Taekwondo>History>Chapter 1: Introduction

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Chapter 1: Introduction


Taekwondo is steeped in history and tradition. While studying taekwondo, students hear various references to taekwondo history, such as in the names of hyung (forms or patterns), and are required to perform certain techniques based upon taekwondo tradition, such as bowing. However, most students don’t know these things, and many don’t care. The more taekwondo students know about its history and traditions, the better they will understand taekwondo hyung and techniques, and the roots of their development.


Taekwondo instructors often speak of taekwondo history in rather vague terms. Sometimes, students hear instructors mention the Silla Dynasty or the hwarang, without much additional information. Instructors often describe taekwondo as an age-old martial art that has its origins in ancient Korea. While the supposed antiquity of the taekwondo may make it seem mysterious, it is also misleading. Taekwondo as a martial art is less than a century old. It is based on ancient Korean martial arts and the martial arts of other countries, including Japan, but the actual martial art known as taekwondo was developed between 1945 and 1955 and only became known as taekwondo in 1955.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art. It is a unique martial art in that it expresses the essence of its country of origin. No other martial art has been as influential in the country of its origin as has taekwondo in Korea. Some believe taekwondo is Korea's most effective diplomatic tool in spreading Korean culture throughout the world. However, taekwondo has an identity problem due to confusion and distortion regarding its historical origins and process of development.

Writings on taekwondo history usually portray taekwondo as a unique product of Korean culture, developed over the long course of Korean history since the Three Kingdoms Era. However, taekwondo's primary influence came from Japanese karate that was introduced into Korea during the Japanese occupation of Korea during the early 1900s.

After WWII, Korean martial artists who would later become the founders of taekwondo began to "Koreanize" the Japanese karate they had learned during the Japanese occupation, so it would reflect more of the Korean culture. They began to incorporate some of the remnants of the ancient subak and taekkyeon into their previous karate training. As the development progressed, they saw the need for a new, non-Japanese name, the creation of a system of techniques and training that was distinctly different from that of karate, and the desire to show taekwondo's development throughout Korean history. The new name given the art was "taekwondo."

The development of a new system of techniques and training led to moving taekwondo away from karate's nature as a martial art to that of taekwondo being more of a martial sport. This process has been called the "competitionalization" of taekwondo.

Efforts remove the Japanese karate influence have left taekwondo divided into two entities: a traditional martial art and a competitive sport. Traditional taekwondo is still largely based on the training principles, kata, and philosophies of Japanese karate, while competitive taekwondo, which originated in Korea, is considered a subset of traditional taekwondo.

The concept of martial arts was developed in Japan beginning with the transformation of swordsmanship from a battlefield necessity to a form of philosophic human movement (Tao). This philosophical concept, as applied to fighting skills, did not exist in Korea. As will be discussed later, physical activity, especially the fighting arts, became an object of scorn and a sign of low breeding during the latter years of the Joseon Dynasty.

Korea's first exposure to the concept of martial arts was through training in judo and kendo during the Japanese occupation of the early 1900's. The martial arts concept was further reinforced with the introduction of shotokan karate and other Japanese philosophies and methodologies.

Taekwondo not only has a physical history; it also has a spiritual history. It was created without spiritual components, but its origins were spiritually based. This spiritual aspect seems to be lacking in many dojangs in the United States, maybe because of the traditional relationship between taekwondo and Buddhism. Since most occidentals do not understand or practice Buddhism, they usually ignore the spiritual aspects of taekwondo.

Understanding taekwondo's spiritual aspects does not mean one needs to be a Buddhist, or any other religion for that matter. It only means that one understands the reasons behind the basic principles and traditions of taekwondo, such as why students are taught to avoid unnecessary violence and why it is stressed that students use their fighting skills responsibly.

Many taekwondo students have learned the physical skills of taekwondo, but they know little of its origin or its spiritual basis. Is it any wonder there are so many taekwondo practitioners who are immature "showoffs?" They know how to perform taekwondo techniques, but they know very little about the “way” of taekwondo. Students must learn about taekwondo as well as learn its techniques. Taekwondo is constantly changing, so it is essential that taekwondo practitioners understand its history, both physical and spiritual, so they may ensure any future changes remain true to the roots of taekwondo.

In the criminal justice system, the law recognizes that differing witnesses to an incident are not necessarily lying; they are just viewing the same incident from a different viewpoint and with prejudiced eyes. This prejudice is affected by many factors, such the country of origin, economic class, age, etc. of each witness. History is affected in the same way. Any book on history is affected by the religion, race, gender, politics, etc. of the author.

There are few written records of ancient Korean history so information on Korean martial arts is scarce and sketchy. Because of this, most Korean martial arts writers are able to find something in Korean history to support their claims, even if it may not even pertain the martial arts.

So remember, the Korean history discussed in this topic is prejudiced toward taekwondo. The history includes information from many differing, sometimes contradictory, sources. There is no guarantee that all the history presented in this topic is factual; only that it is comprehensive.

Many modern masters of the Korean martial arts claim they can trace the origins of their systems back to the dawn of Korean civilization. Unfortunately, virtually all records of the actual techniques of the ancient Korean martial arts were destroyed by the Japanese forces that occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1909-1945. Only two documents remain that furnish any insight into Korea's martial arts history: the Moo Yeh Jee Bo and the Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi.

