Taekwondo (태권도; IPA: /ˈteɪˈkwɒnˈdoʊ/) is a Korean martial art and the national sport of South Korea. It is also regarded as the world’s most popular martial art in terms of number of practitioners. Kyeorugi, or sparring, is an official Olympic sporting event. In Korean, tae 태 跆 means “foot”; kwon 권 拳 means “fist”; and do 도 道 means “way”; so taekwondo is loosely translated as “the way of the foot and fist”.
Taekwondo’s popularity has resulted in the varied evolution of the martial art into several domains: as with many other arts, it combines combat techniques, self-defense, sport, exercise, meditation and philosophy. Taekwondo is also used by the South Korean military as part of its training.
Traditional taekwondo is typically not competition-oriented but stems from military roots with great emphasis on offense. Modern Taekwondo, on the other hand, tends to emphasize control and self-defense. Formally, there are two main styles of taekwondo. One comes from the Kukkiwon, the source of the sparring system shihap kyeorugi which is now an event at the summer Olympic Games and which is governed by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), the other comes from the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), which was founded by General Choi Hong Hi, sometimes called the father of taekwondo.
Although there are doctrinal and technical differences between the two main styles and among the various organizations, the art in general emphasizes kicks thrown from a mobile stance, employing the leg’s greater reach and power (compared to the arm). Taekwondo training generally includes a system of blocks, kicks, punches, and open-handed strikes and may also include various take-downs or sweeps, throws, and joint locks.
The history of taekwondo has been a matter of contention. Taekwondo organizations officially state that taekwondo was derived from earlier Korean martial arts. Others state that taekwondo is derived from native Korean martial arts with influences from neighboring countries or that it was primarily derived from karate learned by Koreans during the Japanese occupation.
The oldest Korean martial art was an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. Young men were trained in unarmed combat techniques to develop strength, speed, and survival skills. The most popular of these techniques was subak, with taekkyeon being the most popular of the segments of subak.
Those who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in the new special warrior corps, called the Hwarang. It was believed that young men with a talent for the liberal arts may have the grace to become competent warriors. These warriors were instructed in academics as well as martial arts, learning philosophy, history, a code of ethics, and equestrian sports. Their military training included an extensive weapons program involving swordsmanship and archery, both on horseback and on foot, as well as lessons in military tactics and unarmed combat using subak. Although subak was a leg-oriented art in Goguryeo, Silla’s influence added hand techniques to the practice of subak.
During this time a few select Sillan warriors were given training in Taek Kyon by the early masters from Koguryo. The Taek Kyon trained warriors then became known as the Hwarang. The Hwarang set up a military academy for the sons of royalty in Silla called Hwarang-do, which means “The way of flowering manhood.” The Hwarang studied Taek Kyon, history, Confucian Philosophy, ethics, Buddhist Morality, and military tactics. The guiding principles of the Hwarang warriors were loyalty, filial duty, trustworthiness, valor, and justice. The makeup of the Hwarang-do education was based on the Five Codes of Human Conduct written by a Buddhist scholar, fundamental education, Taek Kyon and social skills. Taek Kyon was spread throughout Korea because the Hwarang traveled all around the peninsula to learn about the other regions and people.
In spite of Korea’s rich history of ancient and traditional martial arts, Korean martial arts faded into obscurity during the Joseon Dynasty. Korean society became highly centralized under Korean Confucianism and martial arts were poorly regarded in a society whose ideals were epitomized by its scholar-kings. Formal practices of traditional martial arts such as subak and taekkyeon were reserved for sanctioned military uses. However folk practice of taekkyeon as a kicking game still persisted into the 19th century.
The Japanese occupation of Korea formally began in 1910, under repression of all facets of Korean identity including folk culture, language and history. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and to worship at Shinto shrines; Korean-language newspapers and magazines were banned; and during the war, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced into service to support Japanese war efforts. Martial arts such as taekkyeon (or subak) were also prohibited during this time; however, taekkyeon survived through underground teaching and folk custom. During the occupation the few Koreans who were able to study in Japan were exposed to Japanese martial arts in some cases receiving black belts. Others were exposed to martial arts in China and Manchuria.
When the occupation ended in 1945, Korean martial arts schools (kwans) began to open in Korea under various influences. There are differing views on the origins of the arts taught in these schools. Some believe that they taught martial arts that were based primarily upon the traditional Korean martial arts taekkyon and subak, or upon a variety of martial arts such as taekkyon, kungfu and karate. Others believe that these schools taught arts that were almost entirely based upon karate.
In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, there was a martial arts exhibition in which the kwans displayed their skills. In one demonstration, Nam Tae Hi smashed thirteen roof tiles with a forefist punch. Following the demonstration, South Korean President Syngman Rhee instructed Choi Hong Hi to introduce the martial arts to the Korean army.
