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    The ancient history and identity of Korean martial arts in general remain greatly disputed, and t’aekkyŏn has been mistakenly associated with taekwondo. The first existing reference to t’aekkyŏn dates back to the early eighteenth century. From that period until the turn of the twentieth century, a variety of records have survived, including several official and historical documents, some depictions in paintings, and a single photograph. After analyzing all these existing records, this study concludes that t’aekkyŏn in its past form was not a martial art as we understand it. Rather, it had various game-like qualities, and was also often associated with unruly behavior by individuals of the lower classes. In addition, public performances of t’aekkyŏn were probably connected to folk customs, rituals, and/or festivals, which could also explain its dancelike characteristics as a form of entertainment. While some suggest it may have had some earlier martial art roots, there are not enough existing documents to make any definite conclusion. Therefore, the current presentation of t’aekkyŏn’s as a “traditional Korean martial art” suggests an invented tradition.1


    t’aekky?n , martial arts , folk game , ssir?m , taekwondo


    T’aekkyŏn has recently received much attention in the South Korean press. After a long effort for acknowledgment, in late 2011 it was listed as the “first martial art” by UNESCO as an Intangible World Cultural Heritage. T’aekkyŏn is described as being “an effective martial art highlighting a broad variety of offensive and defensive skills employing all available fighting methods.”2 Furthermore, its roots are described as traceable to the ancient kingdom of Koguryŏ. Some murals of this era supposedly depict t’aekkyŏn or its forerunner, which is often thought to be subak.3 The same murals are also claimed by the World Taekwondo Federation as being proof of taekwondo’s origin. In addition, the taekwondo4 establishment maintains that t’aekkyŏn is one of its predecessors.5 Interestingly, t’aekkyŏn literature usually does not acknowledge having any relationship to taekwondo, and the Korea Taekkyon Federation (Taehan T’aekkyŏn Yŏnmaeng) denies any link.6 Generally, the popular portrayal of the history of Korean martial arts seems to be open to criticism and the authors’ motives are often influenced by nationalistic sentiments.

    T’aekkyŏn has been described, depending on the author or organization, as a game, a folk art, and/or a martial art. There are several characteristics associated with Asian martial arts. Martial arts developed originally for reasons of combat or self-defense, such as jūjutsu (柔術) and karate. Meanwhile, some Chinese martial arts turned their focus inward on personal health, as seen in taijiquan (太極拳). Regardless, most of these systems were associated with an Oriental philosophy, as for example the “” (道, “way” or “method”), which runs throughout most modern Japanese martial arts. These days, most martial arts are governed by an official organization which is responsible for the art’s formalities and technical framework. Moreover, these martial arts organizations govern tournaments and rank promotions, which often associate them with sports. Most Asian martial arts display all or some of these characteristics.7 This article demonstrates that t’aekkyŏn did not have any of these characteristics and adapted most of these aspects only very recently.

    A common assumption is that due to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, the two successive Korean nations lost great parts of their history and identity. Moreover, soon after liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, a devastating civil war ensued between the two adversaries that caused extensive destruction. Whatever the reasons or causes, there are few extant historical records regarding the history of t’aekkyŏn. T’aekkyŏn was kept alive through literally just one man, the “last t’aekkyŏn player” of the Chosŏn Dynasty, Song Tŏk-ki (1893–1987).8 He was the only person found after Korea’s liberation who was still able to perform the art. His testimonies and instructions preserved the legacy of t’aekkyŏn to a great extent. The purpose of this study is to analyze the existing records comprehensively prior to Song Tŏk-ki’s time in order to demonstrate that the portrayal of t’aekkyŏn as a “traditional Korean martial art” is an “invention of tradition.”9 First, the available records on ancient weaponless martial arts in Korea are briefly discussed. The main focus, however, is a reinterpretation of the available accounts concerning t’aekkyŏn. This article shows that the portrayal of t’aekkyŏn by UNESCO as a “traditional Korean martial art” is not valid.

    1Acknowledgments: This work could not have been carried out without the generous financial support of the Youngsan University Research Fund. We would also like to acknowledge the support and help of Dr. Song Hyeongseok (Keimyung University), Dr. Andrew David Jackson (University of London), Dr. Willy Pieter (Keimyung University), and Cashel Rosier. *Corresponding author. Email:  2“Taekkyeon, a traditional Korean martial art,” 2011, retrieved from  3See for example, “Official Site of Korea Tourism Org.: Taekkyeon,” n.d., retrieved from The kingdom of Koguryŏ is believed to have lasted from 37 BCE to 668 CE.  4Since “taekwondo” is a Korean word assimilated in English, the term is not put into italics or Romanized according to the McCune-Reischauer system.  5See WTF World Taekwondo Federation, “History,” 2009. Other Korean martial arts, such as kuksul for example, often make similar claims about their origins.  6See Korea Taekkyon Federation (Taehan T’aekkyŏn Yŏnmaeng), “History of Taekkyon,” 1999. There are a variety of t’aekkyŏn associations.  7Regarding the discussion concerning what constitutes an Asian martial art, see Moenig, 2012, 144–169; Yang, 1996.  8Capener, 1995, 84; Yi, 1995, 15.  9The term was coined by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in their book titled, The Invention of Tradition (1983).