Moo Yeh Shin Bo

Conflicts between Japan and Korea have existed for centuries. Between 1592 and 1598, an attempted Japanese invasion of Korea took place but the invaders were eventually defeated. Near the end of this conflict, a Chinese military text entitled, Ki Hyu Shin Zu, authored by the Chinese military strategist and martial artist, Chuk, Kye Kwang was discovered. The text had been acquired from a slain Japanese General and was then presented to Korean King Sun Jo (1567-1608).

The text detailed a system of Chinese weapons and hand-to-hand combat designed specifically for warfare. King Sun Jo was so impressed by these methods that he invited Chinese generals and Chinese martial art masters who used this system to visit his capital, which they did. The King then ordered one of his generals, Han-Kyo, to take what he had learned from both the text and the demonstrations and design a new system of battlefield combat. This system, written in six chapters, was created and published as, Moo Yeh Jee Bo or The Illustrations of the Martial Arts, which became the basis for formalized warfare in the Korean military. The text described techniques of such weapons as the sang ssoo do (long sword), jang chang (spear), dang pa (triple end spear), kon bong (long staff), and dung pa (shield defense).

Korean King Yong Jo (1724-1776) had the text revised during his reign. Twelve additional approaches to fighting were added and it was renamed, Moo Yeh Shin Bo or The New Illustrations of the Martial Arts. The added fighting techniques were the bon kuk kum (Korean style straight sword), wae kum (Japanese style sword), jee dokkum (admiral's sword), yee do (short sword), Sang kum (twin swords), wae kum (crescent sword), juk jang (long bamboo spear), hyup do (spear with blade), kee jang (flag spear), pyun kon (long staff with end like a nunchaku), kyo jun (combat engagement strategy), and kwon bop (hand-to-hand combat).

In 1790, at the direction of King Jung Jo (1776-1800), Korean military strategists Yi Duk Moo and Park Je Ga again revised the text and renamed it, Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi, The Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of the Martial Arts, and added six additional chapters: ma sang (combat horsemanship), ki chang (spear fighting from horseback), masang wol do (sword fighting from horseback), ma sang sang kum (twin sword fighting from horseback), masang pyun kon (long staff with shorter end similar to nunchaku, fighting from horseback), and hyuk koo (gaming on horseback).

Moo Yeh  Do Bok Tong Gi

The Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi was first published for world distribution, in its original form, over twenty years ago by Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan founder Hwang Kee in this book, Tang Soo Do. It has recently been translated into English.

This text is the primary remaining document of Korean martial art foundational history. The techniques presented in the manuscript are extremely limited and the drawings, which depict the maneuvers, are not very detailed, so, although it is great text, it was written for a different age, and as such, it is not the holy grail of martial art manuscripts as some people believe it to be.

Subak and Taekkyeon

Since the establishment of the ancient Korean state in either 2332 BC or 1122 BC (depending on the reference), the Korean people have had to fight to protect their independence from Chinese, Mongol, and Japanese invasions. As a result of these centuries of fighting, they developed a systematic art of self-defense that was used for national defense as well as for personal defense. Early forms of martial arts were used by the military throughout Korea, as indicated in an old Korean song:
"The art of hand is like the use of the sword. General Chok taught it as a military art. If one neglects one single pass of the two hands, he will be beheaded in the blink of an eye."
Suh Inhyuk, a researcher of Korean martial arts, divides Korean martial arts into three groups, classified by their use:
  • Sado moosul (private or folk martial arts). These styles are related to sport and competition.
  • Pulsa moosul (Buddhist martial arts). These styles were practiced in Buddhist temples and were dedicated to moral self-improvement and spiritual-physical development.
  • Kunjoon moosul (court martial arts). These styles were used to train the military and concentrated more on weapons than on empty hand fighting.
The earliest known names for Korean martial arts that formed the foundation of taekwondo were subak and taekkyeon. In researching writings about ancient Korea, it is difficult to differentiate between these two ancient martial arts. The first references to subak claimed to be the predecessor of taekkyeon, are found in the Koryosa (History of Koryo) circa 1147. The first reference to taekkyeon is found in Chaemulbo, a book written by Yi Song-gi during the reign of King Chongjo (1776-1800). Many historical references consider the two terms synonymous since there is no clear dividing line between the two.

Subak was the older of the two arts and taekkyeon built upon it by adding more foot techniques. Over the centuries, subak has been called subak-hi, subak-ki, and sub-yeok-ta; while taekkyeon has been known as takkyeon, taekkyon, taekyon, gakhi, gasul, and big aksul. Many other fighting styles developed in ancient Korea, such as kanyok or subak-chigi, charyeok, yusul, and oren kwon but the most original and "most Korean" of them was taekkyeon. The name taekkyeon was always written using the Korean alphabet while other style names were written using Chinese hieroglyphs.

Taekkyeon did not use many stances, but it had very developed kicks, leg jams, and sweeps. The aim in taekkyeon fighting was to defeat the opponent, not to injure him. Kicks were below chest level, and most were circular in movement, not straight. Hand techniques were circular movements without using fists. They primarily were used for palm-push blocks and grasping to set an opponent up for a kick attack.

All martial arts began the day the first human had to defend himself/herself against an attack from an animal or one the other humans, so the search for the roots of taekwondo must begin with the first humans.

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