By nature, man has instincts to preserve his own life and race, and therefore engages in both conscious and unconscious physical activities. In ancient times, bare hands and feet were the only means for self-defense. Barehanded fighting techniques developed naturally. Even after the advent of defensive arms, people continued to enjoy bare-hand fighting techniques for the purpose of building physical strength and competing in the matches or rituals of tribal communities.

In the early days of the Korean peninsula, there were three tribes, each enjoying warrior’s martial art contests during the ritual seasons. At the time, people learned defense techniques from life experience fighting against beasts of the wild, whose motions were also the subject of analysis. It is believed that this was the true grounding of today’s Taekwondo, which has names descended from “Subak”, “Taekkyon” and so on.

In later days on the Korean peninsula, three kingdoms rivaled for hegemony. They were Koguryo, Paekje, and Shilla, all indulgent in growing national strength by way of trained warriors. Korean history tells that there were military personalities among the prominent national leaders of the three kingdoms, explaining the military tendency toward hierarchal ruling.As a result, youth warriors were organized, such as “Hwarangdo” in Shilla, and “Chouisonin” in Koguryo. Both adopted martial arts training as one of the important subjects of learning.

A well-known martial arts text of the time, Muyedobo-Tongji, reads “Taekwondo is the basis of martial art, enabling one to build strength by using the hand and foot freely and training arms, legs, and the body to adapt to any critical situations.” This means Taekwondo was already prevalent in that age and originated from the days of tribal communities on the Korean peninsula.

The kingdom of Shilla was founded in B.C. 57 in the southeastern part of Korea. The kingdom of Koguryo was founded later in B.C. 37 in the northern part of Korea, along Yalu river. Both raised their youngsters to be strong warriors called “hwarang” and “sunbae,” respectively, with Taekwondo as one of the principal subjects of physical training.

Koguryo’s “sonbae” and Taekkyo

Koguryo, was surrounded by hostile Han [Chinese] tribes in the north. As a result, the kingdom organized a strong warrior corps called “Sunbae” in its attempt to consolidate power. Scholars say that “sunbae” means a man of virtue who never recoils from a fight. This is a member of the warrior corps.

Later, the chronicle of the Old Chosun Dynasty described the lift of Koguryo days, saying; “people gathered on march 10 every year at a site of ritual, where they enjoyed a sword dance, archery, Taekkyon contests, and so on,” implying that Taekkyon was one of the popular events of the age. It also said that “sunbae” lived in groups, learning history and literary arts at home and going out to construct roads and fortresses for the benefits of society. They devoted themselves to the nations.

It follows naturally that Koguryo placed priority on Taekkyon, the basis of martial arts. This can also be proven by the wall paintings discovered at tombs from Koguryo days. A mural painting at the Samsil tomb shows two warriors engaged in a face-to-face match, in Taekkyon stance. The same tomb also shows a scene of a Korean wrestling bout [Ssireum], clearly distinguishing it from Taekkyon. It can be assumed from the painting of the Taekkyon match that the dead buried there were either a Taekkyon practical, or they may have been the subject of condolence with ritual dances and martial art.

Sillas Wharang and Taekkyun

In the Southeast, the Kingdom of Shilla suffered no immediate threats from outside. However, with the birth of the Paekje Kingdom on its west flank, and the start of invasions by Koguryo from the north, Shilla was impelled to arm itself with development of martial arts. “Hwarangdo” is the typical example of Shilla’s martial arts, which is an assimilation of Koguryo’s “sunbae” system. The hwarangdo youth were well trained with the senses of filial piety, loyalty to the kingdom and sacrificial devotion to society in order to become important personalities for the reign of the kingdom. Notable among them were Kim Yu-Shin and Kim Chun-Chu who made contributions to the unification of those three kingdoms.

