a better solution.

Won Kang eventually came up with a system of education for the soldiers that included:

  • Subak
  • History
  • Confucian philosophy
  • Ethics
  • Buddhist morality
  • Military tactics

Then, Won Kang developed a code of ethics for the HwaRang:

  1. Be loyal to your king
  2. Obey your parents
  3. Have honor and faith among friends
  4. Have perseverance in battle
  5. Never take a life without cause

The result of that extensive training was not only a more competent soldier but also a way of living one's life.

“Martial Arts does not teach you how to fight, it teaches you why not to.” -- Lakshya Bharadwaj

The HwaRang became the HwaRang-Do a.k.a. "the way of flowering manhood."

As well as the HwaRang's name change at the time, Subak became known as Subakgi because of Wong Kang's additions to the practice.

Ultimately, the HwaRang-Do, using Won Kang's training methods, were able to help unify all of Korea into one country known at the time as Koryo.

In other words, concerning the history of Taekwondo, the early forms of the practice ended up being powerful enough to help David beat Goliath.

From Recreation To The Battlefield

Then, during the Koryo dynasty, from A.D. 935 to A.D. 1392, the Subak practice became less about recreation and more about fighting.

Some people started to call the new style Tae Kyon which focused primarily on fighting instead of the discipline.

"If you ever lack motivation to train then think what happens to your mind and body when you don't." – Shifu Yan Lei

The Koryo Dynasty's king held Tae Kyon and Subak competitions and would award the winners with high military ranks.

At the time, many people, including civilians, started to learn one of the new styles of fighting.

That Time Taekwondo Almost Disappeared

During this time in the history of Taekwondo, political unrest came to the Koryo region.

From 1910 A.D. to 1392 A.D. many Chinese civilians traveled to Koryo and attempted to convert the people there from Buddhism to Confucianism.

Those changes brought about some new leadership and ushered in a new dynasty called the Yi Dynasty.

Many people of Koryo lost interest in those fighting styles as a result of the people pulling away from Buddhist rulers and their beliefs.

So, in an attempt to once again popularize the Subak fighting style, the ruler at the time, King Jeong Jo came up with a plan.

Taekwondo student

Taekwondo student breaks a board Image CC BY 2.0 from scott feldstein via ​Flickr

King Jeong Jo ordered Lee Duk Mu to write a book about all the Subak and Tae Kyon fighting techniques. That manual included minute details about the ancient fighting styles, and it was the first publication of its kind.

But hostilities between Koryo and Japan escalated, and the result was the near-death of Taekwondo.

Japan

For a while, towards the end of the Yi Dynasty, the Korean people managed to fight off many Japanese invasions.

However, in 1909, the Japanese invaded Koryo, and King Taejo replaced Buddhism with Confucianism and started the Joseon Dynasty.

As often happens:

When one culture wants to take over another, the Japanese attempted to ban all of Koryo's martial arts -- including Subak. Fortunately, the Japanese ban caused many people in Koryo to revisit their interest in their culture.

The Koreans took their knowledge, went underground, set up training camps at remote Buddhist temples, and brought back Subak with a vengeance.

Others took their knowledge of the ancient fighting art to other countries like China.

So, for many years, people traveled into and out of Korea -- all the while learning new fighting styles and teaching their own.

"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." -- Bruce Lee

By the time Korea regained its independence in 1943, martial arts were prevalent once again.

However, because of the many influences from other countries, by this time, there were many different variations of Subak and Tae Kyon.

The Controversial Father Of Modern Taekwondo

Now, after everything ended with Japan and things settled back down in Korea, a man named Choi Hong Hi appeared on the scene.

Choi Hong Hi became an army general in South Korea.

Most people consider General Choi to be the father of modern Taekwondo -- and he's pretty controversial for that reason.

You see, General Choi wanted to bring his version of the ancient fighting style to the world after he renamed it Taekwondo.

To go international and popularize the sport that way, though, Choi needed the backing of his leaders.

"Pain is the best instructor, but no one wants to go to his class." -- Choi Hong Hi

For a while, things went well.

