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History of Tae Kwon Do

The roots of Tae Kwon Do begin approximately 1300 years ago in what is referred to in the West as Korea (but which natives refer to as "Jo-seon" / 조선). The history of Korea and of Tae Kwon Do are interwoven, and the 24 patterns include elements that refer to Korean history, both ancient and modern; so this article is as much about Korean history as it is about Tae Kwon Do history. Chronologically, the earliest such reference is the second pattern, Dan-Gun / 단군, which is named after the legendary founder of Korea in 2333 BC. The only pattern that does not have a clear historical reference is the first, Cheon-Ji / 천지, the name of which means "Heaven and Earth" and refers to the beginning of history and the beginning of Tae Kwon Do training.

Three Kingdoms (to 660 AD)

In the first half of the first millenium AD, the Korean peninsula contained three kingdoms: Silla / 신라, founded in 57 BC; Baekje / 백제, founded in 18 BC; and Goguryeo / 고구례, founded in 37 BC. Goguryeo was by far the largest of the three kingdoms, geographically.

One of the greatest heroes of Korean history lived during this time. He was the 19th king of Goguryeo, named Gwang Gae-To Tae Hwang / 광개토대왕 ("Gwang Gae-To the Great"), who lived from 374 to 413 and ruled from 391 to 412. He is one of only two rulers of Korea given the title of "Great" (the other being King Sejong of the Joseon dynasty, mentioned below). His name means "the king who expanded the country's territory"; his monument records that he conquered 64 fortresses and 1400 towns (Han Woo-Keun 45, 47). The pattern Gwang-Gae / 광개 is named for him; the 39 moves of the pattern represent the year he came to the throne, in 391.

Much later, general Eul-Ji Mun-Deok / 을지문덕 played a vital role in defending Goguryeo. His military brilliance helped the determined Goguryeo forces to repel a massive attack by Chinese Sui dynasty (581-618) forces under Emperor Yang Ti in 612, who was forced to retreat. The Emperor tried again in subsequent years to conquer this kingdom, but never succeeded, and these failures were one reason for the fall of the Sui dynasty in 618 (Han Woo-Keun 76, 77). The pattern Eul-Ji / 을지 is named for this general; the 42 moves of the pattern represent the age of the author of this pattern when he designed it.

The T'ang dynasty (618-907) succeeded the Sui dynasty and also had ambitions of conquering Goguryeo. General Yeon Gae-Somun / 연개소문 (603-665) successfully repelled their attacks, just as Eul-Ji had repelled earlier Sui attacks (Han Woo-Keun 77, 78). The pattern Yeon-Gae / 연개 is named for him; the 49 moves of the pattern represent the year in which he drove the Chinese T'ang forces out of Goguryeo, in 649.

Unification (660-668)

The Hwa-rang / 화랑, societies of young Silla aristocratic men who followed the Hwa-rang-do / 화랑도, played a key role in the unification of the Korean peninsula. Hwarang-Do was a military and philosophical code derived from Buddhism and Confucianism that emphasized not only martial skills but also academics, including art and music, and had a special focus on loyalty and courage. Hwa-rang-do means "way of the flower of manhood". The martial art associated with the Hwarang was known as Taek-gyeon / 택견 and involved both armed and unarmed combat techniques. The pattern Hwa-Rang / 화랑 (created by Grandmaster Han Cha Kyo) was named for them.

Partly with the help of the Hwarang and partly with the support of Chinese T'ang forces, the kingdom of Silla (the smallest of the three) conquered Baekje in 660. General Gye-Baek / 계백 stood against the Silla forces who attacked Baekje (Han Woo-Keun 81); he is remembered for his military discipline in standing against an overwhelming force led by Silla general Kim Yu-Sin, knowing success was unlikely. The pattern Gye-Baek / 계백 is named for him.

General Kim Yu-Sin / 김유신 (595-673) was himself a product of Hwarang training. He led the attack on Baekje against General Gye-Baek at Hwangsan Field with a force of 50,000 men. Yu-Sin then went on to attack and subdue the Baekje capital of Sabi with the help of T'ang forces; this led to the surrender of Baekje on July 18, 660 (Han Woo-Keun 61, 80, 81). The pattern Yu-Sin / 유신 was named for him; the 68 moves represent the unification of the three kingdoms in 668, when Silla went on to conquer Goguryeo. This kingdom in particular had experienced difficulties with the neighboring Chinese in the past, since they bordered China (unlike the other two kingdoms), and now were caught between Silla to the south and Silla's present allies the Chinese to the north.

