Hwa Rang Kwan Napa

A nonprofit martial arts program in Taekwondo, Hapkido and Kumdo


History of Taekwondo - Origins Through Present Day


Literally translated, Taekwondo means foot fist art (Tae = kick or strike with the foot, Kwon = fist or strike with the hand, and Do = art or discipline.) Thus, stripped down to its most basic roots, Taekwondo means the art of kicking and punching. It is a unique martial art that combines the quick, straight line movements of Japanese systems like Karate and the flowing circular movements of traditional Chinese systems. The distinguishing feature of Taekwondo though, is its powerful kicking techniques.

Taekwondo is more than just a system of combative physical techniques. It is also an art directed at the moral and ethical development of its students. These teaching have been summarized over the centuries in various forms evolving into the modern “Five Tenets” of Taekwondo.

Ancient Times

Although legends abound about how martial arts either found their way into Korea through cross pollination or cultural exchanges with neighboring China, or whether the martial art developed within Korea and spread outward, none of these stories can be historically corroborated. What can be said of the origins of Taekwondo is that they are firmly rooted in the history of the region.  One cannot espouse upon the history of Taekwondo without understanding the history of Korea.

The earliest historical records of formalized martial arts practice seem to come from about 5 B.C.E. (Yeon Hee Park 1999). During this time, the area we currently refer to as the Korean peninsula was divided into three tribes or kingdoms. Silla or Shilla (57 B.C.E. – 935 C.E.) was a kingdom founded along the southeast coast on the Kyongju plain of the Korean peninsula and was the oldest of the three kingdoms. To the north in the Yalu River Valley and beyond, evolved the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C. E – 668 C.E.) In the southwestern area of the peninsula in the Han River valley, the Kingdom of Paekche (18 B.C.E. – 660 C.E.) found a foothold.

Although the kingdoms differed in many ways and may even have spoken different languages, there were many similarities. Each of the kingdoms developed rigid social hierarchies in which the ruling class was drawn from a small number of elite families and passed down through the system of primogeniture. Both Koguryo which was under attack by its northern Han Chinese neighbors and Silla which was harassed by Japanese pirates developed warrior classes as well. There were also relations between some of the kingdoms and Kaya, a small league of states at the tip of the Korean peninsula that had close relations with the Yamato culture of Japan. During the Three Kingdoms era, there was constant fighting between the rival kingdoms.

The Sonbae of Koguryo was organized by the king to consolidate and centralize power. Similarly, in Silla, the Hwarangdo (or Flower Youth Corps) developed to train the young men of Silla in civil and martial arts and to inculcate them with the time-honored values of chivalry, patriotism, harmony and unity. (Timeline of East Asian History - Korean History n.d.)

Evidence of the practice of a martial art then known as Taek Kyon (kicking art) has been found in the murals on the ceiling of the Muyong-chong and Kakshu-chong, two royal tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom. (U.-y. Kim 2002) These murals show 2 men practicing what appear to be martial art techniques and are believed by many to be the first record of martial arts practice in Korea. Similarly, bas-relief carvings dating back 2000 or so years can be seen in places like the tower wall at Kyongju and the cave at Suck-Kool-Am in southern Korea. The murals at Muyong-chong seem to indicate that the Koguryo put a priority on the teaching of martial arts (Taek Kyon) to the Sonbae.

The Hwarangdo of Silla were selected by the kingdom through contests and lived together learning both the social and martial arts. In particular, they exercised in Su Bak Do (the art of Punching and Butting.) These young men were to evolve into the elite fighting corps of the Silla Kingdom and they are credited with the growth and spread of early forms of Taekwondo throughout the kingdom. It is said that because of the constant attack of its coastline by Japanese pirates, the king of Silla petitioned his northern neighbor for assistance. King Gwanggaeto of Koguryo sent 50,000 troops to ostensibly help the smaller kingdom drive out the pirates. It was at that time that Taek Kyon was thought to have been introduced in secrecy to the Silla warrior class. (U.-y. Kim 2002) This can be substantiated by the following facts: (U.-y. Kim 2002)

1)Hwarang in Silla has the same meaning as Sonbae in Koguryo

2)Both Hwarang and Sonbae have the same organizational and hierarchical structure

3)Both competed in national festivals or games using their martial arts.

Although Koguryo was the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms, by 600 C.E. it was severely weakened by wars with China. Silla, on the other hand was modernizing its government and building strong alliances. Eventually Silla was able to defeat both Paekche and Koguryo in a series of wars and take control of the whole peninsula. The unified Silla era was a time of relative peace, prosperity and cultural growth, which helped spread the learning of Taek Kyon and Su Bak Do throughout ancient Korea.

