What was Taekwondo originally called?

Taekwondo has previously had many different names. At various points in the past, Tangsudo, Gongsudo, and Taesudo were all names for what today is known as Taekwondo.

Taekwondo is descended mainly from two other martial arts: Karate – a martial art bought over to Japan from Okinawa at the start of the twentieth century – and Taekkyeon – a native Korean martial art distinctive for its fantastic kicks. Many of those Koreans who developed Taekwondo travelled to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea for education. While there, they learned Karate from influential Karate practitioners such as Funakoshi Gichin. Many of these Koreans also had training in, or awareness of, Taekkyeon, and incorporated the impressive kicks of the native Korean art into Karate.

At this point, the martial art was called either Tangsudo or Gongsudo, both of which are Korean pronunciations of the Japanese Karate (which can be written in Japanese in two different ways). Tangsudo literally means ‘the way of the Chinese hand’, with do meaning ‘way’, su meaning ‘hand’, and tang referring to the Tang dynasty of China. Gongsudo literally means ‘the way of the empty hand’, with gong meaning ‘empty’.

After World War II, and the end of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, there was an effort to de-Japonify this Korean variant of Karate. This included renaming the art. One proposition for the name was Taesudo. Tae is a Sino-Korean word meaning ‘to kick’, or figuratively ‘foot’, and represented the impressive kicking techniques that had been included in the art from Taekkyeon. Taesudo literally means ‘the way of the foot and the fist’.

Another name that was proposed was Taekwondo. This name is similar to Taesudo, and has the same meaning, but uses the word kwon instead of su to mean ‘fist’. This name was preferred because it sounded more similar to Taekkyeon.

For a few years in the mid-twentieth century, these different names competed with each other, but eventually Taekwondo became widespread as the name for the martial art. There are still martial artists around the world today who call the art they practise Tangsudo, Gongsudo, or Taesudo, and the style they practise is generally different to, though related to, the mainstream styles of Taekwondo.

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If you'd like to learn more about the Korean terminology used in Taekwondo, consider buying this book: Taekwondo Terminology. It contains an extensive dictionary of terms used in Taekwondo, as well as explanations on how to pronounce Korean words, and aspects of Korean grammar.

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