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Taekwon-Do: History. 4th Degree Candidate Paper

Taekwon-Do History

Taekwon-Do's official, documented history begins in 1955, when it was recognized as a Korean martial art, after the name Tae (foot) kwon (fist) Do (Way), was suggested by General Choi Hong Hi, a second-degree black belt in Japanese Karate and supposedly a practitioner of the obscure Korean foot fighting art of Tae Kyon. But, it is not easy to track the true origins of Taekwon-Do, because different accounts of its history are often vague and surrounded by different personal or political agendas.

The official historical account from the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) is diametrically opposed to that provided by other accounts, such as the International Taekwon-Do Federations (ITF), and even the late Gen. Choi's account as described in versions of his Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do.

The WTF claims that Taekwondo was practiced for thousands of years, even going so far as to claim that the name was merely changed in 1955, when several existing Taekwondo masters agreed to the name. The WTF's official website completely omits any mention of Gen. Choi 's name or contribution to the art, nor any Japanese influence. Regardless of the primitive origins of empty-handed fighting arts in Korea, a complete omission of this factual information, shows an obvious bias.

This is understandable, considering the delicate relationship between North and South Korea, and Gen. Choi's association with the North Korean government. In the early 1990s, I trained with a South Korean national, who was a black belt in WTF Taekwondo. One day while while I warmed up with repetitions of Taekwon-Do hyung (only practiced in the Gen. Choi's original Taekwon-Do), the Korean student immediately stated that what I was doing was North Korean, and very bad.

All personal or nationalistic motives aside, claims regarding the development of any martial art can be debated. Almost every region in the world has some form of unarmed combat techniques, and they all bear similarity on some level. Unarmed humans are limited to the natural weapons presented, such as knuckles, elbows, knees, feet, fingers, etc., and the human body can generate striking force or grappling leverage in a limited number of ways. It is probably safe to assume that methods of punching and kicking developed simultaneously that mirror each other.

In his 2008 book, A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, Canadian journalist Alex Gillis sought to shed light on the history of Taekwon-Do through personal interviews with Gen. Choi and some of his direct students and contemporaries.

Gillis's book goes into detail about how Korean instructors of Soo Bak Do, Tae soo Do, and what is generically called “Korean Karate” agreed to the name “Tae Kwon Do” for a unified Korean martial art in 1955, which was adopted by the Republic of Korea's military and National Police Force as a form of exercise and defensive tactics.

This account can be verified through accounts in Gen. Choi's Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do.


Furthermore, Traditional Taekwon-Do hyung, is very similar to Japanese Karate kata (particularly the first 9 hyungs), and since Gen. Choi was a nidan (second-degree black belt) in Karate, the Japanese influence on Taekwon-Do cannot be omitted, as the WTF has done. And, the belt ranking concept comes directly from Japanese martial art.

Another vague aspect of the development of Taekwon-Do has to do with the influence the Korean art of Tae Kyon on Taekwon-Do, and the extent to which it permeates the art. Without having ever seen a demonstration of Taekyon, I cannot speculate as to the depth of those claims.

However, in Grandmaster David Knife's 2007 text, Taekwon-do: A Way of Being in the World, Grandmaster Knife offers a detailed analysis of Tae Kyon's foot technique to Taekwon-Do:

“In Tae Kyon, as well as in Taekwon-do, practictioners display a unique combination of rolling the kicking hip over, as the the anchor foot turns away, accompanied by a counter-rotation of the torso, while elevating the knee to hip level before executing the technique. This is a characteristically Korean movement, and in no other style is this process observed as a

fundamental to the kick's execution; the prevailing method in other styles is to throw a kick

in one continuous motion from the floor...”

This observation must point to a prominent influence of Tae Kyon in Taekwon-Do's development. Despite having observed and practiced different defensive arts in my life, I have not yet found any that emphasizes the anchor foot turning away as in Taekwon-Do, even though I have witnessed certain individual Japanese style martial artists that raise the knee to hip level and rotate the hip.

In 1959 and 1960, Gen. Choi lead a team of top black belts on a tour of many countries, performing demonstrations of Taekwon-Do techniques which spread the martial art throughout the world.

The 1970s brought the development of the WTF and later, its further mutation into an Olympic sport, that bears only slight resemblance to Taekwon-Do as it was originally taught.

Gen. Choi's ITF Taekwon Do also underwent many technical changes, as well, and also differs fundamentally with the Taekwon-Do of the 1960s.

Great Grandmaster Hong Sik Kim's Taekwon-Do:

With the continued evolution of Taekwon-Do, it can be difficult for a student to choose which is correct, and the natural tendency is to try to choose the “best” version. Every master from every school claims to teach the best form, and some even have compelling arguments.

From a historical perspective, I believe that Kim's Taekwon-Do represents as pure a form of Taekwon-Do as can be found in the United States. I also believe that the original Ch'ang Hon form of Taekwon-Do was perfect “as-is” and in need of no substantial improvements, or added forms or techniques. The take-home message to students, should be: “Leave it alone, train hard, and the rest will work itself out.”

The internet has made accessing information about different martial arts much easier in recent years, and online video demonstrations are commonplace. One is hard-pressed to find the traditional characteristics of Kim's Taekwon-Do anywhere, such as:

  • Traditional white uniforms with black trim on black belt uniforms.

  • Non-Contact fighting without the mandatory use of protective gear.

  • Tournament competition that features traditional hyung, board breaking and non-contact fighting.

  • The practice of original, Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-Do hyungs.

  • Traditional, rooted stances, instead of the modern ITF's “sine wave.”

Taekwon-Do was designed by warriors, such as Gen. Choi and Korean war hero, Nam Tae Hi. To separate it from it's original martial origins by watering it down with sparring gear, fancy uniforms, and superfluous technical “improvement” is really doing the art a disservice.

While imminently practical, students of Kim's Taekwon-Do must also realize that what they are practicing is unique in the world, and it is our duty to preserve this art as accurately as possible.

In any case, the history of Taekwon-Do has no bearing on its current relevancy or worth as a martial art. Whether it is an evolution of an ancient Korean art, or simply a Korean interpretation of Japanese Karate, the outcome is the same, and the benefits to any dedicated student will be the same.

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