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A brief history of Taekwondo

young boy bows to taekwondo instructor

Taekwondo (also spelled as Tae Kwon Do or Taekwon-Do) is a Korean martial art

young boy bows to taekwondo instructor

Martial arts in Korea have been practised since a long time in the forms of wrestling (like Ssireum), empty-handed fighting (like Hwarangdo, Subak, T’aekkyŏn, Yusul), sword-fighting (like Kŏmsul, Kumdo), archery (like Gungdo), spear-fighting, knife-fighting, horse riding and charioteering. The Goguryeo dynasty (about 37 BCE-668 CE) records Subak as a form of barehand martial art.

In the 16th century, Japan invaded Korea and this led to an infusion of Japanese martial art techniques with the existing Korean martial art techniques. The conflict came to known as the Imjin War (1592-1598), and during this time, the Chinese army came to aid the Korean army, which led to an infusion of Chinese martial art techniques. Subsequently, manuals began to be published about different Korean techniques and influences of Japanese and Chinese martial arts. One such illustrated manual titled, “Muyedobotongji” was published in 1790 and it became very popular.

In 1910, Japan occupied Korea and thus, only Japanese martial art forms were promoted in Korea. At the end of World War II (1939-1945) Japan’s colonial rule (1910-1945) over Korea ended. The U.S. proposed a division of the unified Korean peninsula into two parts, namely North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union) and South Korea (backed by the U.S.), to be divided by the 38th parallel as the dividing line. The Soviets agreed to this proposal and the Korean peninsula was divided. On 15 August 1948, Syngman Rhee established the Republic of Korea in South Korea; whereas, on 9 September 1948, Kim Il-sung established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in North Korea.

Meanwhile, in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, several martial arts schools known as “kwans” started mushrooming. Each kwan taught its own unique style like “tangsoodo”, “kongsoodo”, “taesoodo”, “soobahkdo”, “kwŏnbŏp”, “subak”, and “t’aekkyŏn”. In 1955, the kwan leaders agreed on a unifying martial arts name and decided to name the art as “taekwondo”.

Choi Hong Hi, a general in the South Korean army, was the principle name-giver of ‘taekwondo’ and in 1965 he published a book, “Taekwon-do: The Art of Self-defence”, which is also the first Taekwondo manual in English. In this book, Choi mentions that the martial art T’ae-Kyŏn was the ancient name of Taekwon-Do, and it was practised during the Silla Dynasty at the same time when Hwarang-Do was practised, about 1,300 years ago. Later, Choi published the “Encyclopedia of Taekwondo” in 1983, which included several refinements.

Under the leadership of Choi, demonstration teams were able to spread taekwondo to almost every part of the world. A key member of these teams was the South Korean grandmaster Rhee Ki-ha, who spread it to the United Kingdom and he is also known as the “Founder of Taekwon-Do in Great Britain and Ireland”. Other taekwondo masters include grandmaster Rhee Jhoon Goo, also known as the “Father of American Taekwondo” and grandmaster Rhee Chong Chul, also known as the “Father of Australian Taekwondo”.

Throughout the world there are many organisations promoting taekwondo, like the Korea Taekwondo Association, the World Taekwondo, the International Taekwondo Federation, the Global Taekwondo Federation, the American Taekwondo Association, the Songahm Taekwondo Federation, the World Traditional Taekwondo Union,  the United Kingdom Taekwon-Do Association, the Republic of Ireland Taekwon-Do Association, the All European Taekwon-Do Association, and many more.

Due to the combined efforts of many organisations, grandmasters and students, besides being a martial art, nowadays taekwondo is also recognised as an Olympic sport.


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