By the mid-1950s, nine kwans had emerged. Syngman Rhee ordered that the various schools unify under a single system. The name “taekwondo” was submitted by Choi Hong Hi and was accepted on April 12, 1955. The Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in 1961 to facilitate the unification. Shortly thereafter, taekwondo made its début worldwide. Standardization efforts in South Korea stalled, as the kwans continued to teach differing styles. Another request from the Korean government for unification resulted in the formation of the Korea Tae Soo Do Association, which changed its name back to the Korean Taekwondo Association in 1965 following a change of leadership.
Currently, Taekwondo is practiced in 123 countries with over 30 million practitioners and 3 million individuals with black belts throughout the world. It is now one of only two Asian martial arts that are included in the Olympic Games; it became a demonstration event starting with the 1988 games in Seoul, and became an official medal event starting with the 2000 games in Sydney.
Taekwondo is known for its emphasis on kicking techniques, which distinguishes it from martial arts such as karate or southern styles of kung fu. The rationale is that the leg is the longest and strongest weapon a martial artist has, and kicks thus have the greatest potential to execute powerful strikes without successful retaliation. One defining kick of taekwondo is the back kick.
Taekwondo as a sport and exercise is popular with people of both sexes and of many ages. Physically, taekwondo develops strength, speed, balance, flexibility, and stamina. An example of the union of mental and physical discipline is the breaking of boards, which requires both physical mastery of the technique and the concentration to focus one’s strength.
A taekwondo student typically wears a uniform (dobok 도복), often white but sometimes black or other colors, with a belt (tti 띠) tied around the waist. The belt indicates the student’s rank. The school or place where instruction is given is called the dojang 도장.
Although each taekwondo club or school will be different, a taekwondo student can typically expect to take part in most or all of the following:
- Learning the techniques and curriculum of taekwondo
- Both anaerobic and aerobic workout, including stretching
- Self-defense techniques (hosinsul 호신술)
- Patterns (also called forms, pumsae 품새, teul 틀, hyeong 형)
- Sparring (called kyeorugi 겨루기, or matseogi 맞서기 in the ITF), which may include 3-, 2- and 1-step sparring, free-style sparring, arranged sparring, point sparring, and other types
- Relaxation and meditation exercises
- Throwing and/or falling techniques (dunjigi 던지기 and torojigi 떨어지기)
- Breaking (gyeokpa 격파 or weerok), using techniques to break boards for testing, training and martial arts demonstrations. Demonstrations often also incorporate bricks, tiles, blocks of ice or other materials. Can be separated into two types:
- Power breaking – using straightforward techniques to break as many boards as possible.
- Special techniques – breaking fewer boards but using jumping or flying techniques to attain greater heights, distances, or to clear obstacles.
- Exams to progress to the next rank
- A focus on mental and ethical discipline, justice, etiquette, respect, and self-confidence
Some taekwondo instructors also incorporate the use of pressure points, known as ji ap sul, as well as grabbing self-defense techniques borrowed from other martial arts, such as Hapkido and Judo.
The two different systems of taekwondo are named after their respective organizations, the International Tae Kwon Do Federation (ITF) and the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF). The ITF was founded in 1966 by General Choi Hong Hi. After his death in 2002, a number of succession disputes splintered the ITF into three different groups, all claiming to be the original.The three ITF organizations are private, Two of the three are located in Austria, with the third in Canada. The unofficial training headquarters of the International Taekwondo Federation is located at the Taekwondo Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea and was founded in the mid-1990s.
The Korea Taekwondo Association Central Dojang was opened in South Korea in 1972. A few months later, the name was changed to the Kukkiwon. The following year, the World Taekwondo Federation was formed. The International Olympic Committee recognized the WTF and taekwondo sparring in 1980.
Although the terms “WTF” and “Kukkiwon” are often mistakenly used interchangeably, the Kukkiwon is a completely different organization which trains and certifies instructors and issues official dan and pum certificates worldwide. The Kukkiwon has its own unique physical building that contains the administrative offices of Kukkiwon (World Taekwondo Headquarters) in Seoul, South Korea and is the system of taekwondo. The WTF is just a tournament committee and is not a style or a system.
There are many other private organizations like the American Taekwondo Federation (ATF), the American Taekwondo Association (ATA), the International Taekwondo Alliance (ITA), the Action International Martial Arts Association (AIMAA), the Amateur Athletic Union Taekwondo (AAU), the International Taekwondo Association (ITA), the Global Taekwon-Do Federation (GTF) and so on several more organizations. Events and competitions held by private organizations are mostly closed to other taekwondo students. However, the WTF-sanctioned events allow any person, regardless of school affiliation or martial arts style, to compete in WTF events as long as he or she is a member of the WTF Member National Association in his or her nation, which is open to anyone to join, and holds a Dan certificate issued by Kukkiwon. The major technical differences among these many organizations revolve around the patterns, called hyeong 형, pumsae 품새, or teul 틀, sets of prescribed formal sequences of movements that demonstrate mastery of posture, positioning, and technique, sparring rules for competition, and philosophy.
In addition to these private organizations, the original schools (kwans) that formed the organization that would eventually become the Kukkiwon continue to exist as independent fraternal membership organizations that support the WTF and the Kukkiwon. The official curriculum of the kwans is that of the Kukkiwon. The kwans also function as a channel for the issuing of Kukkiwon dan and pum certification (black belt ranks) for their members.