    The earliest credible reference to the existence of any bare-handed martial art in Korea was during the early twelfth century, in the Koryŏsa (高麗史, History of Koryŏ), which mentions a martial art called subak (手搏, Chinese: shoubo).10 It is a term used for Chinese unarmed combat or boxing. Subsequently, Koreans also started classifying martial arts using Chinese models and made distinctions between “striking” and “grappling arts.”11 The grappling art is referred to as kangnyŏk (角力, Chinese: jueli) or kakchŏ (角觝, Chinese: jiaodi). Over the centuries, a variety of modified terminology appeared, and the modern successor of the wrestling-based arts became ssirŭm. Weaponless martial arts in ancient militaries were only used for the physical training of soldiers and did not have a serious role in real combat. In this context, the alleged existence of an ancient bare-handed martial art in association with the Hwarang, a group often portrayed as having practiced a forerunner of taekwondo, is without merit. No specific reference to the Hwarang exists in connection with bare-handed martial arts. It seems to be largely a myth that was propagated during the twentieth century in order to foster Korean nationalism.12

    During the Chosŏn period (1392–1910), Confucian values favoring scholarly ideals dominated the Korean aristocracy. Consequently, interest in martial arts waned among the ruling elite. During the Chosŏn period there exists a great time gap without any specific references to weaponless martial arts. Between the reigns of King Sejo (r. 1455–1468) and King Yŏngjo (r. 1724–1776), a period of about 250 years, historical evidence is limited. However, due to invasions by the Japanese and later by the Manchu, some military manuals for combat were compiled. The Muye chebo (武藝諸譜) of 1598 is the earliest extant Korean martial arts publication. However, it is mainly based on an earlier Chinese military manual and features Chinese weaponry and some kwŏnbŏp (拳法, Chinese: quanfa, fist method) fighting instructions.13 The Muye sinbo, published in 1759, was based on the Muye chebo, but has since been lost. The better-known and much more comprehensive manual, Muye tobo t’ongji (武藝圖譜通志) of 1790, which is an expanded version of the former manuals, also deals with military instructions combined with illustrations of how to use a variety of weapons. One small segment, however, titled, “Kwŏnbŏp po” (拳法譜, Fist-Method Documentation), deals with weaponless fighting methods.14 It is precisely this section that the Korean martial arts community often points to as proof of the existence of ancient weaponless martial arts native to Korea,15 even though the book is mostly a modified copy of an earlier Chinese manual, the Jixiaoxinshu (紀效新書). Some alterations in selected sections of the Korean manual regarding fighting with weapons were made, but the part on fist fighting is largely a copy in terms of the illustrations and text.16 The stances and positions of hands and legs all resemble classic Chinese boxing techniques, and there is little in this manual that resembles modern t’aekkyŏn.

    Ancient Korean military martial arts, which included boxing, wrestling and a variety of weapon arts, mostly pointed to some Chinese origin. However, toward the end of the Chosŏn Dynasty, traditional martial arts were in great decline and were largely forgotten.17 In addition to the distaste of the Korean aristocracy for military arts, the introduction of Western firearms rendered the traditional Asian  martial arts largely obsolete.

    However, there existed a game-like activity popular among commoners called t’aekkyŏn, which these days is associated with martial arts. The earliest confirmed use of the term was during the eighteenth century.18 Subsequently, various accounts from a number of sources appeared during the following two hundred years.

    10Song, 2005, 108–109.  11Henning, 2000, 12.  12Pieter, 1994, 82–89; Gu, 1994, 44–45.  13Illustrated in Shin, 1999, 2–27.  14Illustrated in Pak, 2007, 413–428.  15See for example, World Taekwondo Federation, “History Modern Times,” 2009; Song, 2003, 113. Song criticizes the same point regarding the portrayal of taekwondo history in relationship to kwŏnbŏp.  16Pratt, 2000, 31–48. Several versions of the manual exist. According to Henning (2000, 11), a few “escape and sizing techniques” were added.  17Henning, 2000, 12.  18Song, 2005, 168.


    The few existing records on t’aekkyŏn are references in a variety of literary publications, depictions in paintings and a photograph by an early Christian missionary in Korea. The references are found in the following sources arranged chronologically:

    According to existing records from before the twentieth century, “t’aekkyŏn” was referred to as “t’akkyŏn.” T’aekkyŏn (택견) represents a pure Korean word which was not written with Chinese characters, whereas the term t’akkyŏn (탁견, 卓見,)19 possibly has some Chinese roots. Song Tŏk-ki also stated that the art had originally been called t’akkyŏn, but the practitioner t’aekkyŏn-kun.20 However, Song seemed to have used t’akkyŏn as well as t’aekkyŏn interchangeably in some of his correspondence.21

    Stanley Henning, who is an expert on Chinese martial arts, believes that the confusion regarding the name could be a result of a “lack of knowledge of the Chinese characters or an attempt to disassociate it from possible foreign [Chinese] origin.”22 Likely other reasons for the confusion are the lack of the existence of any t’aekkyŏn organization, formal standards, records and manuals at that time, in addition to the low education level of commoners who predominantly practiced t’aekkyŏn, possibly combined with different regional dialects.

    The first to Romanize the term t’aekkyŏn was Stuart Culin (1858–1929),23 who was an American anthropologist. He was an influential figure in the development of ethnography as an academic field, and was interested in games and Asian culture. He spelled t’aekkyŏn as “htăik-kyen,” which could be a result of his limited knowledge of Korean and/or the absence of any Romanization standard for han’gŭl (Korean alphabet) at that time.

