Growing up, I saw the movie “Enter the Dragon,” which featured the late Lee Jun-fan, commonly known as Bruce Lee. Watching him got me stoked on martial arts. He was the patron of Jeet Kune Do and a Chinese Martial Arts practitioner, Boxing, and Wing Chun. From there, I started watching Jackie Chan along with Sammo Hung. Jackie Chan, I know, is a Chinese Martial Arts practitioner, Jeet Kune Do, Judo, Hapkido, and what do you know—Taekwondo.
When did my interest in Taekwondo pick up? Abia State University in Uturu, Abia State, in Nigeria. As way back as 1997, I remember walking past students in the open Dojo learning the art of Taekwondo. Some of my friends then were practitioners from the years 1997 to 2000. People like Emeka Ekeugo—currently a Barrister and Solicitor at Transcendent Chambers. Onochie Agwunna—now a Facilities Manager at Diamond Bank, PLC. Uzoma Aliche—Founder and CEO at Uzoma Aliche Building Workshop (UABW). The genesis of my keen interest in Taekwondo began here—watching my friends perfect their art.
The name Taekwondo or 태권도/跆拳道 stems from the Korean words Tae (meaning “foot”), Kwon (meaning “fist”), and Do (meaning “way of”). Hence, the term Taekwondo means “the way of foot and fist.” Taekwondo is a Korean martial art set apart by focusing on various kicking techniques such as kicks at head-height, spinning and jumping kicks, and different fast-kicking styles. The kicks’ alternative is also multiple kinds of Taekwondo hand attacks that practitioners deploy at close quarters with their opponents.
New martial arts schools daubed kwans started sprouting in Seoul, South Korea, shortly after World War II ended in 1945. Korean martial artists with multi-faceted martial arts backgrounds (e.g., Japanese, Chinese, and Korean martial arts) established these schools. Between the 1940s and 1950s, albeit not known then as Taekwondo, was the martial arts taught and practiced at the kwans. The South Korean army embraced Taekwondo as the martial arts of choice. As a result, this helped to increase its popularity among civil martial arts schools.
History and Origin
The history of ancient Korea has a strong influence on the roots and origins of Taekwondo. Between 57BC and 668AD, three rival kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje instructed their men to blend survival combat style martial arts. A style known as subak was most popular. As Goju-ryu and Shokotan karate are substyles of Japanese karate, so is taekkyeon known as the best substyles of subak.2
Silla had the lowest competitive advantage of the three kingdoms when it came to strength and size. To gain an edge over the other realms, they established an elite warrior force called Hwarang. These elite warriors were given comprehensive education, lived by a code of honor, and were taught subak, particularly taekkyeon. The Goguryeo kingdom focused on the legs and kicking in their practice of taekkyeon, which has morphed into one of the guiding focuses of Taekwondo today. The Silla kingdom morphed the art by adding hand techniques to their way of taekkyeon. Hence, part of the eclectic blend of today’s Taekwondo.2
The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) saw a decline in interest in Korean martial arts. Confucianism was on the rise, and the national focus was on all things scholastic. The shift from Buddhism, the prevalent religion of the time, to Confucianism brought a wave of Chinese influence on the climate of the times, impacting the government and the people at large. However, because of the use of taekkyeon in the military, this subak style was fortunate to survive that epoch.4
During the Japanese invasion of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, the occupying force outlawed martial arts practice among the Korean natives. Taekkyeon did survive these challenging times by a spate of luck; howbeit, in an underground fashion to evade detection. Despite their martial arts being outlawed, the Koreans were exposed to the Japanese martial arts—karate and Chinese martial arts. After World War II (WWII), martial art schools started opening in Korea after the occupying force left.
General Choi Hong Hi (November 9, 1918 – June 15, 2002), once a South Korean Army General and martial arts practitioner, is regarded as the “Founder of Taekwondo.” Choi Hong Hi also served as the President of the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) organizations for many years. In his heydays, Choi learned Tae Kyon (i.e., the antiquated Korean art of foot fighting) under his calligraphy and Chinese character tutor, Master Han II Dong, a master of this martial art technique.