Ranks, belts and promotion
Taekwondo ranks are separated into “junior” and “senior” or “student” and “instructor” sections. The junior section typically consists of ten ranks indicated by the Korean word geup 급 (also Romanized as gup or kup). The junior ranks are usually identified by belts of various colors, depending on the school, so these ranks are sometimes called “color belts”. Geup rank may be indicated by stripes on belts rather than by colored belts. Students begin at tenth geup (usually indicated by a white belt) and advance toward first geup (usually indicated by a red belt with a black stripe).
The senior section is made up of nine full ranks of black belt. These ranks are called dan 단, also referred to as “black belts” and “degrees” (as in “third dan” or “third-degree black belt”). Black belts begin at first degree and advance to second, third, and so on. The degree is often indicated on the belt itself with stripes, Roman numerals, or other methods; but sometimes black belts are plain and unadorned regardless of rank.
To advance from one rank to the next, students typically complete promotion tests in which they demonstrate their proficiency in the various aspects of the art before a panel of judges. Promotion tests vary from school to school, but may include such elements as the execution of patterns, which combine various techniques in specific sequences; the breaking of boards, to demonstrate the ability to use techniques with both power and control; sparring and self-defense, to demonstrate the practical application and control of techniques; and answering questions on terminology, concepts, history, and so on, to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the art. For higher dan tests, students are sometimes required to take a written test or to submit a research paper in addition to taking the practical test.
Promotion from one geup to the next can proceed fairly rapidly, since schools often allow geup promotions every two, three, or four months. Students of geup rank learn the most basic techniques first, then move on to more advanced techniques as they approach first dan.
In contrast, promotion from one dan to the next can take years. The general rule is that a black belt may advance from one rank to the next only after the number of years equivalent to the rank. For example, a newly-promoted third-degree black belt may not be allowed to promote to fourth-degree until three years have passed. Some organizations also have age requirements related to dan promotions, and may grant younger students pum 품 (junior black belt) ranks rather than dan ranks until they reach a certain age. Black belt ranks usually have titles associated with them, such as “master” and “instructor”. Taekwondo organizations have their own rules and standards when it comes to ranks and the titles that go with them.
Since taekwondo developed in several different kwans, there are several different expressions of taekwondo philosophy. For example, the tenets of the ITF is said to be summed up by the last two phrases in the ITF Student Oath: “I shall be a champion of justice and freedom,” “I shall build a better and peaceful world”. Alternatively, the WTF philosophy is based on Eastern principles of “Sam Jae” [Three Elements], “Eum” [the Negative or Darkness] and “Yang” [the Positive or the Brightness] with “Sam Jae” referring to “Cheon” [the Heaven], “Ji” [the Earth], and “In” [the Man]. The origins of these concepts originate from the Chinese classic “Book of Changes” which is considered to be one of the main canons of East Asian Philosophy.
Taekwondo competition typically involves sparring, breaking, patterns, and self-defense (hosinsul). However, in Olympic taekwondo competition, only sparring is contested; and in Olympic sparring WTF competition rules are used.
Under WTF (World Tae Kwon Do Federation) and Olympic rules, sparring is a full-contact event and takes place between two competitors in an area measuring 10 meters square. Each match or bout consists of three non-stop rounds of contact with rest between rounds. 14-17 black belt fighters fight in 2-minute rounds with a 30-second break. Points are awarded for permitted, accurate, and powerful techniques to the legal scoring areas; light contact to a scoring area does not score any points. A kick or punch that makes contact with the opponent’s hogu (a trunk protector that functions as a scoring target) scores one point; a kick to the head scores two points. Punches to the head are not allowed. If a competitor is knocked down by a scoring technique and the referee counts, then an additional point is awarded to the opponent.
At the end of three rounds, the competitor with the most points wins the match. If, during the match, one competitor gains a 7-point lead over the other, or if one competitor reaches a total of 12 points, then that competitor is immediately declared the winner and the match ends. In the event of a tie at the end of three rounds, a fourth “sudden death” overtime round will be held to determine the winner, after a 30-second rest period.
The ITF sparring rules are similar, but differ from the WTF rules in several respects. Hand attacks to the head are allowed; flying techniques score more points than grounded techniques; the competition area is slightly smaller (9 meters square instead of 10 meters); and competitors do not wear the hogu used in Olympic-style sparring (although they are required to wear approved foot and hand protection equipment). A continuous point system is utilized in ITF competition, where the fighters are allowed to continue after scoring a technique. At the end of 2 minutes (or specified time) the competitor with the most scoring techniques wins. The ITF competition rules and regulations are available at the ITF information website.
ITF competitions also feature performances of patterns, breaking and “special techniques”, a category where competitors perform prescribed board breaks at great heights.
AAU competitions are very similar, except that different styles of pads and gear are allowed. Any gear that has the Olympic symbol and not the WTF logo on it is approved.
- Olympic Games
- Asian Games
- South East Asian Games
- South Asian Games