Taekkyeon is a traditional Korean martial art, probably stemming from Subak and Ssirum. It is uncertain when Subak was first practiced in Korea, but it may have existed many centuries ago. The first source mentioning Taekkyon is the book Manmulbo (also Jaemulbo), written around 1790 by Lee, Sung-Ji. Taekkyeon is also frequently romanized informally as Taekkyon or Taekyon.

Today, it is officially classified as an Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76 by the government of Korea. But centuries ago when tae kyon was created, it was a means for fighting battles as well as for protecting one’s family and property. And for a long time afterward, it continued to stand as one of the most formidable fighting methods in existence.

Chances are the average martial artist in the West has never even heard of tae kyon. That’s understandable, as many Koreans also have no information about it. Tae kyon has endured a tortuous history, and that fact has taken its toll over the years. At present, gathering information is a bit difficult, to say the least. But the art is definitely still alive, with hundreds of students practicing in three cities in Korea today. Serious efforts are being made to gain more national and international recognition.

Rise and fall: The traditional wrestling game of Korea is Ssirum. In it, the first to touch the ground with anything but the feet loses. Taekkyon adds only one rule to this: that the contestant loses also if kicked in the head.

Signalling defeat from a kick was done by slapping the ground with the hands, signifying it as a technical fall. Who came up with the idea for this kicking rule, and why and when, are unknown.

Taekkyon never seems to have been very widespread. By the late 19th Century we know of only one Taekkyon competition a year in all of Korea.

At the height of its popularity, even the king practiced Taekkyon, and Taekkyon matches were frequent.

However, the next king outlawed Taekkyon matches, motivated by the gambling which took place around them – where people would gamble away their wives and houses – thus making it a purely military art. Subak split into two; yusul and Taekkyon, during the early Joseon dynasty.

Taekkyon took a severe blow when Neo-Confucianism grew in popularity, and then the Japanese occupation damaged the art even more. Taekkyon has had a slight resurgence in recent days, getting the classification Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76″ on June 1, 1983. It is the only Korean martial art which possesses such a classification.

Techniques: Taekkyon contains all kinds of techniques, including hand and leg techniques as well as joint locks, head butts and so on. However, today there are different styles which sometimes do not emphasize all techniques. In all styles, just like in past centuries, kicks are most dominant. Taekkyon probably teaches a great variety of kicks, especially low kicks (ddanjuk) but also jumps.

Taekkyon movements are very fluid and dance-like with the practitioners constantly moving. Thus, it resembles Capoeira and Shaolin Kung Fu. While some people see a certain similarity to the motions of Taekwondo, the techniques and principles differ a lot from those of other Korean martial arts, for example, Taekkyon does not make use of abrupt knee motions. The principles and methods used to extend the kick put more emphasis on fluency and pushing rather than on speed and strength of the kick.

Taekkyon uses many sweeps with straight forward low kicks using the ball of the foot and the heel and flowing crescent-like high kicks. There are many kicks that move the leg outward from the middle and inward from the outside using the side of the heels and the side of the feet. The art also used tricks like inward trips, wall-jumping, fake-outs, tempo, and slide-stepping. The art is also like a dance in which the fighter constantly changes his or her stance from his or her left to his or her right by stepping forward and backwards while his or her arms are up and ready to guard. This art requires traditional Korean white robes which were worn commonly in the past of Korea.

Low kicks, which are very frequent in Taekkyon, are normally used to disable an opponent’s balance and knock him to the ground. These kicks include leg sweeps as well as direct blows to the knee. There are around 10 different basic techniques of this set of techniques called ttanjuk.

To observe a tae kyon practitioner in motion is to learn what distinguishes it from all other arts. The accomplished student moves in a flowing, continuous, rhythmical manner, arms rising and then falling, feet stepping forward and then back. One expects music to drive their strange dance, but they have little need for any. The true reason for this technique is indeed martial. The footwork allows one to come within striking distance and attack, then retreat as quickly as possible. And the constantly moving arms act as both a deception and a moving weapon, already in motion and poised to strike. Often, a powerful kick follows a fake or real hand attack. Simultaneous attack and defense movements are taught, producing a most effective fighter.