Choi also learned Shokotan Karate under Funakoshi Gichin, its founder and primarily known as a “father of modern karate.” In 1939, Choi rose to 1st dan (段: waypoint, level, degree) in karate, and 2nd dan came soon after. During this time in the Korean military, Choi decided to delve into various martial arts, particularly Taekkyeon, kung fu, and karate. He eclectically borrowed from these three martial arts to forge what is now practiced as Taekwondo today. Hence, we can say that Taekwondo is a hybrid martial arts regime comprised of techniques from Taekkyeon, kung fu, and karate.
After his time in the military, he spent his time growing the craft of this martial art globally. As a result of his unflinching effort, the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam adopted Taekwondo as a core part of their military training in 1955. Taekwondo has become an integral part of several foreign armies’ training, and it’s even taught at the West Point in the United States. On April 11, 1955, South Korean President Syngman Rhee declared that all Kwan or Karate schools must fall under one system and name, thus Tae Kwon Do. After a long battle with cancer, Choi died on June 15, 2002, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
The evolution of Taekwondo has been an organic process. We have taken the liberty to see the Taekwondo martial art development in ancient Korea as practiced by the rival kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje. Silla perfected the art of subak, gaining an edge over Baekje and Goguryeo—conquering Baekje in 600AD and Goguryeo in 668AD. The age of Confucianism during the Yi or Joseon Dynasty downplays martial arts. Further down the road, during the Japanese occupation era, the practice of Taekkyeon—the precursor to Taekwondo—continues to evolve.
The metamorphosis of Taekwondo in modern history has been nothing but robust. Modern history saw the founding of several different schools and styles, the adoption of martial arts into law enforcement and military training, the formation of various global-scale associations, the global spread of the martial arts, etc. There have been many changes through the years—the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Going through every change will be overly extensive. However, we will look at some of the most essential highlights through the years to recent times.
In terms of kwans, many have spawned in modern history, but the following eight are the most important ones.
- Song Moo Kwan (송무관): Ro Byung Jik (노병직) – 1944. The first Song Moo Kwan failed. His success came in 1953/54.
- Chung Do Kwan(청도관): Lee Won Kuk (이원국) – 1944
- Moo Duk Kwan(무덕관): Hwang Kee (황기) – 1945
- Ji Do Kwan(지도관): Yoon Kwe-Byung (윤쾌병) – 1946
- Chang Moo Kwan (창무관): Yoon Byung-in (윤병인) – 1946
- Han Moo Kwan(한무관): Lee Kyo Yoon – 1954
- Oh Do Kwan (오도관): Nam Tae Hi, Choi Hong Hi – 1953/54
- Kang Duk Won (강덕원): Park Chul Hee and Hong Jong Pyo – 1956
- Jung Do Kwan (정도관): Lee Yong Woo – 1956
The List of Taekwondo Associations is perpetually growing across the globe. Here is the list of some of them:
- Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA): The nine kwans founded the KTA in 1959.
- World Taekwondo Association (WTA): The WTA was founded by Master Duk-Sung Son in 1963.
- International Taekwondo Federation (ITF): General Choi Hong Hi founded the ITF in 1966.
- U.S. Taekwondo Association (USTA): The USTA was founded by Dr. Richard Chun in 1967.
- American Taekwondo Association (ATA): The ATA was founded by Haeng Ung Lee in 1969.
- World Taekwondo Federation (WTF): The WTF was founded by 35 representatives worldwide at an inaugural meeting held at the kukkiwon in 1973.
- Global Taekwondo Federation (GTF): Park Jung Tae founded the GTF in 1990.
