History of Taekwondo

The Beginning

The beginning of fighting arts was when prehistoric people utilized their instincts – dodging crouching and running – to protect themselves against their enemies including wild beasts. This instinctive method of self-defence was amplified with the inclusion of attacking movements when the need for self-protection and food became greater. Hence, it can be assumed that the origin of taekwondo is as ancient Korea which has its beginning in BC 2333 at Asadal. Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence to record such early existence of the art. However, the origin of taekwondo can be traced back to the time of the three Kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo and Baekje.

In order to understand fully the development of taekwondo through its predecessors, Taekyon, Soobakhi and Soobyokta, it is necessary to study briefly the historical background of Korea in relation to its martial arts since BC 57. A ‘ Table of Chronology ‘ is drawn up easy for easy reference of the various stages of development and downfall of martial arts during the respective eras in Korea. The information presented in the table is based on the historical remains – written materials and archaeological relics – of Korea and also on the works of historians who have made thorough traditional documentary research on this country. It is unfortunate that such historical remains are very few.

Koguryo Dynasty

The flamboyant murals of the Kakjeochong and Mooyongchong Tombs of the Koguryo Dynasty document the existence of the traditional form of taekwondo. The painting on the ceiling of Muyong-chong royal tomb shows two men adopting taekwondo stance facing each other while the other mural at Kakchuchong portrays two men wrestling. According to Tatashi Saito in his ‘Study of Culture in Ancient Korea’, the painting either shows us that the persons buried in the tomb practiced taekwondo while they were alive or it tells us the people practiced it, along with dancing and singing, for the purpose of consoling the soul of the dead.

Although the construction of the two royal tombs was between the periods AD3 – AD427, it can be inferred that the Korean fighting arts were practiced by the Koguryo people long before the painting.


Baekje Dynasty

In Baekje, written evidence of traditional taekwondo is scarce. However, in a local song there is an indication of the art of Soobyokta which is also an ancient version of taekwondo. The song is translated as follows:

“The art of hand is like the use of sword General Chok taught it as a military art. If one neglects on single pass of the two hands, he will be behead in the blink of an eye.”

According to the ancient records found in ‘History of the Three Kingdoms’ and Volume 81 on Baekje of the ‘Sui China Chronicles’, the Kings of Baekje, particularly King Onjo, King Biryoo and King Asin, fully encouraged the practice of Korean martial art. As a result the martial arts become very popular in this region.

Silla Dynasty

The scruptured statues at the entrance of Seokkooram, a Buddhist Shrine on Mt. Toham in the outskirts of Kyongjoo, are supporting evidence of the popularity of the fighting arts during the Silla Dynasty. These statues of the warrior Keumgang depict typical fighting postures of taekwondo. Besides these sculptures which indicate the presence of fighting arts, the renowned ‘Hwarang’ who

was very skilled at Soobak, the predecessor of taekwondo could also serves as a testimony of the existence of the Korea martial arts. The legendary Hwarang was the youth warrior corps who was organized for the protection of their homeland, Silla, which was then very weak. These elite corps was trained in both physical and mental disciplines. As five point code if conduct was drawn up by Won Kang, the country’s greatest Buddhist monk and scholar, as a guidance for this group. The five points were as follows:

1. Be loyal to your King
2. Be obedient to your parents
3. Be honorable to your friends
4. Never retreat in battle
5. Make a just kill

Koryo Dynasty

During the Koryo Dynasty, the Korean fighting arts known as Soobakhi enjoyed further technical development with the encouragement of King Uijong. A few extracts from historical records of Koryo are reproduced below to substantiate the fact that Soobakhi was very popular as an organised sport and martial arts and was fully supported and encouraged by King Uijong.

“King Uijong admired the excellence of Yi Ui-Min in Soobakhi and promoted him from Taejong (military rank) to Pyolchang” (Chapter 41, Volume 128, History of Koryo)

“General Chong Chu-bu ordered military officers to practice Soobakhi.” (Chapter 41, Volume 128, History of Koryo)

“The King watched Soobakhi contest at Kwabigung Palace.” (Volume 36, History of Koryo)

Historical records are also available to attest the popularity of Soobakhi (old name of taekwondo) as an exercise for the promotion of health.

