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The History of Tae Kwon Do

The History of Tae Kwon Do

written by Master John Tomasi

The history of Tae Kwon Do can also be considered the history of Korea. Martial arts, such as Tae Kwon Do, credit Korea as being the country of their modern origin. Tae Kwon Do is really a mixture of ancient martial arts from all over the Orient. Korea is an elongated and irregular country, which is mostly mountainous, on the eastern side of the Asian continent. Utopia was the only goal of this small county; it was usually seen as a pushover by overrunning movements. Once taught for its ability to defend, Tae Kwon Do has rapidly grown into an international study. There are reports of many forms of unarmed styles of combat from all over the world, including Egypt, Greece, France, and numerous others. Revered as the most advanced of all the different martial arts, Tae Kwon Do mixes effective techniques and mental control, which the students learn to master over time.

Ancient myths woven with traces of fact reveal Korea becoming its own entity in the year 2333 B.C. Soon after being founded by the Holy Dan-Gun, the tribes of Korea grouped into three internal kingdoms, Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche. The largest kingdom, Koguryo, was located in the northern land. Koguryo was the first of the three tribal groups to form an organized kingdom, in 37 A.D. The main role of the Koguryo was to fend off Chinese invasions. By about the fifth century A.D., the Kogurye people sufficiently improved their battle tactics to keep the Chinese forces at bay in long enough periods to allow them to develop into a major Northeast Asian power. Koguryo was the only kingdom that was connected by land to another country so it was used as a shield from invasions by the other two kingdoms.

Silla was the smallest of the three kingdoms. Located on the eastern portion of the Korean Peninsula, Silla found its lands ideal for farming, a condition that was uncommon in the other kingdoms. Although it was founded in 57 B.C., Silla’s lack of social development prevented it from being considered the first founded kingdom. The farming allowed the citizens to live peaceful lives, not needing to rely on raiding other states for supplies. Wonhyo, a monk who brought Buddhism to the Silla Dynasty from China in 686 A.D., taught the high spiritual values of this system of belief. Buddhism caught on quickly and the citizens dropped their old narrative myths for this new philosophy. Once the people of Silla were united under Buddhism, they worked on social refinements, pursued philosophy, and religious practices. A bit delayed, Silla was well on its way to developing into a fine culture while remaining peaceful at heart. During the Dynasty, trade was also expanding throughout Korea. China held most of the trade that existed in Korea. Chinese culture had a great impact on the Korean society that was trying to develop into a central government at the time. Government, educational institutions, and Confucian ethics were all inspired by the Chinese. Tae Kyon, ancient Tae Kwon Do, flourished during this "Golden Age" of the Silla Dynasty. Hwa Rangdo, the elite force that defended the kingdom from invaders, awed the general public so much that they strived to learn the disciplines they were taught. Schools where the young could be instructed flourished all over Korea. Martial art training was also made mandatory for all of the military.

The third kingdom was Paekche. Paekche was located next to Silla on the western half of the Korean Peninsula. Due to its closeness to China, Paekche incorporated many aspects of Chinese government. Through close interactions with China, Paekche became more of a Chinese colony rather than a separate nation like the other two kingdoms. A positive side of giving up some of their independence was that the Paekche became more advanced, due to their Chinese contacts.

Intermittently, war broke out between the kingdoms. Usually it was Koguryo attacking its southern counterparts for new land and subjects. Both Koguryo and Paekche tried to bring Silla under their rule because of its agricultural strength. Tired of harassment from their stronger neighbors, King Chin Heung (the twenty-forth ruler of Silla) put together a group of young warriors and aristocrats to compose the officers of an elite army division. This group was given the name Hwa Rangdo.

The Hwa Rangdo were made superior to other warriors by their training in mental and physical disciplines and hand and foot fighting techniques from various forms, besides their conventional weapons training. Old concepts were assimilated and improved to help the soldiers fight better in every chance that presented itself. The sole purpose of this team was to defend their homeland. Over time, though, the kingdom of Silla unified the other two kingdoms under its rule, forming the Silla Dynasty in 668 A.D.

The Hwa Rangdo were the equivalent of the European knights of medieval times. As the knights developed a code of chivalry, so did the Hwa Rangdo. Won Kang, a Buddhist monk and scholar, developed a five point system to guide the Hwa Rangdo’s actions. The five point system was: 1. Loyalty to the king, 2. Honor your parents, 3. Trust and kindness toward friends, 4. Fight to the death in combat, and 5. Kill only when it is for justice. These honorable warriors became very popular during the Silla Dynasty. The art of training the body and mind in all disciplines was given the name Tae Kyon. Some of the other disciplines were dance, literature, art, and the sciences. Hwa Rangdo warriors were considered as models for society. The development of the Hwa Rangdo and Tae Kyon were the most significant accomplishments of the Silla Dynasty.