Many events have happened, and more things are still evolving in the history of Taekwondo. Other sports bodies and organizations are also absorbing the martial art. For instance, “in 1975, the WTF becomes affiliated with the GAISF (General Association of International Sports Federation). In 1976, the International Military Sports Council (CISM) adopted WTF Taekwondo in the World Military Championships.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also recognizes the WTF at the 83rd session in Moscow, the Soviet Union in 1980. Taekwondo was adopted as an exhibition sport in the Olympics in 1998 and 1992. It became a fully participatory sport in the Olympics in 1994. IOC made it an official sport in 2004, 2008, and 2012. The above examples are just the tip of the iceberg on the transformations occurring in Taekwondo globally.
Taekwondo Rules, Scoring, Facilities and Equipment, and Belting
Like all sports, there are a set of rules and scoring metrics that govern the game. By establishing a governing set of rules and scoring metrics for Taekwondo has given the martial arts structure. In Taekwondo, there are also various equipment and facilities used by Taekwondo athletes or taekwondoin. The belting system gives Taekwondo some sense of hierarchy in assessing growth for each of the practitioners.
The Rules of Taekwondo are stipulated by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). Some of the guiding regulations posited in this document are as follows:
- Taekwondoins are required to face the referee and bow, and then face each other and bow before the inception of any bout.5
- The primary aim of taekwondoins is for them to land as many blows and kicks as possible on their opponent’s allowed target areas (i.e., torso and head).5
- There are three two-minute rounds for each contest, each with a one-minute break between each round.5
- There is a Golden Point Round (GDP) in a drawn match. The contestants go for the GDP round—a sudden death round—the first contestant to score wins.5
- Victory in a contest is achieved via a knockout, accruing the most points, or by default, opponent disqualification due to a penalty or gam-jeom.5
- Penalties are incurred via the following actions: (a). Face punch; (b). Knee attack; (c). Below the waist or groin attack; (d). Stepping outside the ring with both feet; (e). Turning your back to your opponent; (f). Pushing, holding, or grabbing your opponent; and (g). Feigning an injury.5
The scoring system in Taekwondo is relatively straightforward. A player gets:
- One point for a valid punch to the torso.
- Two points are given to a proper kick to the torso.
- Four points are given for a turning kick to the head.
- Three points are given for a valid kick to the head.
- Five points are given for a valid turning kick to the head.
- One point is awarded for every gam-jeom against the opponent.
Taekwondo Equipment and Facilities
Taekwondo has its own set of equipment and facilities that cater to the sport. They are as follows:
- In a Taekwondo bout, taekwondoin compete against contenders of the same gender, age, and weight class.3
- The competition area is octagonal in shape and measures 8m or 26 feet in diameter.
- A competition white uniform or dobok must be worn.
- Other protective equipment are head guard, chest (trunk or torso) protector, groin guard, forearm guards, hand protectors, shin guards, and mouth guards.
- A colored belt that typifies the practitioner grade is tied around the middle of the dobok.
Taekwondo Belt Levels and Colors
The colored belt system was developed by the father of Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, as a visible way to measure his student progress. Gichin Funakoshi, a friend of Kano, and the founder of Shotokan karate, adopted the system. Byung Jick Ro, Funakoshi’s student and one of Taekwondo’s Fathers, introduced the system to Taekwondo in the 1940s. The Taekwondo belting system is as follows:
#1. The White Belt
White typifies a tabula rasa state and a notion of purity. The mind is open—a ready receptacle to receive valuable martial arts lessons. This stage is known to instruct the taekwondoin in patience, virtue, strategy, mental and physical fortitude, and restraint power. It takes a taekwondoin approximately two months to advance in rank from this level.
#2. The Yellow Belt
The yellow belt exemplifies the saturation of the sun. To the taekwondoin, there is a dawning of knowledge as he/she begins to understand and perceive the sunlight of the basics of the martial art’s techniques and skills. It takes approximately two months of dedication to advance to the orange belt.
