Learn how the hit WEBTOON series and anime helped reveal the wild, weird, and shocking history of Taekwondo!
If, like me, you found yourself yearning for some physical activity and breaks from the tedium of schoolwork as a kid, you might have found yourself wanting to learn some martial arts. Watching action stars like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, as well as anime, playing fighting games and more, left me with an interest in learning a martial art myself. I found myself at the door of a local Taekwondo school and was instantly hooked. Sadly, like many things, time and obligations got in the way and I had to give up my pursuit of martial arts, but I always found the subject interesting. When I started reading The God of High School, I was instantly hooked by the idea that Jin Mori used Taekwondo, but suddenly, I found myself questioning things: What did they mean, that there were multiple types of Taekwondo? Wasn’t all Taekwondo the same? What was “Renewal Taekwondo” and was it a real thing? The answer to that question is... sort of. Also: There are some light spoilers here! Be warned!
In The God of High School, the revelation that Jin practices “Renewal Taekwondo” serves as a shock to the cast, particularly the Judges and Park Mujin, as it reveals the fact that Jin’s grandfather, Jin Taejin, was not only still alive, but that he had passed on the incredibly powerful skills of Renewal Taekwondo to someone else. At this point in the anime, the reveal has played out far differently, although there’s no telling whether this might change as the anime progresses. We do know that Jin uses Renewal Taekwondo, but we don’t get the same backstory and discussion revolving around Jin’s grandfather, and the past regarding Taekwondo itself. In the WEBTOON series, Park Mujin reveals that “Renewal Taekwondo” was created by South Korean leaders following a defeat at the hands of North Korean “ITF” Taekwondo. And, suddenly, my childhood came back to me: I had learned “WT” Taekwondo, so what was “ITF?” Was it just something the web comic made up, like “Renewal Taekwondo?” As it turns out, this particular rabbit hole went a whole lot deeper, and weirder, than I ever imagined.
Perhaps the first, and most shocking, fact regarding Taekwondo is that it is less than 100 years old. Many historians agree there is some fluidity to a solid date, but as 4th Dan David Lo notes, Taekwondo likely began formally in 1955, when General Choi Hong-Hi named it after developing the first basic forms of the martial art. While many other popular martial arts, such as Karate, Tai Chi, or Kung-Fu often discuss their proud, long lineages, Taekwondo is often mistakenly assumed to be ancient; in fact, it is only perhaps somewhat related to Taekkyeon, which was nearly wiped out during Japanese occupation. After World War II, the Japanese occupation of Korea came to an end. During the occupation, Japan was particularly cruel to Koreans, suppressing their language, culture, and identity — extending this treatment to martial arts practitioners were forced to quit or go into hiding while Japanese Karate was taught instead. Taekwondo would come from the confluence of various martial arts, having more in common with Karate, mostly due to the violent banning of Korean culture.
Combining their knowledge with new techniques in Shotokan karate, Kung-Fu, and others, would begin to create schools, or “Kwans,” which would give rise to what we today recognize as Taekwondo. Scott Shaw, one of the eminent English authors and students of Taekwondo, explains the genealogy of the first 5, and subsequent 4, Kwans; these Kwans were fairly diverse, with nine divergent approaches and teachers developing their own takes on martial arts. In many cases, historians consider Song Moo Kwan the Kwan most responsible for eventual Taekwondo, with Byung Jik Ro called by some as the “father” of “modern” Taekwondo (more on that later) the original five Kwans — Song Moo Kwan, Chung Do Kwan, Moo Duk Kwan, Ji Do Kwan, and Chang Moo Kwan — were the birthplace of Taekwondo, but it would take another war, and social and cultural upheaval for Taekwondo to really emerge.
Song Moo Kwan and Chung Do Kwan were founded in 1944, with the other 5 founding Kwans appearing in the following 2 years. If we start Taekwondo’s timeline there, that means Taekwondo is only 76 years old (meaning there’s a good chance your grandparents might actually be older than Taekwondo!), but the “real” birth of Taekwondo would come a fair bit after these Kwans were founded. For that to happen, Korea would be forced into another protracted battle that would decide the course of its modern fate, and the dispersal of Taekwondo to the rest of the world: The Korean War.
