Taekwondo (Martial Arts)

Taekwondo (Korean; hand-foot way) is a Korean unarmed combat system whose traditional history traces its ancestry back 2,000 years. It is a native Korean fighting art, although in the latter part of the twentieth century it has been influenced by other fighting systems, most notably Shotokan Karate from Japan. In its current form, taekwondo exists in both sport and combat variants. One of the(Martial Arts) most popular martial arts in the world, it is one of the newest Olympic events and became a full-medal sport in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

There is evidence that the ancestors of the modern Korean people settled the peninsula and had developed tribal societies as early as 2000 b.c. By a.d. 500, three distinct kingdoms had emerged in the area: Koryo, Paekje, and Silla. These three kingdoms were often in a state of civil war, with China, the dominant power in the region, offering one side or the other support in an attempt to retain influence over the region. This influence from without became a common theme in Korean history, with Japan and Mongolia making invasion attempts as well in later centuries.

Both armed and unarmed martial arts were practiced by warriors of these three kingdoms. Silla, despite being the smallest of the three, was eventually able to unify the entire peninsula by 800. Tradition attributes part of the success of the Silla kingdom to the practice of martial arts by a specific branch of the military known as the hwarang, which can be defined as the “flowering of manhood.” Hwarang soldiers were expected to be proficient in all areas of the martial arts, both armed and unarmed, as well as to demonstrate loyalty to the ruler and uphold the Confucian values of a civilized society. Tradition has compared the hwarang to the samurai of Japan and the knight from the medieval period of Western European history, both of whom were expected to follow warrior codes of behavior. The collective martial arts of the hwarang were known as hwarang-do (the way of the flowering of manhood).

Side kick delivered by Miss Kim, ca. 1950.

Side kick delivered by Miss Kim, ca. 1950.

The country fell into disunity again in 900, but was later unified under the Koryo dynasty and became known as Koryo by the beginning of the millennium. From the time of the unification of the nation until about 1400, the Korean martial arts entered into a period of expansion, experimentation, and development. Oral tradition maintains that hwarang-do continued to be practiced and expanded by the hwarang warriors. The martial arts of t’aek’kyon, primarily a kick-oriented martial art, and subak, a fist-oriented martial art, also became popular with the aristocracy and commoners alike. These two martial systems were to endure into the twentieth century. Despite repeated invasion attempts and influence by the Chinese, and a successful invasion by the Mongols, Korea maintained a large degree of independence and continued to develop its own unique culture.

During this time period also, the traditional history maintains that Chinese martial arts exerted a major influence on the Korean systems. Most important for the development of taekwondo, the contacts with China also included contacts with experts in northern systems of Chinese boxing. These northern systems were famous for their kicks, many of which were incorporated into Korean systems. Perhaps the most famous of these kicks is the so-called flying kick, known today as a jumping side kick.

In 1392, following the expulsion of the Mongols, the final Korean dynasty was established, the Yi dynasty. The Yi rulers began a systematic program of eliminating martial arts from society, with the result that martial arts practitioners and the hwarang are alleged to have taken their arts to remote locations, such as Buddhist monasteries, for continued study and practice. Korea also entered an isolationist period. So successful were the results that Korea eventually became known as the “hermit kingdom.” Toward the end of the nineteenth century a vigorous and expansionistic Japan made inroads into Korean sovereignty and eventually annexed the nation outright in 1910.

The harsh Japanese occupation lasted until 1945. The use of the Korean language was banned, Korean citizens were forced to take Japanese names, and Korean institutions of learning were closed. However, this repression created a backlash of renewed interest among Koreans in traditional Korean arts, including martial arts, which were often practiced secretly. However, Koreans also studied Japanese martial arts during this time period, including karate, judo, and kendo.

With the end of the occupation, Koreans began to reassert their sovereignty and identity, and an understandable resurgence of Korean martial arts took place. With the division of the peninsula into the Communist-dominated north and the American-supported south in 1948, and the beginning of the bloody Korean War in 1950, there began an even greater push for reinstatement and development of Korean martial arts.

The Korean martial arts received a massive boost in popularity when several Korean stylists, including t’aek’kyon practitioners, gave a demonstration of these arts before South Korean president Syngman Rhee in 1952, during the height of the Korean conflict. So impressed was Rhee with the demonstration, he immediately ordered all Korean troops to be trained in these arts. There also began a push for the unification of these fighting arts.

