A Summary of the History of Korean Martial Arts and Taekwondo

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With currently more than 30 million practitioners in 163 countries, how did Taekwondo (TKD) get its start and become the martial art and Olympic Sport we know it as today?

To begin with, ancient cave paintings (50 BC) in Korea seem to clearly show unarmed combatants using techniques that are virtually identical to those of modern day Taekwondo: knife hands, fist strikes, and classical stances.

This means that Koreans have trained in forms of TKD for over 2000 years!

The earliest unarmed self-defense in Korea was called Subak which means “punching and butting”. It was as old as the nation itself.

We invite you to to learn about the eventual transformation of Subak to Taekwondo. You will learn about:

  • The Hwarang Dan warriors and how their practice of this Korean martial art was instrumental in uniting the country for the first time.
  • How Subak Do nearly died out then experienced a resurgence when it was formally banned.
  • How WWII brought a foreign influence to Korea’s martial art.
  • How the end of World War II spurred the formation of several martial art kwans (schools) and why and when they eventually merged.
  • The formation of key associations and the subsequent world-wide blossoming of TKD culminating with the Olympic Games.

About 1400 years ago, in Silla, the smallest of the three kingdoms that together covered the geographical area now known as the Korean peninsula, the young nobility formed an officer warrior corps known as the Hwarang Dan. These warriors defended their smaller kingdom against constant invasions from their northern neighbors on the peninsula. They further developed and used Subak in battle and it became known as Subak Do or Tae Kyun (the art of Kicking, Punching and Butting).

The Hwarang Dan were renowned for their courage and skill in battle and their legendary heroism inspired the people of Silla to rise and eventually defeat their more powerful enemies. As a result, the three kingdoms of the Korean peninsula united as one country for the first time in its history.

Subak Do retained its popularity throughout this Unified Silla dynasty (668 AD – 918 AD) then gained its greatest popularity during the subsequent Koryo dynasty (918 AD to 1392 AD). The peninsula later gained its modern name, Korea, from the Koryo dynasty. Fun fact: today, our first black belt form is named Koryo.

Back to the Koryo dynasty: At this time, Subak Do was practiced not only as a fighting art but also as a skill to improve health and to enjoy competitively as a sport. An excerpt from the historical record of Koryo even says that the King admired the excellence of a certain warrior in the sport of Subak and so promoted his military rank from Taejong to Pyolchang.

These Tae Kyun-trained warriors traveled throughout the peninsula to learn about the regions and people. As they did this, they spread Subak Do throughout Korea. Remember, the martial art at that time was called both Tae Kyun and Subak Do.

Over time, Subak Do, the special fighting art of the military society of the Koryo dynasty, became more popular as a national sport among the general public. During the next dynasty (Yi), however, Subak Do became less popular when the feudal lords put a greater emphasis on the development of literature and painting. The martial art declined into a pastime for just a few devotees. It eventually became diffused and fragmented throughout the country.

From the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 through World War II, Korea was involved in constant military conflicts between China and Japan. During this period, these countries’ fighting styles influenced Korea’s. Subak Do even temporarily came to be called Tang Soo Do which means “The Art of the China Hand”.

Japan then occupied Korea from 1909 until the end of World War II. During this time the Japanese resident general banned the practice of the Korean martial arts by the Korean people. This very act actually sparked a renewed growth of Subak Do. Many Koreans secretly continued their training and the early forms of TKD were not only preserved but even experienced a marked resurgence. A number of famous Korean fighting arts masters kept Subak Do/Tae Kyun alive “underground”.

At the same time, the Japanese occupation also influenced these officially banned yet growing Korean martial arts. Many Korean soldiers went to Japan to learn Karate. Others left Korea to work and study in China and Japan. In 1943, first Judo and then Karate and Kung Fu were officially introduced to the still occupied Korean people. For the next two years, interest in these martial arts dramatically increased in Korea.

At the end of WWII in 1945, Korea was liberated. As a result, its own martial arts once again took root and began to flourish – with some of the foreign influences now mixed in.

The first kwan (school) to teach a native Korean style of martial art opened that same year in Seoul. More kwans opened up over the next several years. Each one emphasized a different aspect of Subak/Tae Kyun and various names emerged for each system.

Dissension amongst the various kwans prevented the formation of a central regulating board between 1945 and 1953. Yet, during these years, the Korean martial arts gained a strong influence amongst the newly formed Korean Armed Forces.

In 1946, masters of the art began teaching Tae Kyun to troops stationed at Kwang Ju.