Yi Dynasty (Chosun)

Although martial arts were not supported with the same enthusiasm as the previous leaders, historical records show that the fighting arts continued to be practiced during the Yi Dynasty. In fact, during the reign of King Jeonhio, an illustrated textbook on martial arts was complied by Yi Deokmoo. A part of chapter one of the manual is translated below:

“…Two persons stand askance…assume the Horse-riding stance…assume the Yoranju stance immediately after striking the left shoulder of the other with the left hand…move forward after striking the right shoulder of the other with the left hand and assume the Hyongakhoi stance…strike right hand with left foot…turn around once to the left side…”

It should be noted that one of the stance described above is still in use in contemporary taekwondo.

Summary of History

The period of Silla, Koguryo and Baekjie through Koryo and well into the Yi era saw the development and the promotion of empty hand and foot fighting techniques. Owing to political dissension in the later half of the Yi Dynasty, the further development of the Korean fighting arts was greatly hampered. In fact, the fighting arts apparently ceased existence at the end of the Yi Dynasty. The development suffered further when the practice of Korean martial arts was strictly prohibited during the Japanese Occupation. Instead, the harmless sportive martial arts of Judo and Kendo were introduced by the Japanese. Perhaps, their intention was to eradicate the Korea fighting arts which were than an integral part of the Korean military.

It was indeed fortunate that some dedicated exponents managed to keep the Korean martial arts alive by practicing and perfecting the arts secretly. Immediately after the liberty of Korea, these exponents began to expose their knowledge to the Korean public. Although the techniques taught were mainly Soobakhi, Taekyon and Soobyokta, they were known by different names – Kong Soo Do, Kwonpup, Soobak, Tang Su, etc.

It was not until 11 April 1955 when historians and instructors gave this Korean form of fighting arts the name TAEKWONDO, in place of the various names.

Based on historical evidences and records, it is without doubt that taekwondo

– the way of foot and hand fighting incorporating the philosophy of life
– has its origin and independent development in KOREA.
Taekwondo Today

After the liberty of Korea from the Japanese in 1945, unremitting efforts were put by active taekwondo exponents to turn this traditional art into an international amateur sport. The first indication of progress was evident only 15 years with the formation of the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) in September 1961. With the support of taekwondo from the Korean community, it became one of the official events in the annual National Athletic Meet in October 1962 after KTA was accepted as an affiliate of the Korean Amateur Sports Association in June 1962.

At the same time, taekwondo had also become increasingly popular internationally both as an art of self-defense and a sport. In view of this, the KTA took the opportunity to stage the 1st World Taekwondo Championships. The tournament was held from 25 to 27 May 1973 at Kukkiwon (the World Taekwondo Centre) in Seoul, Korea. This event inauguration of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) on 28 May 1973.

The inception of the WTF was another step in the journey towards making taekwondo a medal sport in the Olympics. There were many promising signs as it moved forward.

On 8 October 1975, the WTF was accepted as an affiliate of the General Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF). The GAISF is an international organisation comprising various international sports federations of the world. At the Executive Council Meeting of the Conseil International Sportive Militare (CISM) on 9 April 1976, taekwondo was adopted as its 23rd official sport.

The WTF made a giant stride towards realising its goal when it was granted recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at its 83rd General Session in Moscow on 17 July 1980. This achievement was followed by successful applications for affiliation to two reowned and prestigious international sport bodies – the International Council of Sports and Physical Education (ICSPE) on 15 January 1981 and Internationaler Arbeitskreis Sport-Und Freizeiteinrichtungen (IAKS) on 30 October 1983. The IAKS, an international organisation for sports and leisure facilities, was founded in 1965.

More recognition was accorded to taekwondo on 12 August 1983 when Pan American Sports Organisation (PASO) accepted it as one of the official sports in the Pan American Games. On 24 September 1984, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) added the sport in the Asian Games list.

The WTF moved nearer its target when taekwondo was approved as a demonstration sports for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games by the IOC at its 90th Session which was headed from 2 to 6 June 1985 in Berlin. It was featured again as a demonstration sport in 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games as decided by the IOC at its Executive Board Meeting conducted from 24 to 26 April 1989 in Barcelona, Spain.

The ultimate recognition for taekwondo in the Olympic Games came 4 September 1994 when it was announced at the 103rd IOC Session in Paris, France that taekwondo would be included as a medal sport in the 2000 Sydney Olympic and 2012 London Olympic.

The success of the sport can be attributed partly to the numerous regional and world championships organized under the auspices of the WTF. These competitions showcased the sport to the World making its entry into the Games that much easier and quicker. Of course, the bulk of the credit had to go to the taekwondo fraternity who was responsible for promoting and pushing the sport to the level.

Taekwondo is now practiced by well over 70 million people in more than 205 countries.