What is Taekwondo? Definition, History, Rules, Belt System, Everything You Need to Know

what is taekwondo: a women practicing taekwondo

Maybe you’ve seen fleet-footed athletes in pristine white uniforms trade blows at the Olympics. Maybe you’ve just seen or heard the weird word “Taekwondo”. 

But what is Taekwondo?

Today we’re going to go far beyond just explaining that Taekwondo is a Korean martial art. Let’s dive into a detailed definition and history of Taekwondo. 

What is Taekwondo?

Taekwondo is a “new” martial art that was formed and named in Korea in the 1950s. Though it got its official name recently, the art has been practiced and passed down by the Korean people through the centuries. It blends several Korean traditional martial arts together, including Subak, Gwonbeop, and Taekkyon. 

Taekwondo martial artists are known for flexibility and powerful kicks that give them an advantage when fighting at a distance. Head-height kicks and spinning techniques are heavily emphasized. Students also learn a variety of hand strikes for close fighting situations. 

Aside from the physical aspect, Taekwondo is also very mental and to a certain extent, spiritual. Practitioners learn a solemn philosophy that ultimately culminates in bettering themselves as an individual and promoting peace among mankind. 

Meaning of the Word “Taekwondo”

The basic, literal Taekwondo meaning is explicitly listed in its name. Though written as one word in Korean, it is actually made up of three words. “Tae” means foot, leg, or to step on. “Kwon” means fist or fight. And “Do” means way or discipline. 

In other words, Taekwondo literally means “the way of fighting with hands and feet” — or something to that effect. 

Key Features of Taekwondo and Differences From Other Martial Arts

The main difference between Taekwondo and other martial arts is the emphasis on using the feet. Head-height kicks and spinning/jumping techniques are heavily emphasized, turning a proficient Taekwondoin (person who practices Taekwondo) into a powerful opponent. 

Karate and Kung Fu, (Japanese and Chinese arts respectively), use some of the same techniques as Taekwondo. However, a Karateka stays more grounded and is more likely to use punches and hand strikes over flashy kicks. Kung Fu artists use more circular motions, whereas Taekwondo is more direct, though somewhat less linear than Karate. 

Forms, a strict set of choreographed movements, are integral to the study of Taekwondo. However, you won’t see grappling moves or takedowns as is common in Judo or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In fact, a takedown in a Taekwondo tournament can result in penalty points. 

However, not all Taekwondo is created equal. As with Karate and other popular martial arts styles, groups have broken off over the years creating unique styles of Taekwondo.

Let’s take a quick look at the 3 most prominent Taekwondo styles. 

1. World Taekwondo

World Taekwondo (WT) is the most well-known Taekwondo organization. It was founded in 1973 under the name World Taekwondo Federation. The word “federation” was recently dropped from the name because of the unfortunate abbreviation WTF. 

This is the style that most heavily emphasizes the use of the feet and legs. Acrobatic, flashy kicks are the norm and the style is more focused on Taekwondo as a sport rather than as a method of self-defense. 

It is also the style that appears in the Olympics, which helps makes this style the most well-known among the general populace.  

2. International Taekwondo Federation

The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) was actually founded before World Taekwondo in 1966. At its formation, the ITF had the support and backing of the Korean state. However, due to political differences, the Korean state abandoned the ITF and formed the World Taekwondo Federation instead.

This style does not rely so heavily on the feet and legs. While foot techniques are still immensely important, ITF students will learn to rely a little more on their hands as well. Practitioners also use relatively low and wide stances.

The ITF takes a more combat-minded approach rather than emphasizing the sporting aspect of Taekwondo. In other words, students are generally better prepared for a street fight when training in an ITF school as compared to a WT school. 

3. American Taekwondo Association

The American Taekwondo Association (ATA) is unsurprisingly the most popular type of Taekwondo in America. The style is somewhat of a blend of the other two styles we’ve mentioned. Like WT there is more emphasis on kicks, but the style is more combat-minded like ITF. 

A major difference is the inclusion of weapons training. ATA schools teach students how to use bo staff, nunchucks, canes, and sticks. 

Some people consider this style to be easier to learn than the other two. While it takes between 4 and 7 years to progress through the ranks to black belt in the first two styles, it can take as little as 2 years in ATA schools. 

Taekwondo Belt System

Taekwondo uses a colorful system of belts to mark a student’s progress through the ranks. The colors are meant to symbolize the life cycle of a tree or the process of growing from a baby to an adult. 

