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Borders in Asia throughout history


The Origin of Taekwondo ART OF ONE DOJO

What is true is that over thousands of years as Asian states invaded, warred, and conquered one another their military cultures must certainly have influenced each other and intermingled. It is important to understand though at there are no first-hand accounts of ancient Korean martial arts, so any historical account relies to some extent on educated speculation. Why are there no first-hand accounts? There are two things to keep in mind when studying Korean history: the Mongol invasion of Korea in 1231 C.E. destroyed most written records up until that time of Asian combat traditions, the ancient martial traditions that can be said to be uniquely Korean include highlights such as Korean archery (which came to the fore as a result of the aforementioned Mongol invasion) and the unarmed combat traditions of tae kyon and soo bak. These traditions are rooted in the ancient Three Kingdoms era of the Korean Peninsula, a time when the concept of "Korea" as a single state did not yet exist. The history of the Korean Peninsula is marked by constant conflict among the Three Kingdoms and also by constant invasions by Chinese, Mongol, and Japanese forces. It is in this world of seemingly endless turmoil that we find the uniquely Korean roots of Korean martial arts, and of taekwondo.

Korean Martial Arts -- A Quick Summary[]


18th Century C.E. depiction of Ssireum, Korean wrestling

  • Tae kyon, also spelled taekkyon - unarmed martial art with roots dating back to the 1st Century C.E., usually cited as the antecedent for taekwondo (the name taekwondo was chosen in part because of its historical harkening to taekkyon). Modern taekkyon as practiced today is characterized by its constant dance-like movement, but this may be due to the fact that other versions of taekkyon were lost during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Reference Wikipedia.
  • Subak, also spelled soobak - this is another Korean ancient unarmed martial art; the relationship between Subak and Taekkyon is unclear. Some authors believe the two terms are interchangeable, others refer to Taekkon as just one style of Subak, while others refer to Subak as a Silla-specific derivative of Taekkyon. Reference Wikipedia.
  • Kwon-bop, also spelled gwonbeop - this is another Korean ancient unarmed martial art; again, the relationship between Subak, Taekkwon, and Kwonbop is not entirely clear. Some authors refer to Kwonbop as an early (first Century C.E.) Koguryo martial art, others attribute Kwonbop to the 15th Century, and still others claim that the term was simply a generic term for unarmed combat. Reference Wikipedia.
  • Gungdo (archery) - after the Mongol invasion of Korea in 1237, archery became the preeminent martial art in Korea, as it proved to be the only combat technique that was effective against the Mongols. Reference Wikipedia.
  • Ssireum, also called sangbak - Korean wrestling gained widespread popularity during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Reference Wikipedia.
  • Kumdo, also spelled gumdo - modern Korean swordsmanship. Reference Wikipedia.
  • Hapkido - unarmed martial art characterized by its grappling and throwing techniques. Reference Wikipedia.
  • Taekwondo - unarmed martial art developed at the end of World War II, characterized by high spinning kicks.
    • The earliest forms of taekwondo were developed by the Nine Kwans (the nine post-war schools) each of which had their own names for their martial arts styles. Some of these styles live-on today with names such as Tang Soo Do.

For a more complete list of Korean martial arts, see Korean martial arts. See also: Wikipedia.

Ancient Korea: Before Martial Arts, Before the Three Kingdoms[]

Korea 2500BCE
Korea 1500BCE
Korea 1000BCE
Korea 500BCE
Korea 200BCE
Korea 30BCE

Before actual "kingdoms" emerged in Korea, Korean civilization resided in villages, walled towns, and regional tribes. Some of these regional tribes, such as the Chin, Imdun, Chinbon and Old Choson (also Gojoseon) were able to spread their influence via trade or military conquest and develop into what we might now call "kingdoms," though generally the centralized rule of each state was very loose. By the fourth century B.C.E., Old Choson and other states had become large enough to attract the attention of China. Hostilities between Old Choson and the Chinese state of Yan were common as they confronted each other across the Liao River.

Because of the ongoing conflict between Old Choson and Chinese Yan, Korean Old Choson entered into a period of gradual decline. Under the leadership of China's Ch'in K'ai, Yan invaded the Liaodong Peninsula (to the northwest of Old Choson) at the end of the fourth century B.C.E. For the next hundred years, tension between the Korean territories and China appear to have diminished. Around 206 B.C.E. however, the Ch'in regime in Chinese Yan fell to Liu Pang, the founder of the Chinese Han dynasty. Turmoil in the Yan territory ensued, and refugees streamed out Yan heading east toward the Korean peninsula.