After the three kingdoms were unified under Silla control, there followed nearly a decade of fighting with the T'ang dynasty, the erstwhile allies of Silla that had helped them conquer the other two kingdoms; the Chinese were finally driven out by 676. This was the first time that the peninsula had been controlled by a single indigenous ruling power, under Mun-Mu / 문무, the 30th king of Silla who reigned from 661 to 681. The pattern Mun-Mu / 문무 is named for him; the 61 moves of the pattern represent the year he came to the throne, in 661.

The Silla Dynasty (668-935)

The unification of the three kingdoms in the 7th century marked the beginning of the Silla dynasty and a long period of peace, prosperity, and cultural development (Han Woo-Keun 99). Won-Hyo / 원효 (617-686) was a noted Buddhist monk who lived into the early years of the Silla dynasty and helped to introduce Buddhism to the Korean peninsula. The pattern Won-Hyo / 원효 is named for him.

The Silla dynasty reached its height in the middle part of the eighth century under King Kyong-Dok, after which it began to decline steadily toward anarchy and its fall in 935 (Han Woo-Keun 111). During the decline of the Silla dynasty, Hwarang-Do began to decline as well.

The Goryeo Dynasty (935-1392)

The Silla dynasty was followed in 935 AD by the Go-ryeo / 고례 dynasty, the name of which is the root of the modern name "Korea". During this time foreign trade was extensive, and coins began to be minted in the 11th century (Han Woo-Keun 145).

General Choe Yeong / 최영 (1316-1388) was an important military figure in the Goryeo dynasty. The pattern Choe-Yeong / 최영 was named for him.

Jong Mong-Ju / 정몽주 (1337-1392), also known as Po-Eun / 포은, was a scholar during the Goryeo dynasty. He is known, among other things, for his work on a compilation of laws as an early attempt at codification (Han Woo-Keun 216). The pattern Po-Eun / 포은 was named for him.

The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)

The Goryeo dynasty was followed in 1392 by the Jo-seon / 조선 dynasty; it is also called the Yi / 이 dynasty after the name of the ruling family. It was during this time that the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) was developed, at the direction of King Se-Jong the Great / 세종대왕 (1397-1450); it was completed in 1443. The pattern Se-Jong / 세종 is named for him; the 24 moves of the pattern represent the 24 simple characters or "jamo" / 자모 used in Hangeul. (There are more than 24 characters, but the others are made up of combinations of the simple characters.)

Yi Hwang / 이황 (1501-1570), also known as Toi-Gye / 퇴계, who lived during the Joseon Dynasty, was the most famous Confucian scholar in Korean history. The pattern Toi-Gye / 퇴계 is named for him, and the 37 moves represent the place of his birth on the 37th latitude. Yi I / 이이 (1536-1584), also known as Yul-Gok / 율곡, was another great Confucian scholar from this time. The pattern Yul-Gok / 율곡 is named for him, and the 38 moves represent the place of his birth on the 38th latitude. These two thinkers had differing views in Confucianism, in that Yi Hwang viewed li (or the abstract) as being more important than ch'i (or matter), whereas Yi I viewed li as simply a principle involved in ch'i (Han Woo-Keun 288).

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin / 이순신 (1545-1598) also lived during this time. He was reputed to have invented the first armored battleship, called a "turtle ship", "geo-buk-seon" / 거북선. "This was was a galley decked with iron plates to protect the rowers and armed with a large iron ram in the shape of a turtle's head. These ships were pretty much impervious to any weapons the Japanese could muster, and so sank a large number of troop and supply ships." (Han Woo-Keun 271). The pattern Chung-Mu / 충무 is named for him.

The Korean peninsula had never fully escaped the threat of inteference by its close and powerful neighbors, Japan and China. Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), a former prime minister of Japan, was largely responsible for making Korea a protectorate of Japan in 1905, and in December of that year he became Resident-General of Korea under the direct authority of the Japanese Emperor, with discretionary powers in the use of Japanese troops (Han Woo-Keun 449). Japanese control was tightened over the next few years. On October 26, 1909, An Jung-Geun / 안중근 assassinated Ito on the verge of the formal Japanese annexation of Korea. However, the annexation proceeded anyway in 1910; ironically, Ito's assassination was used as pretext to push this process forward. An Jung-Geun was executed that same year; the pattern Jung-Geun / 중근 is named for him, and the 32 moves represent his age at the time of his execution in prison.