Traditionally, the prominent Taekwondo belt colors are white, yellow, green, brown, blue, and red. However, there is no standardized system and individual schools may use the colors in a different order. 

There are 10 levels called gup (or geop) to get to the black belt level, but you may have noticed we only mentioned 6 colors. Some schools fix this by adding a stripe to the belt, others divide the colors into light green, dark green, etc. 

Regardless, every student advances through 10 levels. This gives instructors an idea of their skill level when students transfer into their schools. 

Competition and Organization

There are various organizations that oversee Taekwondo competitions and instruction in the world today. 

The oldest organization is the Korea Taekwondo Association, which was founded in 1959. This is the official beginning of Taekwondo. Various Korean martial artists brought Korean traditional martial arts together with Chinese and Japanese martial arts to create the modern-day Taekwondo. 

The most well-known organization is World Taekwondo (formerly the World Taekwondo Federation), which was founded by the KTA in 1973. The WT hosts several of its own tournaments per year and serves as the governing body of Taekwondo in the Olympics and Paralympics. 

The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) founded in 1966 by General Choi Hong Hi is another major player in the Taekwondo scene. Whereas the WT focuses on tournaments the ITF is more focused on Taekwondo as self-defense. 

However, the organization describes itself as having 4 parts. ITF Taekwondo is a sport, a martial art, a tool for social development, and a way of life. 

The ITF holds two prominent world championship events regularly — the ITF World Championships and the ITF World Cups. The purpose of the tournaments is to encourage friendships, promote technical improvement, and determine a winner for each championship title.

Rules and the Scoring System

The ITF and the WT each have their own set of Taekwondo rules and scoring systems for its tournaments. Let’s look at a basic breakdown of each. 

In individual sparring matches, the ITF awards:

  • 3 points for a jumping high section kick
  • 2 points for high section kicks, jumping high section hand attack, or a jumping mid-section kick
  • 1 point for mid-section kicks and mid or high-section hand attacks 

No holding, pushing, kicking below the waist, kicking to the back, or striking with the knee, elbow, or head is permitted. 

Only light contact is allowed. Strikes that are determined to be thrown with too much force can result in a penalty point. 

Team sparring and Taekwondo patterns or forms are also judged events.

Individual sparring participants in WT tournaments have more opportunities to earn points. Valid targets include:

  • 5 points for a turning kick to the head
  • 4 points for a turning kick to the trunk protector
  • 3 points for a kick to the head
  • 2 points for a kick to the trunk protector
  • 1 point for a punch to the trunk protector
  • 1 point is awarded to your opponent as a penalty for an illegal move

No kicking below the waist, pushing or grabbing, blocking with the legs, or strikes with the knees are allowed. Contestants also lose points for stepping out of bounds with both feet or falling to the ground. 

Contestants are allowed to use full-contact force, though the permitted target list is still restricted. 

Equipment and Facilities

ITF sparring matches take place in a 7-meter by 7-meter square area with a padded floor. Contestants must use a white competition uniform, known as a dobok. 

ITF sparring is limited to light contact only so contestants only wear hand and foot pads for protection. 

The WT uses an 8-meter octagonal “ring” with a padded floor as the competition area. All contestants must use a white dobok. They must also wear and trunk protector and head protector. Male contestants must also wear a groin guard under the dobok. 

To finish off the protection, forearm and shin guards, gloves, sensing socks, and a mouthguard are required to enter the competition area. Remember, WT allows full-contact sparring and thus requires the appropriate protective gear to avoid unnecessary injuries. 

Taekwondo Philosophy

As there are various styles and offshoots of Taekwondo, there is not one unified Taekwondo philosophy. However, each organization/school builds their philosophies around some common themes. These include respect for leaders and one another (including parents and siblings), the promotion of peace, and the qualities of perseverance and self-control. 

Let’s explore this a little deeper. 

Hwarang Code

Perhaps the earliest example of Taekwondo’s philosophy was set forth and followed by the Hwarang Knights. These brave young knights lived during the Three Kingdoms era of Korean History. 

There were known for their incredible martial arts prowess but also their dedication to a code of virtues. These virtues were set forth by the Buddhist Monk Wonkwang Bopsa. The five tenets are:

  • Loyal to their King
  • Love and respect for their parents
  • Trust among friends
  • Fearlessness in battle
  • Killing should be merciful and only happen with just cause

The skill and honor of these knights was unparalleled. History attributes much of the credit for uniting the Three Kingdoms in Korea to this group of warriors. This ushered in a period of peace and prosperity in Korea that lasted over 200 years. 