       1) Ch’?nggu y?ng?n (靑丘永言) written by Kim Ch’?n-taek in 1728

    The first reference to t’akkyŏn (t’aekkyŏn) appeared in the ancient book of poems Ch’ŏnggu yŏngŏn, which was collected and published under King Yŏngjo in 1728. It is a collection of a variety of poems composed by Kim Ch’ŏn-taek during the end of the Koryŏ period (918–1392). However, the exact dates of the composition of the poems are not known. Poems 253–260 and 741–742 refer to t’aekkyŏn, and refer to a certain Kim Min-sun who had enjoyed practicing t’aekkyŏn during his youth, when he was between the ages of fifteen and twenty years old.

       2) Taek’wae-do (大快圖) painted by Sin Yun-bok in 1785

    In Sin Yun-bok’s (1758–unknown) painting Taek’wae-do, the inscription in the upper-right corner reads: “When all kinds of flowers are at the point of blooming, humans who live during such a peaceful reign are painted in a peaceful time” (工巳萬花方 時節擊壤世人寫於康衢煙月 蕙園).

    The painting consists of three scenes: The upper part of the picture shows a landscape with some hills and a sedan chair parade. The middle scene represents the center of activity, with a large crowd of commoners and some noblemen, a few of them smoking, in front of a walled compound, watching the performances of what is generally assumed to be ssirŭm and t’aekkyŏn. The lower scene depicts men drinking and smoking with laughter. In a Confucian manner, women are excluded from the activities and are only observing the event from far away. The painting expresses elements of folk entertainment and a cheerful festivity accompanied by the performances of the games, but also displays a down-toearth aspects of life among the mists of smoking and drinking.

    Under the influence of the Chinese fine arts at the end of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), Sin Yun-bok was one of the leading painters of this time. Therefore, due to the fact that he depicted such a scene, it may be assumed that t’aekkyŏn was a fairly popular game and spectator activity at that time. Moreover, ssirŭm and t’aekkyŏn are depicted as distinctive arts, the former representing grappling and the latter a striking art.

    In the painting, both ssirŭm and t’aekkyŏn are being performed in public as spectator events. However, it is doubtful that they represented sports. Our perception of sport in modern times likely had little in common with people’s perception of such spectacles at that time. Public games, especially wrestling contests, have always been popular during festivities among spectators in many societies, but were usually related to some broader ritualistic and religious events.24 Traditional Korean festivities centered on the change of seasons and/or ancestral memorial rituals with strong elements of Shamanism and Confucianism and served some divine purpose. The scene depicted in the painting could be such an event, since yangban and commoners alike are present to commemorate the occasion. Even today, during traditional Korean holidays such as Ch’usŏk (Korean harvest festival), ssirŭm is still performed. However, ssirŭm is now considered a competition sport.25 Since t’aekkyŏn is portrayed in a similar fashion as ssirŭm in Taek’wae-do, perhaps it served some comparable roles during certain periods in Korean history, as a ritualistic game related to some spiritual or religious festivals. The performance of t’aekkyŏn during such events could also explain its dance-like characteristics as a form of entertainment. In any case, ssirŭm is usually not considered a “martial art” but a “folk game-like activity,” and since t’aekkyŏn is depicted together with ssirŭm, both activities likely had similar attributes.

    All the research that has been carried out on Taek’wae-do assumes that the activities depicted in the image represent ssirŭm and t’aekkyŏn, even though there is no written reference to them.26 The arts depicted might possibly portray subak and kangnyŏk, or another art. We cannot definitely conclude that the activity is t’aekkyŏn; all that we can see is two performers facing each other. In fact, the “t’aekkyŏn performance” could simply represent dancing.

       3) Chaemulbo (才物譜) written by Yi Man-y?ng in 1798

    The Chaemulbo, presumed to have been written by Yi Man-yŏng in 1798, presents an early type of cultural historical encyclopedia. For many Korean scholars, it represents the most important source of knowledge about ancient Korean martial arts. The records regarding t’aekkyŏn are as follows:

    Key points of the contents:

    There are differing opinions among researchers about the accurate translation of the ancient text. According to Yi Yŏng-bok, 卞 手搏爲卞角力爲武若今之탁견 translates to “pyŏn subak (卞 手搏), pyŏn (卞), and kangnyŏk (角力) are martial arts and are similar to t’aekkyǒn [or t’akkyŏn].”27 However, Chŏng Chae-sŏng describes “pyŏn subak as a martial art called pyŏn or kangnyŏk from which t’aekkyŏn supposedly descended.”28 In addition, he suggested that pyŏn (卞), sibak (廝搏), subak (手搏), and syubyŏk (슈벽) were already similar terms for t’aekkyŏn during King Chŏngjo’s reign, which lasted from 1776 to 1800.

    Kim San and Hŏ In-uk consider pyŏnsa (卞射) to be a martial arts game, and they believe subak (手搏) refers to striking with the palms. The game is a contest of strength between two adversaries. They think of “pyŏn” (卞, which refers to “strength” or “power”) as a general expression for “martial arts” under the influence of Chinese literature. Furthermore, they assert that the expression “pyŏn” was similar to “t’aekkyŏn,” and therefore t’aekkyŏn had also been a general expression for bare-handed martial arts at that time.29 However, this seems unlikely, because in the painting Taek’wae-do, ssirŭm and t’aekkyŏn are already depicted as being different arts. Moreover, striking and grappling arts, following the Chinese classification, were distinct from early times, although there had likely been some overlap in the use of techniques. For example, modern day Japanese sumō wrestlers also often slap and push each other while attacking.

    The problem with the interpretations above is that these scholars reach general conclusions based on a small amount of text. On top of this, the exact meaning of the text is controversial. None of the “martial arts” mentioned in the text survived until modern times except for t’aekkyŏn and ssirŭm; these arts are known only by their names since no instructional manuals, illustrations, or other technical references exist. Therefore, coming to any definitive conclusion about their nature seems speculative.

