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Taekwondo History






The History of Taekwondo


Taekwondo is the national martial art of Korea and is one of the proudest cultural heritages for the Korean people and has been developed into a modern sport as a result of its diligent accomplishments and experiences throughout history. The continual growth of technical and spiritual refinement of Taekwondo has been firmly established as a national martial art which enables the people of Korea to defend their nation.


The Origin of Taekwondo


Man by nature has an instinct to preserve his own life, and therefore will engage in physical activities most of the time either consciously or unconsciously. In ancient times people had no means other than their hands and body to defend themselves. Naturally bare-hand fighting techniques were developed. Even though weapons were available as a means of defense, people continued to use bare-hand fighting techniques for the purpose of building physical strength as well as showing off through matches at the tribal community rituals.


In the early history of the Korean peninsula, there were three tribes dwelling there, each enjoying the warrior's martial art contests during the ritual seasons. At those times people learned techniques from their experiences of fighting against the beasts whose defensive and offensive motions were also the subject of analysis. It is believed that this was exactly the true grounding of today's Taekwondo. The word Taekwondo is believed to have descended from Subak, Taekkyon, Takkyon and so on. In the ancient times on the Korean peninsula, three kingdoms came into existence, always rivaling against one another in order to gain political superiority. The Kindgdoms were the Koguryo, Paekje and Silla, and they all favored the development of the national strength by training warriors. Therefore, Korean history shows that there were military personalities among the well-known, prominent national leaders in each of the three kingdoms, which proves the militant tendency of a ruling hierarchy. As a result, youth warrior corps were formed, such as the Hwarangdo in Silla and the Chouisonin in Koguryo, which both adopted martial art training as one of the important topics in education. A renowned martial art book of the days is, called Muyedobotongji it states Taekwondo (the art of hand-to-hand fight) is the basis of Korean martial arts. It enables one to build strength by means of guiding the hand and foot freely and training arms and legs as well as the body to be adaptable to any critical situations, which means Taekwondo was already prevalent in that age. Thus, it can be easily assumed that Taekwondo was originated from the days of tribal communities on the Korean peninsula. Silla was a kingdom founded in 57 B.C. on the southeastern part of Korea and Koguryo founded in 7 B.C. on the northern part of Korea along the Yalu river, both making great efforts to raise their youngsters into strong warriors called Hwarang and " Sonbae" respectively, certainly with Taekwondo as one of the principal subjects of physical training.


Koguryo's Sonbae and Taekkyon


Koguryo was founded on the northern part of Korea, surrounded by the hostile Han (Chinese) tribes. Therefore, in its initial stage of national foundation, the kingdom organized a strong warrior's corps called "Sonbae" in its attempt to consolidate the centralized power. According to historians, a man of virtue who never recoils from a confrontation or fight means "Sonbae”. Later a history book on the old Chosun Dynasty described the lift of Koguryo days, saying; "people gathered on March 10 every year at a site of ritual, where they enjoyed a sword dance, archery, Subak (Taekyon) contests and so on", implying that Subak (Taekwondo) was one of the popular events for the ritual in the Koguryo days. It also said Sonbaes lived in groups, learning history and literary arts at home and going out to construct roads and fortresses for the benefits of society, always devoting themselves to the nations. Therefore, it is altogether natural that Koguryo put the priority of interests on Taekyon which was the basis of martial arts, as can be proved by the wall paintings discovered at several tombs during Koguryo period. A mural painting at the Samsil tomb shows two warriors engaged in a face-to-face match in a Taekyon (Taekwondo) stance, and a third at the same tomb shows the scene of Korean wrestling competitions, clearly distinguishing it from that of Taekyon. It can be assumed from the paintings of a Taekyon match that the deceased were either a Taekyon practitioner or the subject of battle with dances of this martial art.