#3. The Orange Belt
The orange belt is a metaphorical typification of the rising sun. The rising sun is a symbolism that dusk is making way for dawn to slide in. The taekwondoin is moving from the shadows of lack of knowledge to the light of imbibing knowledge. The student is advancing his basic techniques and growing. The estimated timing it takes for the student to advance in rank is two months.
#4. The Green Belt
The green belt spells of spring—like the early greening-up of the maples, cherry, buckeyes, majority of popples, birches, willows, and the alders. At this stage, the taekwondoin continues to garner more knowledge as he/she advances the martial art skills and strengths. The components of the core techniques garnered are now working together in synchrony. The approximate time it takes to rank-up to the next level is approximately three months with consistency.
#5. The Purple Belt
The purple belt is the halfway point of attaining a black belt in Taekwondo. This stage has a metaphorical comparison to mountain climbing. It is like reaching the midway point of climbing the highest peak globally—Mount Everest. The midway point to reaching the summit of Everest is at Nepal’s Everest Base Camp (EBC) sits at 17,598 ft / 5,364 m at the foot of the highest peak in the world—Mount Everest (29,029 ft / 8,848 m). Despite having attained this height, there is still steeper and more arduous heights to scale before reaching the summit of training the taekwondoin. The approximate time it takes to advance in rank is six months.
#6. The Blue Belt
Blue symbolizes the sky. For the taekwondoin, the sky is not just a limit to attain and stop. However, it is a stepping stone to greater heights. The student at this stage is reaching for greater heights in technical mastery of the martial art. At this level, this belt is symbolic of ambition. As the taekwondoin goes higher in skill, he must also wear the cloak of humility and patience—just like the skies wear the Elysian tapestry of the clouds to mask its vastness. The approximate time it takes to advance in rank is six to eight months.
#7. The Brown Belt
Brown is symbolic of the earth. The early greening maples, cherry, buckeyes, majority of popples, birches, willows, and the alders find their rooting in the soil. The roots of these trees are firmly anchored to the ground for stability, nutrition, and continuity. At this stage of the taekwondoin’s learning journey, he/she has gained mastery of the martial arts basics and developed deep roots in Taekwondo. The belt is symbolic of a firm foundation in the learnings and techniques of the sport. The student is continually seeking excellence at this stage. The approximate time it takes to advance in rank is about twelve months.
#8. The Red Belt
The red belt symbolizes the setting sun, fire, and danger. The taekwondoin has immersed themselves into all martial arts techniques at this stage but still lacks control. The absence of self-control is akin to a raging fire that licks up everything in its paths with utter destruction. According to Fandom, “Taekwondo endeavors to strengthen the sure perspectives of an individual’s character: Respect, Courtesy, Goodness, Trustworthiness, Loyalty, Humility, Courage, Patience, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, an Indomitable Spirit and a sense of responsibility to help and respect all forms of life.” As we can see, “self-control” is a core of this philosophy. Hence, the red belt phase is a time for achieving physical and mental discipline. The approximate time it takes to advance in rank is 12 months.
#9. The Red-Black Belt
The Black-Red belt is symbolic of the dawn of a new day. The red, symbolizing the sun, breaks through the darkness. According to the Songahm (Thee) Belt Meanings, “The previous day has ended giving way to a new dawn. At this stage, the taekwondoin must commence a new phase of training—that of becoming a black belt.” The approximate time it takes to advance in rank is 12 months.
#10. The Black Belt
The color black is symbolic of mystery, power, elegance, and sophistication. The black color creation happens when all the light spectrum colors have been absorbed into an object. According to the Songahm (Thee) Belt Meanings, “the object has “taken control” of all the colors and retained them. If one color “escapes,” the object would no longer be black, but would appear as the escaped color. The pupil has comprehended the nine geup (grades of Taekwondo). He/she has “absorbed” all the knowledge of the color ranks and overcome or “mastered” that level of training.” The Black Belt student will now mentor and teach other students. As well, they are expected to continue learning and achieving new levels and skills.
