Taekwondo>History>Chapter 2: Ancient beginning

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Chapter 2: Ancient beginning


Hand-to-hand combat is as old as the human race. Although the origins of ancient martial arts are shrouded in mystery, an undeniable fact is that humans have always used their hands and feet for self-protection. By nature, humans have an instinct for self-preservation; if you threaten an infant, he/she will strike out with tiny fists in self-defense. Therefore, the first humans tended to engage in physical activities, either consciously or unconsciously, that enabled them to protect themselves against attacks from their enemies or wild animals. Since an attack could come from any direction at any time, early humans had to defend themselves instantly and reflexively from any possible attack. So for the first 500,000 years of their existence (the Instinctive Action Age), humans defended themselves instinctively with no conscious defensive techniques. Many times, they resorted to mere stone throwing. The awesome effectiveness of these stone throwing techniques was amply displayed in the battles at Hangjin and Chinju mountain fortresses during the Japanese invasions into Korea in the late 15th century under Hideyoshi.

Early times

From many parts of the Korean Peninsula, stone swords, stone knives, stone spears, stone arrowheads, stone axes, etc. have been unearthed. The range of finds in Korea extends from Kyunghung Province; Hae Ju and Anak in Hwanghae Province; Yangyang and Choon chun in Kangwon Province; Ansung in Kyung-gi Province; Puyo in south Choonchon Province; Andong and Kyungju in North Kyungsang Province; and Mirang in South Kyungsang Province. It is reasonable to assume that these types of stone weapons were used by Korea's forefathers for both food gathering purposes and also for self-protection against wild animals and savage enemies.

The stone-throwing techniques of prehistoric Koreans have survived to modern times and are called “too-suk sool” (stone-throwing arts). The awesome effectiveness of stone-throwing techniques was displayed in the battles at Hangjin and Chinju mountain fortresses during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 15th century under Hideyoshi. In addition, it is recorded that members of the royal family and high-ranking scholars of the Silla Dynasty enjoyed a game developed for amusement called doo-ho (an ancient game of pitching arrows into a pot). Other forms, such as sword-throwing and spear tossing developed out of this, and it is not difficult to conjecture that archery also related to this kind of activity.

From the Stone Age to the end of the Primitive Era (the Conscious Action Age), humans acted consciously to protect themselves, they began using weapons for the first time. Even after weapons were developed, since most people had only their bare hands to defend themselves, they naturally developed bare-hand fighting techniques from their own experiences in battle and from analyzing the fighting and hunting techniques of animals. Even after the bare-hand fighting was not really needed, people continued to use it as a way to build their physical strength and then to demonstrate their prowess in ritual tribal matches.

The Iron Age (early Age of Systemization), 10,000 to 2,000 years ago, marked the systematic development of art, religion, civilizations, and self-defense techniques. The fighting styles that developed in various regions of the world took generations to evolve. From about 26,000 years ago up to the Modern Era (the Age of Flowering of the Arts), self-defense arts developed fully and became widespread.

Due to scant historical records, it is impossible to trace bare-hand fighting to any one point of origin, but ancient records of some countries do mention some early types of empty-hand fighting. Some of the oldest of these records are from ancient Egypt, so the country-to-country exploration of the roots of taekwondo will begin there.


Some of the oldest records concerning unarmed combat are found in Egyptian pyramid hieroglyphics and in mural paintings in tombs along the Nile (dated from about 4000 BC) that describe soldiers using fighting techniques that resemble modern boxing. They fought using a leather glove that covered the arm to the elbow and matches often resulted in the death of one of the participants.
Wrestling was also popular in ancient Egypt. Pictures that depict something similar to wrestling are found in the ruins of the Sumerian Kingdom of Mesopotamia, which date to around 3000 BC. Although Egyptians had a clear distinction between boxing and wrestling, boxers often used wrestling techniques and vice versa. Murals from the Beni-Hassan Tomb in Egypt, which dates to about 2300 BC, depict a refined style of boxing that later crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, by way of Crete.

An interesting point about Roman wrestling is that it was performed while naked in gymnasiums. In fact, the word gymnasium means "place to go naked."

