Friday 2 September 2011

Taekwondo`s Karate roots

In these modern times most main stream texts regarding Taekwondo history maintains the wrong view that Taekwondo is a 2000 (sometimes its even said 5000 years) old native Korean martial art. This is probably due to the nationalist feelings in Korea after the Korean liberation from Japanese rule after world war 2. But is this the true story? I think not. At least not the whole story. Now in this post I will reveal the martial roots of the founders in the original Kwan`s.

During the japanese rule martial arts training was banned and native martial arts almost dissapeared entirely, but some Koreans who studied and worked abroad in Japan and China during the Japanese rule was allowed martial arts training. And so after the war these people came home to Korea and wanted to share their martial arts with their fellow country men, but now all things Japanese was frowned upon. The solution was to not teach where the arts came from or to make up a new history; claiming little or no influence from Japanese and Chinese martial arts and making up roots dating 2 - 5 000 years back in time.

I am not saying that in later times the Koreans has not reddiscovered their martial heritage and included it in their teachings, but in its infancy Taekwondo was really Karate as taught to the founders of the original Kwan (schools) that later formed what was to become Taekwondo. Many myths sourrounding the founders training and experience but for now I would like to give a brief summary of my own research regarding Taekwondo`s Karate roots.

It is widely known that before the name Taekwondo became the norm there were two common ways to refer to the hard style striking arts taught at the different Kwan. The two terms were "Tang Soo Do" (also written Tang Su Do etc) and Kong Soo Do (also written Kong Su Do) meaning Chinese hand and open/empty hand. What most people do not know here in the west is that these two names are not names for two different martial arts, but the Korean reading of the "Hanja" (Chinese character) used to write Karate.

Karate can be written in two ways, they have different meanings, but they are both used for the martial art now known as Karate. The first read in Korean as Tang Su Do is read as To De/To Te in Japanese and is the more traditional term for denoting the martial art of Karate. "To" in To Te can also be read as "Kara". The modern way of writing Karate is read Kara in Japanese and Kong in Korean meaning open. Open hand and Chinese hand.

The other evidence for Taekwondo Karate roots are the way they structured the training and the forms (hyung in Korean, Kata in Japanese) wich were basicly the same in both arts. Some Kwan included a few Chinese forms but for the most part they all taught essentually Shotokan Kata. This included but is not limited to: Kibon (Kicho) Hyung 1-3, Pyung ahn 1-5 Hyung, Chulgi 1-3 Hyung, and Kongsukon Hyung. The Karate Makkiwara (Dallyon Joo or Tal Yul Bong in Korean) was also in frequent use.

I will now briefly state the biggest Kwan, its founder, what style of Karate he studied, under whom and what rank he obtained in the art(s).

Chung Do Kwan Logo
Chong Do Kwan was founded in 1944 by Lee Won Kuk. He studdied Shotokan Karate under Funakoshi Gichin and Funakoshi Yoshitaka (better known as "Gigo" Funakoshi). He obtained the rank of 3rd Dan in the art, in a time when 5th Dan was the highest rank in Shotokan. Funakoshi Gichin was never given a rank higher than 5th Dan.

Song Moo Kwan logo
Song Moo Kwan was also founded in 1944 by Ro Byong Jik. He studied Shotokan Karate at the same university in Japan as Lee Won Kuk did. As such his instructors were father and son Funakoshi. Ro Byong Jik obtained 1st Dan in Shotokan Karate before returning to Korea and opening his own Dojang.

Moo Duk Kwan Logo
Moo Duk Kwan was another important Kwan. This Kwan was also founded in the 1940s. 1945 to be excact. It was founded by a man named Hwang Kee whose martial arts training is somewhat of an enigma. According to himself he studied a native Korean art called Taek Kyon which is famous in some modern Taekwondo circles as the "father art of Tae Kwon Do". This training has never ben verified and Moo Duk Kwans legacy is essentually the same as the other Kwan. Before he invented the Chil Sung forms and the Ro Youk forms there was also no sign of the other art he is said to have studied. Again according to himself he studied chinese martial arts while working in Japanese ruled China. He did in a late interview state that the source of his forms was various books on Shuri Te Karate wich explains why modern Tang Soo Do ans Soo Bahk Do include various Karate forms in their teachings as well as Hwang Kee`s own creations. Needless to say there is no formal rank that was given him in Taek Kyon, his Chinese martial art or Karate.