Of particular interest for the Taekwondo historian is that during this time, the Hwarangdo, influenced by Buddhist morality and Confucian philosophy, developed a life philosophy based on a set of principles known as the Five Codes of Human Conduct: (Park 2000)

1)Be loyal to your country

2)Be obedient to your parents

3)Be trustworthy to your friends

4)Never retreat in battle

5)Never make an unjust kill

It is easy to see where the eventual evolution of the modern eleven commandments and five tenets of Taekwondo come from (see Present Times below.)

Middle Ages

The middle Ages of Korean history are generally accepted to have occurred during the reign of the Koryo Dynasty (918 C.E. – 1392 C.E.) The Koryo Dynasty was founded by Wong Kon and was an outgrowth another northern kingdom which formed during the Silla unification, the Parhae Kingdom. Wong Kon was a rebel who eventually attained enough power to challenge Silla. In the end, he and the last Silla king married each other’s daughters and Wong took control and established a new state: the Koryo dynasty.

The Koryo Dynasty reunified the Korean peninsula and lasted almost 500 years. During this time Taek Kyon grew more systematically and became a compulsory subject for military cadets. The kingdom under the Koryo rulers became increasingly militaristic, due in part to the constant need to defend against invaders from all sides. The soldiers of the Koryo Dynasty were among the finest the country had ever produced, and their martial spirit and bravery have been a continual source of inspiration. It was in the latter part of the Koryo Dynasty, during the reign of King Uijong that the art transitioned once again from a system to promote health and fitness to a fighting art. (Yeon Hee Park 1999)

Modern Ages

The Choson, or Yi, dynasty lasted from 1392 until 1907.  General Yi Songgye founded the dynasty which took his name. Yi had made a name for himself fighting forces in Manchuria and Japanese pirates on the seas around the peninsula. As Koryo fell apart under a series of child rulers and shifting alliances among the forces in northeast Asia, Yi took control of the situation on the peninsula and set up the Yi or Choson dynasty. (Timeline of East Asian History - Korean History n.d.) To secure power he stripped former powerful families of landholdings and withdrew government support of Buddhist monasteries. The last Koryo king was exiled and faithful officials purged from the government or even executed.

It was during this dynasty that the first book on the martial arts of Korea was published.  King Sunjo (1567-1608) ordered the publication of an illustrated textbook on six martial arts (long stick, shield, multiple tip bamboo spear, long spear, triple tip spear, and long sword.) This work was known as the Muye Jebo.

During the reign of King Youngjo (1724-1776) the publication of the Muye Jebo was revised and added twelve additional martial arts (long bamboo spear, flag spear, short sword, Japanese sword, combat engagement, crescent sword, spear sword, twin swords, admiral’s sword, Silla Kingdom sword, fist fighting (kwon bop) and flail.) This work was known as the Muye Shinbo. It was King Jungio (1776-1800) who added six more fighting methods (spear fighting on horseback, crescent sword on horseback, twin sword on horseback, flail on horseback, ball game on horseback, and horsemanship) and completed what is now known as the Muye Dobo-tongji. (S. H. Kim 2000)

The popularity of martial arts waned considerably during the latter half of the Choson Dynasty as the government became more embroiled in internal power struggles. With the invasion of Korea in 1910  by the Japanese, the teaching of martial arts became prohibited. Ironically, this act led to the resurgence, mostly in secret) of Su Bak. Martial arts were mostly handed down from master to student (typically from father to son) until the liberation of the country in 1945. Subak/Taek Kyon was kept alive through the efforts of a number of masters of the Korean fighting arts. Eventually, in 1943, the underground nature of the arts changed with the need of the Japanese warlords for more military personnel. The Japanese introduced Judo, Karate and Chinese arts into Korea. A hybrid form of Su Bak evolved and was called Tang Soo Do (the Way of the Chinese Hand.)