One of these refugees from Yan was a Chinese man named Wiman, who is said to have taken with him "a band of a thousand followers." Wiman and his supporters appealed to King Chun of Korea's Old Choson. Chun appointed Wiman protector of the northwest border. Wiman accepted, but soon betrayed and overthrew Chun. Shortly thereafter, Wiman was able to subjugate the neighboring states of Chinbon and Imdun, giving him a territory that extended hundreds of miles in every direction. Wiman's Choson thus became the first real Korean power.

Realizing the advantage of his geographic position between China and the rest of the Korean peninsula (including trade routes leading to Japan) Wiman's kingdom profited from control of the trade routes. Han China did not appreciate losing direct control of its trade with the southern territories. China also feared the likely alliance of Korea's Choson with the Hsiungnu people of Mongolia and Manchuria. In 109 B.C.E., Chinese Emperor Wu of Han was able to launch an all-out campaign against Choson, ruled at this time by Wiman's grandson, King Ugo. Choson resisted fiercely for a year, but was weakened by Ugo's assassination at the hands of internal opponents.

The struggle continued for a time following King Ugo's death, but Korean Choson finally fell in 108 B.C.E. and the Choson kingdom perished. (Reference Wikipedia.) By 107 B.C.E. Chinese Han had divided Choson into four districts ruled by military governors. Chinese Han dynasty claimed Korean territory as far south as the Han River. Resistance from the local populations was stiff, however. Within twenty-five years, by 82 B.C.E., the Chinese governors of Chinbon and Imdun had to be withdrawn. Within another ten years yet another withdrawal occurred in Hsiiantu, effectively ending Chinese Han control of the Korean peninsula. This was not the last time, however, that Chinese powers would be a major influence in Korea.

Important Dates

  • 2333 B.C.E - 108 B.C.E - Old Choson Dynasty (Bronze Age & Iron Age)

Additional References

The Three Kingdoms Era[]

Han withdrawal from Korea signaled the beginning the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history, a time of great cultural and political advance marked equally by constant warfare and the growth of the military as an institution. It is during the Three Kingdoms period that we find the ancient roots of Korean martial arts.

Important Dates
  • 57 B.C.E - 668 C.E. - The Three Kingdoms Era
  • 53 C.E. - Kingdom of Koguryo established
  • 234 C.E. - Kingdom of Paekje established
  • 356 C.E. - Kingdom of Silla established
  • 668 C.E - 935 C.E. - the Korean Peninsula is unified for this first time, under Silla
Important Note
  • China also has an era referred to as the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 C.E.) that should not be confused with the Korean Three Kingdoms era. Reference Wikipedia.


Korea 200CE
Koguryo tomb mural

This mural, discovered by archeologists in 1935, appears on the ceiling of Muyong-chong, a royal tomb in southern Manchuria built during the Koguryo dynasty, between 3 C.E. and 427 C.E. Some scholars believe it depicts unarmed combat, while others believe it depicts a form of dance. It may have been both, as evidenced by modern tae kyon's dance-like movements. Indeed, even modern taekwondo movements are often incorporated into Korean dance competitions. The tradition of intertwining martial arts and dance in Korea may date back centuries; without written records, it's impossible to know for sure.

Summary: the oldest known Korean martial art is tae kyon, and it started in the Korguryo kingdom. From there it spread to the Silla kingdom.

Legend has it that the kingdom of Koguryo was founded in 37 B.C.E. by Chumong and a band of his followers from Puyo, north of the Korean peninsula, in a region thought to be centered around the middle of the Yalu and T'ung-chia river basin. Modern scholars disagree with this legend however; they point to the failure of the Chinese Han to keep its Korean territories governed, and indicate that this failure must have been due to determined, organized resistance from the local Korean population.

Because Koguryo came into being in a context of continual conflict with the Chinese, it is perhaps no surprise that its culture had a very strong military tradition. The ruling aristocracy established a class of high civic officials known as the seonbae, which translates as "learned man". The seonbae and the ruling aristocracy were responsible for handling military conflicts, and even in times of peace, combat training was in evidence. Tomb murals from the period appear to depict figures apparently engaged in unarmed combat. It is likely that this is the birthplace of tae kyon, an indigenous form of fighting, and, most likely, the birthplace of Korean wrestling. It is also safe to conclude that the martial arts developed in Koguryo must have been influenced by Chinese styles as well.

