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What exactly is Taekwon-do?

Taekwondo is a modern Korean martial art, known for dynamic kicks, and quick footwork.
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Read why students started and why they Keep Training

What is Taekwon-do?

Taekwon-do is a modern Korean martial art, known for dynamic kicks, and quick footwork. It is an all-around program that offers self-defense training, physical exercise, and artistic expression; all taught by an experienced professional instructor.

Meaning of the term “Taekwon-do”

Literally translated, Taekwon-do breaks down to “tae” meaning to kick with the foot, “kwon” meaning to punch or strike with the hand, and “do” meaning art or way. Therefore, Taekwon-do translates to “the art of kicking and punching.” Its physical aspects come from the kicking and punching, while its spiritual aspects come from the art.

Although the literal translation of Taekwondo is the art of kicking and punching, it is only a superficial translation. “Do” in Korean implies a philosophical approach to life, a pathway to achieve enlightenment. Taekwondo is not only a method of self-defense, it is also a way of life. Students of Taekwondo, through rigorous physical training, try to improve themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. True Taekwondo practitioners extend the art to all aspects of their lives to achieve harmony with nature and a stable and peaceful existence.

A brief history

Traditional Taekwon-do has its roots in martial arts that are centuries old, but Taekwon-do itself has been around for only about 60 years. When Korea won its independence from Japan after World War II, a strong nationalistic fervor swept the country. At this time, there was a group of experienced martial artists who sought to develop a distinctly Korean national martial art. The leader of this group was Choi Hong Hi, who became a general in the Korean army.

As a young boy, Choi learned Taekyon, an old Korean kicking sport, from his calligraphy instructor. He was a frail boy and his instructor introduced Taekyon to help build up his body. There is some debate as to whether Taekyon was a martial art, or merely a game in which two people attempted to cause the other to fall by kicking and sweeping at the other’s legs. It’s apparent, however, that Koreans had an aptitude for fighting with their feet as well as their hands.

Choi went to Japan at age 19 to study science and law. He attained a second degree black belt in karate and for a brief time, studied under Ginchen Funakoshi, the premier master of Shotokan karate. He also taught karate while in Japan and started adding kicking elements from the Korean culture. He was imprisoned during World War II for leading a rebellion against the Japanese government, and spent his time perfecting his martial art. By the time he was released, he had many other prisoners and also his jailer as students.

In the 1950s, Choi opened one of many new martial arts schools in Korea that were all doing much the same thing. Choi proposed they standardize their teachings and call the new art Taekwon-do. This term was eventually adopted in 1957. In the 1960s, Choi began traveling the world and introducing Taekwon-do to other countries and setting up schools. During this time, he founded the International Taekwon-do Federation. Politics, both inside the Taekwon-do community and within Korea, also entered the picture in the1960s. Another Korean general, Park Chung Hee, seized control of the South Korean government in 1961. He proved to be a ruthless and corrupt leader. Choi, who was seen as a potential political adversary, was forced to leave his native country. He later established the ITF headquarters in Toronto, Canada. The World Taekwon-do Federation was soon established in Korea as a competing Taekwon-do organization. The WTF is closely tied to the Korean government and its promotion of Taekwon-do as an Olympic sport.

Over the ensuing decades, both the ITF and WTF have strayed from the original mission of traditional Taekwon-do. The solid foundation of Shotokan karate (strong stances, sharp hand techniques, an emphasis on fundamentals) has almost disappeared. At Traditional Taekwon-do Kwan in Portland, we strive to be true to the original mission of Taekwon-do and its roots in both karate and Korean foot fighting.

For more on the history of Taekwon-do, we refer you to the TKDTutor web site.

What is the difference between Taekwon-do and other martial arts?

Taekwon-do is considered a hard, direct boxing style of martial arts. That means the primary objective is to stay upright and defend oneself by dodging, blocking and striking with hands and feet, as well as other body parts. Other martial arts that share these characteristics are traditional karate, many forms of Kung Fu, Wu Shu and Muay Thai kickboxing. What differentiates Taekwon-do from these other arts is the emphasis on fast and powerful kicks, although the other styles have adopted more kicking over the years as Taekwon-do became more popular. Certainly from a self-defense standpoint, using the legs can be more effective against a larger person than using arm and hand strikes.

Hard styles generate speed and power from basic body mechanics, such as twisting hips, as well as elemental physics. Some other boxing style martial arts are considered “soft” and use circular motions, such as T’ai Chi. Training emphasizes rooting, connecting one’s chi (ki, internal energy) with the earth; sensitivity, detecting an opponent’s movements before they are completed; and relaxation.

The concept of yin and yang applies to these different approaches. There are soft and internal elements in our style of Taekwon-do, and hard and direct movements in many versions of T’ai Chi.

In addition to boxing styles, there also are grappling (i.e., wrestling) styles, such as judo, jujitsu, aikido and hapkido. In these arts, the primary moves are in close quarters, using leverage, joint locks, pressure points and throws to foil attacks. A key concept in these arts is that one uses the attacker’s weight and momentum to execute a throw, but this idea is not unique to throwing arts. Taekwon-do students do the same in deflecting attacks and countering.

So which style is the best? All martial arts can be effective at self-defense, as long as they taught well by experienced instructors. The more traditional martial arts have a track record and wouldn’t have lasted if they were ineffective or if students were getting seriously injured. At Traditional Taekwon-do Kwan, we have added elements of jujitsu and hapkido to our curriculum to become a more well-rounded martial arts experience. We also believe the basic Taekwon-do workout, being highly aerobic and involving all the muscle groups in the body at various times, provides excellent physical conditioning that is hard to equal in any other art.