Separating the country along the 38th parallel into what are today known as North Korea and South Korea, this civil war shaped Korea’s modern history in cataclysmic ways, separating family members, friends, and cultural identity. Like many aspects of Korean life, Taekwondo found itself straddling an uncomfortable and unclear line: The original Kwans were spread out across the Korean peninsula, with Song Moo Kwan being in what would now be North Korea. Following the Korean war, this would lead perhaps the most controversial figure in Taekwondo history to emerge: General Choi Hong Hi, the true “father” of Taekwondo.
Alex Gillis' A Killing Art reveals the life, warts and all, of General Choi. Born in 1918 in Hwa Dae (located in now North Korea), General Choi Hong Hi was sent to Japan by his father to study, ending up in the tutelage of Han Il Dong, a master of Taekkyeon, one of Korea’s oldest martial arts. Forced into military service by the Japanese, Choi would eventually find himself continuing to serve in the Korean military following the end of World War II and Japanese occupation, earning the title of major general in 1954 (and thus earning him both his title and nickname, “The general”).
Choi’s mastery of Taekkyeon and Shotokan karate led him to develop what he titled “Taekwon-Do,” or “foot, fist, art.” Choi is, as far as historians can tell, the first person to use the word “Taekwondo,” and rightfully seems to deserve the title. The controversy, however, comes from the disagreements between Choi (who, some authors note, was somewhat disagreeable and even deceptive) and other Kwan leaders and Taekwondo practitioners. This would lead to the eventual creation, and split, of Taekwondo into ITF and WT schools, among many other offshoots.
Whether Choi was or wasn’t a deceptive and deceitful person seems to be based on who you ask, and the most common perception of him was that he was complicated (as are we all). What authors and historians such as Lo, Gillis, Shaw, and others agree on is that without General Choi, there would be no Taekwondo, and the subsequent power struggle nearly destroyed, as Lo calls it, the “family” of Taekwondo. While it is perhaps more palatable to consider martial arts as monastic and scholarly, the reality is that they are practiced, created, and influenced by people, and Taekwondo’s somewhat ugly and public schism is a great reminder of this. Choi originally founded the ITF, or International Taekwon-Do Federation, in 1966; however, Choi’s attempts to control all aspects of Taekwon-Do, and the South Korean government’s insistence on “owning” Taekwondo, would create the split that saw Choi flee from Korea to Canada and South Korea creating the KTA (Korean Taekwondo Association), which would eventually give way to the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF, now known as WT), under the governing body of the Kukkiwon.
In the ITF version of this story, Choi simply decided to go “on tour” in 1959, before eventually creating the ITF in 1966. The WT version of the story is just as revisionist, claiming that Taekwondo has roots that supposedly go back 2000 years and that the WT was created in 1973 as the first governing body of Taekwondo. No mention of Choi or the ITF exists in the WT version of Taekwondo. Udo Moening, author of numerous papers about Taekwondo’s cultural and social significance, helps explain the disparity between these two stories by noting that Taekwondo is as much an object of political importance to the identity of Korea as it is a form of martial skill and discipline. Simply put, Moening argues, Taekwondo became a piece of the struggle for identity between South Korea and North Korea, and the eventual race to Olympic recognition would become a major victory in this battle for the WT and South Korea.
The schism in Taekwondo (or Taekwon-Do, in ITF’s usage) is perhaps even more interesting in the sense that one did not immediately replace the other; instead of the WT supplanting the ITF, the two schools of Taekwondo went about their own paths. Yet, Kukkiwon managed to obtain a significant victory over Choi and ITF Taekwondo: inclusion in the Olympics. In 1982, Kukkiwon was able to arrange a demonstration of Taekwondo for the IOC in 1988 and became an official event during the Asian Games in 1986. In 1994, Kukkiwon “won” the competition for Taekwondo legitimacy by being selected by the IOC as an official sport of the Olympics, joining Judo as the only other Asian martial art in the Olympic games, and debuting in the 2000 games in Australia.
