Taekwondo is a Korean martial art and the national sport of South Korea. It is the world's most popular martial art in terms of the number of practitioners. Gyeorugi, a type of sparring, has been an Olympic event since 2000.

In Korean, Tae means "to strike or break with foot"; Kwon means "to strike or break with fist"; and Do means "way" or "method"; so "TaeKwonDo" is loosely translated as "the way of the foot and fist" or "the way of kicking and punching".

Taekwondo's popularity has resulted in the varied evolution of the martial art into several domains: as with many other arts, it combines combat techniques, self-defense, sport, exercise, meditation and philosophy. Taekwondo is also used by the South Korean military as part of its training.

History of TaeKwonDo

The origins of TaeKwonDo have long been a heated topic amongst practitioners of the art. While all agree that TaeKwonDo originated in Korea, opinions differ as to the path it took: - some argue that TaeKwonDo evolved from earlier Korean martial arts (such as Tae Kwon in the 4th Century AD), others state that TaeKwonDo is derived from native Korean martial arts with influences from neighboring countries or that it was partially affected by karate during the Japanese occupation.

The oldest Korean martial art was an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje where young men were trained in unarmed combat techniques to develop strength, speed, and survival skills. The most popular of these techniques was subak, with taekkyeon being the most popular of the segments of subak.

Map of Ancient Korea

Those who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in the new special warrior corps, called the Hwarang. It was believed that young men with a talent for the liberal arts may have the grace to become competent warriors. These warriors were instructed in academics as well as martial arts, learning philosophy, history, a code of ethics, and equestrian sports. Their military training included an extensive weapons program involving swordsmanship and archery, both on horseback and on foot, as well as lessons in military tactics and unarmed combat using subak. Although subak was a leg-oriented art in Goguryeo, Silla's influence added hand techniques to the practice of subak.

During this time a few select Sillan warriors were given training in taekkyeon by the early masters from Koguryo. These warriors then became known as the Hwarang. The Hwarang set up a military academy for the sons of royalty in Silla called Hwarang-do, which means "the way of flowering manhood." The Hwarang studied taekkyeon, history, Confucian philosophy, ethics, Buddhist morality, social skills and military tactics. The guiding principles of the Hwarang warriors were based on Won Gwang's five codes of human conduct and included loyalty, filial duty, trustworthiness, valor and justice. Taekkyeon was spread throughout Korea because the Hwarang traveled all around the peninsula to learn about the other regions and people.

In spite of Korea's rich history of ancient and traditional martial arts, Korean martial arts faded into obscurity during the Joseon Dynasty. Korean society became highly centralized under Korean Confucianism and martial arts were poorly regarded in a society whose ideals were epitomized by its scholar-kings. Formal practices of traditional martial arts such as subak and taekkyeon were reserved for sanctioned military uses. However folks practice of taekkyeon as a kicking game still persisted into the 19th century.

Modern Development of TaeKwonDo

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, all facets of Korean identity including folk culture, language and history were banned in an attempt to erase Korean culture. Martial arts such as taekkyeon (or subak) were also prohibited during this time; however, taekkyeon survived through underground teaching and folk custom. During the occupation Koreans who were able to study in Japan were exposed to Japanese martial arts in some cases receiving black belts. Others were exposed to martial arts in China and Manchuria.

When the occupation ended in 1945, Korean martial arts schools (kwans) began to open in Korea under various influences. In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, there was a martial arts exhibition in which the kwans displayed their skills. In one demonstration, Nam Tae Hi smashed thirteen roof tiles with a forefist punch. Following the demonstration, South Korean President Syngman Rhee instructed Choi Hong Hi to introduce the martial arts to the Korean army.

Korean Soldiers

By the mid-1950s, nine kwans had emerged. Syngman Rhee ordered that the various schools unify under a single system. The name "TaeKwonDo" was either submitted by Choi Hong Hi, or Song Duk Son of Chung Do Kwan and was accepted on April 11, 1955. As it stands today, the 9 kwans are the founders of TaeKwonDo. The "Korea Taekwondo Association" (KTA) was formed in 1961 to facilitate the unification. Shortly thereafter, TaeKwonDo made its d├ębut worldwide. Standardization efforts in South Korea stalled, as the kwans continued to teach differing styles. Another request from the Korean government for unification resulted in the formation of the Korea Tae Soo Do Association, which changed its name back to the Korea Taekwondo Association in 1965 following a change of leadership.

Currently, TaeKwonDo is practiced in 188 countries with over 70 million practitioners and 4 million individuals with black belts throughout the world. It is now one of only two Asian martial arts that are included in the Olympic Games; it became a demonstration event starting with the 1988 games in Seoul, and became an official medal event starting with the 2000 games in Sydney.

TaeKwonDo in Modern-Day Korea

Taekwondo today is similar to the martial arts in other Oriental countries and shares some features with them. At the same time, it is very different from most other oriental martial arts. First, it is physically very dynamic, with active movements that include a range of foot skills. Second, the principles of physical movements are in simpatico with that of the mind and life as a whole. Third, it possesses dynamic poses.

The popularity around the world has propelled TaeKwonDo into the Olympics as an official sport. Since the late 1940s when then President Syngman Rhee decided that Korea should have a national sport, TaeKwonDo has grown in popularity from a historical footnote to an Olympic Sport, National Pastime and Pride of a Nation. In addition to competitions at national and international level, an undisputed domination of the TaeKwonDo event at each Olympic Games since it's instigation, South Korea also has a world-famous TaeKwonDo demonstration team, T.O.P. Taekwondo's Demonstration Team, which have elevated TaeKwonDo to an art form second to none.

Korean National Demonstration Team