What is Taekwondo

What is TaeKwonDo? A Historical Guide

What is Taekwondo

If you are a beginner in TaeKwonDo or student, like me, then you have wondered what is TaeKwonDo  and what is the history of it? Having been in Martial arts for awhile, I have wondered how different Taekwondo is compared to the others Korean Martial Arts. Turns out, it can be pretty  similar.

What is TaeKwondo? Taekwondo means the art of fist and foot and is one of the most ancient forms of self defense that started in Korea. Its a Martial Art that develops a Taekwondo students body, mind and spirit. 

In this article I will go into detail on what I learned about what Taekwondo is as well as its the history why it has become such a popular Martial Art.

What is Taekwondo?

Taekwondo is a self defense system that originates from Korea. It dates as far back as 2,000 years making it one of the oldest forms of Martial Arts in the World. The name is made up of  from a combination of 3 words that comprise its meaning:

  • Tae –  Kick
  • Kwon – Fist or Hand
  • Do – Art or Discipline

Together, Taekwondo is described as using all parts of the body to control and stop fights.

History of Taekwondo

It initially began as a defensive martial art called Subak and Taekkyon. Around the 6th century AD, in the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, it was used as a way to train the body and mind. Following that, during the period of the Shilla kingdom, the HwaRang were formed as a group of warriors.

These warriors were trained in various fighting arts which included weapons like swords and bows in order to ensure the longevity of the kingdom.

The unarmed form which they studied was Subak, which focused mostly on foot techniques. Needing more than just soldiers, the ruler at the time unified the HwaRang by adding a code of ethics to provide additional mental conditioning.

Despite its deep ties to Korea’s ancient history, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that it began becoming refined and eventually finding its way to the US.

Taekwondo in the Modern Era

The general notion is that TaeKwonDo first appeared in the US in the mid 1900’s. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was developed by Korean martial artists who were trained in the previously mentioned ancient arts of Subak and Taekkyon, along with other martial arts like karate.

In 1952, the South Korean president witnessed a martial arts demonstration at a military demonstration and insisted that the various forms be unified.

In 1955, a group of leaders came together, consisting of a board of instructors, leaders from various kwans (martial arts academies), and prominent members of society. Korea’s five major kwans met in previous years but could never find success in uniting their various academies.

This time was different and they officially agreed upon the name TaeKwonDo. The Republic of Korea officially adopted it in 1965.

TaeKwonDo in the United States

Taekwondo Knifehand Block

With US service members stationed in Korea and other countries like China, more and more of them became exposed to this style of martial arts. After the Korean war ended, immigration to the US, along with service members’ familiarity with the art, was able to bring TaeKwonDo into American consciousness.

One person in particular is credit with having a large impact on Taekwondo in the US. His name is Jhoon Goo Ree, and he made his way to San Francisco in 1956 post-war.

Working as an interpreter during the Korean war, he originally traveled to Texas to receive aviation training as a Korean officer. However, he was given an opportunity to teach at a Karate school in Washington D.C. When that did not work out, he opened his own school – the Jhoon Ree School of Tae Kwon Do in 1962.

He put on endless demonstrations to raise awareness of Tae Kwon Do and even began training congressmen and public officials.

Tying in TaeKwonDo with education, he furthered its popularity with parents by ensuring that children wouldn’t earn their black belts unless they were earning good grades in school.

He went on to teach and work alongside prominent figures, including the likes of Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. In 1973, his debut in the movie When TaeKwonDo Strikes helped bring it main stream appeal.

While Jhoon Goo Rhee’s story may be the most well known and popular one, he was but one of many instructors who found their way into the United States and brought their knowledge and training in Taekwondo.

Growth and Popularity of TaeKwonDo

The American Collegiate TaeKwonDo Association was formed in 1972. This was made in order to sponsor tournaments as well as ensure that instruction at universities was up to par.

In 1974, Taekwondo became a member of the United States Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Being officially recognized as an amateur sport helped create a period of continued growth for TaeKwonDo and have a unified set of guidelines for those participating in it.

