Tranlated literally from Korean, "Tae" means "to kick", "Kwon" means "to punch" and "Do" means "way" or "art". Together, then, Tae Kwon Do means "The art of kicking and punching" or "The art of unarmed combat". What separates Tae Kwon Do from other martial arts are its numerous, varied and powerful kicking techniques. More than being simply a system of defending oneself, however, Tae Kwon Do is a lifestyle dedicated to the moral and mental development of its students. Tae Kwon Do's five precepts are Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and Indomitable Spirit; all students of the art are expected to live by these basic guidelines.
Taek Kyon, modern Tae Kwon Do's precursor, was practiced as early as 50 B.C. Korea at this time was divided into three kingdoms: Silla, Koguryo and Baekche. Paintings on the ceiling of the Muyong-chong, a royal tomb from the Koguryo dynasty, show Taek Kyon practitioners using techniques virtually identical to modern-day Tae Kwon Do.
Though this first historical record of Taek Kyon seems to indicate the Koguryo kingdom as the birthplace of the art, it is Silla's warrior nobility, the Hwarang, who are credited with the propagation of Taek Kyon throughout Korea. Silla's coastline was constantly under attack by Japanese pirates, being the smallest and least civilized of the kingdoms, and the kingdom eventually appealed for help from the Koguryo dynasty. A force of 50,000 Koguryo soldiers were sent into Silla to drive out the pirates, and it was then that Taek Kyon was introduced to select members of Silla's warrior class.
The Hwarang were a special warrior class, trained in a military academy initially founded for the young nobility of Silla, the society of the Hwarang-do ("the way of flowering manhood"). The academy adopted Taek Kyon as part of its regular training program. Hwarang warriors were well-educated young men who were encouraged to travel far and wide in Korea to learn about the regions and the people; Taek Kyon was thus spread to all parts of the country during the Silla dynasty, which lasted from A.D. 668 to A.D. 935. Taek Kyon during this time was designed primarily to promote fitness, and it was not until the Koryo dynasty (935 - 1392) that the art was taught as a style of fighting.
Taek Kyon became known as Subak, and the first book to be published on it was written during the Yi dynasty (1397 - 1907). Subak became an art popular among the general public, not just among the military nobility. During the second half of the Yi dynasty, the art returned to its primarily fitness-oriented purpose and was at this time passed down and spread by the general population, due to de-emphasis of military activity in favor of more scholarly pursuits.
The practice of Subak declined until incomplete remnants existed in scattered parts of the country. It was not until the Japanese invasion of 1909 that Korea's fighting arts suddenly became popular again. The Japanese, who occupied Korea for the next 36 years, banned the practice of all martial arts for native Koreans, unexpectedly inducing an upsurge in the number of practitioners, who travelled to remote Buddhist temples and abroad to study the martial arts. In 1943, Judo, Karate and Kung-fu were officially introduced, and a dramatic increase in interest in the martial arts was seen throughout the country. A variety of Korean martial arts existed at this point, depending on the strength of influence other countries' styles had on the masters teaching Taek Kyon/Subak.
In 1945, the first kwan ("school") to teach a Korean martial art was opened in Seoul; this dojang ("gymnasium") was named the Chung Do Kwan. Seven other major schools were formed between 1953 and the early 1960s. A central regulating board was prevented from being formed for 10 years due to dissension between the various kwans. However, this period saw the Korean martial arts gain a strong foothold within the Korean Armed Forces, an event that was a major turning point. In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, President Syngman Rhee watched a half-hour demonstration by Korean martial arts masters and was so impressed that he ordered training to become a part of regular military training. It was not long before the U.S. was first exposed to the Korean martial arts: a master was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for special training in radio communications, where he demonstrated his art to both the military and the public.
On April 11, 1955, the various kwans were united in a meeting among the masters. The name of Tae Soo Do was agreed upon by the majority of the kwan masters, who then merged their styles for the mutual benefit of all schools. Two years later, however, the name was changed to Tae Kwon Do, chosen because it accurately describes the art as well as for its similarity to the art's early name of Taek Kyon.
Not all the kwans, however, united. It is not clear which of the original eight did agree to merge, but out of those who did not, only Hapkido remains a separate martial art in itself. However, animosity still remained between the various masters until the formation of the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association on September 14, 1961, which saw the potential for the spread and growth of its art and used its authority to send instructors and demonstration teams worldwide. In Korea, the study of Tae Kwon Do became immensely popular as it spread from the army into high schools and colleges, into dojangs for the general public. During the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese government requested instructors to train its troops, the art having developed such a reputation for being an effective fighting system. Thousands of Tae Kwon Do demonstrators performed around the world before fascinated governments in the 1960s, leading to the massive number of requests calling for Korean instructors to teach in other countries. By the early 1970s, Tae Kwon Do had established itself worldwide.
On May 28, 1973, a new international organization, the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF) was formed. All Tae Kwon Do activities outside of Korea since that day have been coordinated by the WTF, the only official organization recognized by the Korean government as an international regulating body for Tae Kwon Do.
Tae Kwon Do's prominence in the circle of international sports brought the art to the attention of the General Association of International Sports Federation (GAISF). GAISF has direct ties to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and Tae Kwon Do as a sport was introduced to the IOC, which recognized and admitted the WTF in July 1980. Tae Kwon Do's chief moments of glory came afterwards, as the IOC designated it an official Demonstration Sport for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and subsequently a full Medal Sport for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Today, Tae Kwon Do has blossomed into being one of only two martial arts systems (the other being Karate-do) to be practiced all over the world, with an international membership of more than 20 million practitioners in over 120 countries, making it the most practiced martial art style in the world.
Tae Kwon Do
by Yeon Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park and Jon Gerrard. Published by Facts On File, Inc., 1989.