Contrary to popular belief, Taekwondo isn’t an original martial art with its own centuries-long history. Taekwondo is actually fairly new, being a post-World War II construction that has as its foundation several classical Korean martial arts. Among Taekwondo’s parent arts is Subak, a Korean martial art that was founded 1500 years ago, during the time of the ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea.
Long ago, Korea was divided into the Kingdoms of Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo. The people of Goguryeo lived in a mountainous region, and as a result had stronger legs than they had arms. As a result, they developed a fighting style that made use of powerful kicks, along with throws and joint locks. The army of Goguryeo was composed of soldiers known as “Seonbae,” who were widely known for their aptitudes in many fields, such as archery, literature, and martial arts. Over time, the martial art that they practiced became known as “Subak.”
Later on, the Silla people are thought to have learned Subak from the Goguryeo armies, as Japanese pirates made regular incursions into their territory. The warriors of the Silla were known as “Hwarang” and they used Subak alongside other martial arts, and weapons training.’
During the Joseon period, which began about 600 years ago and ended just before the 20th century rolled over, the martial arts took a backseat to the literary arts, thanks to the rise of Confucianism in the region. Subak became limited to a competitive sport, to be played out in competitions known as subakhui, in which athletes who won three bouts could become soldiers. Around this time, the martial art split into different martial arts, which would become the predecessors of modern Korean martial arts.
The Japanese occupation of Korea led to a significant halting of the practice of martial arts in Korea until after World War II ended. After the war, martial arts schools known as “kwans” began opening, started by Korean masters who spent time in Japan. Each of the kwans had their own style, though many of them were based on earlier martial arts, including Subak.
Subak is generally considered a lost art now, as whatever codified materials and training manuals produced for it have not been found. Its legacy lives on, however, in modern Korean martial arts such as Taekwondo, a shining example of how every martial art comes with a rich history and heritage that should be respected and honored.