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This Korean martial art has risen from the ancient military histories to be the inspiration for several major martial arts styles known today such Taekwondo and its subcategories. Taekkyeon lives today in its native form as well, with students focusing on graceful and dynamic footwork along with the ideals of many other Korean martial arts, including Taekwondo and a grandmaster of Taekkyon (Shin Han-Seung) was even granted national treasure status by the Korean government, solidifying the art as one that is celebrated in many countries worldwide.


The Mysterious History

Not much is known about the origins of Taekkyeon since it has been documented and passed through the generations for centuries upon centuries. Its ancient roots are often associated with the Korean martial art of Subak but not much is known about this style either. The earliest written documentation of Taekkyeon is from the reign of King Jeongjo from 1776 through 1800. Before the occupation of Japan in the early 1900s, Taekkyon was mentioned as a popular martial art seen at sporting events, particularly the Dano-festival. A tournament was staged that was called Gyeollyeon in the capital city of the Joseon Dynasty.


Like many Korean martial arts, the practices of Taekkyeon were nearly lost completely during the Neo-Confucianism movement by the Japanese while they occupied Korea. Until 1945, the art had to be secretly practiced and preserved for fear of the consequences should it be found out that practitioners were still active. The last master of the Joseon Dynasty, Song Duk-Ki, kept Taekkyeon alive during this period and paved the way for its revival in the late 1940s. For the next few decades, Taekkyon was slowly revived and organized and in 1983 it was classified as Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76 by the Korean government.


Although the exact origins and history of Taekkyeon are still a mystery today, what is known has been preciously preserved, cultivated, and organized to be a largely practiced martial art that has made appearances in several countries besides Korea. In 2011, the art was recognized by UNESCO and became the first martial art to be put on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.


The Natural Flow of Technique

When one watches Taekkyeon in action, it truly manifests as a form of art. The geometric and fluid motions are like a perfect dance performed with kicks and other blows. The art focuses on kicks to the entire body, upper, middle, and lower of the opponent but also incorporates jumps and other sweeping movements that all correspond to the hand movements in play. Everything must be in balance and all movements are meant to be natural to the human body.


Several different moves are learned throughout instruction that are designed to keep the practitioner constantly in motion during combat. Each movement has its own term and purpose, like steps in a dance.

  • Gumsil or ogeum jil: This refers to the way that the knees are constantly bending in between moves, giving the practitioner ways to transition to the next step or move away from his or her opponent while keeping the body graceful and aligned.
  • Pumbalkki: The name given to the footwork that is used and is named for the triangular shape of the Chinese characters that make up the name of this art. While the word does sometimes combine with others within the art for new meaning, it is strictly referring to the shape of the footwork during combat.

These are the names of two of the main terms of movement within the Taekkyeon system. There are names for each of the different kicks and for several other movements that range from low to high in terms of contact to the body. The types of kicks that are taught may vary from master to master and from school to school as the personalized curriculums for teaching basic techniques tend to be unique to the master teaching them.


Other kinds of kicks include sweeping motions, using several different parts of the foot, striking as the leg moves outward from the middle, inward jumps, side steps, and many other tricks. These steps are used to keep the body in continuous motion as the next blow is being delivered and to do so in a way that is not rapid or unnatural to the body. Grappling and hand movements are coordinated with the kicks so that they fit well in the “dance” of combat.


In competitive combat, the movement of Taekkyeon looks calculated and almost choreographed. The students circle each other as they search for the next good blow and block ones that come at them using the techniques that they have learned. Since the art of Taekkyeon is so fluid and dynamic, the untrained spectator will see a spectacle that looks unreal to them. Korea’s ancient history comes alive in the body of these practitioners, preserving the stories with a martial art that truly looks like art.


Differences from Taekwondo

Although this martial art gave a major influence to Taekwondo and the curriculums are similar, the major difference is in the execution of technique. Taekwondo concentrates on kicks and punches as well as several other aspects, while Taekkyeon focuses on the kicks and the movements between them. Taekwondo does not ask the practitioner to stay in constant motion and Taekkyeon uses specific transition moves to go from one kick to the next. Even in the modern practice of Taekkyeon, the ancient art forms of moving the body in perfect balance are recognized today.


Taekwondo incorporates techniques that are borrowed from other cultures. While Taekkyeon does include some aspects of Chinese martial arts that were incorporated during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the technique is fairly dedicated to ensuring that the ancient art form is preserved as well as it can be documented. Its exact origins may be a mystery but the philosophies of balance and motion live on even in present day Taekkyeon.


Despite these differences in aesthetic and fundamental disciplines, Taekkyeon and Taekwondo are still often confused. It is important to recognize that they are not the same martial art and that Taekkyeon is based on ancient techniques that have been passed down through generations from a time when they weren’t even documented until modern day Taekkyeon.


Organizations and Teaching

Several organizations exist to teach and organize Taekkyeon. Its early principles are included in many curriculums today but each individual organization that represents Taekkyeon has a slightly different view of how they should teach their students. The techniques that the students learn are left completely to the discretion of the master that runs the school.


The organizations that are in place to represent Taekkyon each differ a bit in schools of thought and each has a grandmaster with a unique way of doing things. There is no single governing body among the organization but there is still structure within the basic curriculums and combat arenas.


Advancement is not the same as with other forms of martial arts. There is no belted system to indicate rank but there are instructors, masters, and grandmasters. Practitioners must study and practice the techniques for several years, perhaps decades, in order to become proficient in the art of Taekkyeon. The kicks and movements between them require a presence of mind as well as body and complete balance between the two.


Due to the dance-like nature of Taekkyeon, the practitioner must learn to move the body gracefully and naturally. This seems like it should come easy to everyone, but it actually takes a severe amount of muscle control and study in such disciplines in order to be able to execute each technique properly. In addition to landing the right blows, practitioners must also be able to “dance” around the arena in constant motion.  This may not only be strenuous but also difficult to coordinate until your body gets used to the motions that it goes through to move correctly.


Traditional Dress

A student wears a Korean dobok and the traditional billowy pants worn by many other martial arts practitioners. The jacket is usually one that is worn crossed over the body and secured with a sash. Insignia and rank depend on the school that the student attends and there is no specific rule that says which must or must not be worn in combat. Due to the nature of this martial art and its emphasis on kicks, most practitioners opt for light weight training shoes that don’t hurt the opponent but protect the feet during combat and practice.


Modern Application

Taekkyeon was original a  military martial art that was taught to soldiers in order to prepare them for hand to hand (or in this case foot to body) contact. The style may be taught in some military designations but the main application of Taekkyeon in modern times is self-defense. Other applications include the use of the martial art in improving balance and form in daily life as well as for sport. The aesthetically pleasing execution of the techniques makes this martial art interesting to watch as well as participate in, no matter the application.

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