By the end of the Joseon dynasty, the Hwarang-Do was nearly forgotten.

Japanese Occupation (1910-1945)

On March 1, 1919, the independence movement started by Son Byong-Hui / 손병희 came to a head with an estimated 2,000,000 people taking part in 1500 demonstrations. Some 46,000 Koreans were arrested by the Japanese, including Son Byong-Hui, and some 7500 were killed. The pattern Sam-Il / 삼일 commemorates this event; "Sam-Il" means "March the First", and the 33 moves of the pattern represent the 33 leaders of the movement. Son Byong-Hui's pen-name was Eui-Am / 의암; the pattern Eui-Am / 의암 is named for him, and the 45 moves in the pattern represent his age when he renamed the Dong Hak / 동학 ("Eastern Learning") religion to Cheon-do-gyo / 천도교 ("Heavenly Way") in 1905. Another participant in the Sam-Il movement was Cho Man-Sik / 조만식. He was also arrested, and he dedicated himself to non-violent resistence to the occupation after his release. His pen-name was Go-Dang; the pattern Go-Dang / 고당 is named for him.

An Chang-Ho / 안창호 (1876-1938) was an activist for Korean independence and a strong proponent of education in Korea. His pen-name was Do-San / 중근; the pattern Do-San / 중근 is named for him, and the 24 moves of the pattern represent his entire life. He moved to the United States in 1902, and in April of 1919, following the Sam-Il movement, he helped establish a Korean provisional government in Shanghai, China.

The Japanese occupation of Korea lasted through the end of World War II in 1945. Toward the end of this occupation, and especially after the start of World War II, Koreans were forced to take Japanese names; newspapers and magazines published in Korean were banned; Koreans were forced to worship at Japanese Shinto shrines; and martial arts such as Taek-gyeon were banned, though they were still practiced secretly. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were drafted into military and other service to bolster Japanese forces.

Liberation, and the Birth of Tae Kwon Do (1945-)

In 1945, when Korea was liberated, the martial arts began to be openly taught again, and Choi Hong-Hi / 최홍희 was released from prison camp and became an officer in the Korean Army. He had studied Taek-gyeon and Karate as a young person, and now began teaching a form of Taek-gyeon to his soldiers. The art that he and others taught spread rapidly. Several names for the martial art were proposed; on April 11, 1955, Choi's proposed name was accepted, and Tae Kwon Do / 태권도 was born. It was soon brought to the United States and other countries, and today is the most widely practiced martial art. It is important to note that, as with Hwarang-Do, Tae Kwon Do involves more than just physical fighting skills; practitioners of the art are typically expected to demonstrate knowledge and understanding as well as technique.

When Japan surrendered, the terms dictated that Japanese forces north of the 38th parallel should surrender to the Soviets, and those south of that line to the United States. Once the surrender was complete, the Soviets quickly worked to seal off the 38th parallel. This is why there are now the modern communist North Korea and democratic South Korea.

The Han Brothers (1950-present)

Grandmaster Han Cha Kyo was involved in the development of modern Tae Kwon Do from the beginning. He was an instructor in the 29th Infantry Division where it originated, and he was authorized by General Choi to create the Hwa-Rang pattern; he gave the new pattern 29 steps to symbolize the origins of Tae Kwon Do. Grandmaster Han Cha Kyo has performed all over the world, including before the Queen of England; and in 1955 in Spain he became one of the first martial artists ever to knock over a bull with a flying side kick -- a feat which was thought to be impossible because of the tremendous disparity in mass. He founded the Universal Tae Kwon Do Federation around 1980, and operated a Tae Kwon Do school in the Chicago, Illinois area for many years until his death in 1996.

Grandmaster Han Min Kyo, his brother, has been teaching Tae Kwon Do in the United States since the 1970s. Grandmaster Han founded the Han Tae Kwon Do Alliance, and he still teaches his students directly and personally. His background with modern Tae Kwon Do means that it is a special experience to learn the art from him.

Works Cited

Han Woo-Keun. The History of Korea. Seoul, Korea: The Eul-Yoo Publishing Company, 1970.

"Korea, history of." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
      25 Apr. 2007 <>.

Wikipedia is used as a supporting, but not authoritative, source of information.


Jeff Williams

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