What is Tae Kwon-Do?
“The Foot Fist Way.”
That is literally what the phrase “Tae Kwon-Do” translates to in English.
Tae = Foot. Kwon = Hand. Do = Way
Tae Kwon-Do is the official martial art of Korea, and it is an extremely young martial art, by comparison to others, like Karate. In fact there are a couple of major differences between Tae Kwon-Do and Karate, which I will get into later. First, though, let’s review the history of Tae Kwon-Do.
The History of Tae Kwon-Do
There are many different ways to look at where and when martial arts began. Some will say that they started in India. Others will say that martial arts began in China, then worked their way down through Japan, to Okinawa, to Korea, then out to the rest of the world.
I firmly believe that these various forms of hand and foot fighting developed in a number of different countries simultaneously, relative to that country’s history. For instance, say you have a country that is 4,000 years old. At some point during their first 1,000 years, they developed a form of martial arts. A country that started 2,000 years later might have developed their own style in the first 500 years of their existence or so.
The origins of Tae Kwon-Do can technically be traced back thousands of years to cave drawings and carvings where it looks like they’re doing certain martial arts moves.
Some believe that Tae Kwon-Do grew from Taekkyeon, a foot fighting game that dates back to the late 1700’s. But Tae Kwon-Do, as it is known today, was founded on April 11, 1955 by the great General Hong Hi Choi.
General Hong Hi Choi
The history of Tae Kwon-Do is really the history of General Choi.
Before he became General Choi, Hong Hi Choi was a young man in Korea during a time when the country was under occupation by the Japanese. He desired an education, which meant that he would be forced to receive that education (and, some would say, indoctrination) in Japan.
The story goes that on the day he was supposed to leave for Japan, Choi’s mother gave him money for his train fare and some money to get settled once he arrived. On the way to the train station, though, he stopped to do some gambling.
Long story short, Choi lost every cent of the money his mother gave him, including his train fare. He could no longer afford to go to Japan, but to go back home in disgrace would be disrespectful to his family. So, still sitting at the table, Choi grabbed a bottle of ink, threw it as hard as he could at the man he lost to, grabbed the money he had lost, and took off for Japan.
While he was there, Choi began hearing rumors that the man he lost to was looking for him back in Korea and wanted to kill him. So, he began to study the Japanese martial art of Karate – Shotokan to be exact – very diligently, knowing he would likely have to fight this man when he returned to Korea.
The first time Choi returned home, he managed to evade the man who was looking for him. The second time, though, Choi returned much more proficient in Karate. He put on a demonstration of sorts which scared many of the people in his town. Needless to say, the man stopped looking for him after that.
As the years passed Choi became determined to develop a martial art that was superior to all others. Now a Lieutenant in the Korean army, he began to develop what would become Tae Kwon-Do.
Choi was a great Lieutenant and somewhat of a skilled politician, so he very quickly advanced to the rank of Two-Star General. With his new rank, he convinced the Korean government to give him his own division, the 29th infantry, which was stationed on Jeju island, just off the coast of Korea. It was there that Tae Kwon-Do matured.
General Choi’s ultimate goal was to figure out how to get the human body to deliver the most power in the most efficient way, while developing the mind, body, and culture. To do this, Choi gathered top physicists, rocket scientists, athletes, trainers, psychologists, and others to help him develop his new martial art. Essentially, Choi took the best practices from every martial art and combined them with science, in order to create the perfect martial art form.
At Jeju island, General Choi used the soldiers at his disposal to begin training Tae Kwon-Do. And since he was their General, they had to obey. He set up his first dojang on the military base and called it the Oh Do Kwan, meaning “the school of my way.” There were several “kwans” (martial arts schools) throughout Korea, but the Oh Do Kwan was the first on a military base, and the Oh Do Kwan would be the first to teach Tae Kwon-Do.
On April 11, 1955, General Choi convinced the Korean government to adopt Tae Kwon-Do as Korea’s national martial art.
Pioneers of Tae Kwon-Do
For anyone else, getting Tae Kwon-Do to be recognized this way would have been an impossible task. In order to convince the Korean government, General Choi had to visit all of the surrounding kwans and convince them to stop teaching what they were teaching, and adopt his new martial art.
To put it in perspective, it would be like me going around to all of the other Tae Kwon-Do dojangs in Western New York and convincing the other masters to teach only the way that I teach. It would never happen.
