A History and Style Guide of Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do at Tokyo Olympics 2000

 Lutz Bongarts / Getty Images

The martial arts style of Tae Kwon Do or Taekwondo is steeped in Korean history, though some of that history is cloudy due to a lack of documentation in early times and the longtime Japanese occupation of the area. What we know for sure is that the name is derived from the Korean words Tae (meaning “foot”), Kwon (meaning “fist”), and Do (meaning “way of”). Therefore, the term literally means “the way of foot and fist.”

Tae Kwon Do is the national sport of South Korea and is known for its striking and athletic kicks. It is also very popular worldwide, as there are more people practicing Tae Kwon Do today than any other martial arts style.

The History of Tae Kwon Do

As is the case in many cultures, martial arts started during ancient times in Korea. In fact, it is believed that three rival kingdoms of this time period (57 B.C. to 668) called Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje trained their men in a blend of martial arts styles designed to help them protect their people and survive. Of these unarmed combat types, subak was most popular. Similar to the way that Goju-ryu is a substyle of Japanese karate, the best known of the subak substyles was taekkyeon.

Silla, being the weakest and smallest of the three kingdoms, began to select those that were a cut above as warriors called Hwarang. These warriors were given extensive educations, lived by a code of honor, and were taught subak and the aforementioned style of subak called taekkyeon. Interestingly, subak was very focused on the legs and kicking in the kingdom of Goguryeo, which is something that Tae Kwon Do today is known for. However, the kingdom of Silla appears to have added more hand techniques to what amounts to this blended form of Korean martial arts.

Unfortunately, Korean martial arts began to fade from society’s watchful eye during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a time when Confucianism reigned and anything that was not scholarly somewhat dropped from consciousness. Along with this, the true practice of taekkyeon survived perhaps only due to military practice and use.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Japanese occupied Korea. As was the case with many of the places they occupied, they outlawed the practice of martial arts by natives of the area. Taekkyeon did survive in underground fashion until the Japanese finally left in the latter half of the century after World War II. Regardless, during the time when Koreans were outlawed from using martial arts, some did somehow manage to be exposed to the Japanese martial art of karate as well as some of the Chinese arts.

When the Japanese left, martial arts schools began to open in Korea. As is almost always the case when an occupier leaves, it is difficult to know whether these schools were solely based on the former taekkyeon, were Japanese based karate schools, or were a melding of all. Eventually, nine schools of karate or kwans emerged, which prompted then South Korean president Syngman Rhee to declare that all must fall under one system and name. That name became Tae Kwon Do on April 11, 1955.

Today there are over 70 million practitioners of Tae Kwon Do worldwide. It is also an Olympic event.

The Characteristics of Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do is a stand-up or striking style of martial arts that offers a supreme focus on kicking techniques. That said, it certainly does teach other forms of striking such as punches, knees, and elbows, and also works on blocking techniques, stances, and footwork. Students can expect to both spar and learn forms. Many are also asked to break boards with strikes.

Practitioners can expect to improve their flexibility tremendously in this hard style of martial arts. Some throws, takedowns, and joint locks are also taught.

Goals of Tae Kwon Do

The goal of Tae Kwon Do as a martial arts form is to render an opponent unable to harm you by way of striking them. In that sense, it is a traditional striking form similar to karate. However, as was noted earlier, self-defense in the form of blocks and footwork are also designed to keep practitioners out of harm’s way until such time as they can pull off the strike that ends the encounter. What’s more, there is a heavy emphasis on kicking techniques, as they are deemed to be the strongest area of the body to strike with. Additionally, kicks allow an added reach advantage.

Substyles of Tae Kwon Do

Since all the Korean kwans were ordered to be unified by Syngman Rhee, there are really only a few styles of Tae Kwon Do in practice today and even those are highly blurred. Generally, Tae Kwon Do can be separated in terms of sports Tae Kwon Do, such as in the Olympics, and traditional Tae Kwon Do. In addition, it can be separated by the organizations that govern it—the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF- more sport oriented) and International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). Again, though, there are far more similarities than differences.

Additionally, there are more recent styles such as Songham Tae Kwon Do, the style that emanates from the American Taekwondo Association, and even further variations.

Three Official Taekwondo Hall of Fame Members

  • Bok Man Kim: In essence, Kim brought Tae Kwon Do to Brunei. He was also an outstanding competitor and expert in the art.
  • Jhoon Goo Ree: Ree is widely considered to be the “Father of American Taekwondo.” He is credited greatly for bringing the sport to America in the 1950’s.
  • Mike Warren: Warren was inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame on April 6, 2007. He won numerous competitions and is widely considered to be the greatest American Tae Kwon Do player of all-time.