After the taekwondoin attains the black belt level, it marks the beginning of a new journey in mastering the martial arts. Dan (단) is typically used in Korean martial arts to typify a black belt. The Dan Ranks as stipulated in Fandom dot com are as follows:
- First-Degree Black Belt – Il dan (일단). Also known as the Assistant Instructor, or Junior instructor – jo kyo nim (조교님).
- Second-Degree Black Belt – Ee dan or yi dan (이단). Also known as the Instructor – Kyo sa nim (교사님).
- Third-Degree Black Belt – Sam dan (삼단). Also known as Assistant Master – Boo sa bum nim or Kyo bum nim (부사범님).
- Fourth-Degree Black Belt – Sa dan (사단). Also known as the first “master” rank – Sa bum nim (사범님).
- Fifth-Degree Black Belt – Oh dan (오단).
- Sixth-Degree Black Belt – Yuk dan (육단).
- Seventh-Degree Black Belt – Chil dan (칠단). This is often called “grandmaster” or, more correctly, the “head of a school” in English – kwan Jang nim (관장님).
- Eight-Degree Black Belt – Pal dan (팔단).
- Ninth-Degree Black Belt – Gu dan (구단). Also known as the Chief Master – Chong kwan Jang nim (총관장님).
The belting system in Taekwondo is one that spells progress and a continuous improvement track. However, the core of moving from one level to the other hinges on dedication. It will take a taekwondoin dedicated to learning Taekwondo for about three to five years to become eligible to test for the 1st Degree Black Belt. Some schools require their students to have between four to five years before they qualify to test for the 1st-degree black belt (Il dan (일단)). The common denominator to show this progress is hard work, determination, and an unwavering dedication to perfect their craft in the art.
Modern History Top 5 Taekwondo Greats
Spanning from the time that the original masters of twelve South Korean Taekwondo masters came together in the 1960s to start the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA), many greats and grandmasters have arisen in the sports. Time and chance will fail me from delving into each of their lives. However, I will restrict myself to just covering a few names in modern history that have gone ahead to leave a mark in Taekwondo’s world. Let us look at Modern History Top 5 Taekwondo Greats.
Hadi Saei is Iran’s most successful athlete. He stands as the most titled champion in Taekwondo. He stands with the record of nine world-class title winnings (i.e., two Olympic titles in 2004 and 2008, two world championships titles, four world cup titles, and one world Olympic qualification tournament).
The American born Steven López is one of the best in the game. He is the only one to win the world championships a record five times. He also has three Olympic medals (two gold and one bronze) and has won five gold at Pan American tournaments.
Hwang Kyung-seon from South Korea is the only Taekwondo players apart from Hadi and Steven to have the highest number of Olympic medals—three. She is the most successful female Taekwondo player ever in modern history. She has also won two World Championships and an Asian game.
Spanish born Joel González is one of the most successful taekwondo players to have emerged from Spain and has won every competition he has participated in. He is two times World Champion, two times European Champion, and got his Olympic gold in 2012 in the 58 kg (128 pounds) category.
Carlo Molfetta is one of Italy’s most excellent when it comes to Taekwondo. He has fought in the lightweight, middleweight, and featherweight classes—winning medals in every category. He has an Olympic gold, two silver, and one bronze at World Championships, one gold, and silver at European Championships.
Apart from the greats in Taekwondo, some practitioners have gone to become celebrities. For instance, Chuck Norris, in his lifetime, attained 8th degree Grand Master status in Taekwondo. He even went ahead to create his own Taekwondo system called Chun Kuk Do (meaning “The Universal Way”). Other prominent figures have attained high levels in Taekwondo. For instance, Willie Nelson (5th-Degree Black Belt), Sara Michelle Geller (1st-Degree Black Belt), Chloe Bruce (4th-Degree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do (a variant of Taekwondo), Wesley Snipes (3rd-Degree Black Belt), just to mention but a few.