Nam Tae Hi
General Choi didn’t have to do it alone. By General Choi’s side was Nam Tae Hi, his foreman and taskmaster. What General Choi wanted to accomplish, Nam Tae Hi got it done. Together, they developed the greatest martial artists in the world out of the soldiers in the 29th infantry division.
At the time, Tae Kwon-Do was only taught to the Korean military. And, to be frank, it was intended to be deadly. I have many friends who served in Vietnam. One friend was tasked with driving a jeep from the top of the hill down to the village to pick up the mail, then drive back up and deliver it to soldiers. Often, a handful of the Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers who were there would ask him to drive them down the hill and drop them off half way. By the time he picked up the mail and started back up the hill, he would run into those same ROK soldiers, only this time, they would be carrying the helmets, boots, and weapons of enemy soldiers. These guys were ruthless.
Grand Master Jong-Soo Park
Grand Master Park is my instructor, my mentor, and someone I have spoken about with great reverence many times, including in several posts on this blog. Grand Master Park was also involved at the inception of Tae Kwon-Do. In fact, General Choi always held that Grand Master Park was the best student he ever had.
Grand Master Park was born in Korea in 1941. At 14, he began taking Tae Kwon-Do. Later, he was an instructor at the police training center in Chun Bok, in Korea. He also trained the very famous Tiger Division of the Korean Army. He is the realest of the real deals.
In 1964, Grand Master Park became the Korean national grand champion in Tae Kwon-Do. In 1965, at the request of the Korean government, he began taking trips all over the world, known as the “Goodwill Mission for Tae Kwon-Do.” The objective was to introduce Tae Kwon-Do to the rest of the world. As a result, militaries and police forces worldwide rapidly began adopting Tae Kwon-Do.
Grand Master Park was doing one of his demonstrations, showing off Tae Kwon-Do, when three students from a local Karate school came and began heckling him about how much better Karate was than Tae Kwon-Do. Naturally, Grand Master Park was unphased, and invited the men to come down to the mat to fight. They asked, “Which one of us?” To which he replied, “All three of you.” The men quickly backed down.
Soon after, Grand Master Park opened a dojang near theirs and before long, theirs was out of business.
Grand Master Park was afraid of no one. He traveled the world and fought people from all different walks of life (UFC, Police Academies, Military Academies, other martial artists etc.), and never lost a single fight. He is still with us, but he is getting up in years and I have started the process of documenting his life and storied career.
Grand Master Robert Heisner
I would be remiss if I didn’t include Grand Master Heisner among the pioneers of Tae Kwon-Do, especially in this area. He is a local instructor and another one of my mentors. He met Grand Master Park in Toronto and it blew his mind.
Grand Master Heisner began his martial arts career studying Karate, and did so under some of the toughest Karate instructors out there. He got his black belt in Japan, and was given the dubious nickname “round-eye white guy,” (a sign of those times, which have changed) so you know that he was put through the ringer over there.
When he met Grand Master Park, Master Heisner was shocked by his seeming invincibility, and by Tae Kwon-Do as a martial art. It wasn’t long before he switched from Karate to Tae Kwon Do. And General Choi and Grand Master Park were so impressed with Grand Master Heisner that they asked him to open the first Tae Kwon-Do school in Western New York.
The Evolution of Tae Kwon-Do Around the World
As previously stated, Tae Kwon-Do’s initial applications were for the military and police. It has since evolved into more of a defensive art, as have most martial arts.
I liken the evolution of Tae Kwon-Do to that of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC.) In its beginning, the UFC was brutal and sloppy, to say the least. But over time, it has become more refined and focused on the martial arts ability. The same applies to Tae Kwon-Do itself, but without much, if any, “sloppiness.”
In the early 1970’s, the World Tae Kwon-Do Federation was formed (WTF, later shortened to just WT, for obvious reasons), and started their own style of Tae Kwon-Do. The WT received a lot of money from the Korean government because they were aiming to get involved with college athletics and the WT began to grow much faster than the ITF.
The ITF didn’t have the same kind of money behind it. The US money was going to South Korea, and South Korea was pushing the WT because they wanted an olympic sport.
They did get their style into the Olympics but, in my opinion, as a pure martial art, the WT style is inferior to the ITF style. The WT style wanted to place more emphasis on kicks, and therefore was not scoring points for punches. This unfortunately led Tae Kwon-Do to be known as “the kicking art.” In actuality, Tae Kwon-Do is the kicking, punching, grappling, joint-locking, complete martial art.
