People in primitive ages no matter where they lived, had to develop personal skills to fight in order to obtain their food and to defend themselves against their enemies, including wild animals. They also had to invent weapons for more effective defense. However, even after they learned to use weapons, they never stopped their efforts to promote the development of their bodies and minds by practicing various games, especially in the form of religious rites.

Tribal States: Tracing the Origins

The Korean ancestors who settled in several tribal states in this land after the neolithic age had many such activities. Yongko in Pyostate, Tongmaeng in Koguryo, Muchon in Ye and Mahan and Kabi in the Silla Dynasty are some of the striking examples of the “sport activities” which ancient Koreans practiced in their religious rites. These eventually were developed into exercises to improve health or martial abilities.


The long experience of ancient people in defending themselves against the attacks of animals as well as their imitation of the defensive and offensive positions assumed by the animals slowly led the people to develop more effective skills of their own in the use of their hand in fighting, thus creating a primitive form of Taekyon.

The origin of Taekyon can be traced back to the Koguryo Dynasty, founded in 37 B.C. since mural painting found in the ruins of the royal tombs built by that dyansty show scenes of Taekyon practice. Muyong-Chong and Kakchuchong are two royal tombs built in the Koguryo Dynasty, which were discovered by a group of archaeologists since 1935. They were located in Tangku, Chain county, Tuyghau province in Manchuria, where Koguryo had its capital in Hwando province.

The ceiling of the Muyong-Chong carried a painting depicting two men facing each other in Tae Kwon Do practice, while the mural paintings of Kakchu-Chong show two men wrestling. In reference to this particular painting, Tatashi Saito, a Japanese historian, in the “Study of Culture in Ancient Korean,” says: “The painting either shows us that the person buried in the tomb practiced Tae Kwon Do while he was alive or it tells us that the people practiced it, along with dancing and singing, for the purpose of consoling the soul of the dead.”

The construction of the above two tombs dates back to the period between 3 A.D. and 427 A.D., during which historians say, Hwando province remains the capital of Koguryo. It can therefore be inferred that Koguryo people started practicing Taekyon during that period.

Hwarangdo of the Silla Dynasty: “Code of Honor”

Tae Kwon Do was also practiced during the Silla Dynasty. The Syllia was a kingdom founded in the southeastern part of the land some 20 years before Koguryo in the north. At Kungju, the ancient capital of Silla, two Buddhist images are inscribed on the Kumkang Giant Tower at Sokkuram in Palkak-sa Temple, portraying two giants facing each other in a Taekyon stance.

Silla was famous for its Hwarang. Korean culture and martial arts of the period were strongly influenced and enriched by the Hwarangdo, a military, educational and social organization and noble youths of the Silla Dynasty. The code of honor on which the Hwarang was based upon loyalty to the nation, respect and obedience to one´s parents, faithfulness to one´s friends, courage in battle and avoidance of unnecessary violence and killing. The influence of the Hwarangdo played an important role in unifying the three kingdoms.

Many scattered descriptions in written documents of the three kingdoms such as the Samguk Yusa, the oldest document of Korean history, show the Hwarangdo not only regarded the Tae Kwon Do. Therefore, it can be inferred that people in the three kingdoms practiced an art very much like the one we study today. Upon one´s visit to the Pulkak-sa Temple we find that the area is under restoration and the above mentioned images reflecting Tae Kwon Do stances are sheltered from unwarranted intrusions by tourists. Once again, a monk stands guard offering prayers for those who visit the shrine.

Subak in the period of Koryo and Yi Dynasties

In the history of Koryo, Taekyon, Taekwondo (which was then termed “Subak”) was practiced not only as a skill to improve health and as a sports activity buti t was also encouraged as a martial art of considerably high value.

Here are a few extracts from the historical record of Koryo that testify to the popularity of Tae Kwon Do as a martial art.

“King Uijong admired the excellence of Yi Ui-min Subak and promoted him from Taejong (military rank) to Pyolchang.”

“The king appeared at the Sang-chun Pavilion and watched Subak contests.”

“The king watched Subak contests at Hwa-bi Palace.”

“The king came to Ma-am and watched Subak contests.”

These records indicated the Subak in the Koryo Dynasty was also practiced as an organized sport for spectators.

Subak is believed to have gained its highest popularity during the reign of King Uijong, between 1147 and 1170 A.D. This period roughly corresponds to the era that includes part of the Chinese Sung and Ming Dynasties, during which the Chinese “Kung fu” became widely popular after this self-defense art was developed in two advanced systems, Neikya and Weikya. These two systems differ chiefly in that the one employs more defensive skills and the other offensive skills. The above fact is worth noticing as it further shows that Tae Kwon Do is not only of a pure Korean origin but it has achieved independent development throughout the long history of Korea.

What is very important about Subak in the Yi Dynasty is that there was a book published to teach the game as a martial art that it became more popular among the generic public whereas

[the] earlier it had been, to a certain degree, monopolized by the military in the preceding Koryo Dynasty.

A historical record indicates that people from the both Chung-Chong and Cholla provinces once gathered at the village of Chakji located along the provincial boundary to compete in Subak. This record supports the notion that Subak played an important role as a popular sport activity of the people in the Yi Dyansty. Furthermore, people who aspired to be employed by the military department of the royal government were eager to learn Subak because it was included as one of the major subjects of the test to be taken by the applicants.

Meanwhile, King Chongjo published “Muye Dobo Tonji” an illustrated textbook on martial arts, which included Tae Kwon Do as one of the major chapters. It is obvious, therefore, that Subak became an important national sport and attracted much attention from both the royal court and the general public during the Yi Dyansty. However, in the latter half of the Yi Dynasty the importance of Subak as a martial art began to decline due to negligence of the royal court, which was constantly disturbed by strife between feuding political factions. As a result, Subak remained merely as a recreational activity for ordinary people.

The Silla warriors were, apparently, the reason for the growth of Korean martial arts. The warriors, the Hwarang, had been taught the fitness-oriented Tae Kyon by the soldiers from Koguryo who helped to defend the Silla kingdom from Japanese pirates. Tae Kyon was introduced into the military training for Silla´s young nobility. This training evolved into Hwarang-do, the Way of flowering manhood.

During the Koryo Dynasty, 935 A.D. to 1392 A.D., Tae Kyon was modified and became Subak. Subak was less fitness-oriented and more of a fighting art. The training declined over the years until only a few families were still active. This decline lasted until 1909 when the Japanese invaded and occupied Korea for the next 36 years. While under Japanese control, all military arts were banned. This ban is what sparked the revival of Subak. When the people were told they could not train in any martial arts, they revolted by going underground and training in secret.

In the years that followed came new men of strength who remained steadfast to the traditions of their fathers. They were the ones who established Tae Kwon Do´s modern legacy. The introduction of the “Kwan; The family unit within the martial way.”

Image : Korean Painting – Daekwaedo