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History of Taekwondo

[ Ancient Times | Middle Age | Modern Times | Present ]

Taekwondo in ancient times

The historical background of teakwood development will be explained following the chronological order of 4 different ages; ancient times, middles ages, modern ages and present times.

A. The origin of Taekwondo

Man by nature has instinct to preserve his own life as well as his race, and therefore engages in physical activities either consciously or unconsciously. Man cannot do without physical motions that he grows and developed on them, regardless of time and space. In ancient times people had no means other than the bare hands and body to defend themselves; so they naturally developed the bare-hand fighting techniques. Even at times when arms were developed as defensive or offensive means, people continued to enjoy the bare-hand fighting techniques for the purpose of building physical strength as well as showing off through matches at rituals of tribal communities..

In the early days of the Korean peninsula, there were three tribes, each enjoying warrior's martial art contests during the ritual seasons. At the time, people learned techniques from their experiences of fighting against the beasts whose defensive and offensive motions were also the subject of analysis. It is believed that this was exactly the true grounding of today's Taekwondo, which names have descended from "Subak", "Taekkyon" and so on.

In the latter part of ancient times on the Korean peninsula, three kingdoms were rivaling among them for the hegemony. They were Koguryo, Paekje and Shilla all indulged in growing national strength with trained warriors. Therefore, the Korean history tells that there were military personalities among the well-known prominent national leaders of the three kingdoms, which proves the military tendency of ruling hierarchy.

As a result, youth warriors were organized, such as "Hwarangdo" in Shilla and "Chouisonin" in Koguryo, which both adopted martial art training as one of the important subjects of learning. A known martial art book of the days, called "Muyedobo-Tongji" wrote "Taekwondo is the basis of martial art, enabling one to build strength by using the hand and foot freely and training arms and legs as well as the body to adaptable to any critical situations," which means Taekwondo was already prevalent in that age. Thus, it can be easily assumed that Taekwondo was originated from the days of tribal communities on the Korean peninsula.

Shilla kingdom founded in B.C. 57 on the southeastern part of Korea, and Koguryo founded in B.C. 37 on the northern part of Korea along Yalu river, both made great efforts to raise their youngsters into strong warriors called "hwarang" and "sunbae" respectively, certainly with Taekwondo as one of the principal subjects of physical training.

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B. Koguryo's "sonbae" and Taekkyon

Koguryo was founded on the northern part of Korea, surrounded by hostile Han [Chinese] tribes in the north. Therefore, in its early days, the kingdom organized a strong warrior corps called "Sunbae" in its attempt to consolidate power.

According to the scholars, a man of virtue who never recoils from a fight means "sunbae", which is a member of the warrior corps. Later, the chronicle of the Old Chosun Dynasty described the lift of Koguryo days, saying; "people gathered on march 10 every year at a site of ritual, where they enjoyed a sword dance, archery, Taekkyon contests and so on," implying that Taekkyon was one of the popular events for the ritual in the Koguryo days. It also said "sunbae" lived in groups, learning history and literary arts at home and going out to construct roads and fortresses for the benefits of society, always devoting themselves to the nations.

Therefore, it was natural that Koguryo put the priority of interests on the Taekkyon which was the basis of martial arts, as can be proven by the wall paintings discovered at tombs of Koguryo days. A mural painting at the Samsil tomb shows two warriors engaged in a face-to-face match in Taekkyon stance, and a third at the same tomb shows the scene of Korean wrestling bout [Ssireum], clearly distinguishing it from Taekkyon. It can be assumed from the painting of Taekkyon match that the dead were either a Taekkyon practical or the subject of condolence with dances and martial art.

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C. Silla's "Hwarang" and Taekkyon

The Kingdom of Shilla was founded on the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula where there were no immediate threats from outside, but along with the birth of Paekje Kingdom on its west flank and the start of invasions by Koguryo from the north, Shilla was impelled to arm itself with development of martial arts.
In fact, "hwarangdo" is the typical example of Shilla's martial arts, which is an assimilation of Koguryo's "sunbae" system. The youth group hwarangdo were well trained with the senses of filial piety, loyalty to the kingdom and sacrificial devotion to society to become important personalities for the rein of the kingdom. Notable among them were Kim Yu-Shin and Kim Chun-Chu that made definite contributions to the unification of those three kingdoms.

The chronicle of Old Chosun described the life of hwarangs, members of hwarangdo: "hwarang were selected by the kingdom through contests and, after selection, they lived together in a group, learning, exercising subak, fencing and horse-riding, and sometimes enjoyed various games of communities, working on emergency aids and construction of fortresses and roads, and they were always ready to sacrifice their lives at the time of war."

Hwarangs were particularly influenced by the Buddhistic disciplines and therefore the bronze statues of a Kumgang Yoksa [a man of great physical strength] currently exhibited at the Kyongju Museum clearly indicate that martial arts were practiced at temples by showing a strong man's bare-hand defensive and offensive stances.

Especially the shape of a fist shown on the statue of Kumgang Yoksa exactly resembles that of a "jungkwon" [proper fist] in the contemporary term of Taekwondo. The statue also shows "pyon jumok " [flat fist] and the use of legs, which are seen in today's Taekwondo.

It is really noticeable that in the Shilla epoch the terms "subak" [hand techniques] and "taekkyon" appear together, signifying that both hand and foot techniques were used in martial arts as shown in today's Taekwondo.

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D. Taekkyon transmitted from Koguryo to Shilla

as the art of taekkyon was popularized in Koguryo, it was also handed down to Silla, which is justified by the following points of view;

  1. "Hwarang"(or sonrang) in Silla has the same meaning with the word "sonbae" in Koguryo by indicating both the youth warrior's corps from their etymological origins

  2. both Hwarang and sonbae had the same organizations and hierarchical structure with each other.

  3. according to historical, as sonbaes in Koguryo used to compete in taekkyon games at the time of their national festivals, Hwarangs in Silla also played taekkyon games (subak, dokkyoni or taekkyoni) at such festivals as "palkwanhoe" and "hankawi" , thus systematically developing the ancient fighting techniques into the taekkyon(or sonbae) as the basis of martial arts by around a.d.200. from the 4th century the Hwarangs took the takkyon lesson as a systemized martial art at their learning houses to make it also popularized among ordinary people so much so that their techniques were depicted on the mural paintings of ancient warrior tombs. Again, it is also true that taekkyon, coming down to Silla, was further developed into a school of martial art with the division of techniques, i ,e bare-hand techniques and foot techniques, which can be proved by the fact that both hand and foot techniques art clearly shown in the ancient sculptures buddlistic statues.
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