Taekwondo: The Spirit of Korea (portions of)

Dr. Steven D. Capener, edited by H. Edward Kim, photos by Suh Jae Sik

Published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism

Republic of Korea, 2000

Provided here and elsewhere with permission.


Chapter 2, The Historical Background of Taekwondo


The taekwondo of today is the modern product of martial arts and folk games developed over many centuries in Korea. While there is no doubt the three main East Asian countries of Korea, China, and Japan all had their own indigenous martial arts, it is also quite likely that they shared much of their martial cultures with each other. Korea was heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought from China and, in turn, Korean Buddhism and other aspects of Korean high culture heavily influenced Japan. Furthermore, there was considerable trade among all three kingdoms from early times. There is little doubt then that the martial arts of all three countries were in some ways influenced by each other. It is equally obvious, however, that the martial arts of each country come to possess the distinct flavor of its country’s culture.

Korea has a long history of martial arts stretching well back into ancient times. Written historical records from the early days of the Korean peninsula are sparse, however, there are a number of well-preserved archeolgical artifacts that tell stores of Korea’s early martial arts.

The earliest unarmed Korean martial art which has been identified was call subakhi. A mural found on the walls of a royal tomb called the "Muyongchong" dated at around the end of the 4th century A.D. from the Koguryo era (B.C 37 - A.D. 668), depicts two men engaging in unarmed sparring. While there is some debate over whether this was subakhi or the Korean form of wrestling called ssirum, it is apparent from similar murals in other tombs from the same period that there was a systemized form of unarmed combat at that time. The fact that these murals are found on the walls of royal tombs tells us something about the importance of subakhi in Koguryo society. Only those images which were thought to protect or amuse the kings buried there were permitted on the walls.

The term subakhi first appears in Korean historical records during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). A reference in the History of Korea tells of a man named Doo Kyung Song (?-1197) who wanted to enter a special branch of the military which was responsible for guarding the king’s palanquin and which recruited men well known for their skill in subakhi.

Subakhi became popular enough during the Koryo Dynasty that in at least two places the History of Korea records events where subakhi matches were held in front of the king. This is an important bit of martial arts history because it tells us that even at that time the Korean people enjoyed the competitive aspects of martial arts. The character su means hand, bak means to strike, and hi means play or game. From this information and other historical records we can see that subakhi was not only a martial art, but also a competitive sport.

Therefore, it is possible that Koreans were perhaps the first to systemize this kind of martial art into an early form of sport in Asia.

During the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), unarmed martial arts suffered greatly from the heavy emphasis of the ruling class on literary over physical activities. There were, however, two important exceptions to this tendency. In 1790, King Chongjo commissioned a book called the Muyedobotongji which was an illustrated manual of Korean martial arts. This book described in detail Korea’s martial arts of which an unarmed combat style of kicking and punching is extensively illustrated.

In spite of subakhi and other martial arts being looked down upon by the elite, subakhi, at least, seems to have continued to develop. In what was a kind of encyclopedia of Korean customer and practices written during the reign of King Chongjo (1777-1800) entitled Chaemulbo there is a statement that the martial art subakhi came to be called "takkyon". It is a fair assumption that the "takkyon" spoken of here is what later came to be called "taekkyon".

What is significant here is not only that the name changed, but also that the techniques themselves changed drastically. In early historical references to subakhi, only hand techniques are emphasized. For instance, "Ui Min struck a post with his fist and the rafters shook," or "Du Kyong Song destroyed a brick with his fist." However, by the end of the 19th century, historical records dealing with taekkyon emphasize that it was an art based mostly on kicking techniques. In fact, by that time it is clear that taekkyon was actually a systemized competition complete with footwork and strategy. According to some scholars, taekkyon had all the characteristics of a modern sport. A famous painting by Yu Suk depicts both taekkyon and ssirum (Korean wresting) matches being held. In the painting, the contestants are surrounded by spectators including fathers who have brought their sons out the watch the matches. Refreshments are also being sold indicating that the events went on for a good part of the day.

A book written in 1923 by a historian named Choi Yong Nyon titled the Haedongjukchi gives the best description of the systemization of taekkyon and the emphasis placed on difficult kicking techniques:


"There was a fighting skill in which the players would try to knock each other down using the feet. The lowest skill level was kicking the opponent’s leg, the next highest was to kick the shoulder, and the highest recognition was given to the one who could kick the opponent’s topknot."


In 1895, an American anthropologist named Stewart Culin visited Korea for the purpose of studying Korean games. In his book Korean Games he includes a picture of two children engaging in a taekkyon match. [note: picture provided in Taekwondo: The Spirit of Korea] Taekkyon had become so popular as a folk sport that people began to bet on the outcome of matches resulting in legislation from the conservative Neo-Confucian government banning its practice. In spite of this, taekkyon was common until around the turn of the century when pressure from the Confucian authorities, who deemed it an inappropriate activity, seems to have lead to its gradual disappearance from common culture.

At the end of the 19th century, Korea was going through a kind of reawakening to foreign influences. Korea had long been closed to foreigners, with the exception of the Chinese and some trade with Japan. However, toward the end of the century, with the establishment of several foreign missions including those of Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, Korea was moving toward modernization.

Unfortunately, it was at this time that Korea’s military was at its weakest. Years of neglect by the ruling literati had led to the decline of the national defense. This trend influenced folks culture as well. Games such as taekkyon and another game called sokchon, which was a stone throwing rivalry between villages, usually held on the 5th of May Festival, seem to have been victims of Neo-Confucian conservatism.

It was in this atmosphere that Korea lost its sovereignty to Japan in a forced annexation. Traditional Korean culture further suffered under the Japanese policy of absorbing Korea into the Japanese Empire. Fortunately, taekkyon did not completely disappear but was preserved in the body of one man, Song Dok Ki (1893-1987), who was responsible for reviving it after liberation in 1945.

