TaeKwonDo emerged out of a need for survival
by Daniel Singer

Tae means "to strike with the feet."
Kwon means "to strike with the hand or the fist."
Do means "way" or "method."

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For thousands of years, Korea was a major center of conflict as it lies at the intersection of Japan, China, and Mongolia. More so than other ancient cultures, the Koreans endured an especially long and violent history, because as a small civilization in a hostile area of the world, they constantly needed to protect or regain their independence from several major military powerhouses. Their major enemies included:

Because the Koreans were typically outnumbered and were not a wealthy nation, they needed a system of self-defense that was faster, stronger, and smarter than the military training of their enemies. As a result, TaeKwonDo emerged out of a fierce warrior spirit, an intense national loyalty, and an indomitable will to survive.

TaeKwonDo unified thousands of years of innovations
from numerous styles

In response to the need for a superior fighting system, dozens of leaders each developed their own martial arts styles because they couldn’t all agree on one way of fighting;the most notable of these include Hwarang Do (translated as“the way of flowering manhood”), Subak, and Taekkyon (yet some say there are influences from Tang-Su, Judo, Karate, and Kung Fu). From the standpoint of innovation, the decentralized structure of practice was beneficial because it lead to a rich variety of sub-styles each grounded in a leader’s independent thought.

The earliest records of Martial Arts practice in Korea date back to
about 50 B.C.

The establishment of a single martial art only occurred after the founding of the South Korean Army in 1945, when President Syngman Rhee ordered that martial arts be a central part of military training. So, General Hong Hi Choi developed a single martial arts style for the military that integrated the best of each sub-style. After the Korean War (1950-1953), Choi formally unified the disciplines, and in 1955 established the name, “TaeKwonDo”.

From its unique patchwork history, TaeKwonDo training is different than most other martial arts because it’s highly technical and contains a rich and diverse repertoire of kicking and punching strikes (there are at least 40 kicks alone that differ not only in the shape of the trajectory but also in the method of generating strength).

TaeKwonDo became a philosophy of life

Another distinguishing aspect of TaeKwonDo is that it has its own philosophy or “way of life”. I’ll describe my interpretation of that philosophy separately, but here I’ll give historical context.

Because war occurred frequently throughout Korea’s history, TaeKwonDo in peaceful times was not used in daily life against people, but rather as a means to self-improvement. In fact, its use against other people was reserved for military uses only. Moreover, for thousands of years, an elite TaeKwonDo education included not only a study of self-defense techniques, but also ethics, which were taught by Buddhist and Confucian scholars. A few select Korean warriors, known as the Hwarang, set up a military academy for the sons of royalty, where they taught these subjects with the objective of teaching a way of life that stands for loyalty, filial duty, trustworthiness, valor, and justice.

This context can explain why TaeKwonDo is a rather clean martial art. Unlike combat oriented martial arts, TaeKwonDo focuses on self- defense (the fighting objective is to efficiently with minimal force eliminate the threat of an enemy). The peace-loving spirit of integrity embedded in TaeKwonDo can explain why today there are no “dirty” tactics apparent in other martial arts.

Beyond influencing “cleaner” tactics and a culture of respect for human dignity, the historical roots in Buddhism and Confucianism has also led to an emphasis on self-improvement through disciplined practice.?

Tae Kwon Do became an Olympic sport?

You may be wondering, as I did, how and why did TaeKwonDo became a sport? Starting with “how”, General Choi, the founder of TaeKwonDo, decided to create the Korean TaeKwonDo Association (KTA) to encourage Koreans to practice it as a means of self-defense. In South Korea, his efforts increased Tae Kwon Do’s popularity and led to its integration in the public education system.

Yet, the KTA wanted TaeKwonDo to become globally renown, so they formed the International TaeKwonDo Federation (ITF) and sent over 600 instructors around the world to teach TaeKwonDo focused on self-defense. In his efforts to spread Tae Kwon Do, Choi resigned as the President of the KTA, and he moved the ITF headquarters to Canada (though today they reside in Vienna).

The new president of the KTA, Young Wun Kim, felt that the world headquarters for Tae Kwon Do should be in Korea, so he founded the World TaeKwonDo Federation (WTF) in 1973, which is now the official governing body of Tae Kwon Do, and dissolved the ITF’s connection with the KTA.

The newly formed WTF had a vision to make TaeKwonDo a competitive sport, so they developed a set of globally accepted standards for belt ranks and competition and they petitioned to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make TaeKwonDo an Olympic sport. In 1980, the WTF was granted recognition and became a member of the Olympic games. TaeKwonDo officially became a full medal sport in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Olympic Taekwondo
Demonstration 1988