Martial arts have become part of modern American culture and the practice of Korean Taekwondo has emerged as the most popular and widely studied form of martial arts in the United States. Some estimates put the number of practitioners in this country at 2 to 3 million. Forty percent of which are children between the ages of 7 and 14. The South Korean government has published an estimate that Taekwondo is practiced by over 20 million people in 190 countries around the world. The martial arts “industry” generates annual revenue topping the $1 billion mark. Why has this ancient Korean warrior training, seeped in tradition and history, become so attractive to our modern American culture? Why do our rosy cheeked toddlers and be-speckled adolescent school kids, along with their suburbia parents and occasional grandma, and grandpa embrace the study and practice of Taekwondo? But perhaps more importantly is the question of how this discipline has affected our ever changing, and “not so” disciplined American culture. In this report, we will examine the evolution of Korean Taekwondo within its country of origin and further analyze why we, as Americans embrace this ancient art form and its effect on our own society.
Why are we flocking to Dojongs (gyms) by the thousands? On the surface, the kicks, punches, and blocks often glorified in Hollywood movies where the bad guy is brought down by a series of spinning hook kicks, or a single flying side kick to the face, inspires many individuals of becoming a master martial artist. Bruce Lee, and the Karate Kid have popularized the “sport” of Taekwondo and many movies have further added to its mystic. Martial arts films such as Enter the Dragon, Rush Hour, and the Oscar winning Crouching Tiger-Hidden Dragon create a certain enthusiasm among a segment of society. Simply put, many people are attracted to the superficial side of martial arts. It looks “cool” so we want to be a part of it. In this report, we will dig deeper into our American psyche and delve into the question of why we have seen the rise in Taekwondo’s popularity in this country. However, before we do so, we must first gain some historical perspective of this ancient art form and the role it plays in the country where it originated-Korea.
Taekwondo is loosely based upon ancient Korean martial arts that have existed in one form or another for 2,000 years. The oldest Korean martial art was basically an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Korguryo, Silla, and Paekje. During the three kingdom period, Koreans had to defend themselves from foreign aggressors from China and Japan. Due to this, the kingdoms tried to consolidate, stressing the spirit of national defense among the people. In 668 the three provinces united and young men who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in a special warrior corps, called the Hwa Rang Do. These warriors not only learned martial arts, but were also taught a code of ethics, allegiance to one’s country, respect for one’s parents, integrity in ones friendships, courage in battle and restraint from unnecessary cruelty and killing. Philosophy, history, extensive weapons training, equestrian sports, archery, as well as military tactics and unarmed combat where also incorporated in their activities. Sobak was a leg-oriented art from the kingdom of Korguryo, but Silla’s influence added hand techniques to the practice of sobak. Eventually, the elite Hwa Rang warrior corps set up a military academy for the sons of royalty in Silla called Hwa Rang-Do, which means “the way of flowering manhood.” The Hwa Rang studied history, Confucian philosophy, ethics, Buddhist morality, social skills and military tactics. The guiding principles of the Hwa Rang warriors have carried forward to modern Taekwondo teachings and are stressed to this day.
Korea’s rich history of ancient and traditional martial arts began to fade under the Yi Dynasty, and further eroded under the highly centralized Korean Confucianism period. Moving forward to the Japanese occupation of Korea during WWII, all facets of Korean identity including its language and history, and folk culture, was banned in an attempt to wipe out Korean identity. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and worship at Shinto shrines; in addition, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced into service to support Japanese war efforts. Japanese leadership believed that by taking away Korea’s traditional identity, they could be led to believe they were not warriors in history but a passive race, thus making the occupation easier. During the Japanese occupation, some Koreans were allowed to study in Japan and were exposed to Japanese martial arts—in some cases receiving black belt ranking. In addition, others were exposed to martial arts in China and Manchuria. When the occupation ended in 1945, Korean martial arts schools called, kwans, began to open in Korea. There are differing views on the origins of the arts taught in these schools. Some believe that they taught martial arts that were based primarily upon the traditional Korean martial arts taekkyon and sobak, or that Taekwondo was derived from native Korean martial arts with influences from neighboring countries. Still others believe that these schools taught arts that were almost entirely based upon karate. As with everything throughout history, there is room for interpretation and disagreement. It is evident, and there is no disputing the fact, that for centuries, martial arts have been an integral part of Korean culture and heritage; improved and passed down from teacher to student.