My first degree black belt is with the WT and the Kukkiwon, which is the WT’s governing body. So I know what I am talking about when I say the WT version is more of a sport than it is a martial art when compared to the ITF version. The WT footwork and kicking was amazing, but the hand work was vastly inferior. I also found WT tournaments to be very specific nothing like the open tournaments where many more techniques were needed to win, which is another red flag for the WT version.
Fortunately, although the WT style remains somewhat popular, the ITF is gaining in popularity again because of its more holistic, military approach.
Another evolution I have noticed is with the type of person that comes to the school. In the old days, most of the people who walked into a martial arts studio were already in pretty good shape. They really just wanted to learn how to fight better.
If we started people today the way we started them 25-30 years ago, they would probably quit and go home broken. We would have people sparring within their first two or three classes. If you were overweight and had bad knees back then, you simply wouldn’t have made it.
Now, you have people who get into martial arts because they’re out of shape, because they’re overweight, because they lack confidence, etc. This change has actually forced us to amend our path to black belt.
The Difference(s) Between Tae Kwon-Do and Karate
I began my martial arts career in Karate, studying Isshin-Ryu and I actually loved it. In terms of which martial art is “better,” you could make arguments for both Tae Kwon-Do and Karate.
I’m a proponent of saying good martial arts is good martial arts, and bad martial arts is bad martial arts. In other words, I am not so in favor of Tae Kwon-Do that I wouldn’t concede that even a bad Tae Kwon-Do artist would defeat a good karate artist. It simply isn’t true.
In my opinion, the main difference between Tae Kwon-Do and Karate is that Karate is a much more rigid art form, while Tae Kwon-Do is much more fluid, particularly when it comes to motion.
When Grand Master Park was traveling around the world fighting people from other countries, they didn’t know how to hit him. He was moving in a way they had never seen before!
In the early days of Tae Kwon-Do tournaments, they would have what they called “hard styles” and “soft styles”. Soft styles were things like Kung-Fu, while Karate was considered a “hard style.” Because of Tae Kwon-Do’s fluidity, it was considered a “soft style” early on. But they soon saw how hard we could hit, and changed Tae Kwon-Do to a “hard style” before too long.
I remember during my time studying Isshin-Ryu, you would start to hear rumblings of these “Tae Kwon-Do” guys who were dominating in tournaments. Before long, my Isshin-Ryu instructor began incorporating Tae Kwon-Do kicks into our training. That was really my first introduction to Tae Kwon-Do.
Karate people have a very different work ethic. In karate, there is a tendency to take one thing and work it to death. For instance, when they’re learning an inner or outer forearm block, they will actually do thousands of them because they don’t have a variety of techniques.
In Tae Kwon-Do, there are many techniques, and Tae Kwon-Do students are always looking for more creative ways to do something.
Tae Kwon-Do is one of the only martial arts that has a bible or instruction manual that was written, edited, and published by the founder himself. Most of the books on other martial arts were written by people who knew the founder, or learned from the founder, or studied the founder, but not by the founder themselves.
General Choi was actually quite a prolific writer. The detail in his writing is incredible. Every term is so specific, it’s sometimes painful. Also, while General Choi wanted the whole world to study Tae Kwon Do, he did not want it to have any Japanese heritage, because of the fact that the Japanese at the time were trying to eradicate Korean culture.
That is why Tae Kwon-Do has its own vocabulary. For example, most martial arts will refer to it as a roundhouse kick. In Tae Kwon Do, though, we say “turning kick.” They say “hook kick,” we say “reverse turning kick,” and so on.
Having studied both Karate and Tae Kwon-Do, I can say that the way Tae Kwon-Do uses the knees and joints produces way more power than Karate does. Tae Kwon-Do also uses the legs more efficiently than any other martial art out there.
It should come as no surprise where my preferences lie, though. If I thought Karate was the better art form, I would have opened a Karate studio instead.
Master Gorino’s Tae Kwon-Do offers a trial program for individuals and families in Buffalo, NY and the surrounding areas that allows you to get a feel for the different classes, meet our instructors, and experience our dojang. It’s a great way to see if Tae Kwon-Do is right for you. To learn more or to sign up, register online or call (716) 836-KICK (5425) and a member of our team will follow up with you on next steps. We look forward to helping you achieve your goals. Pil-Sung!