While Korea was developing its own identity, including unarmed fighting art, China was absorbing the culture that was flowing into it from all over the world. In 448 A.D., the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma crossed the Himalayas from India on his way to China to enlighten them on his philosophy. In 520 A.D., Bodhidharma reached the Shaoling Temple monastery in the Shao Shink Mountains. There he taught Buddhism, but found his Chinese pupils exhausted from the required discipline. To train the Chinese monks, Bodhidharma showed them methods for mental control and exercises that were the ancient Martial Art form of Shih Pa Lo-han. Ultimately, these monks refined their skills and became some of the most disciplined, most formidable warriors of the time. The incredible unarmed fighting skills of these monks eventually flowed into Korea, where they were incorporated into Tae Kyon.

The Silla Dynasty eventually weakened. Under the rule of King Kyondok in the mid eighth century, Korea experienced prosperity and power at its peak. Conflicts between Korean government and Chinese government politics led to feuds within the ruling class in Korea. Disputes about whether or not to follow China’s example led to violent outbreaks in the public. This disruption caused the central government to severely weaken. With the government no longer able to maintain the status quo, merchants finally were able to expand their power so much that they became independent of the government itself. Wars between wealthy landowners and their private armies and peasant revolts also broke out. Control was finally lost when Korea became three quarreling kingdoms again (Koryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast). Gently turning over power, the Silla Dynasty came to an end in 918 A.D. Koryo founded the succeeding dynasty. Wang Kon was a child prodigy of military strategy. Achieving the support of the landowners and merchants, who increased their prestige as Silla weakened, Kon was able to found the Koryo Dynasty. By 936 A.D., Paekche and Silla had been forced to submit to the new centralized government. Kon reestablished order by primarily using military force. With China facing its own internal conflicts due to its fallen dynasty, Kon jumped at the opportunity to help Korea form a nation independent from China. Growth in the Koryo Dynasty was slow, but prosperity in the fields of intellectual thought and political stability resulted. The Martial Arts continued to thrive as they had in the Silla Dynasty. Monastic life as a Buddhist monk also became rather appealing to numerous people during this time for various reasons. Confucianism was spreading throughout Korea. The ideas of Confucianism were influencing the government’s decisions. However, peace was once again short-lived in Korea.

  Mongols were a tribe of nomads from Northeast Asia. Using skillful war tactics, the Mongols created an empire from Europe to China. Any obstacle that stood in way of the Mongols was quickly eradicated. Seeing that Korea and Japan were still independent, the Mongols, led by Genghiz Khan, launched invasions into the Koryo Kingdom in 1227 A.D. The Hwa Rangdo fought characteristically well against the Mongols at first. Over time, though, the persistence of the Mongols wore down Koryo’s defenses. To preserve the integrity of the kingdom, a peace agreement was eventually established. The Mongols demanded absurd tributes from the citizens in Korea as a deterrent to combat. These demands, and Mongol intermarriage with ruling Korean families, devastated the culture. Still displeased that obtainable land existed that was not under Mongol rule, Koreans had to supply ships to sail Mongol soldiers to Japan. Once they realized how strong Japan’s army was, Mongols quickly gave up their hopes of ruling Japan. Internal struggles for power in the mid 14th century brought Mongol manipulation of the Orient to a swift conclusion.

Sensing the chance to help their country, many rose up in a united revolt against the Mongols. Turmoil was still eminent in Korea after the Mongols were suppressed. Piracy, nomadic invasions, disgruntled peasants, and bankruptcy of the government rang out as a cry for help in Korea. Yi Song Gye was the capable military leader who stepped up to Korea’s need for leadership. While conquering these obstacles, General Gye won the support of the ruling class. In 1391, the supreme council of the Koryo government sensed it had outlived its usefulness as a power and made General Gye the king, starting the Yi Dynasty.

Under the Yi Dynasty, literature and the arts flourished. A Korean alphabet was devised at this time which allowed poetry and folk-stories of the commoners to be written. Confucianism was made the new code to follow instead of Buddhism. Korea grew very independent and strong during the Yi Dynasty. So strong was this country that it withstood two major invasions from Japan and, for the first time, survived a collapse of China’s Dynasty. While repairing what was damaged from the invasions in the 17th and 18th centuries, Koreans developed a national pride so great that they refused to accept the culture that was rapidly spreading from Europe. Korea’s chauvinistic attitude helped it develop further into an independent nation by isolating it from almost all outside contact. The longest span of peace existed during this dynasty. Martial art’s popularity declined because of this peace, though. Confucianism was mainly at fault for the decline in popularity of the unarmed arts because it made the people favor only the mental aspects of what was taught. Eventually, some regions banned the Hwa Rangdo. Tae Kyon only survived in scattered Buddhist temples that gave refuge to devoted masters.