After the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea at the end of World War II, there was a surge of national pride that led Korean martial artists to renew their links to Korea’s ancient martial arts. This led to the development of a new Korean martial art that in 1955 was officially named Taekwondo. The literal translation is, foot fist way. Although there is some disagreement as to the history of modern of Taekwondo, most would agree that it’s inception is the result of many people working together to resolve their differences and develop a unified Korean martial arts. Modern Taekwondo can be documented with reasonable accuracy but often different organizations dispute the details. It only officially began in 1955, having its origins in the 1940’s just after World War II. Notably, in 1952, at the height of the Korean War, there was a martial arts exhibition in which the kwans performed their skills. In one demonstration, 13 roof tiles were broken in a single punch. Following this demonstration, the South Korean President Syngman Rhee instructed Hong Hi Choi to introduce Taekwondo to the Korean army. Joon Rhee is generally accepted as the father of American Taekwondo. By the mid-1950s, six kwans (schools) had emerged. The Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in 1959/1961 to facilitate unification. Shortly thereafter, Taekwondo made its début worldwide. It is now one of only two Asian martial arts (the other being judo) that are included in the Olympic Games; it became a demonstration event starting with the 1988 games in Seoul, and became an official medal event starting with the 2000 games in Sydney Australia.
Today, Koreans practice Taekwondo during military training, as well as in school as a way to build a strong sense of justice, fortitude, and humility using strict discipline, physical conditioning, and mental training. Six main tenants being, modesty, etiquette, integrity, perseverance, self control, and indomitable spirit are stressed as a way of life. Taekwondo gradually spread to countries around the world where it is practiced as both a traditional self-defense system, and as a competitive sport. Although the literal translation of Taekwondo is the art of kicking and punching, it is only a superficial translation. “Do” in Korean implies a philosophical approach to life, a pathway to achieve enlightenment. Taekwondo is not only a method of self-defense; it is also a way of life. Students of Taekwondo, through rigorous physical training, try to improve themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. Serious Taekwondo practitioners should extend the art to all aspects of their lives to achieve a stable and peaceful existence. Perhaps it is at this point that we start to see the attraction of this ancient warrior training to our own “weekend warriors” in the modern day America.
Now that we have gained some basic understanding of the history of Taekwondo, we can begin to explore the questions of why it has become so popular in our modern American culture, and the role it plays therein. Americans national identity is certainly not caught up in this movement as it is in Korea, but in some ways it is. As a nation, our belief of individual freedom, along with our desire to be #1 are quite different from the conservative rigidity that comes with the study of Taekwondo. Perhaps it is believed that the tools learned in Taekwondo can give us an advantage and thus make us more successful, more powerful. Americans begin Taekwondo training for various reasons. Many are looking for a way to become more physically fit. Weight loss, discipline, and self-defense are primary motivators. It is a fact that as a nation we are out of shape, overweight, and in need of discipline on many levels. We are tired of mindless hours spent going nowhere on treadmills. We know that physical fitness needs to be a priority in our lives and we are goal oriented. We worry about the health of our children as obesity rates rise. Diabetes, heart disease, all of these maladies are skyrocketing as a result of a more sedentary lifestyle. There is no doubt that we as a nation are looking for ways to get into shape. Indeed practicing Taekwondo is a worthwhile and fun physical activity and therefore a big attraction for those who are seeking to gain better health for ourselves and our children.
We read, and hear about violent crimes, child snatching, “stranger danger”, and threats that frighten us and cause us to be fearful. Many people want to learn Taekwondo for sole purpose of self defense. Parents whose children are being bullied are looking for ways for their children to defend themselves. Adults and children do not want to be victims and believe that Taekwondo can build physical and emotional strength. Juvenile delinquency, the erosion of family values, and lack of parental and societal control are on the rise. Parents are looking for ways to bring discipline to their children, or perhaps in their own lives. Whether we are seeking a way to gain discipline, achieve some sort of goal, and learn to protect ourselves, or develop our families Taekwondo is a good place to begin. If we are to achieve our goals we can have fun, but we must take our study seriously or we will not experience its benefits fully.
Initially, many people who choose to study Taekwondo are not consciously aware of their motives. However, with the proper attitude, and proper instruction, we will eventually realize that a movement that helped shape a nation may help save and shape our own lives and that of our children. Unfortunately, many students stop training when they feel they have achieved their reason for initially beginning. Therefore, the reason for practicing, and studying Taekwondo is very important in order for the student to continue. If a student enrolls in Taekwondo classes to get in shape and loose some weight, once they have achieved that goal, or conversely, if they don’t loose weight then they quit. If a student just wants to have fun and is not serious, eventually they will falter. If a mother, or father enrolls their troubled child hoping to gain discipline, once that has been achieved, or conversely, if the child continues to have problems then the parent may pull them out of class and move on to the next thing. Even if a parent insists that a child continue studying Taekwondo, once that child has the freedom of choice to go on, or quit, they will stop if emotionally they are not committed to its practice. If a person wants to start Taekwondo because he or she wants to learn how to fight, they must first learn that it is NOT about fighting but rather respect, self control and avoiding conflict. If they do not understand this, then they will move on to a violent form of fighting which only perpetuates more violence in their own lives and that of their community.
