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Origins Series: Taekwondo

August 19, 2011

Have you ever wondered where different disciplines of martial arts came from, what inspired them, and even why certain weapons were created? The goal of our new Origins Series is to uncover the history and origins of some of your favorite martial arts disciplines, methods, and weapons.

The first time I heard the word “Taekwondo” I was 9 years old. I was watching the Nickelodeon cartoon Rocket Power, and the nebbishy character Sam Dullard, affectionately nicknamed “Squid,” was just about to sneak out his bedroom window when he heard a strange noise emanate from the bushes. “Get away — I know Taekwondo!” he yelled, only to discover that it was only his neighbor’s cat. The resurrection of this funny, random, and strangely clear memory of my introduction to Taekwondo prompted me to do two things this morning: A) research what other fictional characters are masters of “the art of the foot and fist,” and B) write a blog post to enlighten others as to the origins of this ultra-popular form of martial arts. For starters, did you know that Batman, Neo from The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Miss Piggy are all lethal taekwondo masters? I’ll allow Blue Snake author Giles R. Savoie to explain the finer points of the national sport of Korea with this excerpt from his book, Taekwondo: A Technical Manual.

“Taekwondo History”

For thousands of years, the Korean martial art of taekwondo has been practiced as a martial art, as a sport, and for selfdefense. Buddhist principles and combat techniques come together in taekwondo, an art that values fighting abilities as well as mental discipline.

In the beginning, approximately four thousand years ago, people practiced taekwondo as a means to defend themselves against animal attacks. To do so, they developed powerful fighting techniques that could be projected in different directions. A painting found on a tombstone erected in 37 BC in the Koguryo kingdom, which covered what is now southern Manchuria and the northern Korean Peninsula, clearly depicts two young men engaged in a taekwondo match.

Wanting to entertain his people, the king of the Paekje kingdom, situated along the Han River on the Korean Peninsula from 18 BC to AD 600, organized taekwondo demonstrations. These activities were enjoyed both by soldiers and other citizens. Taekwondo gained great popularity in the kingdom of Silla, which was in the southeast part of the Korean Peninsula from 57 BC to AD 936. After having conquered the kingdom of Paekje in 668 and Koguryo in 670, Silla unified the three kingdoms, which Silla and its successors maintained for three hundred years. King Jinheung was responsible for unifying the three kingdoms and organizing a military group, the Hwa Rang Do. Military, educational, and social values were taught to the young noblemen who made up the Hwa Rang Do, and they devoted themselves to the development of their minds and bodies to better serve their kingdom. Their martial spirit was a source of inspiration for the whole nation. They followed a code of honor that included loyalty to the nation, respect and obedience to their parents, courage during combat, and wisdom when using force or, when necessary, taking life. This code of honor is present in a different form today : in taekwondo training.

The study of unarmed combat increased in popularity during the Koryo dynasty (935 to 1392). In this period the martial art was called Soo Bak Do, and it was practiced as a sport with detailed rules as well as a form of martial art with a military purpose. The masters of Soo Bak Do used scientific principles to improve the fighting techniques of the art. Soo Bak Do’s popularity allowed the royal family to support and encourage its practice, and often those who distinguished themselves in the art were favored or promoted in both civil and military matters. The Koryo king organized Soo Bak Do events and demonstrations each year. At the end of the Koryo dynasty, Buddhism was no longer the state religion ; King Taejo, founder of the Yi dynasty in 1392, chose Confucianism instead, and consequently the importance of military training, physical conditioning, and the ability to defend the nation was diminished. With the adoption of Confucian ideas, new importance was placed on learning classical Chinese culture, while physical activities were underappreciated. The result was that men of higher social classes now passed the time by reading Chinese classical texts, composing poetry, and practicing music ; physical activities were only practiced by lower-class men. Taekwondo, known in those days by the name Tae Kyon, was losing popularity. Military officers received no recognition at the social or political level. The situation was the exact opposite of what it had been in the previous dynasty.

A change was soon to come with the arrival of King Chongjo, who showed interest in martial arts. In 1790 he ordered General Lee Duck Mu to compile a manual on all martial arts that existed in Korea. This manual rapidly became a classic. Even with his involvement, King Chongjo did not succeed in reversing the disinterest that his people showed for martial arts. But thanks to his manual, the techniques of the martial arts were preserved for future generations. With this disinterest in martial arts and an emphasis instead on military activities, neglect of national defense continued during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There were no organized martial arts schools, and techniques were taught by father to son or by instructors to disciples in secret. The weakness of the military  made the country vulnerable. In 1909, Japan invaded Korea and took control. During the occupation, martial arts were forbidden. Having no arms to defend themselves, some Koreans continued to practice Tae Kyon in secret, and in this way Tae Kyon continued to survive and became even stronger. It was an important tool for Koreans to maintain their identity, values, and courage.

Along with the invasion, Koreans came into contact with a Japanese martial art, karate, as well as other Chinese martial arts. Many of their techniques were incorporated into Tae Kyon by Koreans, creating different styles of the art built on the principles of the Tang Soo Do and Kong Soo Do martial arts. After the liberation of Korea in 1945, Koreans were again able to practice their martial arts openly. The Japanese occupation had considerably modified the Korean martial arts, and so many masters were reunited to combine the different styles developed during the occupation ; this was an effort to recover traditional Tae Kyon as it had been prior to the influence of Japanese karate or Chinese styles on Korean culture. After many years of meetings and debates, the directors of the six most influential Korean schools came to an agreement on standardizing the technical teaching methods. Taekwondo was the name chosen to represent this new martial art. In Korean, tae means strikes delivered with the feet, kwon means strikes delivered with the fists, and do means the martial philosophy, the way of life.

As the country was now free, taekwondo could develop at the level of a sport. In October 1962 it was made an official activity at the Forty-third Korean National Games. In 1964 Master Chong Lee came to Canada to teach this martial art. He opened various schools in Quebec that extended into neighboring provinces and nurtured many world champions. Master Gilles R. Savoie became his student and later developed this martial art on the GaspeÅL Peninsula in the eastern part of Quebec. In January 1971 Dr. Un Young Kim was elected president of the Korean Taekwondo Association. He was deeply involved in the development of the discipline and wanted to raise awareness of taekwondo and make it the Korean national sport. In May 1973 he organized the World Taekwondo Federation to structure the evolution of the art to an international level. Under his presidency, the Kukkiwon was built in Seoul. The name means “national sports institute,” and the Kukkiwon became the world taekwondo training headquarters.

In 1975 the World Taekwondo Federation became official at the General Assembly of International Sports Federations. Taekwondo became an official sport at the International Military Sports Council in 1976. And in 1980 taekwondo was elevated to an Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee. On June 11, 2004, Dr. Chungwon Choue was nominated president of the World Taekwondo Federation. He created a reform committee with the goal of making the sport more exciting and appealing to global audiences by revamping the sport’s world governing body. Taekwondo enjoys wide popularity mainly due to the visibly spectacular feats in sparring, board-breaking demonstrations, and self-defense. We also now know that Buddhist techniques of meditation and concentration elevated taekwondo to a superior level from that of a simple sport.

Taekwondo is an official discipline in the Pan-American Games and in the Olympic Games. Its spiritual side, its relationship with meditation techniques, and its nonviolent Buddhist principles intrigue and attract more and more enthusiasts. In the modern world, where stress takes an increasing toll on us and with self realization hard to attain, traditional taekwondo has the potential to extend its history for the well-being of its enthusiasts.

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