Tae Kwon Do is a very impressive looking martial art. Its tendency towards kicks over other strikes is largely due to the fact that it was created as a martial art to be used by soldiers, whose hands would be full, with a spear or other weapon in one, and a shield in another. Kicks look cool, and a lot of kicks in rapid succession look even cooler.

It is this coolness however that has rapidly become Tae Kwon Do's downfall. People want to do things that look cool, and the cooler something looks, the more they'll want to do it. This is a bad thing for Tae Kwon Do as a whole, for various reasons. The first reason is that people who choose a martial art solely on its appearance are not the sort of people you want passing the martial art on to future generations. These people will concentrate on improving the superficial areas of it, at the expense of discipline and functionality. Due to its sudden rise in popularity in recent years, Tae Kwon Do has drifted steadily away from the realm of martial arts, becoming more a sport than anything else. A cool looking and athletic sport, but a sport nonetheless. You have black belt tests as spectator events, tournament sparring requiring kicks to specific targets, and serious gaps in all around combat ability. Most practitioners of Tae Kwon Do that I have sparred with have had serious problems dealing with things like sweeps, punches, and blocks.

I don't doubt that there is still true, more or less uncorrupted Tae Kwon Do out there. Its just not nearly as prevalent as the mainstream bastardization that is becoming an Olympic sport.

태권도 (transliterated "tae kwon do" or "t'aegwondo," pronounced "tā·kwon·do") is a Korean martial art that is over two thousand years old. These days it's most often thought of in terms of impressive-looking spinning kicks or shattering six or seven wooden boards, but the birth and original purpose of this powerful martial art have nothing to do with board-breaking or fancy-looking kicks.

Let's start with a translation of the name:

태 ("tae") implies jumping or flying, and also means "to kick" or otherwise break with the foot

권 ("kwon") means "fist" and implies breaking with the hand

도 ("do") is "art" or "way" (as in "a way of doing something"), similar to the Chinese "dao" (道)

Combining the three characters, one gets "foot-hand art" or, commonly, "the art of kicking and punching." However, many people will tell you that it's much more than just a martial art: tae kwon do also has a strong philosophical background, as well as a spirit that goes along with the techniques which cannot be explained or described, only experienced.

So what, really, is tae kwon do? Though some see it as a way to kick someone's ass, or to impress the ladies, or a way to defend yourself if attacked, I (and many other longterm students of many martial arts) see it as a way to get to know your body while improving it. Tae kwon do was developed to assume the fighter only has hir body at hir disposal, and not any weapons, so emphasis is placed on strength, accuracy and above all, self control. Through tae kwon do (as well as most other martial arts), you will learn your body's capabilities and limits, as well as learning how to develop its many strengths and minimize and protect its many weaknesses. Years of dedicated study of tae kwon do have taught me how strong I am and can be, given me control over my body, and carved into my brain the ways in which the body can be used (both offensively and defensively).

History:

The earliest indication of tae kwon do practice dates back to around 50 BCE, when three kingdoms were what is now Korea: Silla (57 BCE to 935 CE), at the south of the Taebaek Mountains; Koguryo (37 BCE to 668 CE), in the valley of the Yalu River; and Paekje (18 BCE to 600 CE), in the Kumgang River area. Pictures of people in fighting stances appear on the walls and ceilings of the tomb Muyong-chong tomb (Koguryo kingdom). Other murals depict offensive and defensive techniques that are similar, if not identical, to the ones used today. These techniques were part of a martial art known as taekyon.

Silla conquered Paekje and Koguryo in the 660s, and a large part of their success is owed to the Hwa Rang Do (화랑도, literally "Art of Flowering Manhood). The Hwa Rang Do were a group of highly skilled fighters who were trained in both taekyon and soo bakh do, which were martial arts taught only to nobility. After the three kingdoms were unified, Confucianism (the new state religion) placed an emphasis on art and education and, since a military organization was no longer needed, martial arts became identified with the inferior lower classes.

Soo bakh do and taekyon survived more than a thousand years thanks to those lower classes of society. During the Yi or Koryo dynasty (this is where the name "Korea" comes from), a book documenting the arts' techniques was printed and made widely available, creating interest in the martial arts as an activity to maintain physical fitness. Practice of soo bakh do and taekyon became isolated, and was often passed down through families.

