Taekwondo is a well-known Korean martial art. More than sixty million fans practice taekwondo throughout the world (Cook, 2017). This martial art is considered to be the most popular nowadays. Many international organizations support and promote taekwondo. However, this combat sport has a long and complicated history, and some facts might be interpreted differently. The purpose of this paper is to review the way of the development of taekwondo and highlight the main controversial aspects regarding the origin of this martial art.
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The Main Historical Facts
Taekwondo is the greatest cultural wealth of Korea. The Korean government realized the importance of this martial art in the middle of the twentieth century when taekwondo teachers went to Vietnam to give lessons to soldiers. The International Olympic Committee acknowledged the value of the World Taekwondo Federation, and taekwondo became an official Olympic sport. The first Olympic competition in taekwondo took place in Sydney in 2000 (Qi, 2014). That made the Korean martial art incredibly famous and created the army of followers and supporters. In addition, the general public became highly interested in the history of taekwondo. However, official and independent academic sources provide different descriptions on this subject. The general position is that taekwondo is an ancient original Korean martial art. On the other hand, several published works present the opinion that Japanese karate had a great impact on the invention of this discipline.
Koreans have contradictory ideas about Japanese due to the shared history that includes colonization and the subsequent gaining of independence. Japan serves as a role model for Asian countries due to the sustained economic growth. On the contrary, Japanese are perceived as historical enemies that attacked Korea and subjected it to the vicious occupation (Moenig, 2015). Therefore, taekwondo is often used to cultivate nationalistic notions among the Korean population. Officials from the World Taekwondo Federation are convinced that this martial art developed without any influence from Japanese karate. Such an ideology has a political motivation as it improves the international position of Korea.
However, the fact that the first taekwondo teachers learned karate while attending Japanese universities is not well-known. These teachers found five different branches of taekwondo, which are called kwan, during the period between 1944 and 1947. Subsequently, many other kwan were created. They have different names, and the two most famous are tangsudo and kongsudo. These are “the respective transliterations of the Japanese term karate-do” (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 134).Tangsudo was popular in Japan until the 1930s, and kongsudo became a widely practiced discipline after it. However, both terms were used in Korea during the colonization. Among other terms, t’aekkyŏn was the most popular during that period. This is the name of an ancient Korean martial art. The name taekwondo was chosen after a long discussion among senior instructors and was approved by the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) in 1965.
Theories on the Evolution of Taekwondo
However, there are other theories on the development of taekwondo. Bwarang is an ancient martial art, which is considered to be the first reference to taekwondo. Some specialists claim that bwarang is one of “the prototypes of modern taekwondo” (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 135). The connection between Chinese and Korean martial arts is also thoroughly studied. The Shaolin legend presents another course of events. It is necessary to review mentioned above theories to have a full account of the discussion on this matter.
Previously, martial art books mostly focused on the description of techniques, and only recently have authors begun to present the history and philosophy of these disciplines as well. The development of different martial arts in Asia progressed in similar ways. It started in India, and then, these practices spread to China. Also, this process is often associated with the development of the traditions of Buddhism. The relationship between this religion and Asian martial arts is widely highlighted. Such theories might be found in various Chinese and Japanese texts describing the evolution of martial arts in this region. Famous Japanese author, Funakoshi Gichin, narrated the Shaolin legend and explained its influence on karate. His works were read in Korea by different martial artists as well. Hence, some of them adopted described their techniques and narratives. Afterward, Funakoshi’s theory was further developed in many Korean martial art books. Although there were not many direct references to this legend in these works, Korean martial masters embodied it in different forms. However, after 1960 the KTA removed every mention of the Shaolin legend from their books. Eventually, the majority of the Korean authors pay more attention to the hwarang myth.
The Hwarang Myth
The word hwarang might be translated as “flower boy.” Generally speaking, it means a respectable man. Some authors stated that hwarang is a group that has certain religious associations. However, hwarang practitioners were devoted to martial arts. Also, several works mention some unusual habits like the use of cosmetics or dressing up like women while singing and dancing.
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The two main sources for these studies are the Samguk Sagi and the Samguk yusa that was probably written in the twentieth century (Moenig & Minho, 2016). The Samguk sagi presents the list of ancient sources, and the Samguk yusa is the collection of ordinary stories. These works were widely used after the hwarang ceased to exist. Studying other notable books on this subject revealed that they were based on the mentioned above sources. Meanwhile, the famous work by Pak Chang-Hwa, Hwarang segi, is not accepted as a credible source because it was found to be either fiction or fraud.
The existing materials cannot help to answer all questions. There are many different interpretations of the facts presented in these books. Hence, the majority of texts relating to the hwarang are of a very subjective nature. Also, there were not any references to the hwarang in the works on the martial arts themes created by their contemporaries. Thus, the connection between taekwondo and the hwarang legend is highly debatable.
Some hwarang practitioners served in the Korean army and took part in different wars. However, there were not “any independent hwarang military organization, institution, faction, or training units” (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 138). Both the Samguk yusa and the Samguk sagi provide some facts from the biography of the hwarang leader Kim, but there were not any suggestions that he had affiliations with any military services or performed any hand-combat training activities. The descriptions of the hwarang that were presented in these books do not show the clear connection between this discipline and existing back then martial arts. Therefore, the theory describing the influence of the hwarang on traditional Korean martial arts was created quite recently. However, it does not have sufficient evidence to be supported.