The strength of their valor and spirit was so strong that the embodiment of their principles, called the Hwarang spirit, is still a large part of Taekwondo philosophy to this day. 

The Five Tenets of ITF

Overall, Taekwondo philosophy seeks to build a more peaceful world. Different schools/organizations express this philosophy differently, but this underlying theme is still there. 

The ITF expresses this philosophy through their five tenets:

  1. Courtesy: politeness and respect for others
  2. Integrity: honest and prudent in your use of the techniques you learn
  3. Perseverance: learn to plow through the challenges of life
  4. Self-Control: controlling (not repressing) emotions and acting from reason
  5. Indomitable Spirit: confidence in strength and a spirit that cannot be broken

Martial arts training in ITF schools seeks to develop these characteristics in its students. Other positive characteristics blossom out of these five, including respect, goodness, loyalty, humility, courage, and patience. 

Individuals that develop these characteristics become well-rounded, responsible people that will ultimately work towards peaceful resolutions. 

Students undergo a transformation during the journey from white belt to black belt. It doesn’t matter the student’s background, race, creed, nation, etc, everyone learns to work toward peace. 

In short, world peace is attainable, one individual at a time. 

ITF Oath
  • “I shall observe the tenets of Taekwondo”
  • “I shall respect the instructors and seniors”
  • “I shall never misuse Taekwondo”
  • “I shall be a champion of freedom and justice”
  • “I shall build a more peaceful world”

WT Philosophy

The WT philosophy is also based on five tenets, but they differ slightly. They are:

  1. Dedication to promoting the welfare of mankind
  2. Reasonable, rational behavior
  3. Possess/emulate the Hwarang spirit
  4. Be friendly to everyone
  5. Never abuse power as a martial artist (don’t be a bully)

This philosophy is intertwined throughout Taekwondo training. The purpose is to create a philosophy that penetrates the very character of its students. 

A philosophy that is read in a book is quickly forgotten. A philosophy that is tied to the movement of your body and your expected behavior in and out of the dojang will stay with you for the rest of your life. 

Historically, WT philosophy draws from a couple of principles passed down through Korean history. These are the Sam Jae and the Eum and the Yang.

Sam Jae means “the three elements”. These are the heavens, the earth, and man. All changes in the world are explained by the interaction of these three elements. 

The Eum and the Yang (Yin and Yang may be more familiar) represent the unity of opposites. Specifically negative (the dark) and positive (the light). 

The History of Taekwondo

Though the name is modern, the idea of Taekwondo has a long and rich history stretching back thousands of years. Let’s take a look at how the techniques developed and were passed down through the centuries to arrive at one of the most popular martial arts in the world today. 

The Development of Taekwondo in Chronological Order

The history of Taekwondo is long and colorful. The farther back we go, the more gaps there are in the story. However, scholars have put together a basic Taekwondo history timeline that we’ll show you here.