In 1910, Japan invaded Korea and banned the practicing of all Korean martial arts. Those who were still training in taekyon and soo bakh do either traveled to Japan to learn Japanese martial arts, or went underground to continue their study of Korean martial arts. This actually helped the survival of the martial arts, since the native Koreans did not like the Japanese occupation and looked for a way to take back their country. Japan held Korea until the end of World War II, when Koreans trained in many styles of martial arts similar to taekyon and soo bakh do rebelled against the Japanese, whe were already weakened from the war overseas. With the liberation of Korea came the rebirth of Korean martial arts. Many kwans emerged (a kwan is a martial arts school, which often practices its own style of martial arts), each influenced by the martial arts of the surrounding countries (such as judo, karate and kung-fu). The major kwans included Chung Do Kwan, Moo Duk Kwan, Yun Moo Kwan, Chang Moo Kwan, Oh Do Kwan, Ji Do Kwan, Chi Do Kwan, and Song Moo Kwan (though many others existed). Some of the more popular styles of martial arts became known as dang soo do, kong soo do and kwon bop, though some professed to teach the original soo bahk do and taekyon. In the late 1940s, traditional forms of martial arts was informally taught to a few groups of Korean soldiers stationed around the country. As word of this spread, during the Korean War a martial arts demonstration was organized for President Syngman Rhee, who was so impressed that he required the Korean military and police to study martial arts.

On April 11, 1955, an organization led by General Choi Hong-hi met to discuss combining the similarities of each martial art into one standardized martial art, which was namd tae soo do. In 1957, however, many tae soo do masters began calling the art tae kwon do, because of the reference to the hand and foot (which were used instead of weapons) and name's similarity to the original "taekyon." On September 14, 1961, the Korean Taekwondo Union (KTU) formed from the Soo Bakh Do Association and the Tae Soo Do Association, and was recognized a year later by the Korean Amateur Sports Association. General Choi was made president of the KTU, and after South Korea fell to the invading North, he traveled to America to start an international branch called the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). In 1965 the KTU's name was changed to the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA).

Tae Kwon Do's popularity grew slowly. On May 28, 1973 the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) was created and in 1980 became recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The first biennial World Tae Kwon Do Championships were also held in May of that year, in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. In 1982, it was decided that tae kwon do would be a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and was finally made a competition sport in the 2000 Olympic Games.

But What's All This About Bastardization?

Today, as previous nodes have mentioned, tae kwon do has taken its popularity a little too far — America has done to it what Disney has done to countless stories from history. The history of tae kwon do has been largely overlooked, as schools teaching strange combinations of tae kwon do, karate, kickboxing and hapkido spring up across the country. Even the development of colored belts can be seen as a bastardization, as traditionally there were only white, brown and black belts. Today's color scheme isn't even standardized: most schools follow the order of white, yellow, green, blue, red, black, but every one I've ever seen or heard of includes their own home blend of stripes, tips, and colors like orange and purple. Many schools have also forgotten the bo-black belt: originally, only students older than 16 could receive a black belt. Anyone who could earn a black belt othewise but was under the age of 16 would receive a "bo-black" (I'm not aware of a traditional color; mine was half red and half black) and would test again after hir sixteenth birthday for the black belt.

The school at which I've trained the most has been hit hard by the wave of commercialization by completely replacing the traditional Korean names of techniques with their English counterparts, forgetting the tradition of hanging the guk-gi at the head of the dojang, and replacing the traditional dobok top in favor of a T-shirt with the school's logo on it. Once you're about halfway through the belts, you stop developing the traditional techniques and begin learning the more gymnastic eye candy kicks. (I don't study there any more.) This transformation of the school jives with something one of my first instructors told me. He had taught in and owned many tae kwon do schools, but always managed to go bankrupt. When I asked him why, he shrugged and replied: "You can either run a martial arts school, or a business, but not both."

The one aspect of tae kwon do's commercialization that bugs me the most is the many different ways people tie their belts — there's one "real" way to do it (although I don't mind so much its mirror-image). See the writeup under Dobok for some basic instructions, and a link to a short video clip (as well as some good information on the traditional uniform).