The first book about the evolution of Korean martial arts that was written after the independence did not have any references to t’aekkyŏn. This work described the techniques and background of several disciplines. However, the traditional game ssirŭm, which included elements of fighting activities, was mentioned there. Ssirŭm and t’aekkyŏn were popular games with similar rules. They were part of entertainments during different special events and also were presented in various historical materials. However, several other texts described a unique technique that combined different styles including t’aekkyŏn. Also, it was stated that the elements of t’aekkyŏn might be found in modern Korean martial arts. These were the first introductions of t’aekkyŏn to the modern specialists in martial arts.
The name “taekwondo” was invented by Ch’oe Hong-hŭi that was a general in the Korean army (Moenig & Minho, 2016). His influence on the development of Korean martial arts was the greatest during the period between 1950 and 1970. He mentioned that taekwondo was popular among the hwarang about a thousand years ago. However, he failed to provide any details or evidence proving his position. Eventually, Ch’oe stated that taekwondo combines t’aekkyŏn and karate techniques, but t’aekkyŏn was the “forerunner of taekwondo” (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 146). During the presentation of the military force to the Korean president, Ch’oe named the demonstrated activity t’aekkyŏn.
However, the first reference to t’aekkyŏn was found only in the book of poems published in 1728 (Moenig & Minho, 2016). Hence, the statements of a long history of t’aekkyŏn are groundless. Also, there were not any descriptions of t’aekkyŏn methods in other publications relating to martial arts. In addition, t’aekkyŏn practitioners did not associate this discipline with taekwondo. Finally, Ch’oe stated in his last interview that “he had actually never learned any t’aekkyŏn” (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 147). He also added that the t’aekkyŏn narrative was fake. In spite of the mentioned above facts, the World Taekwondo Federation supported and promoted the idea of the connection between t’aekkyŏn and taekwondo.
The evidence that refers to the practice of taekwondo in the distant past is two carvings that allegedly depicted positions from this combat discipline. However, later, it was stated that similar artifacts were found in several places and the pictures illustrated the defenders of a Buddhist temple. Eventually, the WTF admitted that these carvings cannot be considered as historical proof.
Discovering a picture on an ancient tomb that presents two fighters made some scholars believe that taekwondo was practiced a long time ago. That theory was highly appreciated by taekwondo seniors and served as the official evidence of the long history of taekwondo. However, the anthropologists that found the tomb supposed that the picture presented a dance. It remains unclear which activity is really depicted on the tomb. In case if it is a fighting episode, no one can be sure which martial art it is. Hence, pieces of evidence like this might be used to manipulate facts to suit the required narrative.
The Modern Narrative
The introduction to Ch’oe’s book published in 1959 contains the statement of the president of South Korea that taekwondo had been widely practiced in Korea for a long time. He suggested investing in taekwondo to make it a national sport. This idea was widely promoted in newspapers in the 1960s. Eventually, taekwondo gained the status “of a nominal Korean ‘national sport’” in 1971 (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 154). Hence, it became necessary to create an unambiguous official narrative.
The article by Yi Sŏn-gŭn published in 1968 presented the description of different versions of the taekwondo evolution (Moenig & Minho, 2016). Yi Sŏn-gŭn reviewed the evidence of the long history of taekwondo, the facts about the development of the t’aekkyŏn discipline and some other questionable topics. He suggested that some Korean martial arts were passed on to Japan. For example, Yi Sŏn-gŭn mentioned that “judo originally came from Korea” (Moenig & Minho, 2016, p. 155). His assumptions might be reasonable as the Japanese had close relationships with the Chinese and Koreans and could have adopted some popular techniques. However, there are not many credible sources that can prove his theory. On the other hand, it is a well-known fact that judo became a prominent sport only at the end of the ninetieth century. Yi Sŏn-gŭn also agreed with Ch’oe’s opinion that several styles like t’aekkyŏn and tangsu were combined to create modern taekwondo.
In 1968, the government award was given to Ch’oe for his researches relating to taekwondo’s origin (Moenig & Minho, 2016). Although, he was blamed for stealing ideas from Japanese textbooks and the award ceremony might have been canceled. This scandal was provoked by the officials from the KTA as they extremely disagreed with Ch’oe and expelled him from the organization. However, Ch’oe was supported by many scholars and martial arts instructors, and he had an enormous impact on the development of taekwondo.
The official narrative was changed again after taekwondo acquired the status of a national sport in Korea. The publication called Taekwondo kyobon was issued in 1972. This text is still considered to be prominent in the taekwondo community. Despite the absence of descriptions regarding the connection between taekwondo and other traditional styles like tangsudo or kongsudo, this work generally agreed with the main opinions of Yi Sŏn-gŭn. Also, any references to Ch’oe Hong-hŭi or his theory were eliminated from the official modern narrative presented by the KTA and then WTF.
