Tae Kwon Do

Taekwondo (also spelled TaeKwon-do, or Tae Kwon Do) is a Korean martial art and global sport discipline practiced all over the world. It was adopted as an "Official Olympic Medal Sport" (in its WTF form) in Sydney 2000.

It is one of the most systematic and scientific Korean traditional martial arts, which teaches more than just physical fighting skills. Taekwondo practitioners learn ways to enhance their spirit and life through training their body and mind.
History and Origins

It evolved from several ancient unarmed combat styles such as Subak, Te Kion and Sirum. Taekyon (also spelled Taekkyon or Taekkyun) was a popular discipline of Subak used by the Hwarang, a special warrior corps, who traveled all around the peninsula and spread their martial art throughout Korea. During the Japanese occupation traditional Korean martial arts were completely banned, but they lived on among the ordinary people. Some state that the Korean martial arts were partially influenced by karate during that time, but this remains a matter of contention.

Contrary to popular belief General Choi did not 'create' Taekwondo, but he submitted the name and helped systematize the discipline into its modern form based on the various Korean martial arts styles and native combat skills. The first Kwan (named Chung Do Kwan) was established in 1944 during the Japanese occupation and Won Kuk Lee was officially recognized as its founder. Like most Black Belts of that time, Choi Hong Hi had been a student of the Chung Do Kwan, before he founded his own school, which he named Oh Do Kwan ("Gym of My Way") and where he taught the military. By 1955 the various schools (kwans) were unified under one system and the name 'Taekwondo' was officially adopted. As the vice-president and later president of the Korean Taekwondo association Choi Hong Hi organized demo-teams to perform spectacular demonstrations, which greatly contributed to the popularity of Taekwondo.

Taekwondo is very different from many other oriental martial arts. First, it is known for its emphasis on kicking techniques, which distinguishes it from martial arts such as karate or southern styles of kung fu. The rationale is that the leg is the longest and strongest weapon, and kicks thus have the greatest potential to execute powerful strikes without successful retaliation. Physically it appears as very dynamic with active movements. Second, the principle of physical movements is in symbiosis with that of the mind and life as a whole.

Symbolism of the Dobok (uniform)

The training uniform of Taekwondo is called Dobok. It is white to symbolize the national Korean costume. The white color also stands for purity of consciousness and peace. Black piping around the edge of the shirt is worn only by the black belt holder. The piping is three centimeters in width and is symbolic of the royal family and members of aristocratic houses during the Koguryo, Baekje, and Silla Dynasties. An international instructor is distinguished by black stripes three centimeters wide on both sides of the shirt and pants. The do bok top (shirt) is called a Jeogori. The do bok pants are called a Baji. The belt is called a Ti. (For the symbolism of the belt and the meaning of the colors, see further).

Not many practitioners know that the principles of Taekwondo are even translated in the construction of the Dobok. According to the Yin and Yang theory the three main components of the universe and the geometrical shapes of the Dobok have their symbolic meaning: the trousers (square) represent the Earth, the belt (circle around the waist) stands for man and the upper garment (V-neck) for heaven. So the endless, circular form of the belt symbolizes the circuit of human life among heaven and earth.

Principles and Philosophy of Taekwondo

In Taekwondo the principle of physical movements, the principle of mind training, and the principle of life become one and the same. The same theme of unity also appears in the sense of "unity of the pose ('poomsae'), confrontation, and cracking down".

The idea behind these principles is that one must always overcome the enemy that is trying to cause harm. However, simply winning a fight is not sufficient to guarantee one's safety, because the enemy may recuperate and attack again. Moreover, there may be many more enemies than the one who was just defeated. One cannot ever feel safe unless he/she gains permanent peace. To attain this everlasting peace, one needs unity. This is what Taekwondo is about. What makes Taekwondo different from plain street-fighting skills is that it is an activity for survival in extremely antagonistic situations of all kinds, not just physical confrontation. This explains why"Hongik-Ingan", which stands for 'universal welfare of mankind', is a central theme in Taekwondo.