    Interestingly, the authors of Chaemulbo did not mention Chinese kwŏnbŏp in the text. kwŏnbŏp instructions were only introduced during the late sixteenth century from China to Korea with the publication of instructional manuals for the military. The Chaemulbo represented a cultural encyclopedia, a collection of folk arts and customs; hence, kwŏnbŏp was probably not performed by the general public, but only by the military. Many analysts of the arts seem to have in mind the visual images of the kwŏnbŏp illustrations of the Muye tobo t’ongji when they try to define the nature of the other striking arts. Since those mentioned in the Chaemulbo represented folk and not military arts, they might have been much more ritualistic and game-like than is generally assumed.

    The author of the Chaemulbo created a kind of cultural historical encyclopedia and dealt with many aspects of Korean culture and life. He was likely not an expert on martial arts, and the brief descriptions should not be taken as certitudes. The most interesting point is that t’aekkyŏn is mentioned in the document in connection with other martial arts. The author of the document, a layman in regard to martial arts, nevertheless, considered t’aekkyŏn as a martial art and not a game. However, he made the same association with the ssirŭm-like wrestling arts, which are usually not considered martial arts but games, and more recently a sport.

       4) Taek’wae-do painted by Yu Suk in 1846

    The inscription on the painting Taek’wae-do by Yu Suk (1827–1873) says: “When all sorts of flowers came into full bloom, I painted the people playing peacefully in the broad street” (丙午萬花方暢時節 擊壤世人 寫於康衢煙月). It is likely a copy of Sin Yun-bok’s painting, except that the sedan chair parade in the upper part of the painting is not identical.

       5) The Namw?n’gosa of the nineteenth century

    The nineteenth century documentary records suggests the Namwŏn’gosa was written by an unknown author between 1864 and 1869, during the reign of King Kojong (1852–1919). The following images are reprinted in Yŏbo ŭi ŏwŏn (The etymology of yŏbo):31

    The main content of the text consists of a dialogue between prisoners and a guard. The captives were sent to prison for being drunk and disorderly and using t’aekkyŏn and ssirŭm. Since the Namwŏn’gosa was a crucial documentary record, it can be assumed that t’aekkyŏn was fairly common at that time. It also shows that t’aekkyŏn and ssirŭm were common among the lower classes and were connected with unruly behavior.

       6) The photograph: “Children playing T’aekky?n,” by Arthur Noble in 1890

    The earliest extant photograph of a t’aekkyŏn performance was taken by William Arthur Noble (1866–1945), who was a missionary with the Korean name Noboŭl (魯普乙)belonging to an American Methodist church. Unfortunately, the commentary regarding the picture was not made by him personally, and he does not describe the activity played by the children as t’aekkyŏn. However, since the dance-like motions are a particular characteristic of t’aekkyŏn, and the postures of the children resemble those of the modern art, we can assume that the activity probably represents t’aekkyŏn. Noble had been persuaded to teach for some time in a Korean school in Seoul, but his main interest was preaching the gospel in Korea, which he did for fifteen years. According to Song Tŏk-ki’s testimony, it is generally assumed that t’aekkyŏn existed toward the end of the Chosŏn dynasty merely in the vicinity of Seoul.32 However, Noble mainly worked in P’yŏngyang. Thus the photograph of the children was possibly taken there. This could mean that t’aekkyŏn, if that is the activity depicted, was still more widespread at that time than is generally assumed.

       7) Korean Games with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan, written by Steward Culin in 1895

    The anthropologist Steward Culin was inspired by the Columbian Exposition Fair in 1893—in which a Korean delegation participated and exhibited cultural artifacts and customs—to write a book about Korean games in comparison to those found in Japan and China. In the preface, Culin states that he collected the information for the book’s content from his personal collection of games, some museum records, and “from natives of Eastern Asia residing in the United States, the author never having visited the East.” He describes t’aekkyŏn as follows:

    The suffix “haki,” (hagi: 하기) that he also uses to describe “ssi-reum-ha-ki” (ssirŭm hagi), has the meaning of “doing.” Culin describes and thinks of t’aekkyŏn as a game, and not a martial art in his main description. On the other hand, he compares t’aekkyŏn to French savate in the caption, which was probably seen more as a sport or fighting skill at that time. This could mean that Culin found it difficult to categorize the art.

    Culin’s description of t’aekkyŏn is uncharacteristically short and lacking in illustrations when compared to his presentation of other Korean games, where he often uses drawings as visual or explanatory tools. Thus, he might not have had enough information about t’aekkyŏn, or he did not regard it as essential. Culin’s work is an important source about traditional Korean culture and games, although the accuracy of his accounts is uncertain because he never visited the Far East. His reference to the existence of a similar game in Japan seems doubtful because there are no other sources to support this.

       8) T’aekky?n in the Paekcha-do (百子圖) paintings of the nineteenth century

    Paekcha-do, also called Paektongja and Yuhŭi-do, may be translated as “many children’s paintings.” “Paek” (百) expresses “abundance,” or “perfection” rather than the literal number “one hundred.” These images are said to have decorated children’s and married women’s rooms in order to encourage the growth and prosperity of the descendants. They were likely painted during the end of the Chosŏn period and about twenty still exist, three of them depicting t’aekkyŏn as a theme. However, once again, this assumes the activity depicted in the images really represents t’aekkyŏn, since there is no inscription referring to t’aekkyŏn in these paintings.