Koguryo began to reach the height of its power during the reign of King Kwanggaet'o the Great, who ruled from 391 to 413 C.E. During this time, he expanded Koguryo's territory to encompass Manchuria to the north and reach as far south as the Han River. His remarkable victories included the conquest of sixty-four fortress-protected areas and some 1,400 villages.

Additional References

Silla and Paekche[]

Korea 500CE
Silla cavalry

Mural depicting ancient Silla cavalry.

Horse back archery AD 4C

5th Century mural depicting Korean archers.

Hwangsanbul poster

Film poster for Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, a 2003 Korean comedy depicting the Battle of Hwangsanbeol between Baekje and Silla in the 7th Century.

Summary: Tae kyon spread from Koguryo to Silla. Once it Silla, it is believed that it was adopted and evolved by an elite group of young scholar-warriors called the Hwarang.

At the southern end of the Korean peninsula, a number of city-states were struggling to acquire power and territory. As they fought and maneuvered against each other, three fledgling kingdoms began to emerge: Paekche, Kaya, and Silla. Paekche occupied the southwestern portion of the peninsula, Silla the southeast, with Kaya filling in a wedge between them, dominating the Naktong river basin.

In the year 400 C.E., Paekche sought to conquer Silla and dominate the southern portion of the peninsula by enlisting the aid of both Kaya and Japan. Kaya agreed to allow the Japanese safe passage through its territory to Silla, and this Japanese invasion might have succeeded in overwhelming Silla had King Naemul of Silla not successfully called on Koguryo for assistance (at a price). By some accounts, Koguryo's King Kwanggaet sent as many as 50,000 troops to Silla's aid. Whatever the number, it is from this infusion of Koguryo military power that knowledge of tae kyon most likely came to Silla.

As mentioned, a price accompanied Koguryo's assistance to Silla. For a number of years following the defeat of the Japanese, Koguryo insinuated itself into Silla's internal affairs. This was a situation that Silla could not tolerate, and in 433 C.E., Silla and Paekche forged an alliance, in spite of their antagonistic past. Their mutual strength eventually allowed Silla to shake off the influence of Koguryo. This took another twenty-five years, probably accomplished during the reign of King Chabi (458-479 C.E.)

Within the next forty years, Silla became a fully centralized autocratic state. Under King Pophung (514-540 C.E.), the "true-bone" or "bone rank" system was formalized. This was a ranking system that essentially delineated the potential any noble had to serve in government, and at what level, with the highest levels reserved for those of pure true-bone status. There is evidence that Paekche and Koguryo had similar institutions.

During this time the Three Kingdoms also nationalized their military structures. Kings themselves were warriors and frequently led their troops into battle personally — a feature of monarchy that would be repeated throughout both European and Asian history. More striking was the integration of the military into all levels of government throughout each of the Three Kingdoms. Virtually every official charged with some kind of executive authority -- from the local village leader up to regional governors and royal officials -- also held military responsibilities. The size and importance of their commands varied with their rank, as might be expected. There was no separation of political duty and military command until some centuries later, after Silla managed to unify the Korean peninsula for the first time. No doubt the frequency of armed conflict contributed to this style of government. Given the circumstances, it is no surprise that this part of the world succeeded so notably at conceiving of and promoting martial arts.

Additional References

The Hwarang[]

Hwarang film

The Hwarang are a popular theme for Korean historical films and television

See also main article: Hwarang.
Summary: It is believed that Tae Kyon (or a Silla derivative of Tae Kyon) was spread around the Korean peninsula by Silla's Hwarang, an elite group of young scholar-warriors who traveled the peninsula to study other regions and peoples.

Little, if anything, is known about the precise structure of military command throughout the Three Kingdoms at this time. However, it is known that Silla established six primary garrisons, called chong in each of the six provincial administrations. These garrisons were commanded by generals of true-bone rank. The garrisons themselves were composed of men who lived in each capital, so the garrisons bore an elite status. Serving in the military was considered to be an honor and a privilege.