A scene of ring-style training of Miss Kim, ca. 1950.

A scene of ring-style training of Miss Kim, ca. 1950.

In 1955, General Choi Hong-Hi, known as the “father of modern taekwondo,” unveiled the art of taekwondo to the Korean public. General Choi and several other practitioners took the fighting arts of several schools, or kwons, and unified them into a single fighting art. Some kwons (e.g., Tang Soo Do) did not participate in this unification. General Choi also took several of the kata from Japanese karate, most notably Shotokan, and adopted them into taekwondo. General Choi took the name taek-wondo, in part, because of the resemblance of the name to t’aek’kyon.

The Korean conflict brought many United States military personnel into Korea and exposed them to the art. Some Americans remained in Korea after the end of the conflict in 1953 and received teaching certification in taekwondo, later returning to America to teach the art.

Jhoon Rhee formally introduced the art to America in 1956, founding the first taekwondo academy in San Marcos, Texas. By the 1960s, the art had spread worldwide, into the Middle East, Taiwan, Canada, and Western Europe. With the outbreak of the Vietnam War, many more Americans were exposed to the art while stationed in Korea, which helped to account for a surge in popularity in the 1970s, when returning American service personnel brought the art with them. Taekwondo continued to expand worldwide in the 1980s, moving into the newly open societies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Taekwondo received exposure when the art was entered as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea. Today, it is practiced by an estimated 20 million persons worldwide.

Information on the fate of taekwondo in North Korea is sketchy at best. It is known that North Koreans do practice taekwondo, along with other Korean martial arts, but given the highly secretive nature of the

A taekwondo practitioner breaks with his elbow a stack of twelve 1-inch-thick boards, ca. 1950.

A taekwondo practitioner breaks with his elbow a stack of twelve 1-inch-thick boards, ca. 1950.

North Korean regime, it is impossible to tell at the present time the popularity and development of the art in this region.

Taekwondo practitioners wear a uniform that resembles a karate gi, namely, loose cotton pants and a jacket. The Korean term for the uniform is dobahk. The major difference between a gi and a dobahk is that the dobahk is a one-piece vest that does not tie together, but rather is worn like a shirt. There is black piping around the edges of the uniform to help distinguish them from karate uniforms. They also tend to be made of very light material, since there is no grappling in taekwondo and thus no need for the uniforms to be sturdy enough to be grabbed. A belt is worn signifying rank. Their are ten ranks below that of black belt, known collectively as the gup ranks. Beginners start as white belts, until finally the black belt, or dan, ranks are attained. There are ten levels of dan rankings.

Taekwondo is, as the name suggests, a striking art and is characterized by an emphasis on kicking techniques. Taekwondo is one of the few martial arts in which practitioners are expected to execute kicks to high targets, most notably the head. While sometimes criticized as being ineffective for street or combat situations, these kicks form an essential element of the art. For Olympic-style training, kicking is emphasized above punching, as it is successful kicks that will give a competitor the most points and help to achieve a knockout.

Taekwondo kicks can be divided into six major types of kicks. The first type, usually the first learned by beginners, is the front kick. As the name suggests, this kick is delivered when the front of the body is facing an opponent. The striking areas on the foot are the ball of the foot or the instep, depending on the target. The leg and foot are positioned vertically, so the kick itself will travel vertically.

The second type of kick is the side kick. A practitioner kicks to the side, lifting the leg horizontally and thrusting the leg out. The entire bottom surface of the foot is used as a striking instrument, although sometimes in competition only the ball of the foot will be used. This kick can also be directed to the front. This is accomplished when a practitioner turns his body ninety degrees to the front while delivering the kick, thus adding the impetus of the rotation of the hips to the kick.

The third, most commonly used type of kick in taekwondo is the roundhouse kick, comprising approximately 70 percent of the kicks thrown in taekwondo competition. The striking area of the foot most commonly used is the instep of the foot, although the ball of the foot can also be used if greater striking power is desired. The practitioner will throw a roundhouse kick in the same manner as a side kick. However, instead of throwing the foot straight out, the kick is thrown by swinging forward the lower portion of the foot. The kick therefore travels horizontally.

