Thursday, 5 May 2016

Taekwondo Philosophy and ethics

Kwan Heon

«All Kwan generally has the same Heon, but they express it in different ways»

-Cho Woon Sup (Quote from «Taekwondo» page 12)


Kwan can be translated as «school» and «Heon» can be translated as instruction or directive. Taekwondo as we know it today came to us through several different Kwan. Chang Hon Taekwondo (often called «ITF Taekwon-Do») is one style of Taekwondo that was first taught at the Oh Do
Kwan, with several of the first instructors being trained in the Chung Do Kwan. Kukki Taekwondo (often called WTF Taekwondo) is the result of a merger of all the major Kwan (including Oh Do Kwan) in the 1970s. In this article I want to look at how the different organisations and Kwan of Taekwondo expresses their Kwan Heon and see how they all are indeed variations on a theme. My hope is that after reading this article you will have a greater understanding of Taekwondo philosophy, ethics and goals.

Tenets of Taekwondo and the Student Oath

The perhaps best known and most widely used ethical guidelines and expression of Taekwondo philosophy is the «Student Oath» and tenets of Taekwondo. The man who is credited as originator of both of these are Choi Hong Hi, founder of the Oh Do Kwan, and originator of the Chang Hon Taekwondo (Chang Hon being his pseudonym). Many Dojang around the world follows these guidelines and uses them as their Kwan Heon because in Taekwondo`s infancy Choi Hong Hi had a lot of power within the Taekwondo comunity. He came up with the name Taekwondo, he made all the Kwan use that as the term for the Korean martial art, he wrote one of the earliest books on Korean martial arts and the very first book to include Taekwondo in its title in 1959, as well as the first English book on Taekwondo in 1965 and a new Korean language book in 1966. All males had to do military service, and in the military it was Choi Hong Hi`s Taekwondo they were exposed to. This goes some way to explain why his Kwan Heon is so widely spread no matter if you belong to a «Kukki Taekwondo» Dojang or an ITF Taekwondo Dojang. The earliest english reference to the tenets of Taekwondo was in Choi`s 1965 book on page 6 where he writes: 

«Taekwondo aims to achieve:

  • modesty,
  • perseverance
  • self-control
  • indomitable spirit.»

As you can see these are a little different than in the modern version, and there are only 4 of them instead of the modern 5 that we know today. In the 1986 version of the encyclopedia he writes:

«Taekwondo aims to achieve:

  • Curtesy
  • Integrety
  • Perseverance
  • Self Control
  • Indomitable spirit»

I like the tenets of Taekwondo very much. In just 5 words Choi laid out the goals of Taekwondo training and the foundation to understand Taekwondo philosophy as he saw it. He includes an
explanation on the tenets in each and every volume to highlight their importance within Chang Hon Taekwondo.

The student oath with its five rules are no where to be found in the 1965 book. It does however appear in the Encyclopedia of Taekwondo 1986 Volume 2 page 170:

  1. I shall observe the tenets of Taekwondo.
  2. I shall respect instructors and seniors.
  3. I shall never misuse Taekwondo.
  4. I shall be a champion of freedom and justice.
  5. I shall help to build a more peaceful world.

I remember reading that Choi said the philosophy of Taekwondo can be summed up by the last two points above (I shall be a champion of freedom and justice, I shall help to build a more peaceful world).

Looking at the tenets and the student oath under one, it becomes clear what values and goals Choi Hong Hi felt Taekwondo should develop in his students, and we will see that the other examples I have found will express common values. The tenets and oath together seems to aim to make a student into a curtious, honest person who will devote himself to be a good asset to society. It also has a rule against misusing Taekwondo, which is a very important part in most Martial Arts philosophies.

I have learned that the "modern" tenets and student oath as we know them today was published in Choi Hong Hi`s book from 1972. So it dates back to sometime between 1965-1972.

10 point Creed of Mu Duk Kwan

A while back I translated a few pages of Hwang Kee`s 1958 Tang Su Do Textbook. One of the things I translated was his 10 point creed which I learned is still in use in Su Bahk Do Dojangs even today.The creed is as follows (Hwang Kee Tang Su Do Textbook 1958 page 24)

1: Be loyal to the country

1: Filiel piety/ obidience to ones parents

1: Love between husband and wife (Maritial love)

1: Be cooperative between siblings

1: Be respectfull of elders

1: Faithfullness/ gratitude to the teacher

1: Faith between friends

1: Judicious killing

1: Do not withdraw when going into battle

1: Be a man of action

Here we see that helping society is expressed just as in the student oath of Choi, we see that loyalty, respect and proper conduct (curtesy) is also stressed. Indomitable spirit is easily enough identifiable with «Never withdraw when going into battle», and to never misuse the martial arts is expressed in «Judicious killing». In other words the 10 point creed of Mu Duk Kwan expresses the same values that we see in Choi`s tenets and student oath. It is expressed differently, but it is easy enough to see
that they share a common ground more so than differences. The readers might ask themselves why Hwang starts each and every guideline of his creed with the number 1. This is a common practice in Karate styles (I have only seen this in Hwang`s book so far so I do not know how widespread this practise was in Korea), and it signifies that all are equally important to the student. It was common practise in Okinawa and Japan before the big organisations took over, that each training hall had their own set of rules just like the one Hwang presents in his book. They were not the same and they generally expressed the teachers thoughts on what was important for him that the students he taught could take away from the training.