Attached to each of these corps were the famous hwarang bands, the "flower of manhood" -- companies of young male scholar-warriors, probably in their teens. Bands like the hwarang were common to each of the kingdoms, but it appears that those of Silla fulfilled a unique role. Based on similar bands that had appeared in the much earlier clan-centered society, the hwarang were conceived of as a means to provide a body of men that would both serve the state and exemplify its highest virtues. This is most clearly exemplified by the hwarang's adherence to the five secular injunctions laid down by the Buddhist monk Won'gwang in the early 600s. The five injunctions were:

  1. Loyalty to the king
  2. Fidelity, respect, and obedience to one's parents
  3. Fidelity in friendship
  4. Never retreat in battle
  5. Never make an unjust kill

The hwarang were also expected to pursue education in music, dancing, poetry, Buddhism, and Confucianism. They made pilgrimages to sacred sites to pray, through song and dance, for their nation's prosperity and tranquility. But their primary function was military, and they constantly practiced their skills, acquiring new knowledge and techniques when possible. In time of war, the hwarang fought in the front lines, and some of their greatest fighters, such as Sadaham, Kim Yu-sin, and Kwanch'ang, became legendary.

Additional Reference

Silla's Rise to Power: The First Unification of Korea[]

Korea 750CE

The stone sculpture known as the Kumgang Yoksa depicts two figures, each about 2 meters tall, flanking either side of a doorway in a Buddhist temple in ancient Silla. The sculpture appears to depict two men in unarmed combat. The sculpture has been dated to the 8th Century.

Korea 1200CE
Korea 1500CE
Korea 1800CE
Korea 1900CE
Korean War-Museum

Painting depicting Mongol invasion of Korea. Archery was a mainstay of Korean martial arts dating back to the first century B.C.E., but after the Mongol invasion it became the dominant form of armed combat. Korea's powerful bows, called Gungdo, were composite reflex bows made from the horns of water buffalo.

War of the Arrows film poster

Film poster for War of the Arrows, a popular 2011 Korean film set during the second Manchu invasion of Korea


A depiction of a martial arts form from the 1795 publication of Muye Dobo Tongji.


In the 1846 painting Daekwaedo, Korean wrestling (called "Ssireum") is portrayed on the top, and tae kyon is shown in the middle. The painting depicts a festival.

Culin Taekkyon

Ethnographer Stewart Culin documented children playing taekkyeon in his 1895 publication, "Korean Games".

As the sixth century progressed, the military and political situation for all three kingdoms became even more complex. The 120-year alliance between Silla and Paekche had come to a shocking end in 554, when Silla turned on Paekche after they had driven Koguryo from the Han river basin. The Sui dynasty had managed to reunite China after a lengthy division into the Northern and Southern dynasties, and it had now turned its attention west to the emerging power of the Turks. Koguryo, meanwhile, still held vast territories extending throughout Manchuria, and now hoped to confront the Sui by allying itself with the Turks.

At the same time, Paekche was seeking to reopen its relationship with the Japanese. The Sui dynasty and Silla were each confronted with the specter of a formidable series of alliances, and so they joined forces to counteract the bloc formed by Koguryo, the Turks, Paekche, and Japan. The resulting network of military relationships set the stage for a pivotal showdown in the history of Northeast Asia.

Hostilities opened with Koguryo's attack against the Sui across the Liao River in 598. The Sui emperor, Wen Ti, retaliated, but was turned back. Then, in 612, Yang Ti, the next Sui emperor, mounted an enormous invasion, marshaling a force said to consist of more than a million men. That earthshaking army reached Koguryo's Liao-tung fortress but failed to take it. Yang Ti then sent a third of his forces — some 300,000 men — to attack the capital at Pyongyang directly, but they were trapped by Koguryo's forces in an ingenious maneuver and suffered near-total devastation; it is said that of the original force, only 2,700 men found their way back. Yang Ti was forced to retreat, and although he continued to mount attacks against Koguryo, his army was too weakened to be effective. His dynasty fell and was replaced by the Tang dynasty.

Yon Kaesomun emerged as absolute leader of Koguryo in 642; he took a forceful position with respect to Silla. Paekche hastened to invade Silla that same year. Silla bravely requested assistance from Koguryo against Paekche's attacks, which Yon Kaesomun not only denied but replied to by demanding the cession of the Han river basin. He also ignored Tang entreaties to halt operations against Silla.

The Chinese Tang responded to Koguryo's hard line by invasion and destroyed a number of Koguryo fortresses, including Liao-tung, which had valiantly withstood the Sui siege. They besieged the fortress at Anshih, but here Koguryo made its stand. Over the course of the sixty-day siege, defenders repelled as many as seven attacks per day, and the Chinese eventually withdrew. Further attacks were equally repelled, and the Chinese withdrew from the entire Korean peninsula, at least for a time.