Present Day

After the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945, the Korean people renewed their spirit of nationalism and self-reliance. During this time, the first school (Kwan) to teach a native form of martial arts opened in Seoul, Korea. This school was the Chung Do Kwan (School of the Blue Wave) whose master was Won Kuk Lee. Later that year, two more Kwans opened by the name of Moo Duk Kwan (school of martial virtue) under Huang Kee and Yung Moo Kwan under Sup Chun Sang. In 1946, Yun Pyung started the Chang Moo Kwan and Pyang Yon Kue started the Chi Do Kwan. These five schools are taken to be the original five Kwans of modern Taekwondo. (Chun 1976)

In 1950, Duk Sung Son began teaching a form of martial art to Korean policemen. His success led to his appointment as chief instructor of the signal corps of the Korean Army and later as instructor to the cadets of the Korean Military Academy. In 1963, Mr. Son emigrated to the US and began teaching in New York City. (Son 1968)

In 1952, Song Duk-Ki, a master of Taek Kyon Do, presented a demonstration of his art at a birthday celebration for the new president of Korea, Syngman Rhee. This demonstration had the clear intention of distinguishing Korean martial arts from those that had been introduced by the Japanese occupiers of Korea over the last 36 years. Rhee was so impressed that he ordered his military leaders to begin immediate instruction in these arts for all Korean soldiers.

At the end of the Korean War (1953), a Taek Kyon military training unit (29th infantry) was established by General Hong Hi Choi on Che Ju Island. This unit was responsible for all Taek Kyon training for the Korean military. Two years later a meeting was convened to unite all of the Kwans under one name. The chosen name was Tang Soo Do.  Within two years a new name was chosen: Taekwondo and that name has been the unifying banner for most Korean martial arts since then. (Yeon Hee Park 1999)

The Korea Taekwondo Association was formed in 1961 to settle ongoing dissention among the various Kwans. General Choi was elected its first president. Under his leadership, Taekwondo began to spread around the world, first in Southeast Asia, then Europe, and the Middle East. The USA had already been exposed to Taekwondo due to its involvement in the Korean war from 1950-1953. (D. Kim 1994) In 1967-68, a Korea Taekwondo Association committee was formed with representatives from all the major Kwans for the purpose of creating a standard set of forms. Utilizing the traditional Japanese patterns along with techniques from their individual styles, they worked together to create the standardized Taekwondo Pal-Gwe and Black belt forms officially recognized today. The "modern" Tae Geuk forms followed in 1972.

In May of 1973, recently elected KTA president Un Yong Kim created a new, worldwide Taekwondo organization, the World Taekwondo Federation. This was to be the governing body of all Taekwondo activities taking place outside of Korea, with its headquarters located at a new facility called the Kukkiwon located in Seoul, Korea.

The worldwide growth of Taekwondo since then has been nothing short of a phenomena. In May, 1973, the first Taekwondo World Championships were held in Korea. In 1988 Taekwondo was designated an official demonstration sport for the Olympic Games in Korea. Due to its popularity at these games and at the 1992 Barcelona games, Taekwondo became an official Olympic sport at the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia.

The philosophy of modern Taekwondo

Along with the evolution of Taekwondo as a sport, a philosophical evolution has also taken place. Its roots as a martial art give to Taekwondo a unifying philosophy which is embodied in the eleven commandments of Taekwondo which find their roots in the five codes of the Hwarangdo. The eleven commandments are: (Brule n.d.)

1)Loyalty to your country

2)Respect your parents

3)Faithfulness to your spouse

4)Respect your brothers and sisters

5)Loyalty to your friends

6)Respect your elders

7)Respect your teachers

8)Never take life unjustly

9)Indomitable spirit

10)Loyalty to your school

11)Finish what you begin

Along with mastering the physical aspects of the art, all Taekwondo practitioners are expected to live their lives by these commandments. Taekwondo also summarizes the specific behaviors of the eleven commandments into five tenets, which should be abided by all practitioners:




4)Self control

5)Indomitable Spirit

Seen in light of the above tenets, it is easy to see that one of the goals of Taekwondo training is to bring its students into balance with the universe. Not only is Taekwondo intended to help to strengthen the body, but also the mind and spirit of its practitioners.


Brule, Terry. Taekwondo History. http://www.napaTaekwondo.com/tkdhistory/.

Chun, Richard. Taekwondo: The Korean Martial Art. New York: Harper Collins, 1976.

Kim, Daeshik. The Ku Ki Won's Taekwondo. Seoul: NANAM Publishing House, 1994.

Kim, Sang H., trans. Muye Dobo Tongji. Hartford: Turtle Press, 2000.

Kim, Un-yong. Taekwondo Textbook. Seoul: Kukkiwon, 2002.

Park, Yeon Hwan. Black Belt Taekwondo. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Son, Duk Son. Korean Karate. New York: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Timeline of East Asian History - Korean History. http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/bender4/eall131/EAHReadings/module02/m02korean.html.

Yeon Hee Park, Yeaon Hwan park, Jon Gerrard. Taekwondo. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.