The way we act and behave in a traditional Dojang today is designed the way they are on purpose. Traditionally there were rules that governed everything from how to salute the flags when you get into the Dojang, how you bowed to standing instructors and how you bowed and then gave a kneeling bow to a seated instructor. How you sat, when told to sit, how you adressed the instructor or senior students, seating arrangments in ceremonies etc was also something that was written down and taught during training to the students. This all together ensured that several of the goals, and values in the Kwan Heon would be instilled into the students.

On page 25 Hwang continues with his points on how to develop yourself mentally:

5 important factors of cultivating a strong spirit

1.      Keep in contact with mother nature

2.      The environment/surroundings

3.      Experience

4.      Consience

5.      Refinement

Important Points

1.      A deep appreciation/love of nature

2.      Kiab (Kihap)

3.      Etiquette, curtesy, manners

4.      Modesty/Humility mind/spirit/heart

5.      Grateful mind/spirit/heart

6.      sacrifice mind/spirit/heart

7.      Cultivation of courage

8.      Fidelity

9.      Appear gentle from the outside but be strong within

10.  Patient mind

11.  Read a lot / Study hard

Again we see that what he fleshes out is also largely expressed in the tenets and student oath of Choi. We will later see other examples of Kwan Heon, but we can safely say that there is a huge overlap between different Kwan here.

Ji Do Kwan philosophy

Ji Do Kwan was founded in 1953 (or reopened Yoon Moo Kwan) by Yoon Kwae Byng. I do not know much about the philosophy and theory of the Yoon Moo Kwan, and the Ji Do Kwan never published any books on their own, so what we are left with is a phamplet that Al Cole made for a huge Ji Do Kwan anniversery, and texts that are written by Ji Do Kwan trained masters. This section
heavily borrows from my own teachers writings, as he included some Ji Do Kwan philosophy in his books. My teacher; Cho Woon Sup writes in his book from the early 90s on page 12:

«Taekwondo is a way of life, and it has its own philosophy that its exponents can make use of if they manage to comprehend it. This does not mean that he has to adapt to an ascetic lifestyle, but he should learn self discipline, curtesy and good manners.»

He continues:

«You should not follow Kwan Heon simply to satisfy your instructor. You should follow the instruction (Kwan Heon) from the will of your own heart. If you do not taket this seriously, you will not take your self nor Taekwondo seriously. This is a big part of what it is that makes Taekwondo into something more than just another sport.»

Ji Do Kwan had many guidelines, but one of the most fundemental one is presented on the same page (page 12):

1: I defend myself, therfore I will protect my family and defend my friends.

2: I defend my Kwan, therefore I will also defend my school, and all other public institutions (the country)

3: I defend my friend, therefore I will defend all other people, and all of the world.

We see here that the Ji Do Kwan identifies the small or macro factors that we want to defend or protect (things we will probably say yes to without question or hessitation) and then it takes us through a logical progression by extension to make us see the bigger picture. In the first one the progression goes «Myself – My family – My friends», the second one goes: «My Kwan – My School – Public institutions (the country)». The third one goes: «My friend – All people – The whole world». This means that the aim of the Ji Do Kwan was/is to develop a martial art that was ment strictly for self defense and peace. The Kwan Heon is expressed differently, but it has a lot of overlap from what we have seen before.

Another thing that Ji Do Kwan (and other Kwan) put a lot of weight to is that the Kwan Heon is not only for the Dojang but for life in general. Cho Woon Sup presents a different guideline that is also an important part of Ji Do Kwan philosophy on page 13:

«You are strong, therefore you can help other people that is in need of your strength».

He goes on to explain how this can be interpreted into other parts of your life as:

«You are rich, therefore you can help other people who does not have your wealth».  

Cho also states that because this love of the fellow man is one of the basic principles of Ji Do Kwan philosophy the Ji Do Kwan logo contains a budhist flower.

