Where Does Taekwondo Originate From? (History Explained!)

Taekwondo as a martial art is known for being a bare hand and foot self defense style. Instead of grapples it focuses on strikes and blocks.

It is used to not only teach discipline but also give people self confidence.Taekwondo is able to blend the rigid style of Karate and the flow of Kungfu, creating an effective and beautiful display.

Where Does Taekwondo Originate From?

While the name taekwondo is relatively new, originating from Korea in the 1940s and 50s, the martial art itself is actually a blend of many different styles dating back 20 centuries.

What Does The Word Taekwondo Mean?

The word taekwondo comes from 3 separate words and can be literally translated to ‘the art of kicking and punching’ but it is a bit more nuanced than that.

‘Tae’ meaning to stomp or strike with feet

‘Kwon’ either fist or punch but it is also similar to the chinese Pinyin ‘quán’ which means martial arts or power

‘Do’ means the way of or discipline

It was initially known as Tang Soo Do (or Tae Soo Do) with Soo deriving from Su meaning hand. The name change from Soo to Kwon was advocated by Choi Hong-hi, a South Korean Army general.

Taekwondo In Ancient History

The origins of taekwondo can be traced back as far as 50BC when Korea was split into 3 separate kingdoms – Silla, Koguryo and Paekche.

Paintings that were found on the ceiling of Muyong-chong (a Koguryo royal tomb) show an art similar to taekwondo.

This was probably taekkyeon (also known as subak). This early form of taekwondo may have started in Koguryo but it wasn’t made popular by them.

That honor goes to Silla, the smallest of the three kingdoms, and its warriors known as the Hwarang (Hwa meaning flower and Rang means man.

Rang was also used as a suffix in Silla official titles). These warriors were taught the art of taekkyeon from Koguryo so that they can protect Silla from Japanese pirates. 

They were also taught by a monk called Won Gwang Beop Sa who trained them in ambition, bravery and honor.

The Hwarang were known not only for their military prowess but also their sense of loyalty and justice because of this training. They spread this art as well as the Buddhist religion across Korea until the 10th century.

The five commandments of the Hwarang are:

  1. Show allegiance to one’s sovereign
  2. Treat one’s parents with respect and devotion
  3. Exhibit trust and sincerity amongst friends
  4. Never retreat battle
  5. Exercise discretion when taking a life

While not followed to a T, these commandments are referenced today in taekwondo as principles to follow.

What Part Did World War 2 Play In The Creation Of Taekwondo?

What Part Did World War 2 Play In The Creation Of Taekwondo

When discussing the origins of taekwondo it is impossible to ignore the political role it played. 

In 1909, Japan occupied Korea and forbade many Koreans from practicing traditional arts. They did this by burning Korean books, banned martial arts, and prohibiting the teaching or speaking of Korean.

However the banning of traditional martial arts just made people more interested in learning it. People would meet in isolated Buddhist temples to learn or even leave the country to study in China.

Korea was liberated in 1945 after the Imperial Japanese army was ordered to surrender to the Allies. A little after this the first Kwans formed. Literally translated as hall or building, a Kwan is a traditional martial arts school.

After its liberation, Korea was set one getting rid of foreign influence which is why the Kwan were created to teach the ancient art of taekkyeon.

Unfortunately most of taekkyeon had been lost to time and what remained had been influenced by the different martial arts that had been introduced over the years. Due to this each Kwan taught a slightly different style.

In 1952 the South Korean president of the time Syngman Rhee saw a demonstration of one of these styles and mistook it for taekkyeon.

He then urged martial arts to be taught across the whole army. Three years later the leaders of the Kwan began discussing the creation of a unified martial art.

The Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in 1959 with representatives from the 9 original Kwans and is currently taekwondo’s oldest governing body.

The previously mentioned Choi Hong-hi was one of these people and wanted them to adopt his own Chan-hon-style of taekwondo.

This was resisted by the other members who wanted the unified art to have input from all the Kwans.

Due to this resistance and his want to teach taekwondo in North Korea, Choi broke off from the KTA and formed his own organization in 1966 called the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF).

After the death of Choi Hong-hi in 2002 the IFT has split into 3 separate groups which operate under the same name to this day.

Modern-Day Taekwondo

Modern day taekwondo was officially born on April 11th 1955. Since then it has been learnt by over 30 million people across more than 156 countries. An impressive feat considering how new it technically is.

Taekwondo was made an official Olympic sport in 2000 following its demonstration at the 1988 Seoul games.

This makes it one of three Asian martial arts (the others being karate and judo) included in the olympic games. The Olympic body only recognises one taekwondo association – the World Taekwondo association.

The World Taekwondo association represents both traditional and modern taekwondo and is headquartered in the Kukkiwon building which was built in 1972.

The Kukkiwon building hosted the first World Taekwondo Championships in 1973 where 17 different countries attended.

People practice taekwondo not just for the physical aspects. It is known to be able to help discipline the mind and spirit as well. It’s an art that promotes personal growth and healing across the world.

Christopher Anderson
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