We believe that taekwondo was derived from earlier Korean martial arts. The oldest Korean martial art was an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje, where young men were trained in unarmed combat techniques to develop strength, speed, and survival skills. The most popular of these techniques was subak, with taekkyeon being the most popular of the segments of subak. Those who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in the new special warrior corps, called the Hwarang. It was believed that young men with a talent for the liberal arts may have the grace to become competent warriors. These warriors were instructed in academics as well as martial arts, learning philosophy, history, a code of ethics, and equestrian sports. Their military training included an extensive weapons program involving swordsmanship and archery, both on horseback and on foot, as well as lessons in military tactics and unarmed combat using subak. Although subak was a leg-oriented art in Goguryeo, Silla’s influence added hand techniques to the practice of subak.
During this time a few select Sillan warriors were given training in taekkyeon by the early masters from Koguryo. These warriors then became known as the Hwarang. The Hwarang set up a military academy for the sons of royalty in Silla called Hwarang-do, which means “the way of flowering manhood.” The Hwarang studied taekkyeon, history, Confucian philosophy, ethics, Buddhist morality, social skills and military tactics. The guiding principles of the Hwarang warriors were based on Won Gwang’s five codes of human conduct and included loyalty, filial duty, trustworthiness, valor and justice. Taekkyeon was spread throughout Korea because the Hwarang traveled all around the peninsula to learn about the other regions and people.
- During the Japanese occupation of Korea, all facets of Korean identity, including folk culture, language and history, were banned in an attempt to erase Korean culture. Martial arts such as taekkyeon (or subak) were also prohibited during this time; however, taekkyeon survived through underground teaching and folk custom.
- When the occupation ended in 1945, Korean martial arts schools (kwans) began to open in Korea under various influences. The Koreans recompiled the ancient Korean arts and taekwondo was nominated as a national martial art in 1971.
- The South Korean government has published an estimate that taekwondo is practiced by 70 million people in 190 countries. It is now 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.