As warfare became more organized, more sophisticated fighting techniques were developed. Fighting styles that were popular in one region of the world evolved and spread to other regions where they were modified and influenced by different cultures and traditions.

The pyrrhic dance (a war dance similar to hyung/poomse), Greek forms of wrestling, and especially the Pankration are said to have directly influenced the Indian arts of "nata" and "vajramushti." Only in Asia did empty-hand combat develop into an art form where it was regarded as a secret of the state or harbored within the walls of religious monasteries. However, there is a scant resemblance between modern taekwondo and these crude forms of ancient martial arts. Asian empty-hand fighting arts are said to have originated in India.


There is no evidence of hand-to-hand combat techniques being used in India before the Arian invasions of the twelfth to tenth centuries BC. Before this time, the people probably only practiced "meditation under trees," which is the supposed origin of yoga. One cannot definitely say that Yoga was a part of a combat regime, but its meditation and breathing disciplines, along with the principles of Zen Buddhism, made important contributions to the development of all the Oriental martial arts.

The Arians codified yoga in the Upanishads, in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The first records of Indian combat techniques were written during this same period. Later, Indian combat techniques were categorized in the famous Buddhist chronicle Lotus Sutra as either joint locks, fist strikes, grapples, or throws. During the fifth and fourth centuries BC, these categories gained firm standing and developed separately.

When Gautama Siddartha, the Buddha, lived on earth, the Bhramin religious group held sway over much of India. They believed the duty of every man was to become an itinerant priest. Combat training was of great importance to these wandering priests who had only a staff to defend themselves against wild animals, robbers, and villagers of different religious faiths. Their hardships were intensified by the constant warring of all sixteen principalities of India.

Gautama, a man of peace and love, was also a prince, and, as such, he received the military training given all people of high birth. His fighting skills were so great that it was said he was never defeated. Before Gautama devoted himself to religious meditation and teaching, he had won the hand of the beautiful Princess Yasudara by excelling above all other contenders in running, leaping, fencing, archery, and fisticuffs. It is said that, after becoming Buddha, he was able to overcome evil spirits by dazzling them with the reflection from the nimbus surrounding his body. This description was probably a romanticized explanation of his lightning-fast movements.

Some of the first written records of unarmed self-defense come from ancient India, from about 2,600 BC. One story tells of an Indian prince who developed the first scientific method of self-defense by systematically jabbing needles into his slaves. He recorded the results and developed techniques to attack the vulnerable areas he had discovered.

An Indian warrior class called the "kshatriya," that was similar to the Japanese "samurai" or the European knight, were dominant during the times. Experts agree that the kshatriya probably developed at least one early fighting style, but the first documented proof of an Indian empty-hand fighting style is found in the Lotus Sutra. The chronicle mentions an early type of pugilism, but it also reveals an earlier type of unarmed combat called "Nata," which translates to mean a dancer or a performer. This is significant since one of the basics of taekwondo is the performing of hyung/patterns/forms, which resemble dancing. Another empty hand fighting style called "vajramushti" also developed in India. These early Indian arts, once they were coupled with the Buddhist teachings, gave birth to "yoga" and later to "kalarippayattu."

Kalarippayattu is practiced in Kerala, a state in South India and in parts of Tamil Nadu. It combines self-defense techniques, religion, and has elements of "martial dance" as in capoeira. Kalarippayattu literally means "combat training inside the gymnasium." Traditionally kKalarippayattu training is always done inside the Kalari, a specially constructed practicing area. In the Southwest corner of every Kalari is a Puttara, a seven-tiered platform where the guardian deity is located. Flowers, incense, and water are given to the deity every day and, before training, each student prays to the deity.

Kalarippayattu uses intricate dance-like exercises, empty hand fighting techniques, and both wooden and metal weapons. Oil massage is an integral part of kalarippayattu. The earliest reference to kalarippayattu appears in A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century CE by Duarte Barbosa, which indicates that kalarippayattu had already developed by this time. Some theorize that Bodhidharma was a student of kalarippayattu and thus that it was the basis for the development of kung-fu, but others claim there is evidence that forms of martial arts existed in Buddhist temples in China prior to the purported arrival of Bodhidharma.
Practically all martial arts trace their beginnings to the Indian Buddhist priest, Bodhidharma, and taekwondo is no exception. Since Bodhidharma's influence on the martial arts actually occurred in China, rather than in India, he is discussed in detail after the following slider on China.


