Tae Kwon Do (also spelled Tae Kwon Do or Taekwon-Do) is a modern martial art with ancient roots. It is a Korean martial art that can trace its history back more than 2,000 years. Ancient wall paintings show two men engaged in a form of martial arts called Taek Kyon – the forerunner to Tae Kwon Do. Like Tae Kwon Do, Taek Kyon was primarily a powerful kicking art.
Taek Kyon played a significant role in Korean history. In ancient times, the Korean peninsula was divided into three separate kingdoms: Silla, Baek Je and Koguryo. Silla was the smallest of the three kingdoms and under constant threat of invasion from its larger neighbors. Thus, the people of Silla formed an elite warrior group known as the Hwarang (“The Flower of Youth”). The Hwarang received the finest intellectual and physical training available in the Silla Kingdom, including training in Tae Kyon. They were also bound by a firm code of honor which became the basis for the honor code we follow today in Tae Kwon Do.
Led by the strength of the Hwarang, the Silla Kingdom was able to unify the Korean peninsula. Korea’s history under the united Silla Kingdom – from 661 to 935 A.D. – is generally considered to be the golden age in Korean history. During this time, philosophy, writing, art and construction flourished in the kingdom, and the Hwarang continued to provide the military and moral strength of the kingdom.
In 935 A.D., the Silla Kingdom was overthrown by the warlord Kyong Hum, who founded the Koryo Dynasty. It is from this name that westerners later derived the name “Korea.” Under the Koryo Dynasty, martial skills were held in high esteem, and the dynasty produced many of the finest soldiers in Korean history. Taek Kyon continued to flourish and develop under the Koryo Dynasty.
The Koryo Dynasty finally fell in 1392 A.D., and was replaced by the Yi Dynasty. The Yi Dynasty placed far greater emphasis on scholarship and learning than it did on martial skills or arts. As a result, Taek Kyon fell into the background of Korean culture. Nonetheless, martial arts continued to exist and grow in Korean culture for the next 500 years. As is often the case, it was the hardship to which Korean martial arts were pressed during this period that spurred some of the greatest growth in them.
In 1910, Korea was invaded by Japan. The Japanese prohibited the practice of Korean martial arts. Thus, Taek Kyon practitioners – as well as practitioners of all other Korean martial arts – were forced to practice in secrecy. This was a dark time for Korean martial arts, when discovery could mean death for a practitioner. Conversely, many Koreans left Korea for Japan, where they studied Japanese martial arts, including Karate. This was an important step, because many aspects of Karate would later be added to Taek Kyon.
The end of World War II brought the liberation of Korea, and Korean martial arts were able to emerge from hiding. What emerged were numerous kwans (“schools”). Although different in name, these kwans practiced styles of martial arts that were very similar to each other. They were called:
Chung Do Kwan
Moo Duk Kwan
Yun Moo Kwan
Chang Moo Kwan
Oh Do Kwan
Ji Do Kwan
Chi Do Kwan
Song Moo Kwan (This is the style that we practice!)
In 1955, the leaders of these numerous kwans met to form a single art. Led by General Hong Hi Choi, they realized that a single, unified art would be far stronger and able to grow far more than a group of loosely aligned arts with different names. The group chose a name proposed by Gen. Choi for the new art: Tae Kwon Do (“The Way of the Foot and Hand”). Tae Kwon Do incorporated the high, powerful kicks that had characterized Taek Kyon, and that were relatively unique to that art, with powerful hand techniques developed from what Gen. Choi and others had learned by studying Karate in Japan. The result was a new art unlike any other in the world. Gen. Choi was selected as the first president of the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association, and later as head of the International Tae Kwon Do Federation, the international organization dedicated to spreading and teaching Tae Kwon Do throughout the world.
In 1961, The Korea Tae Kwon Do Association was formed. The leaders saw the potential for the spread and growth of their art and used their authority to send instructors and demonstration teams all over the world. In Korea, Tae Kwon Do had spread from the military down through the high schools and colleges. By 1970, Tae Kwon Do had firmly established itself worldwide. In 1973, the world Tae Kwon Do Federation was formed and has been the governing body of Tae Kwon Do throughout the world.
Tae Kwon Do has been practiced as a sport and a martial art since its inception. It has become so popular and widely practiced throughout the world that it was a demonstration sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and became an official Olympic sport at the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney, Australia. Presently there are 170 countries registered with the World Tae Kwon Do Federation with over 50 million practitioners. Tae Kwon Do is the most widely practiced martial arts style in the world.