The fourth major type of kick is the ax kick, sometimes known as the falling kick. The ax kick is thrown when the practitioner is facing his opponent. The leg is lifted straight up, almost vertical, with no bend at the knee. When the kick reaches its maximum height, it is brought down with tremendous force. The striking power of the entire bottom of the foot is used, although for extra power the heel alone can be employed.

The fifth and sixth major kicks used in taekwondo, the back kick and wheel kick, are the kicks for which taekwondo has become famous worldwide. Both of these kicks employ the spinning of the body, only unlike the type of spinning for roundhouse and side kicks described earlier, these kicks spin backward. This torquing effect produces an extremely powerful force that, when added to the momentum of the kick itself, produces a tremendous striking force. For a back kick, the body is turned 180 degrees, and the striking leg is lifted up and then driven straight back. The entire bottom of the foot is employed as the striking surface, with the stomach and solar plexus as the main targets. For a wheel kick, the body spins in the same manner as for a back kick, only in this case the leg is snapped out and held straight and the spin is completed for a full 360 degrees. The entire bottom of the foot is used as a striking surface, although for extra power the heel alone can be used. Thus, the spinning motion of the body and the snapping motion of the leg combine to create the energy for the strike. The primary target for this kick is the head, and most knockouts in competition occur because of this kick.

In addition to these kicks, which are performed with one foot on the ground, taekwondo adheres to a philosophy that any kick that can be performed while one foot is on the ground can also be performed while jumping. Thus, in addition to the kicks that have already been described, there are jumping versions of the kicks. These jumping kicks are extremely powerful, as the force and momentum of the leap itself are added to the power of the kick. These kicks are obviously more difficult to employ than the basic kicks, but advanced practitioners are expected to be able to throw jumping kicks as well as the standing variants. Advanced taekwondo practitioners routinely employ these kicks in competition and combat, despite their inherent difficulty.

One of the most remarkable kicks used in taekwondo is the 360-degree roundhouse kick. With this kick, the practitioner jumps and spins the body a full 360 degrees while simultaneously snapping the foot out horizontally.

Reliance on kicking as the primary source of attack is the trademark of taekwondo. The major philosophy behind this martial art is that the feet can be used as dexterously as the hands for attacking an opponent, and because the legs are stronger and have greater reach than the arms, the feet are ideal as attacking weapons. This philosophy is reflected in the tremendous variety and variations of kicks that are available to a taekwondo expert.

Hand techniques are also taught, although they are sometimes secondary to the kicking techniques. The most utilized technique is the straight punch, much like the type of punch used in many systems of karate. With this technique, the punch is thrown straight, beginning from a “cocked” position at the chest with the fist pressed next to the body, knuckles facing the floor. The arm is then extended and the fist rotates so that the knuckles are pointed toward the ceiling at the completion of the technique. This turning motion increases the power behind the technique. Other hand techniques include knife-hand blows, made with the edge of the hand; spear-hand strikes, made with the four fingers of the hand extended so that the strike uses the points of the fingers; and clawing attacks, made with the hand in a claw formation.

There are currently various organizations and rules for sport tae-kwondo competition worldwide, but the most well known are Olympic style and non-Olympic style. Olympic-style rules are rules of competition used in international and Olympic events. Olympic-style competitors are required to wear head protection, which covers the head but leaves the face exposed; chest protectors, which protect the sternum, stomach, solar plexus, and ribs; and groin protectors. Although the amount of protection is extensive, knockouts and injuries still occur in Olympic-style competition, which attests to the power of the kicks used in the art.

Olympic-style competition consists of three rounds of three minutes each. Competitors enter a fixed area in the shape of a square with four corner judges and one center referee. This box is referred to as the “ring,” a term borrowed from boxing. The center referee has complete authority over the match; at his word the competition will begin and end. The four corner judges will keep track of points earned by the competitors for a technique and will also determine whether a point is “clean” or not at the request of the center judge. There is no stopping the clock in Olympic-style competition; competitors will continue until one is knocked down, until the center referee stops the match (in which case the time is halted), or until the clock runs out.