    19Compare with Pieter (2009, 97–101), who shows different characters (托肩). Both sets of Chinese characters were used.  20“-kun” (“mister” or “sir”) is an archaic term used to address a man respectfully.  21Cho, 2006, 51–67.  22Henning, 2000, 10.  23Culin, 1895, 39. Culin is further discussed below, see “7 Korean Games with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan, written by Steward Culin in 1895.”  24For example, wrestling and pankration (“all powers,” it represented a kind of ancient mixed martial art) contests were performed in the ancient Olympics in Greece, which had ritualistic and religious meanings. See Poliakoff, 1987, 90–91.  25Modern ssirŭm competitions have only existed since the beginning of the twentieth century, but wrestling contests, often under different names, were popular for centuries during Korean holidays. See for example, Korea Taekkyon Federation, 1999.  26See for example, Kim and Hŏ, 2000, 195–203; Chŏng, 2005, 75; Song, 2008, 123.  27Yi, 1995, 68.  28Chŏng, 2005, 101–102.  29Kim and Hŏ, 2000, 195–203.  30The photograph focuses only on the central part of the picture. Compare to Figure 1.  31Hong, 2007.  32Capener, 1995, 84.  33Culin, 1895, 39.


    The discussion about whether t’aekkyŏn represented a “martial art” or merely a “folk game” in its ancient form is controversial. In modern times, t’aekkyŏn incorporated some organizational and philosophical characteristics of other modern martial arts and is now considered by its practitioners to be a martial art. Likewise, many Korean scholars and authors wish to present it as a “traditional Korean martial art.” On the other hand, some scholars, such as Steven Capener, argue that it was merely a pleasurable folk game with a certain rough and tumble element and not a martial art.34 This view is also supported by Culin’s perception of t’aekkyŏn. According to Yung Ouyang, “that Culin, a Western anthropologist, viewed taekkyon as a game is significant, since he and the Western world as a whole at that time probably had little or no preconception of or categories for the Asian martial arts.”35 Furthermore, the frequent depiction of t’aekkyŏn in the surviving paintings (assuming that these illustrations actually represent t’aekkyŏn) as a game-like activity for children seems to support this theory as well.

    Another typical characteristic of t’aekkyŏn is described by Kim Yong-ok in the following manner: “[It] represents a prototypical Korean movement pattern which emphasizes use of the feet. He [Kim] goes on to say that such characteristics as the rhythms and stepping of taekyun can be found in Korean dance as well.”36 The distinctive dance-like movements are an often-emphasized point and are perhaps connected to other Korean cultural festivities, traditions, and rituals.

    Our understanding today of what a martial art should be does not fit the description of traditional t’aekkyŏn as portrayed in the existing records. It did not display any of the characteristics of modern East Asian martial arts. T’aekkyŏn lacked a philosophical base and an organizational system and was only a physical art played or performed by commoners. Some scholars argue that it was “looked down upon” by nobles as a rough activity performed by common folk.37 The record in the Namwŏn’gosa seems to support this position. Furthermore, according to Ch’oe Yŏng-nyŏn in his book Haedong chukchi, which was published in 1921, t’aekkyŏn was outlawed and despised because of its rough nature and connections to activities like gambling, which eventually contributed to its demise. Ch’oe stated: “T’aekkyŏn became a means of exacting revenge for a slight or winning away an opponent’s concubine through betting. Due to this, the game was outlawed by the judiciary and eventually disappeared.”38

    In contrast, the existing paintings and the photograph by Noble suggest an activity that was rather peaceful in nature and popular among children. Ouyang believes that t’aekkyŏn “cannot neatly be classified into the traditional Western categories of martial art, game, or dance; in its traditional form, it displays qualities of all three.”39

    34Capener, 1995, 84.  35Ouyang, 1997, 78.  36Kim, 1990, 42, 123; quoted by Capener, 2005, 349.  37Ouyang, 1997, 76; Capener, 1995, 84.  38Yi, 1995; quoted by Capener, 1995, 83.  39Ouyang, 1997, 77.


    As Eric Hobsbawm points out, cases of invented tradition occur in all societies. Invented traditions are easily recognizable in the “ceremonials” and “symbolism” of authoritarian governments and nations like Nazi Germany, and they also arise commonly in monarchies, for example in Britain. Moreover, “invention of tradition” takes place in virtually all political institutions, systems, and societies. Regimes, ruling classes, and special interest groups invent traditions typically for ideological and propaganda purposes as well as social cohesion. While there are countless instances of invented traditions in the realm of politics, it commonly occurs also among non-political groups, institutions, and entities.40 For example, the inclusion of the Marathon in the modern Olympic Games was derived from “uncertain historiographical grounds.”41 In fact, the creation of the modern Olympic Games “looked like a compromise between late-nineteenth-century fantasies about ancient Greece and the obligatory concessions to modern states.”42 Nevertheless, most people today think that the modern Olympic Games faithfully continue the traditions of the ancient Greeks. Howbsawm continues, in any case, whether traditions are invented by deceitful regimes or innocent romantics, these groups or individuals try to project some continuity, by means of “semi-fiction” or outright “forgery,” from the ancient past to the present. If certain ceremonials and claims are repeated often enough, then, at some point they become “tradition.” The catalyst for invention of tradition often seems to be the need by a society to adapt to fast changing conditions,43 such as the turmoil after the First World War in Germany that eventually led to the Nazi regime.