Having failed to find support from its neighbor to the north, Silla then turned to the Tang for support, and they agreed to take Paekche first, then Koguryo. In the year 660 the Tang attacked Paekche's west coast by sea, while Silla dosed in from the east. Paekche mounted an impressive resistance in spite of treachery at the highest levels of state, including a series of assassinations, but after three years Paekche came to an end.

Silla and the Tang now directed themselves toward their ultimate objective, the conquest of Koguryo. Their task was made somewhat easier by the disaffection surrounding Koguryo's strongman leader, Yon Kaesomun. After his death, conflict broke out between his two sons and his younger brother. The eider son was driven out and surrendered himself to the Tang, while the younger brother fled to Silla. Tang and Silla lost no time in taking advantage of this misfortune, and in 667 C.E. they coordinated an attack that overpowered Koguryo within a year.

Silla discovered however that the Tang had ulterior motives for their assistance with the dismantling of Paekche and Kogury. Once those territories had fallen, the Tang set up a series of commanderies in Koguryo and Paekche, naming natives of those areas as its commanders. Silla perceived the nature of these puppet governments and soon found itself at war once again. Silla's first step was to mount a fresh campaign and render assistance to the restoration forces in Koguryo. Silla then turned to the Paekche commanderies, and in 671 C.E. prevailed after a series of bloody battles. In 676, Silla confronted the Tang forces in the Han river basin directly and expelled China, once again, from Korea.

Through the defeat of Paekche and Koguryo, followed by the successful rout of the Tang's imperialist incursion into formerly allied territory, Silla accomplished what had not been done before: the unification of the Korean penminsula under one banner. It is true that the large portion of Manchuria ruled by Koguryo remained under the control of remnants of Koguryo, which eventually fashioned itself into the kingdom of Parhae, but the vast majority of the peninsula now answered to one king, and the Korean people now had an environment in which a mainstream culture could develop.

From the 10th Century to the 20th: Koryo and the Second Unification of Korea[]

Summary: Korean martial arts remained prominent for much of Korea's Koryo dynasty but eventually went into decline, in the face of modern weapon technologies such as gunpowder. By the 19th Century, taekkyon was primarily just an exercise and a game played during local festivals.

For all its significance as the first unifying power on the Korean Peninsula, Unified Silla lasted for only about two hundred years. Over time, the growing gap between the ruling class and the general populace resulted in a series of uprisings. Some two hundred years after its formation, Unified Silla splintered back into the three kingdoms from which it had emerged.

The three kingdoms did not retain their sovereignty for long however. By the end of the tenth century, Korea had once again been unified. The new kingdom was known as Koryo, from which the contemporary name Korea is derived.

Like many of its predecessors, Koryo came to life in the midst of armed conflict, essentially as a rebirth of Koguryo. Its society, therefore, took on trappings similar to those of the earlier kingdoms in the extensive influence of its military. Garrisons were common sights, and Koryo maintained a large and well-organized standing army.

For some time, study of the martial arts had declined and become primarily a means of attaining physical fitness. But as Koryo's power increased and its military forces grew, there seems to have been a resurgence in combat practice. This may well have been reinforced after the reorganization of Koryo's military forces, which were modified to include a division of armed Buddhist monks called the Subdue Demons Corps. Their purpose was to increase the odds of victory through active prayer, but they were also trained as soldiers, and they bore arms and battled alongside their their secular counterparts. In any case, this era marks the period in Korean history in which martial arts (including weapon-based and weaponless martial arts) begin to be formally systematized and documented.

Koryo's aristocracy indulged itself and its servants at the expense of the military, even military commanders of true-bone status. As a result the military overthrew the regime in 1170 C.E. This marked the establishment of military rule in Koryo, which continued despite a series of popular uprisings as well as multiple successive invasions by the Mongols, the Japanese, and the Manchu.

Toward the end of the 14th century a Koryo general by the name of Yi Songye seized political power in a perfectly-timed, nearly bloodless coup. In doing so he established the Yi dynasty. In one form or another this dynasty ruled Korea until the 20th century. During this time advances in technology (such as the widespread adoption of gunpowder) and a decline in Buddhist influences lead to a decrease in unarmed martial arts practice except as a form of exercise. By the 19th Century taekkyon was preserved primarily as a folk game played during May's Dano festival.