Choi trained instructors in Taekwondo, and those instructors eventually went on to train the entire South Korean army using his techniques.

"To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way, and martial arts is nothing at all special; the closer to the true way of martial arts, the less wastage of expression there is." -- Bruce Lee

By that time, there were already Taekwondo associations throughout Asia, North America, and Western Europe.

Many armies around the world adopted Taekwondo, and West Point started using it in the States as well.

However, all that international interest is what sparked the controversy surrounding Choi.

North Korea

In 1961, South Korea started the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) to oversee and manage the sport nationwide -- and placed General Choi in charge of it.

Remember, at the time, North Korea had already split from South Korea.

So, when Choi wanted to teach Taekwondo to the North Koreans, the South Koreans were not very happy about it.

Choi, angry that South Korea used Taekwondo for political purposes, then voluntarily went into exile in Canada.

This incident was the moment in the history of Taekwondo that the practice split down the middle -- at least the associations that organize it.

Before Choi left Korea, he started another association and called it the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) in 1966.

At first, the two organizations (KTA and ITA) worked together for some time.

However, when Young-wun Kim took over as KTA president, he decided he didn't want to associate with ITA anymore.

So, on May 28, 1973, Young-wun Kim dissolved the KTA and formed a new governing body called the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). The two styles of fighting use many of the same moves yet some rules, procedures, and the belting/ranking systems are different.

The Many Kwans

Next, let's talk about something else happening in Korea at the same time as General Choi was working to grow Taekwondo internationally:

At the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea, many martial arts schools appeared there.

The phrase The Nine Kwans refers to the most prominent schools at that time and the people that started them.

Please note, each Kwan used its own style of Taekwondo with slight variations from the others.

So, when you hear someone talking about "the Kwans," they are describing different fighting styles. Five Kwans managed to get their school off the ground before the Korean war took place.

"A brave man, a real fighter is not measured by how many times he falls, but how many times he stands up.” -- Rickson Gracie

Then, after the end of the Korean war, many of the students from the original five Kwans opened their own schools. -- those Kwans are called Anex Kwans.

All those new schools eventually meant that by 1960, there were over 40 Kwans just in South Korea.

Now, as you can imagine, with 40 different schools out there, all with slight variations, there was more than a bit of confusion.

It's time To Consolidate

So, the Korean government decided to merge the schools -- which marked a hugely important time in the history of Taekwondo.

In 1974, the KTA consolidated all 40 of those schools back down to a manageable 9.

By 1978, the KTA organized the Unification Proclamation which stated that those nine schools would subscribe only to South Korea's Kukkiwon style of fighting.

The Final 9 Kwans

So, in the end, the powers that be narrowed it down to nine different Kwans, or styles of fighting.

The first five Kwans on the list opened before the Korean War and the other four were founded after, making them Anex Kwans.

1. Chung Do Kwan

The Chung Do Kwan was founded in 1944 by Kyuk Won Lee.

Chung Do Kwan's main influences are Karate, Tae Kyon, and Kung Fu.

The name Chung Do Kwan means "Blue Wave School," and it's also known as "the National Police Dojang."

This particular style of fighting uses sidekicks and high kicks which makes it stand out from the others.

2. Song Do Kwan

Soo kwan

Image via flickr

Second, we have the Chung Do Kwan which means the "Pine Tree School."

Song Do Kwan's main influences are Kung Fu and Karate, and it was founded in 1944 by Byung Jick Ro.

Song Do Kwan is also known as Song Moo Kwan.

3. Moo Duk Kwan

Next, we have the Moo Duk Kwan which was founded in 1946 by Hwang Lee.

Influenced by Kung fu, Karate, and Muye Dobo Tongji, Moo Duk Kwan is also known as The Railroad Dojang.

This style of Taekwondo uses Taoist philosophy and Midnight Blue belts instead of black.

4. YMCA Kwon Bop Bu

Young woman doing karate

Image via flic​​kr



Fourth, we have the YMCA Kwon Bop Bu that was founded in 1946 by Byung In Yoon, Lee Nam Suk, and Kim Soon Bae.