Techniques:
Please do not take this as an invitation to try these on your little sister or proclaim yourself an expert of martial arts after memorizing my descriptions. You may hurt your little sister but your mom will yell at you, and you may get your ass kicked but you will look like a dork in front of everyone. The names of the techniques below are in romanized Korean. If I can dig up the Korean spelling of each one, I will add them.

Stances: The back should be straight and the shoulders square for every stance.

  • cha-ryot sogi (attention stance): hands open and pressed to the sides of the body, feet together
  • pyong-hi sogi (ready stance): hands in fists held in front of the body, elbows extended but not locked, feet parallel to each other and a shoulder width apart, knees straight but not locked
  • juchoom sogi (horseback riding stance): hands in fists, palms facing up, waist-high at the sides of the body (this will be called "fists at sides" for the rest of this document), feet parallel and two shoulder widths apart, knees bent outwards (not inwards; that's bad for your knees)
  • ahp-gubi sogi (forward stance): fists at sides, front foot two shoulder widths from back foot, line connecting feet angled roughly 30° from line of travel
  • dwi-gibi sogi (back stance): fists at sides, front foot two shoulder widths from back foot, feet perpendicular to each other, with heels along line of travel
  • ahp sogi (walking stance): fists at sides, front foot shoulder width from back foot, feet parallel, line connecting feet angled roughly 30° from line of travel
  • bum sogi (tiger stance or cat stance): fists at sides, feet perpendicular, heels almost touching except heel of front foot is raised several inches
  • koa sogi (twisted stance): like bum sogi except front foot is placed behind sideways-facing foot

Strikes: For every strike, the muscles of the upper body should be relaxed until just before contact, when all the muscles tense up in unison. For many of the strikes, the striking part of the body is not put into the final orientation until just before contact, when it is snapped or twisted into place. The combination of these two techniques is unique to tae kwon do and very difficult to master, but it generates a good amount of controllable power. All the strikes listed here begin with fists at sides.

  • chi-gi (forward punch): striking hand (in a fist) travels forward and to shoulder height, palm up, elbow is never fully extended or locked; fist snaps into horizontal position at the last second; fist strikes with the knuckles of the forefinger and middle finger only ("first two knuckles")
  • me-joomok chi-gi (hammer fist): striking hand is raised to ear (same side as striking hand), palm facing forwards; fist is brought forwards and downwards onto target, elbow is kept bent; fist strikes with the soft side of the hand opposite the thumb
  • dung-joomok chi-gi (back fist strike or backhand): striking hand is raised to ear (opposite side as hand), palm facing backwards; fist is brought sideways into target; fist strikes with the back of the hand near the first two knuckles
  • son-nal chi-gi (knife hand strike): striking hand open, hand tensed, fingers very slightly bent; hand is raised to ear (same side as striking hand), palm facing forwards; arm is brought forwards towards target; hand snaps into horizontal position (fingers pointed forwards) at the last second, striking sideways with the soft side of the hand opposite the thumb
  • son-nal dung chi-gi (spear fingers strike or spear hand): striking hand is in son-nal chi-gi position except middle finger is bent so the first three fingers are even with each other, palm up, placed just under the armpit; hand is brought forwards into target striking with the three fingertips; hand snaps into vertical position (fingers pointed forwards) at the last second (not a very practical strike in most situations, but a well-placed son-nal dung to the solar plexxus hurts a lot)

Kicks: These should be executed from pyong-hi sogi but are most often used in sparring. Kicks are considered to have four parts: the leg is brought up with the knee bent (called a "chamber"), the knee is straightened (this is when the kick itself happens), the knee is bent again into the chamber position, and finally the foot is put back on the ground. When blended together in the right way, these steps make for powerful and fast kicks.