  • 2333 B.C: Legend states that Tangun founded a civilization on the Korean peninsula
  • 50 B.C: Approximate date of the first records of Taekwondo (cave drawings of men in Taekwondo poses on Korean cave walls)
  • 57 B.C: The kingdom of Silla begins
  • 37 B.C: The kingdom of Kogyryo begins
  • 18 B.C: The kingdom of Packje begins — thus begins the three-kingdom dynasty of ancient Korea. The martial art Subak circulates through the kingdoms
  • 540 – 576 A.D: The valiant warrior group of Hwa Rang Do was founded by Chin Heung, the 24th king of Silla
  • 660 A.D: With the help of Hwa Rang warriors, Silla conquers Packje
  • 668 A.D: Again, thanks to the Hwa Rang warriors, Sill conquers Koguryo. This unites the three kingdoms on the peninsula and ushers in an era of peace
  • 668 – 935 A.D: The Hwa Rang warriors continue practicing Subak, eventually transforming the martial art into something a bit more orderly and with more structure. This new art was called Taekyon. During this time both arts became popular among the general populace, not just in the military
  • 935 A.D: General Wang Kon led an insurrection, overthrowing the current government and establishing the Koryo dynasty. All military personnel were required to train in Taekyon and the art remained popular amongst the general public as well
  • 1392 A.D: The Yi (or Chosun) Dynasty is established. This dynasty held a more Confucian view, in which there is little room for martial arts. However, both Taekyon and Subak continue to be practiced among the general public. Some instructors leave, looking for more favorable places to teach in other Asian countries
  • 1909: The Japanese invade, conquering the peninsula and outlawing all aspects of Korean culture — including their martial arts. Taekyon instructors either trained in secret or fled to other areas where their art was influenced by other styles of martial arts
  • 1945: Korea is finally free from Japanese occupation and the people are free to practice Korean martial arts again. However, the art is haphazard and inconsistent. Some schools are formed with heavy Japanese influences
  • 1945 – 1946: Various martial artists including Grand Master Byung Jick Ro, Master Won-Kuk Lee, Hwang Kee, Sang Sup Chun, and Yon Kue Pyang either opened schools or founded new forms of the art. Non were widely successful
  • 1946: The police in Seoul, Korea begin learning Taekyon and First Lieutenant Choi Hong Hi starts teaching his style of Taekyon to the military unit he commands
  • 1950-1953: The Korean War ravages the country and divides it in two
  • 1952: South Korean president Syngman Rhee orders all soldiers to learn Taekyon with the now Captain Choi Hong Hi leading the initiative
  • 1953: Now a General, Choi Hong Hi found Oh Do Kwan school. Master Hong Jong Pyo and Master Park Chul Hee open the school Kang Duk Kwan. Master Byrung Jick Ro opens a third Sang Moo Kwan school after the first two attempts failed and finally succeeds. The Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) is formed by 9 kwans (schools)
  • 1954: Lee Yong Woo founds the Jung Do Kwan. Master Lee Kyo Yoon founds the Han Moo Kwan
  • 1955: Master Won Kook Lee organizes the Chung Do Kwan conference. Nine kwans come together to merge their arts and rename the Korean martial art Tae Soo Do
  • 1957: General Choi recommends the name Taekwondo and it is accepted by the 9 kwans
  • 1958: Master Hwang Kee Hwang remove the school Tang Soo Do Moo Duck Kwan from the group and forms Tang Soo Do
  • 1960: As a sign of goodwill, General Choi sent a South Korea Taekwondo team to North Korea, an act which made him fall out of favor with both the government and the public
  • 1963: Master Duk-Sun Son established the Worl Taekwondo Association in New York City
  • 1966: General Choi founded the ITF as a separate organization since he fell out of favor with the Korean people and the government
  • 1967: US Taekwondo Association is founded
  • 1969: Master Haeung Lee founds the American Taekwondo Association in Omaha, Nebraska
  • 1973: The World Taekwondo Federation is founded as the official Taekwondo organization in Korea
  • 1977: The nine kwans streamline a black belt certification process and certificates. 
  • 1978-1986: Both Taekwondo organizations (ITF and WTF) work to promote Taekwondo and begin competing in world championships. The WTF grows more prominent and popular than the ITF.
  • 1988: WTF Taekwondo appears as an exhibition sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games
  • 1990 – 1998: WTF is accepted as an official sport in competitions around the world including the Central American Games, the Asian Games, the World Military Games, and the All African Games. It also appeared as an exhibition sport in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
  • 2000: WTF Taekwondo becomes an official sport in the Sydney Olympic Games 

History of Taekwondo in America

Taekwondo came to America largely after the Korean War when returning soldiers brought it back with them. Additionally, after General Choi’s fallout with the Koreans, he came first to the US and later retired to Canada where he dedicated his life to Taekwondo until he died of stomach cancer in 2002. 

Let’s look at how the timeline played out.

  • 1949: Korean soldiers began demonstrating Taekwondo in US Army camps
  • 1954 and later: Atlee Cheetman began teaching Tang Soo Do in Texas when he came back from the war. Starting in 1960, various others began opening Tang Soo Do schools in various parts of the US. Additionally, Korean college students studying in the US bring their martial arts studies with them
  • 1957: Jhoon Rhee starts unofficially teaching Korean martial arts after returning from the war
  • 1960: General Choi visits and convinces Jhoon Rhee to adopt the name Taekwondo
  • 1962: Jhoon Rhee opens his own Taekwondo school in Washington D.C.
  • 1965: Chung Suk-Jong comes to Chicago and starts a formal ITF school
  • 1969: Haeng Ung Lee founds the ATA in Omaha, Nebraska. The ATA quickly spread across the US and Taekwondo’s popularity skyrocketed from there

FAQs

Got questions about Taekwondo? We’ve got answers. Check them out here!