Many students start training for one set of reasons and eventually move toward the path of self knowledge, and self control. As we study the principles of Taekwondo, they become an integral part of our lives and lead us on a road of developing our physical being, as well as our moral being. Such things as character, integrity, and honor begin to develop subconsciously while students consciously train in the physical aspects of Taekwondo. The emotional and spiritual aspect of Taekwondo must be the primary motivator for the serious practitioner and eventually we see that the benefits multiply. Adults, and children become more respectful, and society becomes less violent. Since there are relatively few chances to encounter a life-threatening situation, to spend several years of one’s life practicing Taekwondo simply to defend oneself in the not so likely event of a deadly attack is a high price to pay. Therefore, the emotional and spiritual aspect of Taekwondo should be the primary motivator for continuing or most people will simply give up its practice.
Now that we understand some of the reasons why we as a society are interested in this art form, let us explore how this movement is effecting us as individuals, and ultimately as a society. Research has shown that social interaction gained through training in a group is a buffer against the stresses of life for adults. It is just too hard for us to stay motivated on our own. Having a leader or motivator is very important and the Master whom we respect can inspire us to persevere when we might be inclined to give up. Although we need may need encouragement and guidance at the beginning of our studies, eventually we will need to become more self motivated. It has been shown that long-term continued practice of Taekwondo fosters greater independence for all ages, and with progressive training, we become more optimistic and self-reliant in all areas of life. There are many anecdotal reports from parents explaining how their children do better at school, both behaviorally and academically. Taekwondo training may also increase one’s self-concept, or beliefs that we have about our self as opposed to understanding who we are via other people’s opinions of ourselves.
Research has shown that people who are more self-confident are more likely to be successful in all aspects of life. Most believe that Taekwondo training builds leadership qualities and confidence if approached correctly. Self-confidence is based on self-improvement, as opposed to confidence based on the ability to perform a task. This type of self-confidence does not come from being a winner in competition (although competition can be beneficial to many), rather, it comes from the feelings of self-worth that are derived from improving oneself. Belt advancement provides a means to document personal achievement. Advancement requires setting a goal and working toward its attainment, which builds confidence and a feeling of self-worth. As Americans we strive for individual success for ourselves and for our children and we understand the need for confidence and self worth in the pursuit of success and happiness. Taekwondo is a very good way of achieving confidence and improving self worth in people of all ages.
As we strive to improve our confidence, we as a nation have a tendency to overdo things. We are constantly on the go; often we may feel the need to find balance and harmony in our lives. The stresses of modern day life can be overwhelming. Communities, families, and the individuals that make up this nation don’t have the same support system that they once did. The development of good moral character, self-control, respecting others and ourselves is often lacking. Increasingly, Americans either don’t have the time, or the fortitude to spend the energy necessary to foster good habits in our children, or in our own lives. Often the raising of children is left to someone else outside the home. The role of church leaders, school teachers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles and more often Martial Arts Instructors is expanding as we see the changing dynamics of the American nuclear family. The main tenants of Taekwondo such as modesty, etiquette, integrity, perseverance, self control, and indomitable spirit are qualities that the elite fighting group, the Hwa Rang of Korea, taught as a way of life. These same qualities and concepts are now serving our own nation as we strive to improve our physical and moral strength.
In conclusion, the question of why we are embracing the study and practice of Taekwondo is important because there must be incentive to become involved or we would not act. Obviously, the reasons we study are widely diverse but these reasons are important because without the proper motivation, many people will not continue their study. Additionally, without proper instruction which includes fostering individual worth, dignity, and the unique individual potential of each person the student will not benefit and could possibly be harmed. The question of how Taekwondo has affected the individuals that make up our society, and thus society as a whole has yet to be fully determined. In this report we recognize that for 2,000 years, martial arts have been an integral part of the formation and culture of the Korean people. Our historical exposure is much shorter (time wise), however, with Taekwondo’s guiding principles of patience, perseverance and the pursuit of perfection, the potential impact on our society is limitless. The physical and spiritual health of our nation are sure to be impacted, but only time will tell to what extent. Ultimately, the value of our participation in Taekwondo will be determined by the practitioners themselves. If we approach our study and practice of this art form with serious commitment of both the mind and body, then Taekwondo should have a positive affect on every aspect of our lives. Individuals make up our nation; therefore, our nation can only benefit as we further embrace the study and practice of Korean Taekwondo.