Taekwondo In Korean History:
Meaning Lies In The Eyes Of The Practitioner
by Taylor DiMeglio
Modern dicta implores us to “let go of the past,” to “stay in the present,” but as useful as it is, in taekwondo as in life, to live in the all-important N-O-W there is much to be said for mindfully including a consciously framed narrative of the history which informs our focus. Consciously framed. In other words, with deliberate choice, for it is not our histories which define our fates but the perspective through which we view them. Shall we be inspired or disillusioned? Do we wish to grow in purpose or to wallow in defeat?
Consider the person who grows up in an abusive environment. At one juncture in life, she counts herself a victim, at another juncture, a survivor. Both stances hold their own kinds of truth; yet, only one yields a fruitful path. So it is with taekwondo.
Some question taekwondo’s legitimacy as a korean martial art, or even as a unique martial art in its own right. After all, they say, a great deal of its techniques originate elsewhere, in China, and, significantly, Japan, via shotakan karate. How can it, then, be considered Korean? Further, some senior organizational taekwondo delegates have diminished, suppressed or otherwise denied avenues of external influence, with some suggesting that taekwondo has been around—in pure form—for thousands of years. (Surely, cave drawings do not lie!) Meanwhile, underplaying or overplaying data raises doubt and suspicion, opposite of its intention.
These are narrow frames, inhibitors of growth. The practitioner who adopts them sets himself up, with conscious or unconscious will, for discouragement and defeat. If I practice an illegitimate art, this mindset says, I, too, become illegitimate. Thus, the skeptic maintains an ‘out,’ imposing in practice a level of disengagement which easily turns into a loss of interest and eventual departure from taekwondo training. Initial gains are wasted. Enrollment declines.
Far better to take the broadest view, to understand taekwondo through the widest lens of Korean history and culture, recognizing that it is a veritable manifestation of a long, intricate narrative and inherently infused with the driven, willing spirit of its people. Pass on the legend of Tangoon, mythical forebear of this “land of the morning calm,” whose philosophical adherence to a universal humanism and duties to family and state underlie central tenets of Korean culture and taekwondo, and practitioners grow in humility and grace. An enlightened spirit underscores skill. Speak of the feats of ancient Hwarang and Sunbae warriors and allow their prowess to infuse today’s practice. Honor the full history through which taekwondo derives, and you are as a wise farmer who does not arbitrarily scatter the seeds, but first tends the soil, recognizing it as the origin of abundance.
Korean history is rife with struggle. Geographically speaking, it is not surprising that the citizens of a country formed on a peninsula might be leery and defensive, when they are both perceptually and actually vulnerable to attack. Ancient kingdoms with rivaling tribes and fearsome warriors establish the backdrop for a people honed to endure, to survive, and, ultimately, to overcome. The Paekche kingdom (18 BCE - 660 BC), Koguryo (37 BCE - 668 BC) and the small but mighty Sillan kingdom (57 BCE - 935 AD) warred tirelessly, though Silla was the eventual triumphant, unifying the three kingdoms into a collective dynasty. Korean strife didn’t end with the ancient kingdoms, but it is here, in antiquity, where the taekwondo practitioner authentically finds Korean spirit in its originating indomitable force. It’s still alive today, and, along with it, the skills and techniques of old, derived of kwonbop and taekyeon, which were practiced by the Sillan Hwarang.
Where infighting set the stage for indigenous martial development, external conflicts broadened its scope, particularly during the Japanese occupation from 1910-1945. During this thirty-five year period of extreme cultural oppression—which included book burning, sexual enslavement and a ban on native language and religion among other severe prohibitions—martial arts training was roundly forbidden, leaving the devoted with few options. Some practiced in secret. Others left Korea and learned where training was available to them, in China and, notably, Japan itself.
It may seem a strange decision for Korean martial artists to entrust their training to enemy hands, even where animus between nations may not have necessarily translated between individual citizens. Yet, life has its mandates. We are not called to travel passively as dust carried on wind, but to engage, to live, to set our own course with purpose. The martial artist, Korean or otherwise, strives for the Warrior Within, that elusive inner self which is enduring and impervious, who surpasses the temporal realm.
It comes again to perspective. The practitioner who demands cultural purity over all will find disappointment in its stead, while the practitioner who honors the multifarious influences of any chosen martial art and the collective value intrinsic in all martial arts gains wisdom alongside skill. It is this frame which emphasizes proficiency over egoistic evaluations.
So, too, the practitioner caught up in identifying the single best martial art might just as well spend time selecting a single best variety of toothpaste. Is it the whitening? The baking soda? Enamel protection? Should we do away with fluoride? Caught in the minutia of choice, the practitioner’s focus is cluttered and divided, and another trap, the trap of comparison, is set. Use comparison as a vehicle for fault-finding in a marriage and things become rocky indeed. Those who dig for faults will find them, though primarily because of the perspective of the mind which seeks them than due to the particular shortcomings themselves. No one and nothing is perfect. The practitioner who digs instead for treasure—in relationships, in themselves, in taekwondo—will find it and prosper.
Following the Japanese Occupation, bans were lifted. Korea set out to restore their vast cultural heritage—a restoration of native arts, food and philosophical paradigms. Korean martial artists, among them many masters, sought to unify the whole of their learning, incorporating not a narrow few but all of its influences including Japan, China and their own ancient, native forms. It incorporated not only physical techniques and skill but the Confucian and Buddhist overtones and the in-dwelling Korean spirit so indicative of their history and important to their culture. Through the unwavering efforts of General Choi, Hong Hi this martial art came to be officially known as taekwondo, a Korean martial art.