Tae kwon do (“the way of kicking and striking”) is a
Korean martial art practiced by more than 20 million
students in over 140 countries. Like other martial arts,
tae kwon do emphasizes physical and mental discipline, obedience, and respect as a path to self-mastery.
Tae kwon do’s distinctiveness arises from its emphasis
on kicking, especially powerful flying kicks, as its main
Most commentators suggest three possibilities for the
early development of tae kwon do. One account traces
tae kwon do to Korea’s three-kingdom era (50 B.C.E.),
when Silla Dynasty warriors, the Hwarang, spread a traditional martial art, tae kyon (“foot-hand”), throughout
Korea. A second idea is that tae kwon do began as a
form of Chinese boxing established at Shaolin Temple
in 520 C.E. by Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk
and founder of Zen Buddhism. A third suggestion is
that tae kwon do is an offshoot of Japanese or Okinawan karate, which it resembles. It is probable that tae
kwon do represents an overlay of other Asian martial
arts on a native Korean form of punching and kicking.
For practical purposes, modern tae kwon do history
begins in the 20th century: when the Japanese prohibited the local practice of martial arts (“Subak”) when
they occupied Korea in 1909. Present-day Korean martial artists argue that the Japanese interdiction inspired
a conscious struggle to establish a Korean martial arts
The international police action of the early 1950s
seems to have increased the visibility and prestige of
Korean martial arts. In 1955, a conclave of the leaders
of Korean martial arts schools attempted to identify an
authoritative style of martial art that could be promoted both nationally and internationally. Tae kwon do
was ultimately chosen as the name of this style and Korean general Hong Hi Choi, was designated the official
founder of tae kwon do.
By 1973 the Korean government had recognized the
World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF) as the sole legitimate organization that sets international standards
and awards world titles for tae kwon do performance,
as well as national titles through its affiliates.
The International Olympic Committee admitted the
WTF as a member organization in 1980, and named
tae kwon do a demonstration sport in the 1988 Seoul
Olympics, ensuring worldwide media attention.
Rules and Play
Tae kwon do teaches an immediate physical reaction,
unmediated by mental response, that directly meets
the opponent’s force. It uses both quick linear movements, like karate, and circular flowing movements,
like tai chi chuan. Tae kwon do distinguishes itself from
other Asian martial arts by its emphasis on powerful
kicking techniques. This feature makes tae kwon do
more accessible to children and women, whose flexibility and lower body strength give them an advantage in
this martial art.
The techniques of tae kwon do teach rhythm, timing, balance, agility, and breath control. Tae kwon do
students learn to defend against attacks from all directions, using both sides of their body and all arms and legs. Self-mastery is achieved through regular, frequent
repetition of physical techniques.
All movements fall into four elementary categories:
kicks, strikes, stances, and blocks. Forms, sparring, and
breaking, the three main categories of training and
competition, require coordinated combinations of
these basic movements. Breaking of boards and bricks
demonstrates the focus and power of a student.
The introduction of tae kwon do as an Olympic
event has widened a division between schools that focus on physical performance, competition, and winning (sport tae kwon do) and schools that combine the
study of physical technique with a philosophical orientation (traditional tae kwon do). This division seems
likely to grow.
Tae kwon do, like many other Asian martial arts, probably spread as part of the ascetic training practices of
monks and warriors. Indeed, the common Asian term
for life force (qi) is used in tae kwon do, as is the term
for path or way (do). Its philosophy is usually expressed
more often in routine training exercises or etiquette
than in an extended study of specific beliefs. Students
employ respectful forms of address to their masters;
and groups recite the tae kwon do oath and tenets at
The emphasis on different aspects of tae kwon do
philosophy differs from one part of the world to another, as masters change it to suit new circumstances.
Traditionally, for instance, Korean men learned tae
kwon do in military and public educational contexts,
and accepted the strict obedience and discipline associated with such institutions. In the United States, by
contrast, most students purchase lessons from a private school (“do jang”), and many pursue tae kwon do
training for individual self-improvement and personal
The very diversity of tae kwon do continues to be
controversial, since the styles and organizations that
are officially approved are vastly outnumbered by the
new ones that appear continually. The standardization
of tae kwon do performance in the Olympics is likely to
promote further the dominance of “authorized” styles
—MARGARET CARLISLE DUNCAN
Bibliography: Choi, Hong Hi. (1993) Taekwon-do: The Korean Art of Self-Defence. 3d ed. 15 vols. Mississauga, Ontario: International Taekwon-Do Federation. Journal of
Asian Martial Arts (1992–). Erie, PA: Via Media. Park,
Yeon Hee, and Jeff Liebowitz. (1993) Taekwondo for Children: The Ultimate Reference Guide for Children Interested
in the World’s Most Popular Martial Art. East Meadow, NY:
Y. H. Park. ———. (1993) Fighting Back: Taekwondo for
Women. East Meadow, NY: Y. H. Park. Park,Yeon Hee,Yeon
Hwan Park, and Jon Gerrard. (1989) tae kwon do: The Ultimate Reference Guide to the World’s Most Popular Martial Art. New York: Facts on File.
Tae kwon do (“the way of kicking and striking”) is a