Kwon Bop Bu's main influences were Karate and Kung Fu.

Kwon Bop Bu is also known as Chang Moo Kwan.

5. Yun Moo Kwan

The fifth and final Kwan established before the Korean war was the Yun Moo Kwan.

The Yun Moo Kwan was founded in 1946 by Sang Sap Chun, and its influences were Karate and Kung Fu.

Yun Moo Kwan is also known as Ji Do Kwan (jidokwan) or "School for Wisdom's Way," and the name means "School for Martial Study."

6. Han Moo Kwan

Taekwondo

Image via flickr

Founded in 1954 by Lee Kyo Yoon, is the Han Moo Kwan.

Han Moo Kwan's primary influence was another, already established Kwan -- the Yun Moo Kwan.

7. Oh Do Kwan

The seventh Kwan on our list is the Oh Do Kwan.

The Oh Do Kwan was founded in 1955 by Chong Hong Hi, Nam Tae Hi, and Han Cha Kyo.

Oh Do Kwan means, "School of My Way."

8. Kang Duk Kwan

Taekwondo training

Image via flickr

The Kang Duk Kwan was founded in 1953 by Park Chul Hee and Hong Jong Pyo.

Like the other Kwans founded after the Korean War, Kang Duk Kwan's primary influence was the older Kwan named Chang Moo Kwan.

9. Jung Do Kwan

Finally, we round out our list of Kwans with the Jung Do Kwan.

Jung Do Kwan was founded in 1956 by Lee Yong Wu and its influenced by the Chung Do Kwan.

Jung Do Kwan means, "School of the righteous way."

Coming To America

You can't very well talk about the history of Taekwondo without finding out how it came to America.

Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, Taekwondo made its appearance in the United States.

“Take the discipline from Martial Arts, mix it with the air awareness of a gymnast, and the attitude of a breaker. That's Tricking!” -- Armin Houman

At that time, many service members had come home from WWI and WWII and Karate, Judo, and Kung Fu were already getting popular here.

Indeed, General Choi had already been here working with service members at Ft. Riley giving demonstrations on what was then called Taek Kyon in 1949.

It wasn't until after the Korean war was over, however, that Taekwondo hit the American mainstream.

Most people consider Master Jhoon Rhee to be the first Korean to establish a school in America.

Master Jhoon Rhee studied at the Chung Do Kwan in Korea.

However, other people consider other teachers slightly more influential in American Taekwondo.

For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, Ki Whang Kim and S. (Sijak) Henry Cho. Ki Whang Kim both ran schools that dominated at every tournament.

And finally, Haeng Ung Lee along with Great-Grandmaster Suh-Chong Kang (both students of Chung Do Kwan) co-founded the American Taekwondo Association in 1969.

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” -- Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do

So, while we can't point at one single person and thank them for bringing Taekwondo to America, at least we can narrow it down.

Taking It International

As you already know, General Choi managed to get what he was after -- Taekwondo went international.

According to Choi, by 1974, there were 600 qualified ITF instructors scattered throughout the world.

Today, more than 30 million people practice Taekwondo spread out over more than 156 countries around the globe.

But that's not all:

The History Of Taekwondo -- All The Way To The Olympics

One of the most critical moments in the history of Taekwondo was its arrival at the Olympics.

Ultimately, the goal of the WTF was to set standard tournament rules and organize world-class competitions.

So, after Seoul hosted the 2nd World Taekwondo, the WTF affiliated itself with the General Assembly of International Sports Federation (GAISF).

And the GAISF has ties with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul Korea, Taekwondo was an official Demonstration Sport.

Then, in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Taekwondo became only the second martial art featured in the games.

The History Of Taekwondo -- Mind, Body, And Spirit

Now, we know that the practice of Taekwondo goes far beyond simple fighting skills.

Indeed, now that we have learned the history of Taekwondo, we can see that because of specific influences, it's less a sport and more a way of life.

"Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is specifically your own." -- Bruce Lee

Remember the first code of ethics we talked about earlier?

