Taekwondo, a martial art renowned worldwide for its dynamic kicks and disciplined mental training, boasts a rich history deeply rooted in Korean culture. The creation of modern Taekwondo in the mid-20th century marks a significant milestone in martial arts history, as it saw the unification of various Korean martial art schools, known as “Kwons,” into a cohesive discipline.
To truly appreciate the origins of Taekwondo, we must study Korea’s tumultuous history. Korean martial arts, influenced by neighboring countries and internal strife, have evolved over centuries. During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), the practice of native martial arts was suppressed, leading to a significant decline. However, this period also saw Koreans exposed to Japanese martial arts, which later influenced the development of Taekwondo. Due to this influence, you’ll see a lot of similarities in the belt systems and uniforms between Taekwondo and Karate.
The liberation of Korea in 1945 marked a pivotal moment for the reemergence of Korean martial arts. Korean martial artists, who had trained in various styles both within and outside Korea, began establishing martial arts schools, known as “Kwons.” These styles were initially independent, each with its unique methods and techniques. The creation of Taekwondo saw the unity of the five original Kwons:
Chung Do Kwon: The First Wave of Change
Chung Do Kwon, founded by Lee Won Kuk in 1944, was among the first martial arts schools to open after Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule. Lee, who had trained in Shotokan karate in Japan, infused his teachings with powerful, direct techniques reminiscent of karate but adapted them to incorporate traditional Korean martial arts principles. Chung Do Kwon was known for its emphasis on physical conditioning, strong blocks, and direct strikes, creating a foundation that would heavily influence modern Taekwondo’s focus on dynamic, powerful movements.
Moo Duk Kwon: Blending Traditions
Moo Duk Kwon, founded in 1945 by Hwang Kee, played a significant role in shaping the softer aspects of Taekwondo. Hwang Kee’s exposure to both Korean and Chinese martial arts, including Soo Bahk Do and the internal principles of Tai Chi, contributed to a style that balanced hard striking techniques with softer, more fluid circular movements. This Kwon’s philosophy centered on personal development and the harmonious balance of body and mind, an ethos that remains a core tenet of Taekwondo today.
Yun Moo Kwon/Ji Do Kwon: From Judo to Karate
Yun Moo Kwon, established by Sang Sup Chun, initially began as a Judo school in 1946. However, after the Korean War, the school, led by one of Chun’s students, Lee Yong Woo, began incorporating karate techniques into its curriculum. This transition marked the school’s evolution into Ji Do Kwon. The style developed at Yun Moo Kwon/Ji Do Kwon was known for blending the throwing and grappling techniques of Judo with the striking and blocking techniques of karate, contributing to the diverse techniques seen in modern Taekwondo.
Chang Moo Kwon: The Influence of Chinese Martial Arts
Founded in 1946 by Byung In Yoon, Chang Moo Kwon had a unique flavor owing to Yoon’s experience with Chinese martial arts, particularly Kung Fu. This influence is evident in Chang Moo Kwon’s emphasis on fluidity, inner energy development, and soft yet precise movements. Byung In Yoon’s philosophy focused on the development of mental strength and the cultivation of Ki (life energy), aspects that are integral to the spiritual dimension of Taekwondo.
Song Moo Kwon: The Karate Connection
Song Moo Kwon, established in 1944 by Byung Jick Ro, was initially influenced heavily by Karate, as Ro had trained under Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, in Japan. This influence is evident in the early curriculum of Song Moo Kwon, which emphasized precise, powerful karate techniques. However, Ro also sought to infuse his teachings with traditional Korean martial arts values and techniques, contributing to the evolving identity of what would become Taekwondo.
Unification and the Birth of Taekwondo
The unification of these Kwons was driven by a desire to create a distinctly Korean martial art, reflecting national pride and cultural identity. In the early 1950s, efforts began to standardize the various styles. This initiative was spearheaded by South Korean President Syngman Rhee, who had witnessed a martial arts demonstration and saw the potential for a unified national sport.
In 1955, a committee of representatives from the various Kwons met to discuss unification. This led to the adoption of the name “Taekwondo,” coined by General Choi Hong Hi. The name, meaning “the way of foot and fist,” reflects the art’s emphasis on kicking and striking techniques.
