A History of Taekwondo

Taekwondo has a history that goes back thousands of years though back in those times, the martial art was very different to how it is today. Within these pages, you will be able to see how it has developed over the centuries.

In this section:

  1. Ancient Times
  2. Period of Three Kingdoms
  3. Koryo Dynasty
  4. Yi (or Chosun) Dynasty
  5. Japanese Colonisation of Korea
  6. Modern day Taekwondo
  7. Chung Do Kwan (the first School)
  8. The Lineage for Chun Ma Taekwondo
  9. Key Facts for Students

Ancient Times Up

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, Paekche, Silla, 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:

Keumgang Yoksa Statue
Keumgang Yoksa Statue

By defeating the Koguryo and Paekche dynasties it was the Silla 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 uniforms of today, and was commonplace throughout the three kingdoms. In the kingdom of Paekche the military officers wore different coloured belts to indicate their rank, and in Silla they also wore coloured trim on their lapels as an additional indication of rank.


Period of Three Kingdoms Up

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 contests were held at various festivals and rituals of the day. It should be noted that many writers use the terms "subak" and "taekkyon" somewhat interchangeably when describing martial arts prior to the Yi dynasty. In reality, subak is the correct term for this period because the name taekkyon was not recorded until the 18th or 19th century.

Mural painting found on the roof of the Muyong-Chong tomb excavated in 1935
Mural painting found on the roof of the Muyong-Chong tomb excavated in 1935

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. As 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, a picture of a man wearing a costume similar to today's Taekwondo uniform can be seen - 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. The fact that these figures appear in such tomb paintings testifies to martial arts 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.

Paekche (18BC ~ 660AD)

Historical records such as the "History of the Three Kingdoms" and the "Sui China Chronicles" refer to the various Kings of Paekche patronising the martial arts, Ssireum (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.

Silla (57BC ~ 935AD)

At the outset Silla was the weakest in military terms of the three kingdoms but as Paekche 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 "Hwarang-do" - a warrior code based on high moral standards similar to the Sonbae of Koguryo. Hwarang-do translated means "Way of the Flowering Manhood". As in other areas of Korea at the time, Hwarang-do contests were often held during festivals. Hwarang-do ultimately became the basis of Sillas' military power thereby enabling Silla in the 7th century to conquer first the Paekche, and then the Koguryo kingdoms, and 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
Sokguram Shrine on Mount Toham in the outshirts of Kyongju
Sokguram Shrine on Mount Toham in the outshirts of Kyongju

At the entrance to the Sokguram Shrine 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.

Statues of the Warriors - 'Keumgang Yoksa'
Statues of the Warriors - 'Keumgang Yoksa'

They are known as the "Keumgang Yoksa" - The Mightiest of Warriors.

Koryo Dynasty (918AD ~ 1392AD)

It was the Koryo dynasty that ascended after Silla and again brought unity to the Korean nation. 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 Subak, encouraging its' development and supporting the contests. Consequently Subak 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 Silla 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 Subak contests at public festivals reduced in number.

Dae Kwae Do
Dae Kwae Do - painted around 1846

As the Yi dynasty progressed, specific references to taekkyon began to occur more frequently. Historical documents tell how the third king of the dynasty (1401-1408) recruited experts in taekkyon, ssirum wrestling and archery to help organize the army. The 32nd volume of Tae Jong Shil Lok recorded that, beginning in 1410, the court organized several military parades which featured taekkyon demonstrations. A better-known Korean folk painting dating from the later Yi dynasty again shows taekkyon and even refers to it by name. Its title is Dae Kwae Do, or competition painting, and it now hangs in the Seoul National University museum. Painter Hye-san Yu-suk, who lived from 1827 to 1873, is thought to have created the work around 1846. Dae Kwae Do depicts two men sparring and two others grappling, while a group of "yang ban", or aristocrats, looks on. The painting's legend specifically names the arts as taekkyon and ssirum wrestling.

Illustration from Hand Fighting Techniques by King Chongjo
Illustration from 'Hand Fighting Techniques' by King Chongjo

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.

Towards the end of the Chosun dynasty Taekkyon 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.


Next > The Japanese Colonisation of Korea (1910 - 1945)