Taekwondo means “the way of the foot and fist” in Korean. The word itself has only been used to describe the martial art since around 1955 even though the style has been around for over 2300 years. The martial art that came to be known as Taekwondo has deep roots in the history of Korea, so we’ll start there describing the history of the martial art and how it evolved over time to what we know today. Let’s look at the history of Taekwondo.
Ancient History of Taekwondo
The roots of Taekwondo begin in 2333 BC. The national founder of Old Korea, Tangun, led his people to develop communities and tribal lifestyles that included what historians believe is the start of fighting systems that branched out into a variety of martial arts, including what became known as Taekwondo. During the 6th century AD, Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Silla, Paejke, and Koguryo.
The three kingdoms were at war with one another. Koguryo was the largest of the kingdoms and historians have discovered in all three kingdoms highlight the development of Taekwondo as a fighting style used on the battlefield. Silla, being the smallest of the kingdoms, had a difficult time defending itself so Chin Heung, the king of the kingdom, formed a group of warriors called the HwaRang. The HwaRang learned and perfected a form of unarmed combat called SooBak.
Under the guidance of Heung, and Buddhist monk Won Kang, SooBak evolved into a way of life that united Silla into being able to defeat its enemies. Kang came up with a set of ethics to guide the way of life of those studying SooBak. This code further evolved HwaRang and SooBak into the HwaRangDo or the “way of the flower of manhood.” The HwaRang fighters became known for their fighting style and code of conduct on the battlefield which made their enemies tremble during battle. This allowed Silla to conquer Paekje and Kogoryu kingdoms to unify Korea as Koryo.
From 918 AD to 1392, the Koryo Dynasty saw HwaRangDo further evolve into a way of life and fighting style. Many styles developed from HwaRangDo, including the evolution of SooBak into a popular style of fighting by the Koryo military. This helped fuel the discipline and drive to success on the battlefield of Koryo. Tae Kyon was born out of a combination of various fighting styles used across the country, focusing on using the feet as a weapon. As soldiers traveled across Asia, they integrated other fighting styles into one another that showed a boost in the popularity and spread of the martial arts.
Then, from 1392 AD to 1910, the Yi Dynasty shifted the prevailing Buddhism beliefs to Confucianism. This brought Chinese influence in Korea, which changed everything from the daily lives of Koreans to military and government structure. The cultural development led to the common people losing interest in the martial arts and the study and practice among anyone but the military was banned throughout the country. HwaRangDo, Buddhism, and other cultural teachings lost their importance to the Korean people during this time.
As the military began teaching, developing, and changing how the martial arts was used within its ranks, King Jong Jo ordered a manual of military arts to be written. This included physical training, weapons training, and more for the military. As the military saw a decline in training, Kora was taken over by the Japanese in August 1910.
Modern History of Taekwondo
Once Japanese influence spilled into Korea, just about everything within the country changed. All martial arts, and sports in general, were banned. The military could still learn and practice the martial arts but under the careful guidance of Japanese military officials. SooBakGi, now SooBakDo, was practiced in secret among the Korean military. Combat arts from Japan were introduced the Korean military and the common people eventually.
Japanese culture was taught at all levels in Korea, including schools. Japanese martial arts such as Kendo, Judo, Aikido, and Karate were introduced throughout the country. Martial arts began to flourish again in the country under the watchful eye of Japan. Korea was liberated from Japanese control in August 1945. Koreans were eager to evolve, develop and create new forms of martial arts as the spark of discipline, creativity, and understanding of what they brought to the country excited the people once again.
At the time, five major martial arts academies flourished after 1945 in Korea: Songmu Kwan, Chungdo Kwan, Changmu Kwan, Jido Kwan, and Mooduk Kwan. A variety of styles were taught in each of these academies, including Tae Kwon, HwaRangDo, and SooBakDo. The way these martial arts were taught, advancement occurred, life skills were introduced and more varied from each academy, too.
In 1946, leaders of the dojangs wanted to unify martial arts in Korea and set a standard for how things were taught in academies. Unfortunately, these meetings fell flat when instructors couldn’t agree on what to teach, what code of conduct to follow, and what to do about creating a combat style.
By 1955, leaders gathered again to try and unify the martial arts in Korea. In April that year, they agreed to a unified martial art named Taekwondo. In 1962, the Korean Amateur Sports Association recognized Taekwondo officially. The martial art became known as the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) shortly thereafter.
The World Taekwondo Federation was established in May 1973 by Un Yon Kim in Seoul. This federation oversees and preserves the roots of Taekwondo in Korea and around the world. They control how testing, promotion, and more works for the martial art to keep it unified no matter where you may study.
Future of Taekwondo
Taekwondo, under the guidance of the World Taekwondo Federation, is one of the most popular and thriving martial arts on the planet. It’s practiced in more than 190 countries. Taekwondo is an official event of the Olympics. In the United States, more than five million Americans study Taekwondo. The martial art shows no signs of slowing down and has become a way of life for those studying it around the world.
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