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History of Taekwondo, part 1

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

Tae Kwon Do students deserve to learn about the significance of the art. Its history deserves to be cherished and dignified, especially among its practitioners. The history seeps into our minds every time we tie our belts or practice our forms. How well do you know your art?

1- The Birth of Tae Kwon Do

Humans have been endowed with the natural impulse to survive dangerous situations, using whatever tools are available. If caught in such a situation, weapons could be used to defend himself, but are not always available. Therefore, one needs to learn how to use his own body as a weapon. Thus opens the history books on the martial arts.

Tae Kwon Do has endured a dramatic history, beginning with the three rival dynasties in early Korea: Koguryo, Silla, and Baekjae.

Koguryo Tae Kwon Do began in present day Korea, during the Koguryo Dynasty (37 BC — 668 AD). The earliest evidence of Tae Kwon Do is found in warriors’ tombs dating as far back to the year 3 AD. Murals painted on the walls of the tombs depict men engaged in Subakki fighting. This combat was different from the type of Tae Kwon Do that is practiced today, however. Tae Kwon Do has evolved over the years, becoming more scientifically systemized through each generation.

Koguryo history also tells about the Sonbae, a strong warrior’s corps that was formed to protect Koguryo from the hostile northern oppression. The word Sonbae literally means “a man of virtue who never recoils from fighting”, or, “a member of the warrior’s corps”. It is believed that the Sonbae practiced Taekkyon, a predecessor of Tae Kwon Do. A history book from the Chosun dynasty said that “Sonbaes lived in groups, learning history and literary arts at home and going out to construct roads and fortresses for the benefits of society, always devoting themselves to the nation.”

Silla Taekkyon, as practiced by the Sonbae, eventually spread from the Koguryo Kingdom to the Silla Kingdom (57 BC — 935 AD). The Silla Dynasty had its own version of the Koguryo’s Sonbae. The Hwarang, literally meaning “Flower Knight”, practiced Tae Kwon Do as a part of their regular curriculum. Organized by King Jin Heung in 537 AD, the Hwarang proved to be a vital part of the unification of the Korean peninsula during the Silla Dynasty.

The monk Won Kwang Bupsa was the instructor of the Hwarang and was also the author of the Sesokokye, the following five student commitments:

  • Be loyal to your country

  • Honor your parents

  • Be faithful to your friends

  • Never retreat in battle

  • Use good judgement before killing living things

These commitments were the basic way of life for the Hwarang, and they are still practiced by Tae Kwon Do practitioners today.

The third king of the Silla Dynasty, Yoorie, held Soobakhee contests. These contests were considered to be ritual festivals with the purpose of gathering people together to pray for the nation. Soobakhee was probably similar to Tae Kwon Do. The terms “subak” (hand technique) and “taekkon” (foot technique) appear together in the writings of the Silla dynasty. This suggests that hand and foot techniques were both used in Korean martial arts as they are used today in Tae Kwon Do. Additional evidence of this includes the bronze statues of the warrior Kumgang. The shapes of Kumgang’s fists depict the kind of fists used in Tae Kwon Do today, and Kumgang also displays the use of legs and feet that are currently used in Tae Kwon Do.

Baekjae Tae Kwon Do was also an important part of the Baekjae Kingdom (18 BC- 600 AD). Baekjae was a tribe that detached itself from the Koguryo Kingdom. The Soo Sa system of Baekjae was comparable to the Sonbae of the Koguryo Kingdom and the Hwarang of the Silla Kingdom. The Soo Sa also protected the Baekjae Kingdom militarily.

The Baekjae Kingdom also celebrated SooByeokTa festivals which were held in local villages. The people would compete against each other in SooByeokTa fighting (a predecessor of Tae Kwon Do). Occasionally, the winner of the contests became the leader of the village or a military general.

The Combination of Nations In 688 A.D., Silla conquers Koguryo and Baekjae. The victory does not last long, and the government disintegrates. Then, Koguryo resurfaces and conquers Silla and Baekjae, unifying Korea once and for all by creating the Koryo dynasty.

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