Important Dates

  • 918 - the Koryo Dynasty systematizes the tae kyon martial art. Read more on Wikipedia.
  • 918-1392 - Koryo Dynasty
  • 936 - second unification of the Korean peninsula under the Koryo (also spelled Goryeo) Dynasty. Read more on Wikipedia.
  • 1237 - Mongul invasion of Korea. Read more on Wikipedia
  • 1392-1910 - Choson Dynasty
  • 1592 - Japanese invasion of Korea. Read more on Wikipedia.
  • 1608 - publication of Muyejebo, "Compendium of Several Martial Arts". Read more on Wikipedia
  • 1627 - Manchu invasion of Korea. Read more on Wikipedia.
  • 1759 - publication of Muyesinbo, "New Compendium of Martial Arts." Read more on Wikipedia
  • 1790 - publication of Muye Dobo Tongji, "Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts." Read more on Wikipedia See also Muye Dobo Tongji.
  • 1897 - Korea regains its independence from China. Read more on Wikipedia.

The First-Half of the Twentieth Century: Japanese Occupation[]

Korea 1910CE
Korea 1945CE
Korea Present
Imperialism in-Asia

Imperialism in Asia at the outset of the Twentieth Century


Seoul during the Japanese occupation of Korea

By the end of the 19th Century, international politics in Asia had changed considerably. The relative isolation of Asia that had predominated for centuries evaporated in the face of European imperialism. Throughout its history, Korea had maintained relations — at different times peaceful, trade oriented, or conflicted — with Japan, China, Manchuria, and Russia. Now, however, the Western powers were on the rise, and had come to dominate international trade. The Asian nations had in various ways insisted on isolationist policies to defend themselves against the dangers of Western economic imperialism, but Korea's resistance eventually succumbed to the irresistible pressures of the Russian and Japanese military.

By the 1890s, Russia and Japan had become involved in a lethal struggle. As Korea stood between them geographically, the peninsula became hotly contested. Russia had claimed Manchuria, and it was Japan that watched this growth with the greatest concern as Russia prepared to drive into Korea as well. The two nations came to a noninterference agreement regarding Korea in 1898, but that in fact did not halt Russia's efforts to expand in that direction.

Negotiations regarding Korea's fate continued between Russia and Japan, but the two could not agree on mutually beneficial terms, and in 1904, war broke out between them. Korea proclaimed its neutrality immediately, but the Japanese response was first to occupy Seoul and then to sign a protocol agreement with Korea that allowed the Japanese to set up what became known as a "government by advisers" in Korea, with Japanese advisers active in many branches of the Korean government. Japan surprised the world with a series of victories against Russia, and in 1905, the United States stepped in to help the two work out a peace.

The Russo-Japanese war was concluded on catastrophic terms for Korea, for in signing the Treaty of Portsmouth. Russia recognized Japan's paramount interest in Korea's economic, military, and political affairs, and promised not to interfere in whatever actions Japan deemed necessary for the guidance, protection, and control of the Korean government. Japan's first step was to draft a protectorate treaty with Korea, which was signed under controversial circumstances. The result of this step was the complete divestiture of Korea's right to govern itself or to carry out foreign policy in any manner. Japan's grand plan was apparently to transform Korea into a Japanese colony, which it formally achieved in 1910.

This was nearly a death knell for Korean martial arts and culture in general, for Japan instituted a policy of complete repression, making the maintenance of Korean control its top priority. Soo bak and tae kyon survived, but was taught only secretly, handed from masters to students at the risk of imprisonment. Koreans who wish to learn martial arts often did so while traveling outside the country, studying arts such as kung fu in China or karate in Japan.

Important Dates

  • 1910-1945 - Japanese occupation of Korea

World War II to the Present[]


Tae kwon do 1956

Chung Do Kwan demonstration in 1956


Song Do Kwan promotion test in 1961


Won Kuk Lee and Woon Kyu Um face each other at the Korean Taekwondo Association dojang in the 1960s


Byung Jick Ro in 1966

For a much more detailed account of this time period, see: Timeline of Taekwondo

Korea was finally liberated from Japanese occupation after the Allied defeat of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945. As they had done with Germany, the Allies divided Korea, with the U.S. gaining stewardship of the south, and the Soviet Union gaining stewardship of the north. North Korea and South Korea as separate nations were formalized in 1948.

Following the expulsion of Japan from Korea, various schools (kwans) attempted to reestablish a culture of martial arts in Korea, based primarily on combinations of Okinawan karate, various Chinese martial arts, and the Korean traditions of tae kyon and soo bak. Because the masters who started these schools had often studied outside Korea during the Japanese occupation, each school was heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese martial arts traditions.


