History of Tae Kwon Do

The history of the development of Tae Kwon Do spans thousands of years through periods of innovation and, unfortunately, repression. Tae Kwon Do, translated literally, means the “art of kicking and punching.” Tae Kwon Do developed as a native Korean combat form that emphasizes kicking, punching, blocking, and jumping, as well as mental discipline. This martial art form exists as a system for training the mind and the body, emphasizing the development of a strong moral character.

Tae Kwon Do practitioners produce sharp, strong angular movements along with with free flowing circular movements to produce a balance of beauty and power. Tae Kwon Do is a free-fighting sport in which an individual uses bare hands and feet to repel an opponent. The most important fact about Tae Kwon Do is that it is both a superb self defense technique as well as a method of developing mental discipline which provides it’s practitioners with self-confidence that allows an advantage over weaker opponents. This mental development along with the physical conditioning is extremely beneficial to Tae Kwon Do’s participants. In addition to the practical benefits as a means of self defense, Tae Kwon Do’s complete regiment of physical conditioning as well as it’s ability to develop improved concentration and mental performance offers a total fitness program that integrates mind, body and spirit.

Since Tae Kwon Do has evolved to exist primarily as a kicking art, every practitioner much devote a substantial amount of time to the development of leg, hip, and back muscles. The first step in training is a lengthy period of stretching exercise designed to make the practitioner limber and able to kick at any level or in any direction. Tae Kwon Do practitioners also use a variety of stances to develop thigh strength, which is a common practice in most modern martial arts. Regular practice increases the length of time a student can maintain these stances, thereby increasing the students skill and conditioning. Furthermore, with the addition of Tae Kwon Do’s trademark kicking techniques, a complete system of self defense and personal improvement is attained. All of these activities are based on a defensive discipline that originally developed to assist in protection against enemy attacks.

The history of Tae Kwon Do can be traced back nearly 3,000 years to wall paintings in the North Korean province of Ki Ja Cho Sun. Over 1350 years ago, Korea was divided into three kingdoms that included Silla, the smallest of these kingdoms, which was constantly under invasion and harassment by it’s more powerful neighbors. This historical aggression can be attributed to the development of Tae Kwon do as a self defense measure. To offset these invasions, the emperor of Silla, King Chin Hung, called upon the youth of his nation to form an elite specially trained officer corps called the Hwa Rang-Do. This institution, under General Kim Yu-Sin, developed not only traditional methods of armed combat, but also practiced mental and physical discipline as well various forms of hand and foot fighting.

To develop their physical conditioning these soldiers engaged in extreme tasks such as climbing rugged mountains and swimming in turbulent rivers during the coldest months of the year, which allowed superb preparation for the task of defending their homeland. To guide themselves and give purpose to their task, these soldiers incorporated a five point code of conduct, which included loyalty to the king, parental piety, and honorable conduct with your friends. In addition, the doctrine included military protocol such as never retreat in battle, and always make a necessary and fair kill. Through the Hwarang, the martial arts began to be taught to all common people as a means of repelling foreign invaders. The survival spirit which permeated the lives of these early martial artists is the root of the spirit of Tae Kwon Do today.

In the early 1900’s, the practice of martial arts in Korea was subverted and forced underground by an oppressive government. During the Second World War, Korea was invaded by Japan and all martial arts were once again outlawed. Legend states that during the occupation period, martial artists practiced in caves and remote clandestine locations, keeping the traditions of the Korean forms alive. The occupation and oppression ceased at the end of the Second World War, and between 1945 and 1953 several martial arts schools opened with different teachings. Many of these schools had heavy influences from Japanese and Okinawan karate due to the occupation period.

In 1952 Korean martial arts were again disrupted by the outbreak of civil war during which many martial artists were killed. When the civil war ended in 1953, martial arts once again began to rise in Korea. In 1955, Korean martial artists came together and unified their various art forms with a single style of hand and feet fighting techniques under the title Tae Kwon Do. During this time, the elements of Tae Kwon Do were developed and standardized. These elements include form development, which is a series of choreographed movements depicting one person defending himself against multiple attackers, as well as one step sparring, which develops different develops practical methods to defend against an attack, in addition to self defense by hand and foot techniques and pressure point manipulation.

The development of organized Tae Kwon Do institutions in modern times can be attributed to a number of individuals. In 1956, Jhoon Rhee brought Tae Kwon Do to the Unites States, under the title of “Korean Karate.” Jhoon Rhee is commonly held as the father of American Tae Kwon Do, and is still currently practicing and teaching. In 1966, General Hong Hi Choi, who it is believed suggested the name Tae Kwon Do, left Korea and formed the International Tae Kwon Do Federation. Practitioners that disagreed with General Choi separated formed the respected World Tae Kwon Do Federation in 1973. These two groups continue to disagree today.

Today, Tae Kwon Do is one of the most popular martial arts in the world and is practiced by many thousands of individuals. Tae Kwon Do was a demonstration sport at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympic Games, and will be a medal sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The extent to which Tae Kwon Do positively effects the physical and mental condition of those who practice it can never be fully appreciated.


Kim, Daeshik Dr., Tae Kwon Do: Complete Taegeuk and Palgwe Forms and Readings. NANAM Publishing House, 1998.

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