From the chronicle of Old Chosun, “Hwarang were selected by the kingdom through contests. After selection, they lived together in a group, learning, exercising subak, fencing, and horse-riding. They sometimes enjoyed various community games, working on emergency aids and construction of fortresses and roads. They were always ready to sacrifice their lives at the time of war.”

Hwarangs were particularly influenced by the Buddhistic disciplines. The bronze statues of a Kumgang Yoksa [a man of great physical strength] currently exhibited at the Kyongju Museum clearly indicate that martial arts were practiced at temples, showing a strong man’s bare-hand defensive, and offensive stances.In particular, the shape of a fist shown on the statue of Kumgang Yoksa, exactly resembles that of a “jungkwon” [proper fist], in the contemporary term of Taekwondo. The statue also shows “pyon jumok” [flat fist], and use of the legs seen in today’s Taekwondo.

It is worth noting that Shilla epoch the terms “subak” [hand techniques] and “taekkyon” appear together, signifying that both hand and foot techniques were used in martial arts, as shown in today’s Taekwondo.


As the art of Taekkyon was popularized in Koguryo, it was also handed down to Silla, justified by the following points of view:

“Hwarang” (or sonrang) in Silla has the same meaning as the word “sonbae” in Koguryo, identifying both of the youth warrior’s corps by their similar  etymological origins. Both Hwarang and sonbae shared the same organization and hierarchical structures. Historically, Sonbaes in Koguryo competed in Taekkyon games during national festivals. At the same time, Hwarangs in Silla also played Taekkyon games, such as subak, dokkyoni or taekkyoni at such festivals as “palkwanhoe” and “hankawi.” This lead to the systematic development, by both groups, of the ancient fighting techniques incorporated into the Taekkyon (or Sonbae). This later became the basis of martial arts, by about A.D. 200. From the 4th century, the Hwarangs took the Takkyon lesson as a systemized martial art in their schooling. It also became popularized among ordinary people, so much so that their techniques were depicted on the mural paintings of ancient warrior tombs.

Again, it is apparent by the hand and foot techniques depicted in ancient buddhist sculptures, that Taekkyon migrated down to Silla and was further developed into a school of martial art with a division of techniques.

Middle Ages

The Koryo dynasty, which reunified the Korean peninsula after Shilla [A.D. 918 to 1392], developed Taekkyon more systematically and made it a compulsory subject in the examinations for military cadet selection. The techniques and power of Taekkyon grew to become effective tools, even in killing human beings. In the military, a pattern of collective practice, called “obyong-subak-hui [5 soldier’s Taekkyon play], was introduced so that it might be used in a real war.

In the early days of the Koryo dynasty, martial art abilities were the only required qualifications to become military personnel, because the kingdom needed all available national defense capabilities after conquering the peninsula. A certain, plain soldier who mastered Taekkyon techniques was promoted to general, and youth were invited to Taekkyon contests where skilled participants were selected to become military officers.

There were lots of other examples in which many Taekkyon-mastered youths were chosen at contests, more proof that Taekwondo sports originated in that epoch. The Chronicles of Koryo dynasty writes, “at a power contest of Taekkyon techniques, Lee Yi- Min punched a pillar of the house with his right-hand fist, then some of the props of the roof were shaken. Another Taekkyon practicer had his fist pierce through the clay-wall.”


The kings of Koryo dynasty were especially interested in “subakhui” [Taekkyon contest], making it a compulsory course of military training. Subakhui was also popular for inspection tours in the villages. However, the Koryo dynasty in its latest years made gunpowder and new types of weaponry available, thus slowing down its support of martial arts in the form of folk games to be passed along to modern day Korea, Chosun. (Taekkyon is also explained in the Koryo history book).


Modernly, in present-day Korea’s Chosun dynasty [1392-1910] the imperial Korea and the Japanese colonial ruled until 1945, Taekwondo was called “subakhui” rather than “Taekkyon” and it suffered an eventual loss of support from officials in the central government. This happened as weapons were modernized for national defense, although the subkhui was still popular in the early days of Chosun.