Difference between ITF and WTF Taekwondo

Generally speaking, ITF is considered as more self defense oriented, while WTF is more focused on the competitive aspect of the sport. In ITF there is a stronger focus on the different forms and the correct application of the theory of power through breaking techniques. It is believed that the exercising of breaking techniques helps the individual focus on generating and applying the correct amount of power on the right spot.

WTF is more oriented towards resistance training as WTF practitioners have to be able to engage and resist in competitive battles. Speed of execution, endurance and power are sometimes subordinate to precision (at least as compared to breaking techniques). In some aspects one could say that WFT and ITF Taekwondo differ in the same way as Kyokushin and Shotokan karate, respectively (even if there are many more different Karate systems than there are different Taekwondo systems).

In WTF Taekwondo there is a greater emphasis on kicking as compared to the punching/kicking ratio in ITF. It is sometimes said that ITF is much more strict on its curriculum and that ITF schools are more homogenous in terms of both quality and curriculum than WTF Taekwondo schools.

The two Taekwondo systems are named solely after their respective organizations, the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) and the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). While ITF is both the parent organization and the body that sets technical standards and practices (as well as rank criteria), on the WTF side dan rank (black belt degree) promotion and certification is regulated by the Kukkiwon. The WTF only governs the competition aspects of Taekwondo as the international representative body with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Contrary to the ITF it represents member nations, not schools (kwans). It does not issue dan ranks or black belt certifications. So, on the ITF side one body governs all aspects of the sport, while on the WTF side there are two separate bodies. Some therefore say it would be more correct to refer to ITF Taekwondo and Kukkiwon Taekwondo (instead of WTF Taekwondo), as there are no WTF-students or WTF-schools, only WTF member-states. However, the terms ITF Taekwondo and WTF Taekwondo have become so common that they are generally accepted by most Taekwondo practitioners.

It is important to  note that today's ITF is NOT the same as the original international body,which confusingly was also called ITF, and was founded by the Korea Taekwondo Association  (KTA) to unite the different Kwans (Taekwondo schools) so that the different schools around the world could get Black Belt certification from Korea. While it is true that General Choi was elected as the first president of the former ITF, he took the name with him when he fled Korea and dubbed his own school which he set up in Canada as ITF. To avoid confusion the KTA in Korea established the Kukkiwon center, and created the WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) in 1973 to replace the former ITF. The new ITF, instead, was General Choi's personal organization, first and foremost a  "Kwan" (school), just like any other Kwan or organization teaching Taekwondo (Chung Do Kwan, Jidokwan, ATA, USAT, among others),  but also involved in promoting ranks and organizing tournaments. When he moved his school to Canada it was renamed International Taekwondo Federation. Hence the confusion.

Taekwondo competition typically involves sparring, breaking, patterns, and self-defense (hosinsul). However, in Olympic taekwondo competition, only sparring is contested; and in Olympic sparring WTF competition rules are used.

Under WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) and Olympic rules, sparring is a full-contact event and takes place between two competitors in an area measuring 10 meters square. Each match consists of three semi-continuous rounds of contact with rest between rounds. 14-17 and 18 and over black belt fighters fight in 2-minute rounds with a one minute break. Points are awarded for permitted, accurate, and powerful techniques to the legal scoring areas; light contact to a scoring area does not score any points.

The ITF sparring rules are similar, but full force strikes are not allowed and will result in deduction of points. Knock out is not allowed either. Hand attacks to the head are allowed; kicks to the body gives two point and kicks to the head give three; the competition area is slightly smaller (9 meters square instead of 10 meters); and competitors do not wear the hogu used in Olympic-style sparring (although they are required to wear approved foot and hand protection equipment). A continuous point system is utilized in ITF competition, where the fighters are allowed to continue after scoring a technique. At the end of 2 minutes (or specified time) the competitor with the most scoring techniques wins.