Chang Moo Kwan was founded in 1946 by Yon Byong In. He did not study Shotokan Karate like most other Kwan founders, but he did study a form of Karate called "Shudokan". He studied this style directly under its founder Toyama Kanken and he received the master rank of 4th Dan in this style. This makes Yon Byong In one of the highest ranked Karate masters in Taekwondo history. Some sources even states that he received 5th Dan but I can not verify it.

Only two more schools left know. The first is the Yon Moo Kwan. This school was founded in 1946 by Chun Sang Sup. I regret to say that I do not have enough material on him to state anything concrete about his martial roots, but he did found Yon Moo Kwan, made it one of the leading Kwan before dissapearing during the Korean war. In 1953 his successor reopened the school under a new name; Ji Do Kwan. This school was to become famous for its sparring team, and together with Moo Duk Kwan they sendt students even to Japan to compete in sparring there! According to my teacher who started his training in the Ji Do Kwan in the 1950s the Koreans won a great deal. The name of Chun Sang Sup`s successor was Yun Kwae Byung. He practised Shudokan Karate under Toyama Kanken and received a 4th Dan certificate from him. He also studied Shito Ryu Karate under thats style founder Kenwa Mabuni and from him he obtained a 7th Dan certificate. Yun Kwae Byong of the Ji Do Kwan was without a doubt the highest formal ranked practisioner of Karate in the early history of Taekwondo.

The final and last Kwan I want to include in my "brief" summary is the famous Oh Do Kwan. This Kwan is often refered to as the father Kwan of ITF Taekwondo (aka Chan Hong ryu Taekwondo). It was founded after the Korean war by General Choi Hong Hi and the Chong Do Kwan student: Nam Tae Hi. Choi Hong Hi (who dubbed himself the father of Taekwondo) is reputed to have come up with the term Taekwondo. The term Taekwondo is first documented at a meeting in 1955 when all the Kwan leaders met to discuss uniting all the Kwan to form one strong martial art for Korea. Like Hwang Kee, Choi trained Taek Kyon in his early years, but there is no way of verifying it at all. During his studies in Japan he started practising Shotokan Karate but who his instructor was is also unclear. Many sources says he studied under Funakoshi, and the sources also vary on what rank he obtained. He did at least obtain the rank of 1st Dan, but some sources say he reached the 2nd Dan level before returning to Korea.

And this completes my sumary. I hope you enjoyed it and if you have any questions regarding sources or you have something to add please feel free to add a coment:)


  1. The claim of Shotokan being related to karate is actually a successful method of enraging Taekwondo people in America. This article will be forwarded to some man that can act innocent while everyone becomes enraged.

  2. I do not really understand why, but yes I have enraged people before with my opinions on the relationship between Karate and Taekwondo before. I have even heard them be called unfounded and not grounded in reality.

    I think this is funny because the sources of the 2000+ years old Taekwondo myth that many still believe and take as fact are not rooted in sources. They appear in textbooks that contains no sources except some old photos that show "resemblance" to Taekwondo techniques. The few sources they have on older martial arts in Korea are actually not Taekwondo allthough the term Taekwondo is often used in a generic fashion (like we might call chinese martial arts chinese boxing) to make the illusion that we are talking about the modern style named taekwondo.

    The history of Taekwondo wich I have presented briefly above can be readily found in several well researched books and articles. I can name but a few: Eric Madis masterpiece (available to read at, Alex Gillis "The art of Killing", Simon John O`Neill`s "Taegeuk Cipher", Kang and Lee`s "A modern history of Taekwondo" etc etc etc. What all those books/articles have in common is that they are well researched and they have the sources to back it up:-)

    I do hope we do not get any "angry" or non productive comments on here though. My main sources on this article is the ones mentioned above, I hope that anyone who does not believe my article atleast can check out my sources before judging it and say it is not true:-)

    1. It is not opinion at this point, these assertions are factually backed. But, that does not invalidate Taekwondo in the least - in the truth it is still unique to a Korean origination: Karate plus a Taekkyon twist to focus on kicking.