The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) and the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) are two distinct organizations that govern Taekwondo, but they have different historical backgrounds, philosophies, and techniques.
International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)
The ITF was founded in 1966 by General Choi Hong Hi, often credited as the ‘father of Taekwondo.’ General Choi aimed to promote Taekwondo as a means of training both the body and mind, focusing on moral development and self-discipline. He intended to spread Taekwondo internationally as a traditional Korean martial art. ITF Taekwondo is characterized by its emphasis on sine wave movement, a technique involving a rhythmic up and down motion intended to generate power. It also focuses on traditional patterns called ‘tuls,’ self-defense, and sparring.
World Taekwondo Federation (WTF/WT)
The WTF, now known as WT, was established in 1973, following the successful demonstration of Taekwondo at the 1971 Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. The WTF was formed to standardize Taekwondo practices and facilitate the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics. It focuses on promoting Taekwondo as a modern sport and international discipline. WT Taekwondo is known for its dynamic, athletic sparring style, with an emphasis on fast and high kicks. It utilizes poomsae (forms) different from ITF’s tuls.
The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) changed its name to World Taekwondo (WT) in 2017. This change was primarily motivated by the negative connotations associated with the acronym “WTF” in the English language, particularly in the context of social media and digital communication. The new name, World Taekwondo, aimed to better represent the organization’s global presence and the evolving nature of the sport, while distancing itself from any unintended negative interpretations of its previous acronym.
Differences in Inception History
The split between the ITF and WTF is deeply rooted in the political climate of the time. General Choi, associated with North Korea, found his views increasingly at odds with South Korea’s government. The South Korean government, seeking to distance itself from Choi’s influence, played a significant role in establishing the WTF.
A critical difference in their histories is the WTF’s successful bid to include Taekwondo as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and later as an official Olympic sport in 2000. The ITF, while internationally recognized, did not achieve the same level of Olympic involvement. The ITF’s reach was initially more international, spreading through Choi’s global tours. The WTF, based in South Korea, gained prominence through its connection to the Olympic movement and the global sports community.
From its inception, Taekwondo was not just a martial art but also a way to build character, instill discipline, and promote peace. Today, it is practiced by millions worldwide and is a recognized Olympic sport. The unification of the Kwons played a crucial role in shaping Taekwondo’s philosophy and techniques, creating a rich tapestry that blends physical prowess with mental and spiritual discipline.
The history of Taekwondo is a testament to the resilience and cultural pride of the Korean people. It stands as a unique martial art that has not only preserved traditional techniques but also embraced innovation and unification. As Taekwondo continues to evolve, it carries with it the legacy of the five Kwons, a reminder of its rich heritage and the unifying power of martial arts.
As Taekwondo’s popularity increased for training in the Olympics, it’s important to mention the difference in training of sport vs self defense. Schools training for Olympic sparring have different needs and requirements than when training for self defense. Currently, Olympic sparring has changed the dynamics of the art creating importance in front leg kicking and more flicks rather than powerful strikes for scoring points. This can be dangerous when applying these techniques for self defense where an adversary can easily overcome weak strikes. When training for the Olympics, there are rules to consider in order to prevent injury to athletes. While training for self defense, we are studying Taekwondo from the aspects of Martial Arts, the art of war, which has fewer rules and stresses the importance of protecting and controlling one self to stay alive and dissolve conflicts. These ideals in training can often be conflicting and it is important to train both if practicing for the Olympics. Afterall, we are aiming to create both internal and external peace; but in it’s pursuit, we are creating a study warrior for any situation.
At Fera Academy, we stress the importance of self defense in training where all our moves have a foundation in the defense, movement, and striking application. This refers to the old school traditions of utilizing powerful and fast strikes that deliver more force rather than compromising safety for a soft flicker delivery for points. While training, it is important to keep in mind that if you are training sparring, you still practice self defense applications, especially strikes to the head. This can ensure your safety while developing skills that can be taken outside the dojang. Like in many other arts, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) for example, transition to sport or competition practice where points are scored. This changes the nature of training prioritizing points and often compromising self defense and utility of a technique. Keeping a self defense mentality truly helps keep the martial arts roots deeply founded and allow the practitioner to maintain safety above all else. Train to stay alive and not score points and you’ll always find the right path in your training.