    Korea has a strong authoritarian tradition through its Confucian hierarchical order, and the South Korean military regime under Pak Chŏng-hŭi promoted a policy of asking the population “to identify with the nation through a sense of uniquely shared past which was largely constructed and presented to the Korean public via state-cultural policies [retrofitted but] modeled on Japanese government cultural projects.”44 South Korea was in a state of disorder following the decade after the Korean War, and these policies were perceived as necessary by the South Korean military regime that assumed power during this confused era. The supposed need and implementation of these policies by Pak’s regime has to be seen in the context of South Korea’s economic and cultural reconstruction efforts, and with the continuing threat of annihilation by the North. However, even after South Korea became a democratic and modern society, successive South Korean governments have continued to assert their influence on the presentation of history, culture, and tradition. This happens often for political and nationalistic purposes, on occasion for the domestic and sometimes also for international audiences. 45 Moreover, the South Korean public and government long for international recognition. They aggressively push for the hosting of international sporting and political events, and the inclusion of Koreans and Korean items to international organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO.

    The traditional mask dance of Andong would be a specific example of an invention of tradition in Korean society. In this case, the tradition was invented by a Korean academic. In order to reconstruct the dance, a university professor was able to locate one elderly man who participated in such a dance in his youth and interviewed him. The professor was accused of asserting his own suggested interpretations and assumed version of the dance into the answers of the individual. Considering the advanced age of the man and the time gap involved, he likely could not have presented such detailed and presumably accurate accounts. Nevertheless, exactly this version, “produced” during the interview, was generally accepted as a genuine account of Korean culture and tradition.46 Parallels with t’aekkyŏn may be drawn. It also has a single remaining survivor, namely Song Tŏkki, whose testimony and the following interpretations by scholars are intended to present an accurate picture of t’aekkyŏn’s long past activities and tradition. Even though Song is a much more credible witness than the mask dance observer, the interpretations of academics exhibit an often biased picture, which also suggests some hints of a case of invention of tradition.

    The scarce references and few pictures cited in this study reflect the dearth of existing data about t’aekkyŏn before the twentieth century. Moreover, toward the turn of the century t’aekkyŏn had nearly disappeared. According to Song Tŏk-ki, the “last t’aekkyŏn player” of the Chosŏn era, it was only occasionally practiced in the Seoul area at that time. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Korea was colonized by Japan and toward the end of the colonial period in 1945, t’aekkyŏn had completely vanished. In 1958, in honor of the birthday of President Yi Sŭngman (Rhee Syngman), who still had some memory of t’aekkyŏn from his childhood, Song Tŏk-ki was invited to give an exhibition of the art, but not a single partner for the performance could be located throughout the country.47

    During that era, the only person who kept t’aekkyŏn alive was Song. Except for his teachings, t’aekkyŏn techniques of the previous centuries are no longer known today. Modern t’aekkyŏn techniques and knowledge only descended through Song. He, together with Pak Chong-gwan, published the first manual on t’aekkyŏn in 1983, and there exists no older detailed records about t’aekkyŏn techniques. T’aekkyŏn became popular only after the South Korean government designated it as an “Important Intangible Cultural Asset” that same year. Subsequently, t’aekkyŏn adopted a formal organization and structure, and introduced competitions with rules and regulations, in a similar fashion to the already established martial art taekwondo.

    Most students who started practicing t’aekkyŏn had prior knowledge and exposure to taekwondo training, since during that time in Korea a large majority of boys went to taekwondo institutes during their childhood and later practiced it as a mandatory activity in the military.48 Therefore, modern t’aekkyŏn actually adapted many kicking techniques from taekwondo and not the other way around as has been generally assumed. According to Yi Chong-u, who was one of the leading figures responsible for the development of taekwondo:49

    The general presentation of t’aekkyŏn represents another example of a case of an invented tradition in Korean culture. The initiators of these invented traditions in Korea were in many cases the authoritarian governments of the recent past. At present, some academics and institutions continue this practice, as in the case of t’aekkyŏn. T’aekkyŏn’s promotion as an Intangible World Cultural Heritage has to be seen in this context.

    40See Hobsbawm, 1983, 1–14. Hobsbawm and Ranger collected articles that detail numerous cases of invention of tradition in many societies, cultures, and times.  41Gumbrecht, 2006, 136.  42Ibid., 135.  43See Hobsbawm, 1983, 1–14.  44Park, 2010, 76.  45See Park’s discussion, 2010, 67–93. The constant revision of history text books of public schools by incumbent South Korean governments is also a good example of how politicians, through their ideologies, try to influence education and public views.  46See Kim, 1991.  47Capener, 1995, 84.  48This is still true nowadays to some extent. Although not all of the young children practice taekwondo anymore due to the availability of alternative activities.  49Yi Chong-u (Lee Chong Woo) was one of the leading taekwondo pioneers and the key figure in the development of the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). He was former Secretary General and Vice-President of the WTF, and former Vice-President of the Kukkiwŏn (The Kukkiwŏn was established by the South Korean government as the taekwondo headquarters. It is home of the World Taekwondo Academy, which is responsible for technical and educational matters. It is also responsible for black belt promotions around the world).  50Yi Chong-u made this statement in an interview with Yook, 2002, 307.


    Much has been said about the supposed historical connection between taekwondo and t’aekkyŏn. The former has usually been portrayed as a descendant of the latter, though this has been done to give taekwondo some ancient historical martial arts legitimacy. Ch’oe Hong-hŭi purposely invented the name “taekwondo” in 1955 to associate it with t’aekkyŏn by the similarity of the names.51 In actuality, no convincing substantial relationship between these arts exists.52 Moreover, t’aekkyŏn was recognized as an Important Intangible Cultural Asset of Korea in 1983, while taekwondo has not received such recognition.