As these schools grew in size, many opened "annex" locations to accomodate the growth. The initiation of new schools came to an end in 1950 however with the advent of the Korean War. When the war ended in 1953, new schools again began to appear, typically started by students of the original five kwans. Among the leading new schools were:

These four new schools, in combination with the five original schools are commonly referred to now as "the Nine Kwans" -- the progenitors of taekwondo. Most of these kwans still exist today in Korea as taekwondo social clubs that support Kukkiwon-style taekwondo (though some also have "splinter schools" -- usually outside Korea -- that practice non-Kukkiwon-style martial arts). Note however that there were more than just "nine kwans" in Korea: by 1960 the number of kwans in Korea had grown to 40, each kwan typically having many annex locations.

TKD Panorama

Near the end of the Korean War in 1954, South Korean president Syngman Rhee witnessed a martial arts demonstration by the South Korean military (training led by Choi Hong Hi) that proved to be pivotal in the history of taekwondo:

"By 1954, they (General Choi Hong Hi and Nam Te Hi) were confident enough in their fifty martial artists from the [Army's] 29th Division that they organized a demonstration for South Korea's president, Syngman Rhee. Choi wanted to show Rhee that the 29th Division contained great soldiers.
"Nam would never forget the day of the demonstration, which took place on the grass of an outdoor stadium, part of an anniversary celebration for the First Army Corps. President Rhee watched from an elevated platform, along with anyone else who mattered in Korea's military. Thousands of soldiers watched Nam and his soldiers complete patterns, self-defence, bayonet-defence, and sparring. When Nam's team finished, President Rhee remained standing, wishing them to continue. He must have known about Nam's hand-to-hand battle on Yongmun Mountain in the Korean War, because he had awarded special honours to Nam's division.
"Nam and his assistant, Han Cha-gyo, had been given only fifteen minutes for a demonstration, so they improvised from what they knew during the extra time, exploding in a series of knife-hands and other techniques in a pattern called Hwa-Rang that Nam had created from a Korean Karate pattern. Nam also defended against an attack by two men, then three. At one point, he walked up to a pile of thirteen clay roof tiles, each of which was three-quarters of an inch thick. Someone with no martial arts training would have found it difficult to break two tiles, and these thirteen protruded from the ground more than a foot. Nam exuded power, but he was not a tall man, so as he stood over the tiles and raised his hand, the soldiers must have wondered if breaking them would be possible.
"Nam smashed the curved tiles with a single downward punch.
"The president was amazed. 'What was on his hand?' he asked General Choi.
"'Nothing,' Choi replied. 'He broke them with his fist, his bare hand.' 'Is this the part he used?' the president asked, pointing to his first two knuckles.
"'Yes, sir,' Choi replied." - Gillis, Alex. A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do.

Rhee was sufficiently impressed that he directed that martial arts training become an integral aspect of military life. He requested, however, that the kwans come together to establish a single Korean martial art for this purpose. This idea had previously been discussed by the heads of some schools, but so far little progress had been made. If it had not been for this intervention of the Korean government into the dealings of Korean martial, it's possible that the Nine Kwans might never have come together to establish a single style that we now call taekwondo.

In 1955 a meeting was convened by delegates from the major kwans (the Nine Kwans) to decide upon a single name for the newly integrated Korean martial art. At that time no decision on the name could be reached, though the name tae soo do was a favored contender. Finally in 1957 the name taekwondo was suggested. (Most authors credit Choi Hong Hi with inventing the name, others disagree; in any case, Choi was certainly an early and strong advocate of the new name.) The name taekwondo resonated with those who felt that it harkened back to the similar-sounding, ancient Korean tae kyon tradition. Within a few years, the name taekwondo was adopted into common usage.

In 1959 the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association (KTA) was formed under the sponsorship of the South Korean goverment's Ministry for Culture, Sports, and Tourism with the charter to formalize and promote the newly integrated Korean martial art, "taekwondo." There was some controversy however regarding what it meant to have a "unified" martial arts style. Would all of the kwans teach the same techniques and forms, or would they continue to promote their own individual variations? Perhaps more importantly, would each kwan continue to award its own black belts, or would they yield that authority to some central agency? These questions were not resolved until 1978 with the signing of the Unification Proclamation (see below). The KTA was also chartered with kwan consolidation: between 1960 and 1971 the KTA was able to negotiate the consolidation of 40 kwans down to just 14 kwans.

