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A Brief History of Taekwondo (Timeline): Origins, Facts,…

You have watched Taekwondo matches in action; you have attended a class or two to see what it is all about, and now you are wondering if it is the martial art for you. Perhaps understanding where Taekwondo comes from and a little more about the history behind it will help to make your decision a little easier. 

Milestones of the history of Taekwondo:

  • Early history – first evidence of Taekwondo over 2,000 years ago,
  • 600 AD to 1,400 – Subak dominates mainstream fighting until around 1300, evolving into Taekkyon,
  • Taekkyon is practiced in Korea until 1909,
  • 1909 to 1945 – Japan invades Korea and bans all forms of Subak and Taekkyon,
  • Korea is liberated in 1945 and starts slowly reintroducing Korean martial arts,
  • 1945 to 1955 – Korea decides to combine several Asian martial arts into one and calls it Taekwondo.

The man responsible for the creation of Taekwondo is said to be General Choi Hong Hin. He actually started developing Taekwondo in the 1940s by combining elements of Taekkyon, Karate, and several other martial arts in Korea. He believed that his new form of martial arts would provide self-defense as well as engage the minds and bodies of all practitioners living in Korea after the Japanese occupation.

Do you want to learn more about the timeline of Taekwondo’s history and how it became the martial art that has your interest today? To learn more, simply read through the simplified explanations of each of Taekwondo’s history timeline and milestones below.

The History of Taekwondo in 7 Easy-to-Understand Categories

During my research into Taekwondo’s past, I found that there are 7 main stages to the history of Taekwondo and that the martial art is actually leaning on the history of the other arts that it is based on. That makes the story of Taekwondo, both interesting and inspirational. 

Below is each of the stages of Korean history that brought about the creation of Taekwondo as we know it today:

1. First Evidence of Taekwondo over 2,000 years ago. 

The early history of Taekwondo shows evidence of the art dating back to over 2,000 years ago. There is not too much known about Korean martial arts in those times, so how do we really know this? 

In 1935, a painting that was found on the walls of a Korean royal tomb depicted what looks like people practicing martial art movements and techniques. The age of the tombs can give away just how old Korean martial art forms are. How old are the tombs? Historians believe that they were the Koguryo King tombs, which means that they date back to anywhere between 3 AD and 427 AD.

How long before that, that martial art was practiced in Korea, it is difficult to determine, although there are several theories that you will find out there. 

2. 600AD to 1,400 AD – From Subak to Taekkyon.

From around 600AD to 1400 AD, Korea saw many forms of martial arts being practiced, with Subak being the main form of martial art practiced by most Korean citizens.

Subak is a weaponless martial art often referred to as “open hand” martial arts. The art was designed to develop both body and mind. This type of fighting actually remained the main form of Korean martial arts until it evolved into Taekkyon in the year 1300. There is not too much known about Subak, but you might have heard of what followed it. 

Taekkyon is a full-contact martial art that involves dynamic and versatile footwork. This footwork is based on agility and is called “pum balgi”, which describes how the steps work (stepping is done in a triangular format). What is the main objective of this type of fighting? In Taekkyon, opponents must use their hands and feet simultaneously to throw, trip, or unbalance an opponent. 

3. Buddhist monks add spirituality to Korean martial arts.

At the time, Buddhist monks were responsible for adding a spiritual element to Korean martial arts. Unfortunately, while Korean martial arts had a strategy, skill, and strength-building characteristics, they lacked in spirituality. Most martial arts have a spiritual element that it is based on. 

During the time of the Silla Dynasty, Buddhist monks were responsible for instructing the Hwarang warriors and brought their own element of spiritual teachings combined with martial art training to the warriors.

4. Taekkyon is practiced in Korea until 1909.

Since Taekkyon was introduced, Korea saw most of its people practicing it regularly. It caught on quickly in the country and was vastly popular. In fact, it was the most common form of martial arts in Korea until 1909, which is when Japan invaded the country

Most people, even those who practice Taekwondo today, do not know much about Taekkyon and the role that it plays in Taekwondo’s history. Its role in the history of this particular martial art is crucial – in fact, it forms the basis of Taekwondo principles and techniques.