    Another position regarding the connection between taekwondo and t’aekkyŏn is summarized very well by Ouyang’s following statement: “[I do not believe that] taekwondo’s or tangsoodo’s techniques actually come from taekkyon, but the emphasis on kicking definitely comes from taekkyon and the Koreans’ understanding of what their native martial arts are supposed to be like.”53 He agrees that t’aekkyŏn had neither the structural, philosophical or formal characteristics of a martial art as we understand it today, and that there is no actual historical connection between taekwondo and t’aekkyŏn. However, Ouyang believes that taekwondo received its “characteristic” from t’aekkyŏn, which supposedly “fits” the Korean character. This theory was first hypothesized by Yang Jin-bang in 1986, but was later articulated in greater detail by Kim Yong-ok in 1990. 54 Their popular assumption is that modern sparring/competition taekwondo assimilated traits from some “archetypical movements” and characteristics “innate” to the Korean people. This theory is typically supported by two arguments: First, Koreans are portrayed as having a playful character, which is expressed in their preference for games over more serious activities. For example, Koreans allegedly favor playful sparring over self-defense activities as the central focus of martial arts training. Secondly, Koreans are described as having a “natural” preference for using their feet in games. Capener summarizes Kim Yong-ok’s position on this theory as follows:

    Some “prototypical Korean” characteristics of “rhythm and stepping” might be part of t’aekkyŏn, but are certainly not found in modern taekwondo sparring; taekwondo stepping and rhythm are similar to boxing and other full-contact martial arts.

    As for Koreans’ natural inclination toward games, the existence of ssirŭm, among others, is often cited as proof of this trait, but many forms of wrestling games for spectators and/or religious purposes also exist in the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, and Mongolia.56 Wrestling has existed since ancient times in these countries, just as sumai, the predecessor of sumō, existed in Japan.57 Regarding the argument concerning the preference of Koreans for competitive games over self-defense in taekwondo, it can be said that the Japanese were the first in East Asia to develope sparring and competitions for kendo and later judo. In addition, karate also introduced a non-contact sports competition system before taekwondo even existed.58 In fact, the Korean competition format for fullcontact sparring was largely a replica of the system used in the All Japan Championship first held in 1957.59 The Japanese were the first to introduce some sporting character and values to martial arts, even though they could not fully accomplish this for karate.60

    The claim that Koreans like to use their feet in games more than other ethnic groups is also not convincing. For example, next to t’aekkyŏn, the foot game chaegi-ch’agi is usually given to support Koreans’ preference for foot games, but this game of kicking various objects (similar to hacky sack) is played from Nepal to Thailand. Furthermore, in Southeast Asia, a volleyball-like game using only the feet, legs and knees, called sepak takraw in Malay, is very popular.61

    The common assertion of the preference of Koreans for kicking over hand techniques was previously made by Son Tŏk-sŏng, an important taekwondo leader during the 1950s and 1960s, in 1968: “The Koreans put more emphasis on the use of the feet than other forms of martial arts.”62 However, the same claim was made by Funakoshi Gichin, often called “the father of karate,” much earlier, when he stated: “No other martial art has developed foot techniques (ashiwaza) to the high degree of refinement that they have found in karate. Indeed, foot techniques are a major strength of karate.”63 At that time, some Korean individuals might have had a preference for foot techniques, but this is certainly not reflected in the overall presentation of early Korean martial arts literature until the 1970s. None of the early “taekwondo” manuals devote more illustrations or content to kicking techniques than their Japanese counterparts.64

    The above arguments for the natural inclination of Koreans toward the use of and preference for the feet in playful activities and games are used to produce some connection between t’aekkyŏn and taekwondo; hence the claim that the introduction of competition represents the “t’aekkyŏn-ization” of karate resulting in taekwondo. Some scholars, who recognize taekwondo’s historical evolution from Japanese karate, use these arguments to produce a kind of philosophical justification for taekwondo as being nonetheless Korean in origin.

    51Choi, 1965, 22; Madis, 2003, 202; Gillis, 2008, 49. Ch’oe Hong Hŭi was one of the leading figures from the mid-1950s on for the development and proliferation of taekwondo.  52See Capener, 1995; Kang and Yi, 1999; Madis, 2003; Moenig, 2012.  53Ouyang, 1997, 88.  54See Yang, 1986; Kim, 1990. Yang, who is at present the Secretary General of the Korea Taekwondo Association, was also the first person to initiate the discussion that taekwondo originated from karate in his Master’s thesis of 1986.  55Capener, 2005, 349–50.  56Draeger and Smith, 1969, 141–9.  57Sansone, 1988, 23; Draeger and Smith, 1969, 131.  58The name “taekwondo” was created in 1955 but was only universally accepted in 1965. Koreans basically practiced karate at that time. See Moenig, et al., 2012; Moenig, 2012.  59For comparison see Nishiyama and Brown, 1960, 187–8.  60See Capener, 2005, 321–54; Moenig, et al., 2012, 1363–81.  61See the official site of “Sepaktakraw,”  62Son and Clark, 1968, 3.  63Funakoshi, 1957/1973, 23.  64There are ten early “taekwondo” manuals published between 1949 and 1968 and that the authors are aware of: Hwang, 1949; 1958; Ch’oe, 1955; Pak, 1958; Ch’oe, 1958; Choi, 1965; Yi, 1965; Yi, 1968; Son and Clark 1968; Cho, 1968. Only Cho focuses slightly more on kicking techniques because he does not describe any forms. For a detailed analysis see Moenig, 2012, 65– 93. Moreover, none of these books displays any connection to t’aekkyŏn or other martial arts. Overall these manuals are similar to earlier or contemporary karate publications.