The Chosun dynasty was founded on the ideology of Confucianism, rejecting Buddhism and placing more emphasis on literary art than martial art. Nonetheless, the Annals of Chosun Dynasty tells about the contests of subakhui ordered by local officials for the purpose of selecting soldiers. Others still were ordered by the kings who enjoyed watching subakhui contests during feasts. It was also ruled by the defense department that a soldier should be employed when he bests three other contestants in the subakhui bouts.

As the government progressed, however, officials focused more on power struggles than on the interest of defense, naturally neglecting to promote martial arts further. Only in the days of King Jungjo, after the disgraceful invasion of Korea by the Japanese [1592], the royal government revived defense measures by strengthening military training and martial art practice. Around this period there was a publication of the so-called “Muyedobo-Tongji,” a book of martial art illustrations. The 4th volume of which was entitled “hand-fighting techniques,” and contained the illustration of 38 motions, exactly resembling today’s Taekwondo poomsae and basic movements. Although, those motions cannot be compared directly with today’s Taekwondo poomsae, which has since been modernized through scientific studies.

Even under the Japanese colonial rule, some famous Korean writers, such as Shin Chae- Ho and Choi Nam-Sun, mentioned Taekwondo, saying “present subak, prevailing in Seoul, came from the sunbae in the Koguryo dynasty,” and, “subak is like today’s Taekkyon which was originally practiced as martial art but is now played mostly by children as games.” However, the Japanese colonial government prohibited all folkloric games, including Taekkyon, in the process of suppressing the Korean people. The martial art Taekkyon [Taekwondo] had been secretly handed down only by the masters of the art until the liberation of the country in 1945. Song Duk-Ki, one of the masters at the time, testifies that his master was Im Ho who, was reputed for his excellent skills of Taekkyon, “jumping over the walls and running through the wood just like a tiger.”

At the time, 14 terms for techniques were used, representing 5 kicking patterns, 4 hand techniques, 3 pushing-down-the-heel patterns, 1 turning-over-kick pattern, and 1 technique of downing-the-whole-body. Also noteworthy, is the use the term “poom,” which signified a face-to-face stance preparing for a fight. The masters of Taekkyon were also under constant threat of imprisonment, which resulted in an eventual elimination of Taekkyon as popular games.


Upon Korea’s liberation from the Japanese colonial rule after World War II, the Korean people began recovering the thought of self-reliance and the traditional folkloric games resumed their popularity. Song Duk-Ki, aforementioned master of Taekkyon, presented a demonstration of the martial art before the first republic of Korea president, Syngman Rhee, on the occasion of his birthday. This clearly distinguished Taekwondo from the Japanese Karate, which had been introduced by the Japanese rulers.

Martial art experts began opening Taekwondo gymnasiums all over the country. After the end of the Korean War [1950-1953], Taekwondo was popularized among the dan-grade black-belters within the country, also dispatching about 2,000 Taekwondo masters to more than 100 countries. Following the nomination of Taekwondo as a national martial art in 1971, the present Kukkiwon was founded in 1972 to be used as the headquarters, as well as the site of various Taekwondo competitions. A year later, in 1973, the World Taekwondo Federation was established.

In 1973, the Biennial World Taekwondo Championships was organized. In 1984, Taekwondo was admitted to the Asian games as an official event. In 1975, Taekwondo was accepted as an official sport by the U.S Amateur Athletic Union [AAU] and admitted to the General Association of International Sports Federations [GAISF], followed by adoption as an official sports event by the International Council of Military Sports [CISM] in 1976.

The WTF became an IOC-recognized sports federation in 1980, making Taekwondo an Olympic sport. The adoption of Taekwondo as an official event was followed by the World Games in 1981, and the pan-American games in 1986, and finally the Sydney Olympics in 2000, then to be followed by the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. On November 29, 2002, the 114th IOC Session also confirmed the inclusion of Taekwondo in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games,