As stated, this list is not exhaustive. As the sport of Taekwondo continues to evolve, many other greats will continue to emerge.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Taekwondo
So far, we have covered a Herculean load of information about the sport, Taekwondo, and it has been an exciting journey thus far. We have taken a journey through the past to the present in unearthing sundry facts about this martial arts. So, what can we say are some key ten things you didn’t know about Taekwondo? Let it suffice us to delve into this point listicle at this juncture, despite having to garner much more knowledge through the whole article as a whole. So, let us see some of these points in brief.
- Taekwondo is a Korean martial art form originally taught for combative purposes (i.e., warfare, self-defense, and physical fitness).
- Taekwondo is quite a famous martial arts sport. About 70 million people practice Taekwondo globally, and the number keeps growing.
- Compared to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Taekwondo is believed to have a lower injury rate, making it a safer combative sport.
- The Olympic Taekwondo comprises four competition classes for both sexes. For men, these are less than 58 kilograms (128 pounds), 68 kilograms (150 pounds), 80 kilograms (176 pounds), and over 80 kilograms (176 pounds). For women, the categories are less than 49 kilograms (108 pounds), 57 kilograms (126 pounds), 67 kilograms (148 pounds), and over 67 kilograms (148 pounds).
- Taekwondo has been progressively increasing in fame over the past six decades, and its growth is not letting up soon.
- Taekwondo is not just a combative sport or martial arts defined by just mere kicks and punches. The martial arts dwells heavily on the ability to concentrate, a rich combat doctrine, the art of self-defense, and physical fitness.
- On April 9, 1976, the International Military Sports Council registered Taekwondo as an Olympic Games event.
- Taekwondo is also an Olympic sport that has full medal status.
- Taekwondo is a system of balanced body drills or techniques structured for self-defense and counterattack in unarmed conflict situations. In Taekwondo, the hands and feet become the choice weaponry for combat and defense.
- Taekwondo training comprises strengthening the body through the practice of the various attack and defense forms.
Taekwondo is an art, a discipline, a core technique that brings equilibrium to the body, soul, and spirit. Upon learning the tenets of Taekwondo, the taekwondoin becomes a lethal power bank of methods. Taekwondo’s most outstanding aspect is the grounding it gives its practitioners via the ingraining of core philosophies that infuses a halcyon rhythm to the human soul.
“Just as a stool requires three legs to stand upright so the taekwondoist must cultivate basic skills, meaningful forms, and effective sparring in order to have both feet firmly planted in the art” ― Doug Cook, Taekwondo: A Path to Excellence.
The craft of the martial arts and combative sports Taekwondo is not about the exertion of force without cause. The practitioner must always know that they are living weapons, and if misused, could become perilous forces. Hence, the power of the taekwondoin is their ability to contain the power of their emotion. Practitioners must always realize the potency of what they have become via training—a controlled lethal force.
In the words of a Lakshya Bharadwaj, “Martial Arts does not teach you how to fight, it teaches you why not to.” He also said that “The plan is to never pick a fight, but the promise is to never back down from one.” That is the essence of Taekwondo—self-control, and peace. However, in the face of an inevitable battle, the art’s combat and defenses are brought to bear.
- International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). (n.d.). Taekwon-do founder. Retrieved from https://www.itftaekwondo.com/about-us/founder/
- Liveaboutdotcom. (n.d.). A history and style guide of Tae Kwon Do. Retrieved from https://www.liveabout.com/history-style-guide-tae-kwon-do-2308282
- Rulesofsport.com. (n.d.). Taekwondo rules. Retrieved from https://www.rulesofsport.com/sports/taekwondo.html#:~:text=Taekwondo%20matches%20are%20contested%20over,only%20allowed%20to%20the%20body.
- Southwick, R. (1998). A brief history of Taekwondo. Retrieved from https://msu.edu/~spock/history.html
- Watta, E. (2020). Know your sport: Taekwondo rules, scoring, and equipment. Retrieved from https://www.olympicchannel.com/en/stories/features/detail/know-your-sport-taekwondo-rules-scoring-equipment/