Silla's Hwarang and Taekkyon


The kingdom of Silla was founded on the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula. There was no immediate threat from the outside, but along with the birth of the Paekje kingdom on its west flank and the start of invasions by the Koguryo from the north, Silla was impelled to arm itself with its own martial arts. In fact, Hwarangdo is the typical example of Silla's martial arts, which is an assimilation of Koguryo's Sonbae systems. The members of the youth group of Hwarando were well trained with the sense of devoted obligation, and loyalty to the kingdom and sacrificial sentiment to its society to become important personalities for the rein of kingdom. Notable among them were Kim Yu-sin and Kim Chun-chu that made a definite contribution to the unification of those three kingdoms. After the Hwarang, were selected by the kingdom through contests, they lived together in a group, indulging themselves in learning, exercising Subak (old form of Taekwondo), fencing and horse-riding. Sometimes they enjoyed various games of communities, such as working on emergency aids and construction of fortresses and roads. They were always ready to sacrifice their lives in time of war. Hwarangs were particularly influenced by the Buddhistic disciplines and therefore a bronzed statue of a warrior, is currently exhibited at the Kyongju museum clearly indicating that martial arts were practiced at temples by showing a strong man's bare-hand defensive and offensive stances. Particularly the shape of a fist shown on the statue of Kumgang Yoksa (diamond warrior: a strong man) exactly resembles that of a "Jungkwon" (right fist) in the contemporary term of Taekwondo. The statue also shows today's "pyon jumok " (flat fist) and the use of legs, which are seen in today's Taekwondo. It is really noticeable that in that Silla era the terms of "Subak" (hand techniques) and "Taekkyon" appear together, signifying that both hand and foot techniques were used in martial arts as shown in today's Taekwondo.

Taekkyon Transmitted from Koguryo to Silla


As the art of Taekkyon was popularized in Koguryo, it was also handed down to in the Silla kingdom, which is justified by the following points of view:


(1) "Hwarang" (or sonrang) in Silla has the same meaning with the word "Sonbae" in Koguryo by indicating both the youth warrior's corps from their etymological origins

(2) Both the Hwarang and Sonbae had the same organizations and hierarchical structure as one another.

(3) According to history, as Sonbaes in Koguryo used to compete in Taekkyon games at the time of their national festivals, the Hwarangs in Silla also participated in such events.


Taekkyon games (Subak, Dokkyoni or Taekkyoni) at such festivals as Palkwanhoe and Hankawi, thus systematically developing the ancient fighting techniques into the Taekkyon(or sonbae) as the basis of martial arts by around A.D.200. From the 4th century the hwarangs took the taekkyon lesson as a systemized martial art at their learning houses to make it also popularized among ordinary people so much so that their techniques were depicted on the mural paintings of ancient warrior tombs.


Again, it is also true that Taekkyon, coming down to Silla, was further developed into a school of martial art with the division of techniques, such as bare-hand and foot techniques, which can be proved by the fact that both hand and foot techniques are clearly shown in the ancient sculptures of Buddhist statues.


Taekwondo in the Middle Ages


The Koryo dynasty, which reunified the Korean peninsula after the Silla era and lasted from 918 A.D. to 1392, had the Taekkyon develop a more complex system and made it a mandatory subject in the examinations for the selection of military cadets. The techniques and power of Taekkyon martial art grew to become effective weapons, even in killing human beings. In the military, a pattern of collective practice, called Obyong-subak-hui (5 soldier's Taekkyon play), was introduced so that it might be used in a real war.


In the early days of Koryo dynasty, martial art abilities were the only required qualifications to become military personnel. It was necessary that the kingdom used these national defense capabilities after the conquered peninsula. Even when an average soldier mastered the Taekkyon techniques, he was promoted to a general. The young were also invited to Taekkyon contests and the skilled ones were then selected to become military officers. There were many other examples in which many Taekkyon-mastered youths were picked up in contests, which is proof that the Taekwondo sport was originated in that time period. The chronicles of Koryo dynasty said; "at a power contest of Taekkyon techniques, lee yi-min punched a pillar of the house with his right-hand fist, then some of the props of the roof were shaken. Another Taekkyon master had his fist pierce through the clay-wall."


Especially the kings of Koryo dynasty were much interested in "subakhui"(Taekkyon contest), making it a compulsory course of military training. Therefore, subakhui was also popular out for inspection tours in the villages. However, the Koryo dynasty in its latest years had gunpowder and new types of weapons available at hand, thus slowing down its support of martial arts as the folk games to be transmitted as such down to the modern Korea, Chosun.


