History of Taekwondo



Since prehistoric times mankind has sought to develop ways of defending himself against aggression, either from other tribes or from wild animals. Despite developing weapons to assist in the gathering of food and self-defence, the people of ancient Korea continued to develop their minds and bodies through recreational games and competitions. The earliest known records of Korean life date back to 2333BC and mention music, dance, and games played at tribal festivals.

The Korean nation was founded by tribes that migrated southwards from Mongolia into the peninsula known today as Korea. The development of the Korean nation progressed through distinct dynasties: Koguryo, Baekje, Shilla, Koryo, and Yi. Three of these dynasties existed simultaneously in different areas of Korea and this is known as the 'Period of Three Kingdoms'. The dynasties were:


Koguryo (37BC ~ 668AD) existed in the northern part of the peninsula and stretched into the southern and western parts of Manchuria;



Baekje (18BC ~ 660AD) spread around the Han river basin in the central and western parts of the peninsula; and



Shilla (57BC ~ 936 AD) covered the south and eastern parts of the Korean peninsula. By defeating the Koguryo and Baekje dynasties it was the Shilla dynasty that succeeded in unifying the nation into one state in 668AD.


During this period the common style of dress consisted of loose trousers and a jacket held together with a belt tied around the mid-section. The style was similar to the Taekwondo and judo uniforms of today, and was commonplace throughout the three kingdoms. In the kingdom of Baekje the military officers wore different coloured belts to indicate their rank, and in Shilla they also wore coloured trim on their lapels as an additional indication of rank.



Koguryo (37BC ~ 668AD)  Because Koguryo was bordered to the north by hostile tribes the kingdom organised a strong warrior corps and these were known as "sonbae". The "sonbae" lived in groups, studied history and literary arts, and were known for their virtue and bravery. The "sonbae" provided Koguryo with a basis for military strength and political leadership. During these early times Taekwondo was known in this area by the name "Subak" and historical records confirm that Subak (Taekwondo) contests were held at various festivals and rituals of the day.

The earliest recorded evidence of martial arts in Korea appear in the ceiling murals of the Muyong-Chong burial tomb discovered in 1935. This tomb was excavated in the ancient Koguryo capital of Tungku. Because Tungku was the capital only until 427AD we can be sure that this tomb was constructed between 3AD ~ 427AD.

The murals on the ceiling of the tomb show two men practicing an early form of Taekwondo and other decorations. Other tombs in the area contain murals with similar images. In the Sambo-chong tomb can be seen a picture of a man wearing a costume similar to today's Taekwondo uniform - loose trousers and a jacket held together with a belt tied around the mid-section - in a stance characteristic of Taekwondo with one hand blocking high and the other low.

A mural from a warrior's tomb depicting a scene of kyorugi (sparring).

A mural from another tomb depicting a hunting scene.

The fact that these figures appear in such tomb paintings testifies to Taekwondo being well established during this time and to it being a popular activity. The various murals also show that the practice of the early forms of Taekwondo was not limited to noblemen or warriors but was also practiced by peasants and farmers.

Baekje (18BC ~ 660AD)  Historical records such as the "History of the Three Kingdoms" and the "Sui China Chronicles" refer to the various Kings of Baekje patronising the martial arts of Taekwondo and Sirum (a traditional Korean style of wrestling) and sports such as horse-riding and archery. Other records such as folk stories of the time support these records with tales of provincial contests which included early forms of Taekwondo.

Shilla (57BC ~ 935AD)  At the outset Shilla was the weakest in military terms of the three kingdoms but as Baekje grew in the west, and Koguryo began attacking from the north it became necessary to establish a strong military based on the martial arts. The result was Hwarangdo - a warrior code based on high moral standards similar to the Sonbae of Koguryo. As in other areas of Korea at the time, Hwarangdo contests were often held during festivals. Hwarangdo ultimately became the basis of Shillas' military power thereby enabling Shilla in the 7th century to conquer first the Baekje, and then the Koguryo kingdoms, and ultimately unify the ancient Korean nation in 668AD.

The Hwarang warriors followed and upheld a number of ethical values, never using their martial skills without good and proper reason, and promoting charity, generosity, compassion and other humanitarian ideals. The main principles they followed were:

  • Loyalty to one's country
  • Obedience to one's parents
  • Loyalty to one's friends
  • Refusal to retreat from enemy attack 
  • Abstention from the senseless killing of any living thing

The picture shows one of the "Keumgang Yoksa" statues.

At the entrance to the Sokguram Grotto in the Bulguksa temple in Kyongju there are stone carvings of two warriors in Taekwondo style stances performing techniques remarkably similar to Taekwondo techniques of today.

They are known as the "Keumgang Yoksa" - The Mightiest of Warriors. In Taekwondo training today the Keumgang Poomsae performed by 2nd Dan Black Belts takes its' name from these warriors.