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Taekwondo color belts and ranks:

The color belts can vary from school to school, but in WTF Taekwondo they are as follows:

- White (10th gup, ship)
- White with yellow stripe (9th gup, koo)
- Yellow (8th gup, pal)
- Yellow with green stripe (7th gup, yook)
- Green (6th gup, chill)
- Green with blue stripe (5th gup, oh)
- Blue (4th gup, sa)
- Blue with red stripe (3rd gup, sam)
- Red (2nd gup, ee)
- Red with black stripe (1rst gup, il)
- Black (1rst dan)

Meaning of the color belts:

White: represents purity, meaning that the student is still innocent, i.e. lacks the necessary knowledge to control the body with the mind, a central concept in Taekwondo.

Yellow: illustrates the student, who, similar to a seed, is beginning to see the sunlight.

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Banner Photos by Gregory Brophy (hand wraps), Gerville Hall (TaeKwonDo girl), Lucian (Karate fight).
Upper left photo © Gerville Hall. Taekwondo belts © Madeleine Openshaw. Reproduction strictly prohibited.
Titles and ranks
Students address their instructor by their name or title followed by the suffix "nim" (), which is the honorific form equivalent to 'sensei' in Japanese, used when a junior or student is addressing a senior or instructor.


- 1st to 3rd degree, Boosabum, usually corresponding to an Assistant Instructor or Jokyo or Jokyonim (조교) or National Instructor.

- 4th to 6th degree, Sabum or International Instructor (usually the senior teacher of a school)

- 7th to 8th degree, Sahuyn or Master

- 9th degree Sasung or Grand Master (usually the head of an organization, also known as Kwan Jang or Kwanjangnim).

Green: represents the seedling just beginning to grow.

Blue: symbolizes the young plant growing and reaching for the sky.

Red: symbolizes blood and danger; the student has good technical knowledge which can be dangerous since he/she still lacks control and discipline.

Black: symbolizes the coming together of all the color belts and the nine grades of knowledge to form a degree. The student is a budding Taekwondo master.

The five full colors and five intermediate colors represent the ten student (junior) ranks known as gup (or geup) in Korean. In some schools the yellow/green belt is replaced by orange, the blue belt by purple and the red one by a brown one (probably under influence of karate). Purple can also be an intermediate color between green and blue. The intermediate belts can be represented by a small stripe at the beginning of the belt or by an entirely, horizontally bi-colored belt. Some Taekwondo schools only use the five full-colored belts (without intermediate belt), in which case each belt represents two gups. The color belt system can vary quite a lot depending on the school, sometimes having an entirely different order (White, Green, Purple, Blue, Red) or including non-traditional colors, such as pink or camouflage, as in Songham style Taekwondo where the belts are as follows: white, orange, yellow, camouflage, green, blue, red and black. As colors may vary from school to school the only real reference is the gup rank.

The senior section typically consists of nine ranks, with the 9th rank being a merely honorific degree reserved to grandmaster. These ranks are called dan
, also referred to as "black belts" or "degrees" . Black belts begin at first dan and advance to second, third, and so on. The dan is often indicated on the belt itself, with silver stripes for the first three dans and golden Roman numerals from the fourth dan upwards. Younger black belt students may be granted pum (junior black belt) ranks rather than dan ranks until they reach a certain age. The number 9 is considered perfection, as it equals 3 times 3 and 3 is a revered number in oriental tradition, as it represents 'heaven' (see Korean flag symbol above).
Etymology, Symbolism and Uniform


Etymologically, "Tae" stands for "foot," "leg," or "to step on"; "Kwon" means "fist," or "fight"; and "Do" means the "way" or "discipline." In Korean they form one word literally meaning "'to put fists under control' (or 'to step on fists') which, according to the WTF, should be interpreted as "the right way of using all parts of the body to stop fights and help to build a better and more peaceful world."