Well, the WTF expanded that list into the following 11 commandments of Taekwondo:

  1. Loyalty to your country
  2. Faithfulness to your spouse
  3. Respect your brothers and sisters
  4. Respect your teachers
  5. Indomitable spirit
  6. Finish what you begin
  7. Respect your parents
  8. Loyalty to your friends
  9. Respect your elders
  10. Never take life unjustly
  11. Loyalty to your school

The History Of Taekwondo -- Ranking

Next, we already know that throughout the history of Taekwondo organizations formed to create, among other things, a uniform ranking system. Remember, each school you attend may have a slightly different version of these rules.

Still, for those of us that don't participate in the sport, here's the general breakdown:

First, everyone starts out with no belt at all.

Then, after you pass each belt test, you get the next color in line all the way up to black.

Color ranks at most WTF schools: 

  1. None
  2. White
  3. Yellow
  4. Orange
  5. Green
  6. Purple
  7. Blue
  8. Brown
  9. Red White
  10. Red
  11. High Red White
  12. Black White Belt
  13. High Black White Belt

Generally, students take a belt test every three months until they reach the highest level.

The History Of Taekwondo -- Hollywood

Now, you can't very well talk about the history of a thing and miss out on an essential factor like its impact on Hollywood.

So, just for fun, let's see who IMDb lists as the top 10 Taek​​wondo movie stars of all time:

  1. Bruce Lee
  2. Chuck Norris
  3. Steven Segal
  4. Jet Lee
  5. Donnie Yen
  6. Jackie Chan
  7. Micheal Jai White
  8. Scott Adkins
  9. Tony Jaa
  10. Iko Uwais

With films like "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," it's undeniable that Taekwondo has had a considerable impact on all of us, not just the people that practice it.

For many of us, to see our favorite star on the screen and know that learning to do that is possible, finding the right school is critical.

The History Of Taekwondo -- It's Time To Learn

If you have gotten excited while reading the history of Taekwondo, perhaps you should think about checking out your local school.

So, the first thing you need to know when it comes to choosing a Taekwondo school is that they are not all created equal. And if you aren't careful, you might choose a school that focuses more on your ability to pay than teaching you any actual skills.

So, here's what you look for:

First, make sure there are no discrepancies between the art of Taekwondo and the school.

"Everything you do, if not in a relaxed state will be done at a lesser level than you are proficient. Thus the tensed expert marksman will aim at a level less than his/her student." -- Bruce Lee

For example, If you aren't learning philosophy, meditation, forms, leadership and other life and fighting skills, there's a problem.

Additionally, the school should be rooted deeply in Korean tradition -- so if yours isn't, find a new one.

Secondly, check out your instructor's qualifications.

Each instructor should have certifications showing that they have achieved black belt status.

Now that you know the history of Taekwondo, you will recognize the organizations that give out certificates -- WTF, ITF, etc.

Taekwondo competition

ITF European Taekwon-do Championships Image CC BY 2.0 from erikluhr via Flickr

If you don't recognize the organization that certified your instructor, research them and base your decision off of that.

Perhaps most importantly, ask your instructor for professional references and do a criminal background check.

Research

You will want to research a few of the students in the class you want to take. And to research the students, you will want to watch at least one class.

Keep your eye out for this:

Are the students:

  • Well groomed
  • Disciplined?
  • Happy?
  • Competent?
  • Fit physically?
  • Well spoken?

You see, Taekwondo is all about discipline.

So, any school worth a darn will have its students in line and performing as they should.

On top of that: Study the cost of the school.

Remember, many schools like this have fees that you won't find out about without asking -- so make sure you get the whole picture.

An Ancient Sport Making A Modern Difference

Because of its tenets, Taekwondo is unlike any other sport out there.

It's not at all surprising that Taekwondo is now an Olympic sport practiced by millions of people around the globe.

Taekwondo competition

Incheon Asian Games 2014 Image CC BY-SA 2.0 from Republic of Korea via Flickr

Although it has a long and complicated history with many setbacks, one thing is certain -- Taekwondo isn't going anywhere now.

Did we miss an important moment in the history of Taekwondo? Have you had any training in Taekwondo? Tell us about it in the comments.

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