In the 1980s, two schools of thought formed between TaeKwonDo that was growing in the US versus that which was brought over from Korea. Oriental martial artists demanded loyalty to a single form in order to preserve the art and honor instructors.

For example, as children, students may try out a few different styles. However, by their teenage years, they pick one and stick with it. On the contrary, American martial artists differed by borrowing techniques from many different styles to make their own – and thus began the American contribution to Taekwondo.

The tradition of sticking to a single form was soon overridden by schools teaching a variety of styles, which eventually lead to many different organizations forming.

During the same time, in Korea, the World TaeKwonDo Federation was formed (the name has since been changed to World TaeKwonDo as of 2017).

At its first inaugural meeting at the Kukkiwon, 35 representatives participated in forming it after splitting from the International Taekwon-do Federation.

The Kukkiwon, which is also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters, was established by the South Korean government to oversee and govern taekwondo. The first World Taekwondo Championships were hosted in 1973 at the Kukkiwon, with more than 15 countries and 200 competitors. Currently, it is the official governing body of taekwondo in the Olympics.

TaeKwonDo Today

Despite the numerous martial arts widely available, TaeKwonDo is one of two to be practiced in the Olympics (the other being judo).

There are 6 belts: white, yellow, green, blue, red, and black, with 9 Dans to signify time and practice and the black belt rank. Internationally, it is practiced in over 190 countries worldwide.

Today, USA Taekwondo is the official governing body of Tae Kwon Do for the United States Olympic Committee. It has full authority on all decisions regarding team selections for the Olympics and World Taekwondo events.

With its popularity ever growing, there are a number of styles that are prevalent both within the US and worldwide

Taekwondo and Olympics

In 1988 and 1992, TaeKwonDo first came to the Olympic forefront as a demonstration sport. The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games were the first to host TaeKwonDo competitions as an Olympic sport.

This was determined 6 years prior, in 1994 during the International Olympic Committee’s session. In 1995, it became affiliated to the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, or ASOIF.

It has since made appearances at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, 2008 in Beijing, and 2012 London, and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Looking forward, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will have 128 contestants, 8 different weight categories, and host both men and women competitors.

The consistent appearance of Tae Kwon Do at Olympic events in recent years has helped the sports growth worldwide and in the US.

For more information on TaeKwonDo and the Olympics check out my post

World TaeKwonDo Assocation

The growth of TaeKwondDo in the US is largely under the guidance of the most popular organization, World Taekwondo. As mentioned above, its a member of the ASOIF as well as the International Paralympic Committee.

Its mission is “Develop and grow Taekwondo throughout the world, from a grass roots level all the way through to an elite level, to provide all with the opportunity to play, watch and enjoy the sport regardless of age, gender, religion, ethnicity or ability.”

World Taekwondo is based in the Kukkiwon in South Korea. This is important to the growth and development of Taekwondo in the United States for a few reasons. Anyone competing in a sanctioned USA Taekwondo event is required to possess either a USA National Dan or a Kukkiwon Dan Certificate.

TaeKwonDo Styles

Kukki-style and World Taekwondo

Internationally recognized and the governing body for the Olympics, this is the style and organization that was mostly covered in this article. Over 8 million people hold poom-dan certificates.

American Taekwondo Association, Songahm-style

Rooted in traditional taekwondo, ATA began in the ‘60s. Currently boasts about 120,000 students in America, and 300,000 worldwide

International TaekwonDo Federation

Founded in 1966 and has split a few times throughout its history with various styles ensuing, mostly practices traditional style taekwondo

Jhoon Rhee-style

Began in Washington DC from Jhoon Goo Rhee, and spread throughout the country and in Europe. Still practiced today in these parts but is largely confined to these countries.

With 208 member nations, representation at the Olympics, and being headquartered in TaeKwonDo’s birthplace of Korea, World TaeKwonDo can be seen as the most official governing body of the sport and practice.

Final Thoughts

While there are many different styles and governing bodies of TaeKwondo today, ultimately many will accomplish what the ancient art of TaeKwonDo was set out to do: developing discipline, self defense, building confidence and self-esteem, and strengthening the mind and body.