Where did Taekwondo originate?

Korea. The official martial art called Taekwondo came into being in the 50s with the formation of the Korea Taekwondo Association. This body originally represented 9 kwans (schools) in Korea. However, the modern martial art is based on various indigenous styles of Korean martial arts like taekkyeon, subak, and gwonbeop that go back at least 5000 years. 

Who invented taekwondo?

General Choi Hong Hi is recognized as the founder of Taekwondo in modern times. He served as the first president of the Korean Taekwondo Association, then later formed the International Taekwondo Federation. He also organized the first Taekwondo world championship in Montreal. 

Of course, though officially Taekwondo was formed in the 1950s, the basic principles of Taekwondo go back centuries.

Who is the legendary warrior in Taekwondo history?

The Hwa Rang Knights, of which General Yoo Shin Kim is the most famous, were a legendary fighting force known not only for their strength but also for their discipline and spiritual practice. Famed Buddhist Monk Wonkwang Bopsa gave them 5 laws to follow:

  1. Loyal to their King
  2. Love and respect for their parents
  3. Trust among friends
  4. Fearlessness in battle
  5. Mercy in killing (and only when justified)

They served the Kingdon of Silla in Ancient Korea during a time when the area was divided into three kingdoms. Their brave efforts were instrumental in uniting the three kingdoms and ushering in a period of peace and prosperity for over 200 years. 

Is Taekwondo a sport / martial arts?

Taekwondo is a modern martial art based on indigenous Korean martial arts including Taekkyon, Gwonbeop, and Subak. During the 40s and 50s, it was developed as a combat sport and world competitions are held regularly. 

Is Taekwondo an Olympic sport?

Yes. Taekwondo first made its appearance appropriately as a demonstration Olympic sport in 1988 at the Seoul Games. In 2000, it debuted as an official medal sport at the Sydney Games.

Is Hapkido the same as Taekwondo?

No. Hapkido and Taekwondo have different histories, philosophies, and techniques. Taekwondo techniques rely heavily on punching and kicking, including jumping and spinning techniques that add speed and force to the strikes. Hapkido techniques are more often counter moves rather than dedicated attacks. Strikes are learned but immobilizing the opponent through a joint lock is preferred.  

What are the 5 rules of Taekwondo?

  1. Courtesy: politeness and respect for others
  2. Integrity: honest and prudent in your use of the techniques you learn
  3. Perseverance: learn to plow through the challenges of life
  4. Self-Control: controlling (not repressing) emotions and acting from reason
  5. Indomitable Spirit: confidence in strength and a spirit that cannot be broken

Some schools may interpret or change these 5 Taekwondo rules slightly. However, these are the basic tenets that are part of what makes up Taekwondo.

Can you punch in Taekwondo?

Yes. Though Taekwondo is more known for kicks there are plenty of hand strike techniques used in the art as well. Punches are also allowed in Taekwondo competitions, though punches to the head are forbidden. 

What is the difference between WTF and ITF Taekwondo?

Intent. The WT (formerly WTF) is more concerned with sport-style Taekwondo. This is the style you’ll see in the Olympics. The ITF is more focused on teaching Taekwondo as self-defense. 

The two styles are based on the same martial arts styles going back centuries. However, the two have developed differently since their formations in 1955 (ITF) and 1973 (WT). 

Because of political disagreements, the Korean state abandoned the ITF and formed the WT, which is now the most influential form of Taekwondo. 

What is the difference between Karate and Taekwondo?

Karate is a Japanese version of martial arts while Taekwondo is the Korean version. Taekwondo focuses more on using the legs as weapons. It also incorporates jumps and spinning techniques to add more power. Karateka are a little more grounded, focusing on hand techniques for attacks. 

Is Taekwondo good for self-defense?

Yes. Though many Taekwondo techniques seen in sport Taekwondo are more flashy, the basics of Taekwondo are highly effective. 

The art focuses on using the legs, a person’s longest and strongest weapons. When used well, you can keep an attacker at bay and then use a well-placed kick to the head to finish the fight. 

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Cara Koch

Cara Koch

Hello! My name is Cara, and I hail from the great state of Washington up there in the Pacific Northwest. While there, I trained for and earned my 1st degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do at the Bonney Lake College of Martial Arts. My interest in martial arts, however, didn’t wane. I hope you enjoy the content on The Karate Blog and are impassioned and empowered by what you read here.