Choi, however, had won in another way: his ITF Taekwondo spread across the world, and his somewhat ingenious method of sending Taekwondo “acolytes” to various places to form their own schools helped make Taekwondo popular and profitable. There are other forms of Taekwondo out there, including ATA (American Taekwondo Association), Jhoon Rhee Style, and the GTF (Global Taekwondo Federation), a split from ITF. Chuck Norris, during the height of his popularity in the '90s, even formed his own school that blended Tang Soo Do and Taekwondo called Chun Kuk Do!
While Choi was successful in spreading Taekwondo around the globe, and South Korea was able to claim “ownership” of the sport through political engineering and historical revision, Taekwondo in the United States would owe much of its growth and popularity to a different individual: Jhoon Rhee. Rhee, learning Taekwondo at the Chung Do Kwan in his childhood, came to America in the '60s to study engineering. Needing some extra money, Rhee began teaching Taekwondo, and through luck and hard work, launched the popularity of the martial art in the United States via television and Hollywood. Like all good and weird success stories, Rhee gained fame from his “viral” '70s commercial jingle, written by Nils Lofgren, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band!
Rhee’s unconventional approach to success worked, taking his Taekwondo to both of America’s hearts: Hollywood and Washington DC. Rhee would go on to teach and demonstrate Taekwondo to various celebrities including Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee — even writing a book, Bruce Lee and I, in 2011. He also met with President Reagan and famously demonstrated Taekwondo to the United States Congress in 1965. There was even a sparring match between Republicans and Democrats!
But what do all of these different types of Taekwondo actually mean? When I was practicing, did I learn “the wrong” type? Well, the answer is… no! The major difference in schools seems to come down to forms, ranks, and some other small administrative differences — such as who can spar, and why, or what types of focus there is in learning Taekwondo in general. Perhaps due to the odd nature of Taekwondo’s spread outside of Korea, the sport is also highly “commercial;” the ATA and Jhoon Rhee schools, for example, were founded on the idea of both teaching the sport and also establishing chain schools that would funnel profits back to the original founders, essentially creating a business instead of the somewhat monastic idea of a martial art like the Kung-Fu or Karate that appear in movies and media.
As noted by Doug Cook, the forms, of Poomsae, are constantly changing, due in part to the various types and hybrids of Taekwondo, but also due to the somewhat infant nature of the sport compared to other forms. It would be hard, as many authors point out, to find a “true” strain of Taekwondo these days. Instead, the various approaches, forms, and inherent teachings all help create different, unique ideas of the original created by Choi in the '50s — itself a hybrid of various types of martial arts.
It's fairly common in martial arts stories to hear epic tales of the history and longevity of a martial art, but Taekwondo provides us with the unique and interesting experience of seeing that historical mythology evolve in real time. From the controversial Choi to the roots of the Korean search for identity following Japanese occupation and later civil war, Taekwondo serves as a mirror for Korea’s own evolution. While Taekwondo may not be an “ancient” form of martial arts, it is a uniquely Korean one, and one that has a complex history and personality, and thanks to The God of High School, I found myself falling into the rabbit hole of its story. “Reclamation” Taekwondo may not actually exist, but in many ways, Taekwondo was a form of reclamation for Korea: an attempt to create something new and unique in the face of years of brutal occupational rule and civil strife.
Did you know about the history of Taekwondo? What's your favorite style to practice? Let us know, and while you're at it, tell us your current fave WEBTOON series in the comments!
Nicole is a frequent wordsmith for Crunchyroll. Known for punching dudes in Yakuza games on her Twitch channel while professing her love for Majima. She also has a blog, Figuratively Speaking. Follow her on Twitter: @ellyberries. Here's that serotonin you ordered.
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