Early Names of TKD

In the early 1960s, the KTA sponsored twelve expert practitioners (known as The Original Masters) to travel all of the world and spread the art. In 1966, army general Choi Hong Hi (co-founder of Oh Do Kwan) split from the KTA to promote taekwondo under the banner of the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF). South Korean support of the ITF was finally withdrawn in 1972 due in part to political controversies surrounding Choi Hong Hi. (See: Choi Hong Hi for details.) The ITF continued without South Korean support as an independent federation under the leadership of Choi, now headquartered in Canada. At Choi's death, the ITF split in 2001 and then again in 2002 into three separate federations of the same name. (See: ITF Taekwondo for details.)

During this time taekwondo became very popular in Korea and many new schools opened throughout the country. By 1970 taekwondo was well-established worldwide, in large part due to the efforts of the Original Masters. Many of the Original Masters emigrated to countries around the world and established schools and national taekwondo federations in those countries. Many of the Original Masters continued to practice traditional taekwondo as it was practiced in the 1940s-1960s, and it is for this reason that it is sometimes said that if one wants to learn old-style, traditional taekwondo, one has to look for instruction outside of Korea.

In 1973 the KTA's efforts to develop a unified style was formalized under the banner of the Kukkiwon (the "national academy" for taekwondo). Within Korea, however, the individual kwan system persisted for another five years, until 1978. On August 7, 1978 the existing kwans at that time came together and signed a Unification Proclamation pledging their support for Kukkiwon, thereby finalizing the Kwan Unification that had first been triggered by Nam Te Hi's famous 1954 tile break:

"Taekwondo will strive hard to unify and will eliminate the different Kwan of the last 30 years. Since 1972, we unified the Taekwondo terminology and poomsae in order to minimize the differences which existed between the different Kwan. With respect to Dan Promotion Tests, the Sabum in the individual dojang will recommend the candidates for rank advancement. We will do our duty to treat everyone as equals and to work towards a clean administrative procedural system. Because Taekwondo is our National Sport we promise to be good leaders and unify all Taekwondo-in throughout the nation. We will close all Kwan offices and the Chong Bon Kwan will instead coordinate with the Kukkiwon so that we can keep our administration clean. We promise to do our part to unify Taekwondo."

The proclamation was signed by

This unification was not without its critics however. Some felt that the adoption of a single, unified style -- with a single agency (the Kukkiwon) alone awarding black belts -- put an end to the diverse Korean martial arts traditions of the 1940s-1960s.

Despite this critique, the newly unified Kukkiwon-style taekwondo became wildly successful. With support from the Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was established in 1973 to promote Kukkiwon-style taekwondo as a competitive sport. One of the WTF's first great achievements was the introduction of taekwondo to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a demonstration sport. In the year 2000 taekwondo made its appearance as a fully official Olympic sport at the summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Taekwondo was the first martial art to be added to the Olympics since judo was added in 1964.


Today it is estimated that more than 70 million people practice taekwondo in over 150 countries; taekwondo is the most popular martial art in the world. This may be due in part to the fact that the Kukkiwon/WTF-style is so sport-oriented (rather than combat-oriented), making it a popular choice for parents who wish their children to learn a martial art. It may also be due to the fact that both major styles (ITF and WTF) represent large federations of schools with widespread membership, providing the critical mass necessary for further promotion of the art. The fact that Kukkiwon/WTF-style is directly sponsored by the government of a major country (South Korea) probably also plays a role in the ongoing popularity of taekwondo. (No other martial art is so actively state-sponsored.)

Though taekwondo may arguably trace its traditions back almost two thousand years to tae kyon and the kingdom of Koguryo, taekwondo is still an essentially modern martial art based on modern principles of biomechanics. It is also very distinctly Korean, and represents a wildly successful effort by the Korean people to reconstitute Korean martial arts at a time when two-thousand-year-old Korean martial arts traditions had almost been entirely wiped from contemporary world culture.

Important Dates

  • 1944 - Established of the first post-WWII martial arts schools (kwans) in Korea
  • 1948 - Korea divided into North and South
  • 1950-1953 - Korean War
  • 1954-1956 - Post-Korean War kwans established
  • 1959 - Korean Taekwondo Assocation (KTA) established
  • 1966 - International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) established
  • 1972 - Founding of the Kukkiwon
  • 1973 - World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) established

See also: Timeline of Taekwondo

See also[]