Taekwondo in Modern Times


In the modern times of Korea, which cover the Chosun (or Yi) dynasty (1392-1910), the imperial Korea and the Japanese colonial rule until 1945, Taekwondo was called "Subakhui" instead of "Taekkyon" and it suffered an eventual loss of official support from the central government as the weapons were modernized for national defense, even though the Subkhui was still popular in the early days of Chosun.


The Yi dynasty (Chosun) was founded on the ideology of Confucianism, which resulted in the rejection of all Buddhist festivals and gave more importance on literary art than of the martial art. Nonetheless, the historical accounts of Chosun dynasty tell stories about the contests of Subakhui ordered by local officials for the purpose of selecting soldiers and other events ordered by the kings who simply enjoyed watching Subakhui contests at the times of feasts. It was also ruled by the defense department that a soldier be employed when he prevailed over three other contestants in the Subakhui matches. However, as the systematic organization of government progressed, the government officials began to lay more importance on power struggles than on the interest of defense, naturally neglecting promotion of martial arts. Then, it was during the days of King Jungjo, after the disgraceful invasion of Korea by the Japanese (in 1592), that the royal government revived strong defense measures by strengthening military training and martial art practice. Around this period there was a publication of the so-called Muyedobotongji, a book of martial art illustrations, whose 4th volume entitled "hand-fighting techniques" contained the illustration of 38 motions, exactly resembling today's Taekwondo Poomsae and basic movements. Of course, those motions cannot be compared with today's Taekwondo Poomsae, which has been modernized through scientific studies. Even under the Japanese colonial rule, some famous Korean writers, such as Shin Chae-ho and Choi Nam-sun, mentioned about Taekwondo, saying "present Subak prevailing in Seoul came from the Sonbae in the Koguryo dynasty," and Subak is like today's Takkyon which was originally practiced as a martial art but is now played mostly by children as games. However, the Japanese colonial government totally prohibited all folkloric games including Takkyon in the process of suppressing the Korean people. The martial art Taekkyondo (Taekwondo) had been secretly handed down only by the masters of the art until the liberation of the country in 1945. Song Duk-ki, one of the then masters, is still alive at the age of over 80 and testifies that his master was Im Ho who was reputed for his excellent skills of Taekkyondo, "jumping over the walls and running through the wood just like a tiger.”


At that time 14 terms of techniques were used, representing 5 kicking patterns, 4 hand techniques, 3 pushing-down-the-heel patterns, one(1) turning-over kick pattern and 1 technique of downing-the-whole-body. Also noteworthy is the use the term "poom" which signified a face-to-face stance preparing for a fight. The masters of Taekkyondo were also under constant threat of imprisonment, which resulted in an eventual of Taekkyondo as popular games.


Present Day Taekwondo


Upon liberation of Korea from the Japanese colonial rule after world war II, the Korean people began to recover and became self-reliant and the traditional folkloric games resumed their popularity. Song Duk-ki, the afore-mentioned Master of Taekkyondo, presented a demonstration of the martial art before the first Republic of Korea, President Syngman Rhee on his birthday anniversary, thus clearly distinguishing Taekwondo from the Japanese karate which had been introduced by the Japanese rulers. Martial art experts began opening their Taekwondo gymnasia all over the country and after the end of Korean war (1950-1953) Taekwondo was popularized among the dan-grade black-belters within the country, rapidly increased the number of Taekwondo masters to 2,000 in more than 100 countries for foreigners' training. After all, following the approval of Taekwondo as a national martial art in 1971, the present Kukkiwon was founded in 1972 to be used as the central gymnasium for various Taekwondo competitions and practices. Then a year later on May 28, 1973 the World Taekwondo Federation came into existence currently having 164 countries as its members. In 1975 Taekwondo was accepted as an official sport by the U.S Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and also admitted into the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), followed by the adoption of official sports event by the international council of military sports (CISM) in 1976. In 1979, the President of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was elected President of the world federation of non-Olympic sports. The WTF became an IOC-recognized sports federation in 1980, making Taekwondo an Olympic sport. Most recently, the adoption of Taekwondo as an official event, was followed by the World Games in 1981, during the Pan-American games in 1986, and finally by the 2000 Olympiad held in Australia.



~Based off of the Kukkiwon historical account

Taekwondo in Korean
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