      Taekkyon was the only survivor from the Japanese occupation, no other native Korean martial art survived in form yet some survived in name only like Soobakdo.

      The Japanese wasn't even the first to abolish or severely denigrate martial arts in Korean history - the Koreans themselves did a good job of doing that periodically. At times of war, martial arts thrived as a necessity, but habitually, the strong influence of the Korean interpretation of Confucianism placed great emphasis upon scholars in their caste system that looked down its nose at martial arts (often connected to Buddhism) and squelched its existence until another need arose to defend Korea again - martial arts had a yo-yo relationship with Korea for centuries in this way... And if you ask me, from my observation as a long time resident here, that yo-yo relationship is still going on right now. Mainstream TKD here is moving away from its practical combat use and plunging headlong into performance acts alongside the K-Pop phenomenon.

    2. Thanks for taking your time to comment:-) this article was written back in 2011. If I had written it today it would have been worded differently (but the facts remains facts).

      Personally I tend to be more into the practical applications to the art rather than the dancing k-pop things you see in Korea:-P The blog has nearly 300 articles to read, many of which details the history of taekwondo:-)

  3. Great post! As a Taekwondo practitioner who has heard the myth of "ancient" Taekwondo, this only encourages me to delve further into karate and kung fu practice and research. Have you checked out Sang H. Kim's translated Muye Dobo Tongji? Very insightful link between "ancient" Korean fighting and Chinese martial arts. Anyone can see that Taekwondo (at least at its outset) looks more like Japanese karate than anything widely practiced before the occupation. Thanks for writing!

    1. And thanks for that positive feedback:-) I do believe that some of the confusion on the "Ancient Taekwondo Myth" might have something to do with the pioneers of Taekwondo using Taekwondo as a generic term covering all Korean martial arts throughout history and as a name for our "modern" martial art at the same time. If you read older books on Taekwondo you will see that both Son Duk Sung in his Korean Karate book does this, Henry Cho in his Korean Karate Book does this and even Choi Hong Hi does it when writing about patterns.

      I have read the Muye Dobo Tongji and it is a book I really like to read:-) My first Taekwondo article was about that very book (I posted it on my blog in two parts: ).

      The likeness with Japanese Karate was what made me check out the "Karate link" in the first place. We do have more kicks and depending on the organisation/Club/Instructor higher and more flashy kicks than main stream Karate but our forms, basic techniques, 1, 2, and 3 step sparring all seemed to correspond to Karate.

      If you liked this article you might want to check out the series on the original Hyung (forms) that the different Kwan used in the early 60s before they made their own inventions. The first one in the series can be read here: .

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. aikido

  6. One thing about Taekkyeon, which people often credit for TKD's kicking...
    Having studied Taekkyeon a bit in Korea, I can tell you Taekkyeon is much, much closer to Chinese Shuai Jiao in spirit.
    Meaning, it places a heavy emphasis on flooring the opponent. Kicks are almost incidental in this. It is really more of an art of sweeping and tripping.

    It is not surprising.
    In that sense it shares a lot with other arts used for self defense: avoiding touching the "dirty" attacker with your hands, and focusing on flooring an opponent to get the upper hand or fleeing.
    The French art of Savate also heavily emphasizes low level kicks and sweeps for that reason.

    A floored aggressor can't run after you immediately, may get hurt falling down, and will be in a position of weakness to be struck or kicked.

    TKD's kicks come from Gigo Funakoshi's Shotokan.
    They used to be identical. They only changed because of competition, to emphasize speed at the expense of all other attributes.

    Taekkyeon kicks are done with the heel, the ball of the foot. But mostly the heel - it was obviously designed for kicking with soft shoes / sandals on.
    The instep kick is seldom used, mostly as a crescent kick or kick to the groin.

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