The hygienic calisthenics practiced by the Chinese since about 2600 BC suggest that they were the beginnings of Chinese combat arts. During the Chou period in twelfth to third centuries BC, the character used to write the word "fist" indicated physical power and martial strength. The frequency the character was used in writings indicates that punching was a common fighting technique of the times. The Nine Chinese Classics, compiled during the Chou period, suggest that grappling and throwing had also gained in prominence.

In 2250 BC, during the Hsia Dynasty, Emperor Yu noticed that a pond of water collected diseases while a running stream stayed pure, so he reasoned that a moving human body should stay healthy and free of disease. He ordered that his people should exercise in sequenced patterns. During the Chou Dynasty (1150 BC), early Taoist and Confucian texts, including the I Ching (Book of Changes), the Shin Ching(Book of Poems), and much later the Li Chi (Book of Ceremonies and Rites) mentioned the martial arts.

Records from the Han period, from the third century BC to third century AD, such as the Kansho, describe techniques similar to modern wrestling techniques. Around 770 BC, nomadic Mongolian tribesmen invaded northern China and brought with them a bloody style of fighting "sumo" in which opponents attempted to crack skulls or break limbs by striking with their heads while wearing ram heads. Because of the ram heads worn by the competitors, this early form of sumo was called "evaluating the strength of the horns." Later, sumo was performed ritually as a preparation for war in a dance-like fashion, from which comes its second meaning "bare hands dance."

During the Chi'in and Han periods, Sumo came under the influence of "kemari" (a kicking game designed to develop the feet for war). This gave birth to a fighting style called "shubaku." Modern martial arts in China are still called shubaku.

During the Han period, China taught its armed and unarmed military tactics to neighboring counties, such as Mongolia and Korea. A famous doctor of the Han period, Hua T'o, a skilled surgeon who is said to have been the first to use anesthetics, also developed a set of calisthenics. He based his exercises on the movements of five animals: tiger, bear, deer, monkey, and bird. These exercises were later refined for the first emperor of Sung dynasty, Tai-Chung, and had an important influence on the later development of "kempo."

Buddhism was probably introduced to China when Emperor Ming Ti of the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) sent envoys to India to obtain Buddhist sutras and images. The form of Buddhism that took hold in China was different than that practiced in India. Whereas Buddhism in India was austere and antisocial, Buddhism in China emphasized salvation through faith and metaphysical speculation. Whereas Buddhism in India emphasized reaching spiritual perfection in life, Buddhism in China placed greater importance on being admitted into paradise after death than on attaining perfection in this life. This difference between Buddhism in India and China compelled an Indian priest in India named Bodhidharma to travel to China to teach the Chinese the true path to perfection.


Note: There are numerous versions of the history of Bodhidharma, depending on the martial art style practiced by the author of the history. The following is a compilation of some of these histories.

Bodhidharma was a disciple of the priest Prajinatara, who later became the 28th descendant of Skaka (the founder of Buddhism). Bodhidharma was a colorful character; Chinese writers refer to him as the "blue-eyed barbarian." He is often depicted as a balding man with a beard, potbelly, and blue eyes. He was most probably born in Kanchipuram (near Madras), India. He was probably the son of a lesser member of the warrior caste, but there are some indications he may have been of the mixed priest-warrior caste "brahaman-kshyatriya"; the clue being his Caucasoid features. Although he was heir to a throne, Bodhidharma chose the life of a religious devotee.

After the death of Prajinatara, Bodhidharma became dissatisfied with the way Buddhism was being taught outside India and the loss of the true faith in China. In 520 AD, he traveled from India to China to teach them the true path; a very rugged journey that required excellent physical fitness and stamina. Bodhidharma traveled to the court of King Liang Wu Ti, king of one of the kingdoms established during the Six Dynasties Period, who was reputedly a great patron of Buddhism. However, since the King's Buddhism was based on salvation and form, he did not understand Bodhidharma's Buddhism that stressed meditation, intuitive insight, and attainment of perfect enlightenment on earth. This led to Bodhidharma's expulsion from the King's court and the entire kingdom of Liang.

