Quantcast History of Tae Kwon Do
History of Tae Kwon Do

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The history of fighting arts is as old as man kind and literally began with the first altercation primitive man had with another man or the need to defend himself from a beast.  While there is value in the historical roots of the martial arts there is a point where it is impossible to trace its origins to the original source. 

There is much debate over the true source of traditional martial arts whether they originated from India, China, Japan, or even the famous Shaolin temples.  Each of these countries, the Shaolin temple and many other entities has contributed the growth of the martial arts.  For one style, country or organization to argue with another over what the true roots of the martial arts are is as silly as two fleas fighting over who owns the dog that they both live on.

Korea's geographic position as an Asian nexus between China and Japan has caused Korea to be influence by many Asian cultures.  Korea was periodically invaded by the Chinese, Japanese, Manchurians and Mongols.  The fact that Koreans have been able to retain so much of their culture and identity is a strong testament the fortitude and resolve of the Korean people.

History of Korea and its Ancient Martial Arts

Korea has a long martial arts history.  In 1935 Japanese archaeologists exploring the Tung-hua province of Manchuria discovered tombs dating back to the 10th Kingdom of Koguryo.  Murals on the ceilings of the Kak-Je and Myong-chong temple depict figures in fighting postures.   The Sok Kul An Buddist cave temple is guarded by a statue of Kumgang Yuksa, a famed warrior who served during the reign of King Hye-Gong, also stands in a martial arts pose.  These depictions of ancient martial poses gives testament to the fact that martial arts and fighting technique go back to ancient times in Korea.

The early history of the Korean peninsula is a ubiquitous blend of tribal warfare and invasion by peoples to the north.  There are few facts, but some artifacts from this period.  Early Chinese records indicate some early tribal peoples.  In 109 BC the Chinese invade northern Korea and establish a measure of control over the Korean peninsula for 400 years.  During this period of Chinese influence, many of the local tribes unified to form the Koguryo Kingdom under King T’aejo.  The Koguryo were said to be a nation of fierce warlike people.

The 4th century AD is known as the time of the three kingdoms, Koguryo, Silla, and Baek Je respectively.  There are artifacts from this period indicating that the Koreans may have practiced ancient form of the Chinese martial art Kwonbop.  By the end of the seventh century AD the Korean peninsula was unified under the Silla Kingdom.

 Silla’s success was partially due to its military class.  During this time an elite paramilitary youth group known as the Hwarang flourished.  The primary goal of the Hwarang was to nurture and develop the talent of young upper class males.  The Hwarang were organized on a local basis with a defined social and rank structure and were a national example for morality and spirit.  They learned traditional values such as communal living, friendship, and mutual understanding through training in the arts of military tactics, poetry, music and many others.  During the unification wars the Hwarang were noted as fierce warriors displaying not only skills in military tactics but also proficiency in the martial arts, such as wrestling, Soo Bak-Gi, and Taekyon (ancient kicking based martial arts adapted from games).

The Hwarang were given five precepts for secular life by the Buddhist monk Won’gwang: 

  1. Serve your lord with loyalty.

  2. Serve your parents with filial piety.

  3. Use good faith in your communication with friends.

  4. Face battle without retreating.

  5. When taking life, be selective.

 The peace that followed diminished the need of the Hwarang as a military organization.  The organization the began to focus more on the development of arts.

In 936 AD the Silla Dynasty fell to the Koryo (an abbreviation of Koguryo) Dynasty under the leadership of strong war-lord named Wang Kon.  The modern name of Korea is derived from the Koryo Dynasty.  During the Koryo Dynasty Soo Bak regained popularity as a sport.

The Koryo Dynasty lasted until the 13th Century and became a participant in the Mongols activities on conquest.  Koryo was used as a launching ground for the Mongols attacks against Japan which were ultimately thwarted by heavy storms.

By the 14th Century the Chinese Ming Empire began expand into Koryo Dynasty as the Mongols withdrew.  Yi Songgye came into power in Koryo in 1392; Buddhism was replaced by Confusionism as the official religion of the dynasty.  Confucianism’s emphasis on classical Chinese thinking, which down played the more physical aspects of life and encouraged music, reading, poetry and other classical arts suffocated the development Korean Martial Arts.

The Yi Dynasty lasted until 1910 when Korea was annexed by Japan.  The final King of the Yi Dynasty sat on the throne for a mere 24 days before the new treaty with Japan stripped him of all power.  The Japanese undertook immediate efforts to subdue the Korean people.  The Korean language press was immediately banned.  Japanese became a compulsory subject in all schools.  Much of Korean culture was frowned upon or banned including Korean martial arts.  When Japan entered World War II, many Koreans especially those living in Japan were impressed into military service.

Near the end of the war, the United States invaded Korea to push back the Japanese and to gain control the post-war occupation of the Southern Korean Peninsula.  In 1948 Korea was divided into the Republic of Korea (South), with Syngman Rhee as President under American control and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) under Soviet control.  Both North and South Korea claimed rights to all of Korea.  In 1950 the North Korean Military invaded South Korea beginning the Korean War which lasted until July 27th, 1953. 

The Birth of Tae Kwon Do

Even though the Japanese banned the study of Korean Martial Arts, many Koreans practiced arts such as Soo Bak and TaeKyon in secret.  During the occupation many Koreans studied Japanese Martial Arts.

Although generally banned by the occupying Japanese, the Korean Martial Arts of Soo Bak, Tae Kyon, Kong Soo and Hwa Soo and others survived by being practiced in secret, whilst in later years, the Japanese martial arts were often learnt by Koreans from their invaders. Tae Kyon was secretly practiced and passed onto a handful of students by men like Han Il Dong and Duk Ki Song. Another student of the outlawed arts was Hwang Kee, the future founder of Tang Soo Do and the Moo Duk Kwan (martial arts School). By the age of 22, Kee had become expert in Soo Bak and Tae Kyon and in 1936 he travelled to Northern China to study the "T'ang method". He then worked until 1945 to combine the Korean and Chinese styles into Tang Soo Do (the way of T'ang hand).

The original meaning of the term Karate was "T'ang Hand", Te meaning hand and Kara an ideogram to describe the Chinese T'ang. In 1936, Okinawan Masters got together at the behest of a newspaper to change the ideogram Kara to the one meaning "empty", as it has the same pronunciation. In the later part of the Japanese occupation many Koreans went to Japan to further their education and to learn Martial Arts. One of these was Choi Yong-I, born in Korea in 1923 and started studying Korean Kempo at the age of nine. He went to Japan in 1938 to study aviation using the name Masutatsu Oyama but put more of his energies into the study of Karate to become, many decades later, the founder of Kyokushinkai Karate.

Another Korean, Choi Hong Hi, went to Kyoto, Japan in 1937 to study calligraphy. Choi had been studying calligraphy and Tae Kyon in Korea under Han Il Dong and upon arrival in Japan he started to study Shotokan Karate as a student of a Korean named Kim, and after two years of intensive training he was presented with a first Dan Black Belt in Shotokan. He then went onto Tokyo University where he gained his second Dan and became an instructor at the YMCA. During WW 2, whereas Oyama stayed in Japan, Choi was forced to enlist in the Japanese army and was posted to Pyongyang in Korea where he became involved in the Korean Independence Movement, resulting in his imprisonment. Until his liberation at the end of the war he practiced and developed much of his martial art, later to be named Tae Kwon Do.

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