In Olympic-style competition, competitors must throw all kicks at waist-high and above. The only hand techniques that are allowed are punches, and these are only allowed to be thrown at the chest; punches to the face or groin area are not allowed. All types of kicks, so long as they are at waist height or above, are allowed. Any punch or kick that is thrown must have enough power behind it to force the recipient back from the force of the blow. “Touch” hits or hits that stop short of the target without impact are not permitted in this type of competition and will not be scored. The judges will make an inventory of points scored by a competitor. Strikes to the head from a kicking technique are worth more than kicks to the chest. The six types of kicks described earlier in this entry compose the vast majority of the kicks used in Olympic-style competition. Spinning kicks are used extensively because of their knockout power. The competitor with the most points at the end of a match, or the competitor who knocks out his opponent, is the winner. Competitors are not allowed to run out of the competition ring; those competitors that do so will run the risk of having points taken away if these actions continue. Olympic-style competition is similar to amateur boxing in many respects.

Non-Olympic-style competitors usually must wear the same equipment as Olympic-style players. The major difference between the two systems is that under non-Olympic rules, after a hit is scored against an opponent, the clock will be stopped while the technique is evaluated. If the majority of judges agree that a technique scored, the competitor will be awarded a point and the match will continue. Kicks to the head are worth more than kicks to the body, just as in Olympic-style competition. When an opponent has accumulated three points, the match is ended. If the clock runs out, at three minutes, the match ends also and the person with the most points wins. In case of a tie, a “sudden death” overtime is played, and the first person to score a technique wins. As in Olympic-style competition, running out of the ring is not allowed. In some forms of non-Olympic competition, competitors do not wear protective gear (although groin protection is required), and practitioners are only allowed to make light contact when striking.

Forms competition is also an event in some taekwondo tournaments. The forms are known as hyung or poomse. Competitors perform a form, and a panel of three judges scores the competitor. Factors that are used in awarding points include the precision of techniques, especially kicks; the condition of a competitor (indicated by not being winded after the end of a sequence); the focus of techniques; and mental attitude. Obviously, forms judging is more subjective than sparring, with the judges having much more input into how and when points are awarded.

Taekwondo also places an emphasis on breaking. Practitioners are expected to be able to break wood and, at higher levels, concrete. Although breaking techniques are emphasized in other martial arts, most notably Kyokushinkai Karate, taekwondo practitioners are expected to be able to break at least one board with every type of kick. Thus, taekwondo practitioners will learn breaking techniques not with just a few techniques, such as a punch, but rather with all of the types of kicks. A student who climbs the ranks is expected to be able to break boards with advanced kicks, including jumping wheel kicks and back kicks. This is designed to teach the student accuracy and power in kicking techniques.

Taekwondo, perhaps more than any other martial art, has been featured in countless movies and television productions. Bruce Lee studied and copied taekwondo kicking techniques for incorporation into his movies, most notably Enter the Dragon. Chuck Norris, although a Tang Soo Do practitioner, made the kicks of Korean systems famous worldwide with his movies from the 1970s and early 1980s and his long-running American television series, Walker: Texas Ranger. There is now scarcely a Hollywood action film that does not include some sequence or fight scene that features the art.

Taekwondo has emerged as one of the major martial arts of the twentieth century. It is likely that as the art becomes an established Olympic sport, it will continue to grow in recognition and popularity. However, the art has been criticized as having become too much of a sport, with the predictable result that many of the techniques that enabled taekwondo to become an effective martial art in the first place, such as strikes to the vital points of the human body, will become forgotten as taekwondo practitioners instead focus their energies on how to score points in tournament fighting. This has already led to the development of what some have termed traditional taekwondo, in which emphasis is placed on hyung (forms) practice and self-defense, and equal weight is given to the practice and development of punches and kicks, as compared to Olympic-style taekwondo, in which emphasis is placed on tournament fighting, especially kicking. Whether this new development will prove successful is as yet unknown.

Whatever the eventual fate of taekwondo, it is likely to remain one of the most popular martial arts. The spectacular kicks of the art are now almost synonymous with the term martial arts. Taekwondo, since its formation in the 1950s, has always been eager to accept new techniques, especially kicks, that fit into the philosophy of the system. It is likely that more varieties of kicks and combinations of kicks will be developed as the art continues to evolve, thus making it a martial art in constant development.

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