Eventually, Bodhidharma traveled to the kingdom of Wei where he was invited to teach King Myong-je. Bodhidharma refused the offer and obtained permission to reside at the Shaolin-ssu (Shorin-ji in Japanese) Monastery, in Tungpung County, Honan Province, in the Hao Shan Mountains. Legend has it that, after arriving at the monastery, Bodhidharma meditated yoga style for so long that he lost the use of his legs.

Bodhidharma taught a form of Zen Buddhism, which aims to create a state of grace by sudden illumination (satori). Asceticism and meditation in sitting positions for long periods of time are the two main Zen practices. Bodhidharma found the monks at the monastery were in poor physical condition due to their inactivity and thus were unable to meditate for a long period. It is said that many monks died as result of the harsh training sessions. Therefore, he undertook a program to strengthen them. He taught them the system of integrated physical and mental disciple embodied in the Indian I-chin-sutra that he had been taught as a youngster while a member of the kshatriya. As references, he used two books on military arts that he had brought with him: the I-Ching (Book of Changes) and the Hsien-sui-ching (Book of Divination).

To strengthen the monks, Bodhidharma added physical and mental training methods that were gradually refined into self-defense techniques that the monks could use to protect themselves against highwaymen. These methods were outlined in the books I-Jin Kyong (muscle development) and Si Shim Kyong (mind cleaning). Since ordinary physical exercises conditioned the body but not the mind, he devised a series of 18 movements that imitated the posture of the 18 different temple idols. When performed perfectly, these movements would give the performer the experience of enlightenment.

Bodhidharma's impact on the martial arts was great, but his contribution to religious development in the Far East is immeasurable. His doctrine, along with his exercises (the 18 hands of lohan), is recorded, at least partially, in the Chinese classic, I Ching (Book of Changes), which was most probably written by one of Bodhidharma's disciples. Bodhidharma is reputed to have passed away at the ripe old age of 150 years, making his approximate time of death between 630 and 660 AD.

For centuries, Bodhidharma's techniques were passed down and only taught in strict secrecy by monks to other monks. Students were told that nothing they were taught was to be altered or left out. Students were not told the importance of what they were learning since it was believed that each student must experience the importance of his teachings for himself.

Eventually, invaders drove the monks out of temples and the temples were burned. The monks spread throughout China, spreading their teachings amongst the Chinese populace. Many styles of empty-hand fighting existed in China before Bodhidharma arrived, but he gave the activity its underlying basis of spiritualism.

It may seem odd that a non-violent monk would develop a fighting system. However, no documentation exists that Bodhidharma intended his system to evolve into an offensive art. He merely wanted to improve the fitness level of the monks at the monastery.

Hwang Kee, a tang-soo-do grandmaster, in his book Soo Bahk Do Dae Kam, strongly rejects the theory that the Bodhidharma founded the martial arts. Citing the Muyedobo-tongji, a martial arts history book written during the Joseon Dynasty (1790), he says there was a record of a martial art similar to tang-soo-do in Korea about two thousand years before Bodhidharma lived.

Chinese historians dispute the claim that Bodhidharma brought martial arts into China. They point to military manuals dating from 206 to 220 AD that show that Han emperors promoted kung-fu far before Bodhidharma's birth.

In China, Bodhidharma's teachings combined with the indigenous Chinese martial art of "kempo" and gradually developed into the Chinese fighting art of "Shaolin ch'uan-fa" (shorin-ji kempo" in Japan.)


The enlightened T'ang Dynasty (618-970 AD) witnessed a great rise in popularity for the Shaolin Temple and its martial arts. During this period, the monks first served a military purpose and became a special detachment of the Imperial Army. For their quelling of internal uprisings and resisting invasions, the monks were rewarded with honors, citations, and large amounts of land. On this land, they built more temples; the first was the second Shaolin located in the Fukien province. Priests, soldiers, statesmen, and scholars, while visiting and studying at these Chinese monasteries, were exposed to the Chinese martial arts and returned to Korea, Japan, and the Ryukyu Islands with the seeds of what would soon be their own native arts.

