The Art of Fist & Foot
From ancient Korea to Sydney 2000 - Taekwondo's origins and influence.

Taekwondo, whose foundations were formed centuries ago, will be introduced as an official sport at the Olympic Games. Both a mental and physical exercise, Taekwondo is now the fastest growing martial art in the world.

Taekwondo's history stretches back to the annals of ancient Korea, long before anything resembling the two nations—North Korea and South Korea—we now know had come to exist. Before actual kingdoms emerged in Korea, walled town-states and village communities dominated the political landscape. Some of these, such as Old Choson, Imdun, and Chinbon, had been able to spread their influence through trade or conquest, and developed into what can be called confederated kingdoms, each loosely ruled by a central figure. By the fourth century B.C.E., Old Choson and the other confederated kingdoms had become large enough to attract the attention of China, and hostilities between Old Choson and the Chinese state of Yen were common as they confronted each other across the Liao River. Regional wars raged for centuries, and during this time martial arts emerged as the leading means of self-defense and battle.

The art was not limited to soldiers throughout the varying dynasties. In the Yi Dynasty, Buddhism flourished under the Koryo government and monks came to be granted a great number of privileges, including free grants of land, exclusion from certain taxes, and other economic benefits. Their growing wealth led increasing numbers of princes and other royalty to seek admission to their ranks. And as they became wealthier, monks found it necessary to be able to defend their wealth. There is every reason to believe that tae kyon, or soo bak (two early martial arts) flourished during this period. If it is true that unarmed combat techniques were passed secretly from master to student, as some sources indicate, then it is likely that this occurred within Koryo's Buddhist monasteries.

If there can be said to be a dark period in Korean history, it would probably have begun at the end of the nineteenth century. By then, international politics had changed considerably, and the relative isolation of Asia that had predominated for centuries had evaporated. Throughout its history, Korea had maintained relations-peaceful, trade oriented, or conflicted, at different times—with Japan, China, Manchuria, and Russia. However, the Western powers were on the rise and had come to dominate international trade. The Asian nations had in various ways insisted on isolationist policies to defend themselves against the dangers of Western economic imperialism, but Korea's resistance eventually succumbed to the irresistible pressures of the Russian and Japanese military.

This period was nearly a death knell for Korean martial arts, as well as for all other forms of Korean expression. The Korean form of soo bak survived this repression by being taught secretly. It is virtually certain, however, that during this period, elements of Japanese martial arts were introduced to the traditional Korean style, and it is to this time that we must look for the influence of karate in modern Taekwondo.

Korea was finally liberated from outside sources after the Japanese defeat in World War II. Following the expulsion of the Japanese, Korean martial arts re-emerged. The Korean Taekwondo Association was formed in 1961, and under its early leadership, masters traveled all over the world to spread the art.

Taekwondo emphasizes strength, speed, and accuracy. But the process is both internal and external. It is a system that trains the mind as well as the body, and at the core of its teaching, there is a strong emphasis on the development of personal character. Without concentration, discipline, and patience, the art cannot be mastered.

Strangers to the martial arts sometimes take the black belt of Taekwondo to signify the acquisition of some remarkable abilities: levitation, perhaps, or the ability to bend steel bars or leap twenty feet straight up into the air. These misconceptions are popularized through celluloid images—the products of Hollywood and Hong Kong. The award of the black belt signifies mastery of the most basic skills of Taekwondo to that student's fullest potential. And it also represents the beginning of more serious study of the art. It is an initiation as much as an arrival.

"Kamsa hamnae da" means "Thank you," and it is the way all Taekwondo classes end. Students pay their respects and acknowledge the information and gift that is being passed on to them from their teachers. And teachers thank their students for the opportunity to share their knowledge.

U. Magazine would like to thank Master Sung Chul Whang, Master Jun Chul Whang and Brandon Saltz, along with Broadway Books, for permission to excerpt from their book Taekwondo: The State of the Art. We would also like to thank Grand Master Bong C. Kim for the use of the photographs in this piece and for his counsel and teaching.

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