Koryo Dynasty (935AD ~ 1392AD)

It was the Koryo dynasty that ascended after Shilla and again brought unity to the Korean nation. It is after this dynasty that the Black Belt Poomsae "Koryo" is named. During this period the development of the martial art known today as Taekwondo became more systematised and was made a compulsory requirement for selection and training in the military. In fact good skill in the martial arts and success during competitions enabled soldiers to advance their rank.

Historical records indicate that the format and judgement of such contests became fairly standardised with elements of sparring (kyorugi) and breaking (kyokpa) competition. Many examples exist in historical documents that tell of impressive feats of skill and strength during such competitions. The kings of Koryo dynasty showed great interest in Taekwondo, encouraging its' development and supporting the contests. Consequently Taekwondo became popular among the general population also. However, as the military became more reliant on gunpowder and new weapons, the support for this early form of Taekwondo subsided and the martial art maintained its' existence through the contests and games held by the general populace between villages and provinces.



Chosun (or Yi) Dynasty (1392AD ~ 1910AD)

In addition to the lessening by the military in Taekwondo, or Subak as it was known then, the martial art suffered further loss of support as a result of a change in ideology throughout Korea. Earlier dynasties, particularly Shilla and Koryo, had been heavily influenced with Buddhist philosophies, however the Chosun dynasty was founded on the ideologies of Confucianism. As a result more importance was placed on the literary arts and Taekwondo (Subak) contests at public festivals reduced in number.

Although interest by the military had lessened, it had not diminished, and records indicate that a requirement for becoming a soldier was to win at least three bouts of Taekwondo against different opponents. In 1592 the Japanese attempted to invade Korea and records of the invasion show that 700 soldiers of the Gumsan region fought the Japanese using Taekwondo (Subak).

For some time afterwards Taekwondo and other martial arts enjoyed renewed popularity by both the military and general populace. In 1790 King Chongjo commissioned the printing of a martial arts textbook whose 4th chapter entitled "Hand Fighting Techniques" contained illustrations of 38 motions that closely resemble techniques and stances of today's Taekwondo.

Illustration from "Hand Fighting Techniques"

Towards the end of the Chosun dynasty Taekwondo (Subak) again lost some of its popularity mainly with the royal court. It is believed this was due to feuding and power  struggles between the royal houses which required them to devote greater time to political matters. However, Taekwondo still remained a popular recreational past-time among the general populace.




Following a long term plan of increased financial and political influence resulting in various agreements to manage Korean affairs the Japanese government finally gained complete control over Korea on August 22, 1910, with the signing of the annexation treaty by the then Prime Minister. All of this happened without the approval of the Korean people and it was fully a week after the treaty was signed that King Sunjong was forced to issue a proclamation yielding up both his throne and his country.

The main reason Japan had annexed Korea was to enhance the prosperity of the Japanese people, and in later years serve as a springboard for Japan's invasion of China.

In the following years Japanese colonial rule tightened its' grip on the Korean economy and the people. Japanese businesses were given preferential treatment and took advantage of Korea's natural resources. Local Korean customs, particularly the practice and teaching of any form of martial arts were banned although many still practiced Taekwondo in secret.

During this period the Japanese took some of the Korean Masters to Japan and made them teach techniques to the Japanese military. In this way a number of Taekwondo techniques were introduced and incorporated into the Japanese martial art of Karate. Later, in 1943, after suppressing Korea's own martial art, the Japanese introduced Karate to Korea and allowed the teaching and practice of this martial art to the Korean people.

Following the end of the second World War, Japan also, at last surrendered unconditionally and on August 15, 1945, Korea was finally liberated from Japanese colonial rule.



Because of Korea's sudden liberation from Japanese colonisation, the people were unprepared for immediate self government. Divisions of ideology existed between pro-democratic and pro-Communist groups. The then Soviet Union invaded Korea from the north and this was followed by U.S. forces landing at Inchon and stationing troops throughout Seoul and the southern half of the peninsula. Thus the country became divided.

Many Koreans tried to revitalise interest in the traditional martial art of Subak (Taekwondo) and in 1946 a conference was held to discuss the development of the art and the integration of the various 'kwans' or schools.

Taekwondo gymnasiums (dojangs) began opening throughout Korea and once again the martial art found popularity. The Korean Taekwondo Association was officially formed in 1961 and many Masters traveled to foreign countries in order to promote Taekwondo internationally.

This unprecedented growth led to the formation of the Kukkiwon as a world headquarters in 1972, and then, in May 1973, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was officially formed with 108 member countries.

Kukkiwon (World Taekwondo Federation Headquarters)

Since then the WTF has held a World Championships every two years, and regional championships in the Asian, Pan-American, European, African and Oceania regions every alternate year.

After appearing as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Taekwondo was accepted as an official Olympic sport in September 1994 and made its' debut as an official sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Since then Taekwondo has featured in each Olympic Games and proven to a be popular spectator sport. The number of practitioners is increasing steadily and the 'martial sport' element of Taekwondo continues to evolve.