Kempo was widely practiced in China and competitions were held throughout the country. Huge completions were held on the steps of the imperial palace and in public squares throughout the country. The men who survived all the fights were crowned as champions inside the palace, so they became popular with the people.

During the Sung period, tenth to thirteenth centuries AD, Chang Sanfeng, after studying at Bodhidharma's monastery, retreated to the mountains to perfect is own fighting style. He added gentleness to traditional kempo by adding soft, elegant blocking techniques coupled with sudden, sharp, powerful blows. Chang supposedly learned this from watching a crane battle a snake. When attacked, the crane made softly rounded movements with its wings and, when it saw an opening, it darted his pointed beak at the snake with speed and power. Chang's approach to fighting has much in common with modern karate's theories of circle and point attack. This use of resilience and softness in self-defense proved so effective that it pervaded other fighting systems. It was ultimately introduced into Japan where it was used in the creation of "jujitsu" and "judo." In Japanese, the word "ju" means soft or gentle.

Also during the thirteenth century AD, Chiao Yuan, another practitioner of Bodhidharma's fighting system, systemized kempo techniques, basing them on the movements of five creatures. Although he made a significant contribution to Kempo, since he only taught his system to Buddhist priests, his system did not become widely known. Yuan's system was categorized as follows:
  • Dragon: Assume a natural position and coordinate body and spirit. At the proper moment, attack with the swift power of a dragon swooping from the sky.Tiger: Use the power of the arms and hips in a body movement similar to an attacking tiger leaping from the forest.
  • Leopard: Leap nimbly, similar to a leopard, and move with its agility.
  • Snake: Move with the fluidity of a snake and strike with your fists similar to a snake strike.
  • Crane: Assume the calm, stately poise of the crane and attack with grace and smoothness.

Two slightly different styles of kempo developed in the areas south and north of the Yangtze River. In the south, where numerous rivers and wet rice fields necessitated a great deal of rowing, the arms and chests of peasants developed more than their legs. Thus, southern kempo uses more rounded movements that use the upper body. In the north, great expanses of plains stimulated ranching and necessitated horseback riding and strong legs. Therefore, northern kempo developed light, straight-line movements that used the lower body.

Throughout Chinese history, kempo has been the weapon of the unarmed. During peasant revolts in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, it was the only weapon available to the people. In the 1280's AD, a hundred thousand Kempo warriors rebelled against the ruling Mongolian, Genghis Khan, in an attempt to restore a purely Chinese dynasty, but they were unsuccessful. Kempo warriors were also responsible for the successful, although short-lived, T'aiping Revolt of 1851 AD (successful for a while but later put down by the Englishman Gordon and the army of the Manchu Dynasty).

Kempo warriors also led the Boxer Rebellion of 1896 AD. The term "boxer" referred to a sect of ultra-nationalistic kempo practitioners who were known for their "boxing" style of fighting. The boxers were first encouraged by the Manchu Empress to rid China of foreign intruders, but she later betrayed them. After losing her support, the boxers fell before the weapons of the foreigners and they were hounded as enemies of the state. They were executed in great numbers, their training houses were closed, and kempo was eradicated from China.

While kempo may have been eradicated from China, it was not completely eradicated. Throughout the centuries, it had spread to other countries in the Orient, such as Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Ryukyu archipelago. The largest and one of the most influential islands in the archipelago was Okinawa.


During the Sui dynasty, about 607 AD, China established a flourishing trade relationship with the Ryukyu Islands. The Japanese encyclopedia, Sekai Dai-Huakkajiten, states that kempo techniques were probably brought to Okinawa from China during the T'ang dynasty (618-906 AD). In 1372 AD, Okinawan King Satsudo became a vassal of the Ming emperor. An exchange of officials between the two countries began and, in 1392 AD, Chinese families began immigrating to Okinawa, bringing kempo with them. On Okinawa, kempo fighting skills gradually developed into an indigenous fighting style called "tode," which was based solely on the use of the hands.

In 1429 AD, the Okinawan King Shohashi unified all the islands under his rule and banned all weapons. This led the people into overt opposition and, since they had no weapons, they had to rely on the empty-hand fighting arts.

