The History of Tae Kwon Do (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of a 4-part essay on The History of Tae Kwon Do.

To better understand Tae Kwon Do and gain a greater appreciation of its techniques and its traditions, it is useful to look at the history of the art.

Early Korea: The Three Kingdoms Era

Tae Kwon Do has endured a dramatic history, beginning with the three rival dynasties in early Korea: Koguryo, Silla, and Baekjae.

1. Koguryo; 2. Silla; 3. Baekjae

The 3 Kingdoms of Early Korea: 1. Koguryo; 2. Silla; 3. Baekjae

Koguryo

The earliest evidence of martial arts practice in Korea dates back to the Koguryo Dynasty, (37 BC – 668 AD). Murals from around 3 AD, painted on the walls of warriors’ tombs, depict men engaged in Subakki fighting.Koguryo history also tells about the Sonbae, a strong warrior’s corps that was formed to protect Koguryo from the hostile northern oppression. The word Sonbae literally means “a man of virtue who never recoils from fighting”, or, “a member of the warrior’s corps”. It is believed that the Sonbae practiced Taekkyon, an early Korean kicking art which is recognised as a strong influence on the technical style of Tae Kwon Do.

Silla

Taekkyon, as practiced by the Sonbae, eventually spread from the Koguryo Kingdom to the Silla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD). The Silla Dynasty had its own version of the Koguryo’s Sonbae: The Hwarang. The Hwarang, literally meaning “Flower Knight”, practiced martial arts as a part of their regular curriculum. Organized by King Jin Heung in 537 AD, the Hwarang proved to be a vital part of the unification of the Korean peninsula during the Silla Dynasty.

The monk Won Kwang Bupsa was the instructor of the Hwarang and was also the author of the Sesokokye, the following five student commitments:

  • Be loyal to your country
  • Honour your parents
  • Be faithful to your friends
  • Never retreat in battle
  • Use good judgement before killing living things

The third king of the Silla Dynasty, Yoorie, held Subakki contests. These contests were considered to be ritual festivals with the purpose of gathering people together to pray for the nation. The terms “subak” (hand technique) and “taekkon” (foot technique) appear together in the writings of the Silla dynasty. This suggests that hand and foot techniques were both used in Korean martial arts as they are used today in Tae Kwon Do. Additional evidence of this includes the bronze statues of the warrior Kumgang. In many of these sculptures, he stand in poses similar to those of a modern-day Tae Kwon Do practitioner, including the use of certain hand and kicking techniques.

Baekjae

Martial arts were also an important part of the Baekjae Kingdom (18 BC- 600 AD). Baekjae was a tribe that detached itself from the Koguryo Kingdom. The Soo Sa system of Baekjae was comparable to the Sonbae of the Koguryo Kingdom and the Hwarang of the Silla Kingdom.

The Baekjae Kingdom also celebrated SooByeokTa festivals which were held in local villages. The people would compete against each other in SooByeokTa fighting (a predecessor of Tae Kwon Do). Occasionally, the winner of the contests became the leader of the village or a military general.

The Combination of Nations

In 688 A.D., Silla conquered Koguryo and Baekjae. The victory did not last long, and the government disintegrated. In the aftermath, the Koguryo resurfaced and conquered Silla and Baekjae, unifying Korea once and for all by creating the Koryo dynasty.