This set the foundation for the great turning point in Korean martial arts when, in 1952, at the height of the Korean War, the President of Korea watched a half hour demonstration by Korean martial arts masters. Duly impressed, he ordered that Tae Kyun be made a regular part of military training throughout the entire Korean Armed Forces.

Later that year, one of the Korean masters who had performed for the President was sent to Ft Benning, Georgia for special training in radio communications. While in Georgia, the master demonstrated his Korean martial art to both the American military and general public – further publicizing and spreading Korea’s martial art.

At the same time, in Korea, martial arts trained soldiers formed special commando groups to fight against communist North Korea The Black Tigers were the most famous of these special forces. Many great martial artists lost their lives during this time including the founders of two of the original kwans which had formed soon after Korea was liberated at the end of World War II.

Based on the stellar reputation of and the contributions by martial arts trained soldiers during these years, the Korean 29th Infantry Division was established at the end of the Korean War in 1953. This unit was tasked to provide all of the training in Tae Kyun for the Korean Army.

Two years later, most of the Kwans convened to unify themselves under a common name. The majority of the Kwan masters accepted the name Tae Soo Do. They also agreed to merge their various styles to mutually benefit all schools. Then, two years later they once again changed the name – this time to Taekwondo. Reports tell us that the name was changed to more accurately describe the nature of the art (TKD means “the art of kicking and punching”) and because it was more similar to the art’s early name of Tae Kyun.

Interestingly, a few of the kwans did not merge under this common name. Of those who did not, only Hapkido remains as a recognized separate art in itself. At Shiba TKD, in addition to their Taekwondo black belt degrees, both Master Cherith Shiba and Master Sydney Shiba have earned their 2nd degree black belts in Hapkido while Sabumnim Di Vito is a 1st degree Hapkido black belt.

In 1961, the Korean Taekwondo Association was formed. The first leaders of the Association recognized the potential for TKD to spread and grow so they sent instructors and demonstration teams all over the world. This spread TKD to every continent.

TKD also spread rapidly within Korea during this time – from the Army to high schools and colleges. In fact, today in Korea, Taekwondo is included as part of the school curriculum from first grade through college and it is required for military service.

Also at this time, dojangs for the general public sprang up pretty much everywhere in Korea.

In fact, the art had now developed such a reputation for being an effective fighting system that during the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese government requested instructors to train its troops.

As you can see, by the beginning of the 1970s, TKD had firmly established itself worldwide.

In 1972, Kukkiwon (the World Taekwondo Center) was built in Seoul to train advanced students from all over the world. Kukkiwon serves as a research center for the advancement of TKD as a scientific sport, provides a testing center for black belt promotions, and is used to hold National and International TKD championships. Be assured, any black belt earned at Shiba TKD is Kukkiwon certified.

The next year, in 1973, the first ever World Taekwondo Championships were held at the newly built Kukkiwon. Since then, the World Championships have been held every 2 years in many countries around the world. Russia most recently hosted.

At the end of these inaugural World Championships, all of the officials representing their countries at the championships met to form the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). This is the only official organization recognized by the Korean government as an international regulating body for TKD.

Fast forward 15 years. Seoul, Korea hosted the 1988 Olympic Games. The country chosen to host the Olympic Games is traditionally entitled to choose a demonstration sport. The Korean leadership naturally chose to display Taekwondo and did so with great success. At these Korean Olympics, Grandmaster Yeon Hwan Park coached the US women’s team to the first place trophy and the US men’s team finished second to the Korean national team.

This exposure at the 1988 Olympics brought Taekwondo to the attention of the general world-wide public for the first time. Unique to TKD, competitors wear sparring gear that protects them from serious injury yet with very little restriction of movement. As a result, global audiences watched martial arts competitors landing full power techniques that could otherwise cripple or kill. These techniques were also dominated by high, quick kicking and dynamic spinning.

TKD blossomed internationally and was again selected to appear as a demonstration sport at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. .The audience response was again overwhelming and it was soon accepted as a full medal sport for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Today, TKD is recognized as the most widely practiced martial art system in the world and its participants may now set Olympic level goals. Some of our students already have!

This summary was compiled using information from two sources:

  1. “Introduction: The History of an Art” pages xi-xvi in Taekwondo (Third Edition) by Yeon Hee Park, Yeon Hwan Park, and Jon Gerrard.
  2. “Chapter 1: Introduction” pages 1-11 in Taekwondo: The Korean Martial Art by Richard Chun.