  • ahp cha-gi (front kick): raise kicking knee in front of body to waist height, knee is bent 90°, foot is pointed with toes curled down (this is the chamber); extend knee forwards to strike with top of foot; bend knee back to chamber; place foot on ground
  • yop cha-gi (side kick): raise kicking knee in front of body to waist height, knee is bent 90°, foot is parallel to the floor (chamber); extend knee sideways to strike with blade of foot, keeping foot parallel to floor the whole time; retract knee to chamber; place foot on ground (this kick strikes at a 90° angle from the direction you're facing)
  • dolryo cha-gi (round kick or turning roundhouse): raise kicking knee to side of body, lower leg angled roughly 45° from the ground, foot pointed; extend knee to strike diagonally upwards with top of foot; retract foot and knee to chamber; place foot back on ground (this kick strikes at a 45°–90° angle from the direction you're facing)
  • dwi cha-gi (back kick): raise kicking knee to chamber position of yop cha-gi, look behind you over kicking-side shoulder; extend knee backwards to strike a point directly behind you with blade of foot; bend knee back to chamber; place foot on ground (this kick strikes opposite from the direction you're facing)

Blocks: All blocks are actually also strikes — when executed correctly, a block will cause the attacker quite a bit of pain. Also, these blocks have minor movements associated with the non-blocking hand for added power, but I have not included them. Ask me if you're curious.

  • ahre maggi (down block): raise blocking hand (in fist) to ear (opposite side from blocking hand), palm facing backwards; hand travels to waist height, blocking with forearm or soft side of hand opposite thumb (used against ahp cha-gi or other low strikes)
  • eolgul maggi or wee maggi (rising block or high block): blocking hand (in fist) at waist height opposite side of blocking hand, palm up; hand travels to just above face level, palm stays facing up until last second, when it flips over to face down, blocking with side of forearm (used against dung-joomok chi-gi or other downwards strikes)
  • momtong maggi (middle block or inner block): raise blocking hand to ear, same side as blocking hand, palm facing forwards; hand (in fist) travels to a position in front of chest, palm remains facing forwards until the last second, when it is snapped around to face the body, blocking with soft side of hand opposite thumb (used against a punch or other straight attack)
  • son-nal maggi (knife-hand block): hand in son-nal chi-gi position; same as momtong maggi except that strike is with soft side of hand opposite thumb
  • yeot pero maggi (X block): raise both hands to forehead height, cross wrists, hands in fists, palm down; catch strike in the X of the wrists (against dung-joomok chi-gi or other downwards strike; can also be done as a low block)

Commands: Other things commonly heard being yelled around a dojang.

  • cha-ryot: attention; come to cha-ryot sogi
  • kyong-ye: bow; bend 90° at the waist, keeping the back and legs straight, keeping the head fixed (so that at the bottom of the bow you are facing the floor; this shows a great deal of respect)
  • joonbi: ready; come to pyong-hi sogi
  • barro: return to original position
  • si-jak: begin (used in sparring or demonstrating poomse)
  • ba-quo: switch sides (used in sparring)
  • gu-mahn: stop (used in sparring)
  • kalyeo: break (used in sparring)

There are more techniques than I've listed here (patang and palkoop chi-gi, bandul and guligi cha-gi...), but I've covered the basics. More advanced techniques are not friendly to nodes, as describing specific positions of the body is much harder to do and (I imagine) understand than it is to just show someone.

Glossary:

  • dobok: the traditional tae kwon do uniform, a loose-fitting pair of white pants and a white double-breasted top
  • dojang: school; a gymnasium for practicing tae kwon do
  • poomse: forms; standardized sets of techniques, a hands-on textbook of sorts
  • kyorugi: sparring; an organized, scored fight between two students
  • kihop: yell; a scream made at the instant of contact, this is used to tense the body, encourage breathing, and prepare the mind (it's actually a very Zen sort of thing to do, I like it a lot)
  • guk-gi: the South Korean flag

References:
This text is based on an essay I wrote in 1996, which drew most of its information from Tae Kwon Do by Y. Hee Park, Y. Hwan Park and Jon Gerrard (1989: Facts on File, NY). The Korean terms in Techniques and Glossary comes from that book, but the explanations are mine.
Official website of the International TaeKwon-Do Association™: http://www.itatkd.com/
General Taekwondo Information: http://www.barrel.net/

You need Unicode support to view the Korean Hangul characters and the one Chinese character in this writeup. If your browser can't read 태권도 but can read 태권도, please /msg me. If you read Korean and notice that my characters are incorrect, please /msg me — after thanking you, I'll probably ask how to spell the rest of the Korean words in this writeup.

This writeup took quite some time, so if you notice any errors, have any suggestions, or even feel like chatting about tae kwon do, please do not hesitate to /msg me.

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