Taekwondo (태권도; 跆拳道) is a Korean martial art and the national sport of South Korea. In Korean, tae (태, 跆) means “to strike or break with foot”; kwon (권, 拳) means “to strike or break with fist”; and do (도, 道) means “way,” “method,” or “art.” Thus, taekwondo may be loosely translated as “the art of the foot and fist” or “the art of kicking and punching.”
As many other arts, it combines combat techniques, self-defense, sport, exercise, and in some cases meditation and philosophy. In 1989, Taekwondo was claimed as the world’s most popular martial art in terms of number of practitioners. Gyeorugi), a type of sparring, has been an Olympic event since 2000.
There are two branches of taekwondo development:
- “Traditional taekwondo” typically refers to the martial art as it was established in the 1950s and 1960s in the South Korean military; in particular, the names and symbolism of the traditional patterns often refer to elements of Korean history.
- “Sport taekwondo” has evolved in the decades since then and has a somewhat different focus, especially in terms of its emphasis on speed and competition (as in Olympic sparring). Sport taekwondo is in turn subdivided into two main styles; One derives from Kukkiwon, the source of the sparring system sihap gyeorugi which is now an event at the summer Olympic Games and which is governed by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). The other comes from the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF).
Although there are doctrinal and technical differences between the two main styles and among the various organizations, the art in general emphasizes kicks thrown from a mobile stance, employing the leg’s greater reach and power (compared to the arm). Taekwondo training generally includes a system of blocks, kicks, punches, and open-handed strikes and may also include various take-downs or sweeps, throws, and joint locks. Some taekwondo instructors also incorporate the use of pressure points, known as jiapsul, as well as grabbing self-defense techniques borrowed from other martial arts, such as hapkido and judo.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–1945), all facets of ethnic Korean identity were banned or suppressed. Traditional Korean martial arts such as taekkyeon or subak were banned during this time. Historians of the time have stated, “Teachers of Japanese martial arts were the only approved instructors. This situation began the amalgamation of Japanese martial arts with the remaining fragments of the Korean systems still in general circulation.” During the occupation, Koreans who were able to study and receive rankings in Japan were exposed to Japanese martial arts. Others were exposed to martial arts in China and Manchuria.
When the occupation ended in 1945, Korean martial arts schools (kwans) began to open in Korea under various influences. There are differing views on the origins of the arts taught in these schools. Some believe that they taught martial arts that were based primarily upon the traditional Korean martial arts taekkyon and subak, or that taekwondo was derived from native Korean martial arts with influences from neighboring countries. Still others believe that these schools taught arts that were almost entirely based upon karate.
In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, there was a martial arts exhibition in which the kwans displayed their skills. In one demonstration, Nam Tae Hi smashed 13 roof tiles with a punch. Following this demonstration, South Korean President Syngman Rhee instructed Choi Hong Hi to introduce the martial arts to the Korean army. By the mid-1950s, nine kwans had emerged. Syngman Rhee ordered that the various schools unify under a single system. The name “taekwondo” was either submitted by Choi Hong Hi (of the Oh Do Kwan) or Song Duk Son (of the Chung Do Kwan), and was accepted on April 11, 1955. As it stands today, the nine kwans are the founders of taekwondo, though not all the kwans used the name. The Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in 1959/1961 to facilitate the unification.
In the early 1960s, Taekwondo made its début worldwide with assignment of the original masters of taekwondo to various countries. Standardization efforts in South Korea stalled, as the kwans continued to teach differing styles. Another request from the Korean government for unification resulted in the formation of the Korea Tae Soo Do Association, which changed its name back to the Korea Taekwondo Association in 1965 following a change of leadership. The International Taekwon-Do Federation was founded in 1966, followed by World Taekwondo Federation in 1973.
Since 2000, Taekwondo has been one of only two Asian martial arts (the other being judo) that are included in the Olympic Games; it became a demonstration event starting with the 1988 games in Seoul, and became an official medal event starting with the 2000 games in Sydney. In 2010, Taekwondo was accepted as a Commonwealth Games sport.
One source has estimated that as of 2009, Taekwondo was practiced in 123 countries, with over 30 million practitioners and 3 million individuals with black belts throughout the world. The South Korean government in the same year published an estimate of 70 million practitioners in 190 countries.