The history of subakhi and taekkyon is a good illustration of the Korean people’s love of spirited combat arts. Furthermore, the development from subahki, which emphasized hand techniques, to taekkyon, which emphasized foot techniques, shows the traditional preference in Korean culture for sport or activities which use the feet. Perhaps even more important to the later development of taekwondo is the tendency of Korean combat sports to value difficult skills over easier and simpler ones. This aspect of Korean culture was to play an important role in developing taekwondo into the highly sophisticated martial sport that it is today.



Chapter 3, The History of Modern Taekwondo in Korea


The best place to start the story of the modern development of taekwondo is just after korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization at the end of World War II in 1945. In the period between 1945 and 1947, the five main schools of what would later combine to become taekwondo were opened. These five schools were the Chongdogwan, or School of the Blue Wave, founded by Lee Won Kuk, the Mudokkwan, or School of Martial Virtue, founded by Hwang Ki, the Yonmugwan, or School of Martial Training, founded by Chon San Sop, the Kwonboptojang, or School of the Fist Method, founded by Yun Pyong In, and the Songmugwan, or School of the Pine Tree, founded by No Pyong Chik.

At that time, these schools used various names to describe what they were teaching. For example, the Chongdogwan called its style Tangsudo which means the way of Chinese (Tang dynasty) hand techniques. The Mudokkwan also called its style Tangsudo while the Yonmugwan called its style Kongsudo which means way of the empty hand.

The Kwonboptojang called its style Kwonbop which means fist method. In spite of the differences in names, what the schools were teaching was, in fact, very similar. As can be seen from these names, not much emphasis was given at that time to foot techniques. This, however, was to change very quickly. It was around the mid-1950s that the leaders of the various schools started to feel the need for a common name for what they were teaching. Several names were proposed, among them was the name taekwondo. For the time being, however, a name could not be agreed upon and the schools continued to teach under various names.

Initially, all of these schools but the Songmugwan opened in Seoul. Immediately after opening they started to attract large numbers of students and their popularity spread quickly. The Korean War, which broke out in 1950 and lasted until 1953, was to interrupt the progress of martial arts in Korea for a few years, but by the mid-1950s the schools had re-established and several new schools had opened.

It was in the early 1960s that taekwondo began to systematically organize itself both in matters of administration and technique. In 1961, the Korean Taesudo Association was formed in an attempt to organize the administration of the various schools. Finally, in 1965, the Korean Taekwondo Association was formed and the name taekwondo became official.

In 1966, the International Taekwondo Federation was established for the purpose of promoting taekwondo outside of Korea. This was an important step in the international development of taekwondo. However, the most important changes that taekwondo underwent in the 1960s were in the way it was practiced and in the techniques themselves.

In the 1950s, taekwondo sparring still resembled the system used by Japanese karate: the entire body was considered a target and no contact was allowed. This reflected the belief that taekwondo was first and foremost a method of self-defense where the entire body was a weapon and that contact between opponents would result in serious injury. In the early 1960s, however, some taekwondo leaders started to experiment with a radical new system that would result in the development of a new martial sport different from anything ever seen before. This new martial sport would bear some important similarities to the traditional Korean game of taekkyon.

The first major innovation was the use of a chest protector, which allowed fighters to execute full-power techniques to the body. Next was the prohibition of throwing punches to the face. Only kicks to the face were allowed. The idea behind this was that it is relatively easy and natural to punch to the face while to kick an opponent’s face is difficult and requires considerable training and skill. Along with these changes, taekwondo leaders experimented with another radical change. Previously, all action was stopped every time the opponents would clash so that a score could be determined. In the new system, continuous fighting was allowed and a running score was kept. The result of the changes was the development of new kicking techniques and strategies that were unlike anything seen in other martial arts.

This system was first officially introduced in 1963 when taekwondo was accepted into the Korean National Sport Festival as a demonstration sport. The next year, taekwondo was officially adopted as a permanent sport in the sports festival using this system.

With its inclusion in the Korean National Sports Festival, sport taekwondo experienced an explosion of growth in Korea. Middle school, high school, and university teams were rapidly formed and the number of competitors and competitions expanded every year. This growth, in turn, brought great changes to taekwondo.

In 1965 the 1st National Open Taekwondo Championships were held with eight weight divisions from fin to heavy weight. The use of so many weight divisions was also a new innovation in martial sports. In 19966, the 1st National Middle School, High School, University, and Individual Taekwondo Championships were held, opening the way for the formation of middle, high school, and university teams across the country. Following this trend, in 1970, the 1st National Elementary School and Women’s Taekwondo Championships were held further promoting the development of sport taekwondo for youths and women.

During this time, with the large number of teams and individuals practicing and the increasing number of competitions, taekwondo’s modern techniques continued to develop at an incredible rate. Initially, members of the original five schools did not have much contact with each other, but trained mostly with members of their own schools. However, after teams were formed and competitions began to be frequently held, students of the different schools started to compete against each other and, in the case of university teams, often found themselves teammates with people from the other schools.

The result of this great exchange among the different schools of taekwondo was a period of intense experimentation with new techniques in order to become more competitive under the new rules which emphasized full-contact kicking.

The 1960s and 1970s were when most of the technical innovations in sparring were developed such as the spinning and jumping kicks and the incredible footwork that allows competitors to execute complex and dazzling kicking combinations while moving forward or backward. By the 1980s, the modern nature of taekwondo as a sport including techniques and rules was firmly established. However, there continues to be subtle changes in strategy and technique which are a mark of dynamic and progressive nature of sport taekwondo.