The Elements of Taekwondo
Disregarding all possible historical narratives, modern taekwondo is a prominent comprehensive system that embraces several complex components including combat techniques and philosophic principles. All these elements are closely interrelated. Neglecting one of them ruins the entire system. However, three basic principles are usually emphasized.
The first principle is called kibon. It explains basic moves and forms that are necessary to develop a fighting strategy. Kibon mainly focuses on positions, strikes, kicks, defense and the efficient work of a body. Instructors constantly examine the trajectory of moves, the position of hands and legs and make students repeat the same actions over and over again. The main purpose of kibon is to help to reach balance and learn how to properly apply the energy of a body. Also, this branch emphasizes the importance of terminology. Concise and clear commands generate unambiguous psychological images that are subsequently translated into forceful actions. Finally, a great deal of attention is given to the history of the evolution of taekwondo. The knowledge of the background assists in understanding the philosophy of this martial art and contributes to the passion that pushes practitioners through many years of training.
The second principle is called poomsae. This technique aims to master abilities to simultaneously confront several fighters that attack from various directions. Hence, “it provides a method for cultivating stamina, focus, balance, and agility” (Cook, 2017, p. 46). Poomsae practicing does not require partners. Martial masters historically trained in forests. They used trees as enemies to practice strikes and kicks. Although this is a physically demanding technique, Poomsae aims to strengthen spirit as well. The main purpose of Poomsae is to teach a practitioner to properly assess a situation and apply force when it brings the best results but avoids wasting energy when it is better to wait. It highlights the gradual progress of a fight that includes attacks and retreats. Poomsae practicing enhances the connection between physical abilities and spiritual achievements.
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The third essential component is called kyorugy or sparring. There are different types of sparring, such as one-step sparring, two-step sparring, three-step sparring, pre-arranged sparring and free sparring. These methods allow students to put into practice the techniques that they have learned previously to acquire valuable experience without being seriously injured. This training excludes full contact. Hence, students of any age and gender can practice kyorugy. Every type of sparring has its own rules and purposes. One-step sparring teaches to block the most common attacking tools. Two-step sparing and three-step sparring aims to prepare a student for advanced methods of attacks and defense. Pre-arranged and free sparring gives the opportunity to practice freestyle combat. However, kyorugy limits certain techniques. Also, students should be provided with safety equipment.
It is worth mentioning that the most popular type of sparring is the Olympic style, which occurred quite recently. This form permits full contact, and competitors get points for the performance of their techniques. This practice is not traditional for taekwondo and was established mostly for entertainment (Kruszewski, Kúzmicki, Podchul, & Kruszewski, 2014). Many professionals doubt the artistic value of Olympic sparring. According to Liu, Jung and Shishida (2016), this style underwent a substantial transformation. However, it still includes most of the taekwondo’s principles.
The Recent Period
In the middle of the twentieth century, the development of taekwondo accelerated, and this martial art “began to expand internationally” (Qi, 2014, p. 229). The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) made great efforts to promote this sport. They established a marketing campaign in Southeast Asia applying modern methods to make taekwondo more popular. During the Vietnam War, the ITF sent instructors to South Vietnam to perform taekwondo for soldiers that subsequently adopted this technique and spread it throughout the world. In the 1970s, the Korean government recognized taekwondo officially and a special research institute was found. This institute standardized the rules, tactics and strategies of taekwondo and created a comprehensive theory. The first World Taekwondo Championship was held in 1973 (Qi, 2014). Afterward, such competitions took place in many countries, and the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the WTF in 1980 (Qi, 2014, p. 230). Due to the further rapid development of this martial art, taekwondo performances were presented in the Olympics in 1988 and later in 1992. Finally, taekwondo became an Olympic sport, and the first Olympic competition was held in 2000.
The modern term taekwondo embraces a variety of styles and forms, and this diversity gives way to many arguments. The complicated history of this discipline is based on different facts and theories that are most questionable. However, intense promotion and enormous investments made taekwondo the most popular martial art. Due to governmental support, it became a national idea in Korea. Therefore, taekwondo often serves political interests and is part of a wide international campaign aimed to strengthen the county’s status.
Cook, D. (2017). Taekwondo: A path to excellence. Wolfeboro, NH: YMAA Publication Center, Inc.
Kruszewski, A., Kúzmicki, S., Podchul, A., & Kruszewski, M. (2014). Effect of changes in the sports regulations on the fight of Taekwondo female players on the example of Beijing Olympic Tournaments 2008 and London 2012. Journal of Combat Sports and Martial Arts, 2(5), 97-100.
Liu, C., Jung, K., & Shishida, F. (2016). The ways of internationalization of Wushu–By analyzing the development of Taekwondo and Sumo. Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas, 11(2s), 110-111.
Moenig, U. (2015). Taekwondo: from a martial art to a martial sport (Vol. 7). New York, NY: Routledge.
Moenig, U., & Minho, K. (2016). The invention of taekwondo tradition, 1945-1972: When mythology becomes ‘history’. Acta Koreana, 19(2).
Qi, L. (2014). Comparative study on the internationalization propagation mode of competitive martial and taekwondo. Web.