The most common way the Ji Do Kwan philosophy has been stated and the way it is stated in the phamplet gathered by Al Cole is:

"Taekwondo for my self
Taekwondo for my kwan
Taekwondo for my country"

KTA rules of conduct

Kukki Taekwondo (often called WTF Taekwondo) is perhaps better known for its sport part than as a proper martial art. What many people do not know and never learn is that the WTF and Kukkiwon both stem from an organisation that is still in operation today called The Korean Taekwondo Association. This association governs both the martial art and sport within Korea, the WTF the sport in all over the world, and the Kukkiwon the development for Taekwondo as a martial art and instructors education as well as being a place for courses, competitions etc. The Korean Taekwondo Association has a lot of rules concerning etiquette, manners and curtesy which they made themselves and formalized on the 7th of may 1971.In my teachers first books he included a great deal of them, so to me they are an integral part of Taekwondo training and has always been so. The «easiest» way to see a detailed overview of them is in Kim Jeong Rok`s book «Taekwondo Textbook Volume 1» from 1986. It contains more than 30 pages on the issue.

On page 67 Kim writes:

«The most valuable assets in Taekwondo are the rules of etiquette; the rules which gauge a practicer`s behavior, and the attitude deep within his heart. The practicers of taekwondo should live up to the high standards expected.» (Emphasis added by me).

Here we again see the importance placed on curtesy and etiquette. Given the sheer volume of text I can not go into detail in this article but suffice to say there are detailed instructions on everything from getting in and out of a car, seating arrangements, manners while eating, using the telephone, as well as training, and in the Dojang.

I do want to include two things from the KTA that is highly relevant for this article though; what he writes about the student oath, and what he writes about the attitude of the students:

KTA student oath

Kim writes on page 86:

«Each Taekwondo practice hall has an oath for the student to memorize. The oath may change slightly from place to place. The following is an example of an oath;

1: I realize what the spirit of taekwondo represents, and I will obey the instructions of the teachers placed above me.

2: I will demonstrate the spirit of taekwondo within my daily life and will have a strong sence of justice.

3: I will, to the best of my ability, try to develop my mind and body and will keep faith in my fellow students.

4: I will obey my parents, volunteer dedicated service to my country, and will strive to be a productive member of society.»

Again we are reminded of curtesy, being a productive member of society, service to the country and fellow man and not misusing Taekwondo («have a strong sense of justice»). As late as 1986 it was still common in Korea to have a student oath that varied from Dojang to Dojang, but this example oath is the first and only oath I have seen comming from the KTA. When I practised in Korea in a civillian Dojang however the oath above (or a close one to it) was recited before and after every childrens class.

KTA The attitude of the students

Kim continues on page 86-87 with an elleven point list concerning the students attitude.He writes:

«The student`s attitude is a very important aspect of his training. Following are the guidelines that each student is required to practice and continuously improve upon:

1: The student must strive for a complete understanding of all aspects of Taekwondo.

2: The student should always have a sincere outlook of Taekwondo. If there is a misunderstanding, the student shall not argue with the instructors or teachers, nor shall the student turn against the principles of Taekwondo.

3: The students will dedicate themselves to the popularization of taekwondo.

4: The students will establish longrange goals for themselves, and be able to teach taekwondo to others.

5: The students will demonstrate maturity, and be a good example of a true martial artist, and develop a good sense of sportsmanship.

6: In order to develop a strong competitive attitude, the instructors will set the example to follow.

7: Regardless of the circumstances, the student will not disobey the instructor and problems will be handled in a controlled manner. 

8: The students will neither be haughty nor complacent, and under no cicumstances will a student use the taekwondo techniques against others without good reason.

9: The student will not lose faith in their practice hall, their teachers or other students. 

10: Regardless of cicumstances, the students will follow the rules of etiquette and be an example for others to follow at home, school, or in any other social function.

11: The students will have the goal of being «Warriors of Wisdom» and will demonstrate courage, and control of their minds and bodies.


Looking at the different Kwan Heon it is easy to identify the common ground and see that we have much more in common than we have differences. Cho Woon Sup was very accurate when he wrote: «All Kwan generally has the same Heon, but they express it in different ways». We have looked at Oh Do Kwan, Mu Duk Kwan, Ji Do Kwan and the KTA`s Kwan Heon and we can sumarize that the aim of Taekwondo is not just to build a physically strong person, but to build a strong person, both mentally (inner strength) and physically (outer strength), as well as teaching the student when to use what has been learned and when not to use it. Taekwondo does not just make a person strong, but it also aims to teach people to use their strength for good. All the Kwan Heon has aspects within it to teach people to contribute to the society, and be a positive force in this world. The goals might be high and seem unreachable, and perhaps you would be right in thinking that, but at least we as Taekwondoin (Taekwondo students) have goals to reach for.

I hope to provide much more video content to this blog in the future. I have therefore set up a GoFundMe page on which I hope I can crowdfund a video editing software so I can make good quality videos for the blogs readers. If you want to contribute please visit the link to my GoFundMe page. Every donation helps :-)

Sources: Encyclopedia of Taekwondo Volume 2, Choi Hong Hi`s 1965 book, Cho Woon Sup`s Taekwondo 1& 2, Hwang Kee`s 1958 book and Kim Jeong Rok`s 1986 book.


  1. I wish I had this as a reference before I wrote my dissertation. What a nice summary! Sanko (Soo Shim Kwan)