Tae kyon movements are usually circular, always following a natural rhythm to which the body can easily adapt. Foot techniques are stressed slightly more than the hands, but both are deadly. Quite often it is the softer parts, such as the open hand and the bottom of the foot, that are used as weapons, minimizing damage to the user. Another unusual feature of tae kyon is the choice of target areas on the body. The primary ones include the solar plexus, forehead, calf, inner thigh, floating ribs and shoulders. Tae kyon teaches that, by attacking these areas, one can use the minimum amount of force necessary to subdue the aggressor, and then escape. Only at the more advanced level are techniques for fatally striking the eyes and nose taught.

The study of tae kyon also differs that of other martial arts. The age and sex of the student does not matter; all can learn with equal effort. However, there is one uncommon restriction–young children cannot be taught tae kyon. It is believed that they lack sufficient responsibility for total self-control. One can practice any place, indoors or out. No equipment of any kind is required. Even during sparring, protective pads are not used. That would not be natural or realistic, practitioners say. Training emphasizes speed and strength, as well as technique and efficiency. The body is loose, and the art is flexible, confronting a soft stylist with hard and direct movements, but becoming soft and yielding when opposed by a hard stylist.

While many modern arts stress attack rather than defense, tae kyon considers them equally important. And the best defense is, simply, evasion. “It doesn’t matter how strong your opponent is if he can’t hit you,” the master said. While the students learn to attack before the opponent hits, at times they must resort to both blocking and trapping. Some of the skills taught include those from taekwondo, judo and ssirum (traditional Korean wrestling, similar to Japanese sumo).

As far as the mental aspects are concerned, tae kyon seems to have them covered, too. Stressed are discipline, toleration, leadership and etiquette. The rare competition events also teach sportsmanship. At the middle stage, one develops his “ki” power using a unique form of “kihap.” In contrast to the usual, explosive blast of the hard-style arts, tae kyon uses a controlled, soft “eee keh” sound. It is claimed to be more effective for transmitting inner energy to the hands and feet. And at the most advanced levels, tae kyon changes to a mostly internal art, stressing both ki energy and “dan jeon” (Chinese: tan t’ien) breathing.

The future for tae kyon is uncertain at best. Both of the old masters mentioned above have died. But constant efforts are being made to spread it throughout Korea, and hopefully to the United States as well. Until now, attempts at gaining publicity have met with limited success. Even during a demonstration tournament held in June 1987 at Indiana State University, tae kyon was viewed more as a curiosity than a martial art. However, a textbook is currently being prepared by the Korea Tae Kyon Research Association, located in Pusan, Korea.

But those struggling to preserve this 1,500-year-old cultural inheritance are optimistic. They believe it is the duty of the present generation to keep the legacy of tae kyon alive, for the benefit of themselves as well as in tribute to their ancestors.

As a sport: When Taekkyon is practiced as a sport, it uses a limited subset of techniques, focusing on grappling and kicking only. Points are scored by throwing (or tripping) the opponent to the ground, pushing him out of the ring, or kicking him in the head. There are no hand strikes or headbutts, and purposefully injuring your opponent is prohibited. (The head kicks are often quite sharp, but usually not full force, and fighters may not attempt to wear the opponent down with body blows as in western boxing or muay thai). Matches are decided by the best of three falls — the first fighter to score two points wins. To an untrained eye, the matches are cautious but exhilarating affairs. The contestants circle each other warily, changing their footwork constantly and feinting with low kicks, before exploding into a flurry of action which usually leaves one fighter flat on his/her back.

Modern development (since 1988): In 1987, the most important man for the transmission of Taekkyon, Song Dok-Ki, died at the age of 94. Shortly afterwards, in the same year, Shin Han-Seung (who was most responsible for the registration of Taekkyon as an intangible cultural asset) also died. Since this time, several Taekkyon associations which follow different goals are active.

The only authentic and authorized Taekkyon associations are:

  • The Korea Taekkyon Association (KTA)
  • The Korea Traditional Taekgyeon Association (KTTA)
  • The Kyulyun Taekyun Association (KTK)

As of 2007, all Taekkyon in Korea will be united under one organization. This effort was lead by several famous Taekkyon masters, including Grandmaster Lee Yong-Bok (head of the KTA).