History of Tae Kwon Do
Tae Kwon Do is the Korean art of self-defense with roots dating back 2000 years. There is no single official account of Tae Kwon Do’s development during ancient times; however, there are many historical records that reference the practice of martial arts in ancient Korea. The earliest is a mural painted in a tomb found in the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo (now Tonggou, Manchuria) that is dated between 37 BC and 66 AD. The painting depicts two unarmed figures facing each other in stances that resemble today’s modern Tae Kwon Do stances. There are more paintings in the tomb with similar illustrations of figures doing blocks and wearing Tae Kwon Do-like uniforms.
Agrarian societies in ancient Korea often held festivals before and after the yearly harvest. During these celebrations they ate, drank, sang and danced. There were also recreational games and competitions of physical strength. These events eventually developed into exercises used to strengthen the mind and body. These exercises, along with the need to constantly protect themselves from enemies, human and animal, led people to develop more effective fighting skills.
It was during the Period of the Three Kingdoms when the practice of martial arts became popularized. The three kingdoms, Koguryo, Paekche and Silla, were in constant rivalry with each other; thus, many military personnel became prominent national leaders and formed warrior groups. Koguryo’s warrior group was named “chouisonin.” Its individual members were called Sonbae. “Chouisonin” adopted Subak, a fighting style that used hand strikes, jointlocks, throws and kicks. Subak was passed onto the kingdom of Silla when it received military assistance from Koguryo. Silla’s military group, Hwarangdo, and its members, called Hwarang, modeled themselves after the Sonbae and also adopted Subak. The Hwarangdo comprised sons of nobles from within the kingdom. At first, it was only the Hwarang who studied Subak, but it gradually became popular amongst ordinary people and spread throughout the kingdom.
The Hwarangdo also followed a philosophical and religious code based on the Five Codes of Human Conduct written by a Buddhist monk:
1) Loyalty to your country
2) Obedience to you parents
3) Trustworthiness to your friends
4) Courage to never retreat from your enemy
5) Justice to never take a life without a cause
These codes guided the Hwarangs’ moral behavior and reasons they used Subak.
Today’s so-called Eleven Commandments of modern Tae Kwon Do are also based on these codes:
1) Loyalty to your country
2) Faithfulness to your spouse
3) Respect your brother 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 a life unjustly
11) Loyalty to your school
The Hwarang further developed Subak by adding hand techniques, kicks, mental discipline and principles. Subak had primarily been practiced as an art, but had now been transformed into a useful combat skill. The Hwarang did extensive mountain running as training and had powerful legs. As a result, they began to incorporate formal kicking techniques into Subak. One account says that Shilla used to hold a kicking competition. A good competitor could kick the legs of his opponent, a better one could kick the shoulders and the best would be able to kick the topknot of his rival. Silla was eventually able to overcome both Koguryo and Paekche, but the Silla throne eventually weakened and an end came to the Silla Dynasty. The Koryo Dynasty that followed, although a time of peace, was also a time period that put emphasis on martial arts both recreationally and as a military practice.
Subak eventually came to be known as Tae Kyon. There are varying accounts of when this occurred. Some say Tae Kyon was being used during the Silla Dynasty, some say it transitioned during the Koryo Dynasty, others say during the Joseon period and there are even more variations still. All accounts do agree on one thing: Subak came to refer to the hand techniques while Tae Kyon came to refer to the techniques using powerful strikes with the feet.
The popularity of martial arts declined during the Joseon Dynasty which began in 1393 AD. The development of weapons such as guns and the anti-Buddhist/pro-Confucian sentiment led the ruling class to direct their attention away from martial arts and Tae Kyon began to lose its popularity. The end of the Joseon Dynasty led right into the Japanese occupation of Korea during which a ban was placed on the practice of martial arts. Any type of training that occurred was done so in secret.
After WWII and the Japanese occupation came to an end, Korea went through a period of rediscovering and reviving its cultural identity. With this came the revitalization of Tae Kyon and Korean martial arts. In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, there was a martial arts demonstration for President Rhee Syngman. The demonstration was meant to show the difference between Korean Tae Kyon and Japanese Karate. The president was impressed by the display and ordered the instructors to introduce martial arts training to the military. He then ordered the different schools (kwans) be unified under a single system and in 1955 the name Tae Kwon Do was officially adopted. The name was chosen because of its accurate description of the art: tae means hand, kwon means foot and do means art.
In 1963, the Korean Association of Sport formally adopted Tae Kwon Do as an event. It was also during the 1960’s that master instructors began to travel to other countries in order to spread Tae Kwon Do throughout the world. In 1971, Tae Kwon Do was designated as the national sport of Korea and in 1973 Korea hosted the first Tae Kwon Do World Championships. That same year the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was established as the international governing institution for the sport and competition aspects of Tae Kwon Do. It started with just nine member countries but now boasts 120 countries with 20 million practitioners. Tae Kwon Do was first introduced to the Olympic Games as a demonstration event in 1988 during the Seoul Olympic Games and became a medal sport in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.