The ‘Grandfather’ of Taekwondo.

This ancient martial art is actually the grandfather of Taekwondo; at least that is what many Koreans believe. Taekwondo, as you know it today, is actually a combination of Taekkyon and Karate, which was the style of martial arts imposed on the Korean people when Japan occupied the country. For the sake of this piece, we won’t focus too much on Karate’s influence on Taekwondo

Silla Dynasty 

It is interesting to note that Taekkyon comes from Subak. Subak wasn’t a martial art that was readily available to anyone and everyone. It was a style of martial arts exclusively practiced by young religious men, elite military officials, and the Hwarang warriors in the Silla Dynasty. This particular dynasty ran from 57 BC to 935 AD. After the fall of the Silla Dynasty, the martial art was made available to all people, not just the elite and the ruling class. In fact, it very soon became a common practice.

Joseon Dynasty 

However, between 1392 and 1897, which was the Joseon Dynasty, Taekkyon became less popular with the elite class. Some believe this is because it was becoming a common practice among the lower classes. Most, also, seem to think that the upper class believed that the martial art was better suited to the common class, while matters of intellectuality were for the elite. When this change came about, the lower classes turned Taekkyon it into a competitive game and an art to aid in combat.

5. 1909 to 1945 – All forms of Subak and Taekkyon were banned. 

From 1909 to 1945, the Korean people suffered a great loss; their martial arts were disallowed, and this lead to a generational gap in the teaching of some arts. 

While Japan was in control of Korea, all forms of Subak and Taekkyon were prohibited, which means that the population ceased practicing it. Only Japanese arts were allowed to be practiced, such as Karate. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, all forms of indigenous fighting were banned, and many thought that they became somewhat extinct. 

6. Korea is liberated in 1945 and starts slowly reintroducing Korean martial arts.

In 1945, Korea was freed from Japanese rule, and amidst the rebuilding, the country started to reintroduce various forms of martial arts. At the time, the Korean people wanted to remove signs of Japanese culture from the country and so they planned to bring Korean traditional arts back into common practice. 

7. 1945 to 1955 – The combination of several Asian martial arts became Taekwondo.

Later on, during the Korean War, which ran from 1950 to 1953, only one Master of Taekkyon, who had secretly maintained his martial art practicing during the Japanese rule, survived. His name was Son Deok-gi. It was his knowledge of the art that kept it alive and helped to revive Taekkyon and create Taekwondo in the end.

The martial art masters in the country wanted a return to Taekkyon but also wanted to create something new that combined all the styles of martial arts practiced by the people. And thus, Taekwondo was formed by General Choi Hong Hin

In April 1955, the new name of Taekwondo was chosen for what became Korea’s next most-practiced martial art. From there, Taekwondo spread to the Western World

When Did Taekwondo Get to America?

When following the history of Taekwondo, you might wonder when it made its way to the United States. Well, that is not an easy one to answer, and people involved in the practice often have differing opinions on the matter. 

It is often said that a certain Well Jhoon Rhee brought Taekwondo to America. He moved to the United States in 1956, where he lived in Texas, and ended up teaching the art to students at a local Karate school that already existed. This implies that Taekwondo may have already made it to the United States. 

Many dispute this and say that it was several Koreans who brought Taekwondo to the United States by providing demonstrations to American soldiers at several important military bases. Thereafter, Taekwondo was taught to Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.

Last word

The history of Taekwondo is fairly in-depth. While this is a brief and simplified overview of the history, you might benefit from digging a little deeper and doing a bit of extra reading yourself. Taekwondo itself leans on the history of the other martial arts that it stems from. 

Without the dedication of Taekkyon master, Son Deok-gi, as well as General Choi Hong Hin, Taekwondo, as we know it today, might be very different.