    The two martial arts based on stand up striking and which are often mentioned and/or illustrated in early Korean literature are subak and kwŏnbŏp, both of which have Chinese origins. The wrestling-based arts appear to have Chinese predecessors as well. A variety of branches and modified terms for the arts developed over the centuries, but the diversification process is not clear because of a lack of historical records.

    Whether t’aekkyŏn evolved from subak or any other existing martial art or game of earlier times remains open to discussion. The interpretation of the existing records continues to be disputed and they are simply insufficient. Considering the existing references, the confirmed history of t’aekkyŏn is only about 300 years old and dates back to the early eighteenth century.

    For many Korean scholars, the references in the Chaemulbo represent one of the chief sources when analyzing the evolution of ancient Korean martial arts. However, the exact translations and interpretations are greatly disputed. The Chaemulbo mentions a variety of martial arts terminology next to the familiar terms as well as some names for wrestling arts, which are likely interchangeable with ssirŭm. In regards to t’aekkyŏn, the Chaemulbo is the only document on record before the twentieth century, which was analyzed for this study that associates t’aekkyŏn with martial arts. However, the authoritative nature that many scholars ascribe to the Chaemulbo is questionable since the author simply compiled a cultural encyclopedia and was likely not an expert on martial arts. Moreover, none of the arts cited, except t’aekkyŏn and ssirŭm, have survived to the present day. It is worth mentioning that kwŏnbŏp was not referred to, since it was introduced more recently to Korea from China, and probably was only practiced by the military and possibly never developed a folk character like the other arts.

    T’aekkyŏn may have been a popular and wide-spread activity during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as it was depicted in paintings by Sin Yun-bok and Yu Suk, and mentioned in some official records. It is generally believed that towards the beginning of the twentieth century t’aekkyŏn had almost faded away. According to testimonies, t’aekkyŏn was only practiced occasionally in the vicinity of Seoul at that time. However, this could be incorrect, as some evidence seems to suggest Arthur Noble’s photograph may have been taken in Pyŏngyang.

    T’aekkyŏn does not fit our definition of a martial art as we think of martial arts today because t’aekkyŏn had neither the spiritual dimensions nor the organizational structure associated with Asian martial arts in modern times. Moreover, it was certainly not an activity used by the military, criminal groups,65 or individuals in preparation for real combat or self-defense. However, t’aekkyŏn had an element of a fighting skill. T’aekkyŏn in association with ssirŭm was mentioned in the Namwŏn’gosa and reportedly was used by some individuals in a scuffle. These people were members of the lower classes and t’aekkyŏn was likely despised by the yangban class, as they as well as commoners had quite different value systems and ways of life at that time. T’aekkyŏn’s rough nature eventually contributed to its demise as reported in Ch’oe Yŏng-nyŏn’s book that was written in 1921.

    In contrast, the majority of existing references portray t’aekkyŏn as a kind of game. The depiction of “children playing t’aekkyŏn” is a recurring theme. T’aekkyŏn certainly contains a strong element of a folk game, especially through its dance-like rhythm. It was performed by the lower classes and perhaps, similar to the ssirŭm-like wrestling games, was also connected with cultural, religious or ritualistic festivities, as indicated in one painting. The existing fighting contests performed by commoners were probably more game-like and/or ritualistic, as we think of wrestling today, and not arts for real fighting and battle. Most claims and discussions about ancient Korean martial arts are often unproven assertions and guesswork because of a general lack of concrete evidence. T’aekkyŏn’s portrayal as a “traditional Korean martial art” shows similarities to the “mask dance case of Andong” as a case of “invention of tradition” in Korean culture. Available information about t’aekkyŏn is often misrepresented and the claim that t’aekkyŏn is “ancient” is an exaggeration.

    T’aekkyŏn is only described as a form of martial art in present times; the first manual, titled T’aekkyŏn by Song Tŏk-ki and Pak Chong-gwan, was published in 1983. In it, Song, the “last t’aekkyŏn player” of the Chosŏn period, acknowledges that he perceived t’aekkyŏn always as being merely a game.66 During the twentieth century, t’aekkyŏn almost became extinct and was only revived during the last three decades. The representatives of t’aekkyŏn started to develop a martial art narrative and contrary to popular belief, modern t’aekkyŏn was actually structured and fashioned after the existing leading martial art of Korea, that is, taekwondo. The popular claim among a number of scholars that taekwondo represents the “t’aekkyŏn-ization” of Japanese karate can be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate the perception of taekwondo in the sense of claiming a more profound Korean origin for it.

    In their desire for international recognition, some Koreans present biased accounts of giving legitimacy to the popular portrayal of t’aekkyŏn as a “traditional Korean martial art.” In the case of t’aekkyŏn, the historical records suggest that it was simply a “folk game.” Nevertheless, t’aekkyŏn was presented to and accepted as a “traditional Korean martial art” by UNESCO in 2011.

    65For example, Chinese martial arts are often associated with bandits and secret societies (Moenig, 2012, 149–150), which is not the case with t’aekkyŏn.  66Song and Pak, 1983, 8; Capener, 1995, 84.

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  • [Table 1.] T’aekky?n Records before the Twentieth Century
    T’aekky?n Records before the Twentieth Century
  • [Figure 1.] Taek’wae-do
  • [Figure 2 and 3.] Chaemulbo
  • [Figure 4.] Taek’wae-do30
  • [Figure 6.] Namw?n’gosa