In 1592-1596 AD, Okinawa refused to supply the Japanese warlord, Shimazu (of the militaristic Satsuma clan of southern Kyushu), and the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with necessary materials for Japan's abortive attack on the Chinese protectorate of Korea. Therefore, in 1609, Shimazu marched on Okinawa. Shimazu ordered all Okinawan weapons confiscated, so the people again had to use their bare hands and feet to defend themselves. To defend against Samurai swords, the people developed farm tools into fighting weapons: the windlass handle became the "tonfa," the walking staff became the "bo," and the hand plow became the "sai."

Frustrated by their lack of successes in battles, Okinawan ch'uan-fa and tode practitioners united the open hands and feet of ch'uan-fa and the fists of tode to form a new style of unarmed combat called "Okinawa-te." Hands and feet were turned into deadly weapons by assiduous practice on the "maki-wara," a vertical punching board padded with straw. Arms were hardened by "forte," using forceful arm blocks against a partner's same forceful arm blocks.

In 1722, Sakugawa, who had studied Kempo and bo fighting in China, started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called "karate-no-sakugawa." This was the first time the name karate had been used in a martial art and the first known record of the art of karate in a modern form. During this time, "kara" referred to China itself, so, karate meant "the Chinese techniques" or "t'ang hand."

In 1879, the Ryukyu Islands become Japanese provinces. In 1936, Okinawan masters gathered at the behest of a newspaper and changed the meaning of the ideogram "kara" to mean, empty. Thus, karate now means, "empty hand." After coming under Japanese control, Karate spread into mainland Japan.


According to the Koji-ki, an ancient chronicle of Japan, around 23 BC, a wrestler, Tomakesu-Hayato, was considered the most effective fighter of the age, but when he fought against Nomi-no-Sukune, by order of the emperor, he was defeated and kicked to death. Nomi-no-Sukune is considered the founder of "jujitsu," the first true Japanese martial art.

Sumo was introduced into Japan from China in about 200 AD, near the end of the Han period. This was about the same time that the Japanese fighting style of "chikara-kurabe" (which included kicking and hand techniques) originated as a brutal fighting method for training men preparing for war. Over the centuries, chikara-kurabe evolved and became codified under the name "kumi-uchi," which had restrictions on brutality. At the end of the Nara period (784 AD), body armor was coming into use on the battlefields, which made punching and kicking ineffective. Kumi-uchi was soon replaced with the more practical Jujitsu that used throws, arm locks, and strangles to circumvent the armor.

In 607 CE, the earliest recorded cultural exchange took place between Japan and China which lead to a great influx of Chinese into Japan who brought with them a form of soft kempo methods, which blended with jujitsu. Kempo (ch'uan-fa) was introduced into Japan, between 1627 and 1644 AD, by Chen Yuan Ping, who also introduced the sai (two-prong sword), which the Japanese police later modified into a jitte-sai (one-prong sword). After taking refuge in a temple in Endo (Tokyo), he taught basic concepts that, after modifications and incorporation with other elements, were used by Jigero Kano in his development of judo, which excludes blows and strikes.

The beginning of the Meiji era (1868 AD) marked the end of Edo, the Feudal Age. Samurai warriors had to lay down their arms and cut their "chonmage" (their long hair, the symbol of their status). The kimono style of dress was abandoned for Western-style clothing. Japan opened itself to foreigners and the popularity of jujitsu and kendo (ritual sword fighting) declined. Judo superseded Jujitsu as the martial art of choice after its decisive victory against jujitsu in an 1886 competition held at the Tokyo Police Department. By the time karate was introduced into Japan, in the 1920s, judo had such a foothold that karate was shut out until the end of World War II.

It is obvious that empty-hand fighting did not originate wholly in only one country, but it developed naturally in every place humans settled. In each country, people adapted their fighting techniques to deal with the dangers in their local environments. As trade and politics brought these countries into contact with each other, their various fighting styles influenced each other, sometimes leading to the development of entirely different fighting systems.

Now, let us investigate the development of taekwondo in Korea and how the fighting arts of other countries affected its formation. However, before exploring the history of taekwondo, let us look at the geography of Korea, since it had much influence on Korean history and thus on the history of taekwondo.

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