Peace in Korea was shaken from existence in 1894 A.D., by feuding China and Japan. Japan was overly hopeful to increase its power in Asia. China wanted to keep Japan from getting too strong and considered expanding its own rule. Pressure from the two sides caused Korea to split at the seams. It seemed that China was going to keep Korea because of its sheer numbers and advanced tactics. The only way for Japan to defeat its strong adversary was to open itself up to the modern world and form an alliance with Korea. Alliance was not an option for the Koreans, who had no trust for the aggressive Japanese. Turning down the offer of alliance planted the seed for their own demise. Furious with having been turned down by the Koreans, Japan launched a military campaign, in 1910 A.D., to conquer and decimate Korea.

Japan fiercely ruled Korea until the United Nations recognized it as an independent nation and the Allied Army defeated Japan in World War II. Korea was freed from Japanese control in 1945 A.D. During the time that Japan held Korea, all sense of individuality between Koreans and Japanese was lost.

Most of the citizens, with the exception of the extremely wealthy and powerful, of Korea were made second-rate. It was made illegal to speak Korean, wear traditional Korean dress, study Korean history and literature, and to carry on many other aspects of ordinary Korean life. Korea was being transformed into a second Japan. Studying their martial art was strictly forbidden. The only forms of martial arts allowed to be studied were the Japanese arts, like Karate. Tae Kyon survived as a secret art that was only studied "underground." Masters in this secret art would teach just a handful of students, risking their lives, in hope that the Korean art would not be lost.

After Korea was liberated, a young general in the newly formed Korean Armed Forces, Choi Hong Hi, was researching the ancient art of his country which he was briefly taught as a youngster. Gathering together all the separated kwons, schools of the secret art, he took the good aspects of the variation that occurred from lack of communication between instructors and put it together in one art. Hi was also instructed in Karate, so he incorporated some of its movements into his new art. Through applied physics, General Hi was able to perfect the art and add totally new movements, completing his new art. Taekwondo was the name give to this art, because it was mostly derived from the ancient, ethical art, Tae Kyon. Taekwondo has 10 levels or grades from beginner to 1st degree Black Belt and 9 degrees of Black Belt. The 24 established forms are designed to develop and practice the techniques that have motor skill difficulty commensurate with the student’s rank. The tenets or values of TaeKwonDo are: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit.

General Choi Hong Hi taught his "new" Korean martial art to the Korean military - like the Hwa Rangdo. In 1959 A.D., Hi’s military demonstration team went to Vietnam and Taiwan. For the first time, Korea was spreading its martial art to other neighboring cultures. By the mid 1960’s, Taekwondo had become Korea’s national martial art and General Choi had formed the (and became president of) the International Taekwondo Federation. U.S. soldiers returning from the Korean and Vietnam Wars brought home their training in the Tae Kwon Do. Americans loved this art, not only for its self-defense applications but also for its values training.

In the 1960’s, Korean Taekwondo Masters and Grandmasters began emigrating to the United States and opened Taekwondo schools. During the 1970’s many of the Korean Grandmasters, although continuing to teach Taekowndo as established by General, discontinued their affiliation with General Choi and the ITF.

Today in the United States, there are many, many Taekwondo schools with as many different affiliations. This is insignificant, in fact it helps Taekwondo continue to grow. In this country, the student’s battlefield is the challenges of daily life. What is really important is that the techniques taught are based on the principles of physics, that Taekwondo be taught as a self-defense and that values teaching remain central to the training. Hopefully, the confidence gained with becoming an expert at self defense will allow the student to have the self confidence to overcome peer pressure and the stress of daily life and live peacefully by a good set of values

One of General Choi’s students that emigrated to this country is Grandmaster B. C. Yu. His school is located in Ann Arbor Michigan. Master Don Tomasi was a Student of Grandmaster Yu and I am a student of Master Tomasi. Our school is SIDEKICKS.

At SIDEKICKS, Taekwondo is taught as a Traditional Martial Art. Each student is trained to expertly defend himself / herself and is also taught the self discipline, the responsibility and the values that accompany this self defense expertise. Each student is taught and encouraged to:

    • Become an expert at self defense
    • Build self confidence through the attainment of self defense expertise
    • Develop the self discipline that is required with having self defense expertise
    • Improve his / her self esteem by continually doing his / her best
    • Develop a positive attitude
    • Learn to set and achieve goals
    • Develop a set of values to live by
    • Develop the courage to live by his / her values
    • Become a leader by example
    • Become a model citizen.

As the Black Belt is achieved, each student is taught to learn from his / her past and confidently reach forward to the challenges of tomorrow with a Positive Black Belt Attitude.

Taekwondo the most sought after martial art in the world. It is the above goals that we have for each student that makes me proud to be part of the SIEKICKS Taekwondo family.

Master John Tomasi has been active in Taekwondo since he was 7 years old. He earned his Master Level of excellence in 1996. Master John wrote this history when he was a sophomore at Lake Michigan Catholic High School. He is currently earning his Masters Degree in Engineering at Western Michigan University.