‘Is Taekwondo a religion?’

I’ve put the title above in quotation marks because this is not a question that I am asking of you, the reader – this is a question that was asked of me a long time ago. Actually, more specifically, it was put to me as a statement – that ‘Taekwondo is a religion’ – by one of my friends.

I hadn’t been training in Taekwondo for very long at the time – probably about a year and a half – and the friend who asked it of me was not a martial artist at all. She was just very interested in philosophy (and went on to study philosophy at university).

My answer at the time was a firm ‘no, Taekwondo is not a religion’, though not having thought of the question before, I was not very well equipped to say why it was not. Nevertheless I have not forgotten being asked the question.

Certainly in some ways Taekwondo is similar to many world religions. We have a traditional style of clothing – the dobok; we have traditional rituals that we learn from and teach to each other – the forms; we have separate denominations – the different styles of TaekwondoChangheon-yu, Kukki-won; we have founders; we have a hierarchical structure.

But these things alone do not make something a religion. Many of these attributes also apply to the supporters of football clubs, and they are generally not considered a religion (though I’m sure some philosophers would disagree). This question comes down to, as it often does: what is the defining quality of a religion?

Personally, I think that a religion has to have a supernatural belief system – you have to believe in a deity or some other metaphysical entity. While in Taekwondo we do idolise a number of people – such as Choi Hong-hi and Hwang Ki – there are no gods or goddesses. On this alone, I would say that Taekwondo is not a religion.

However, some would argue that belief in the supernatural is too narrow a constraint for the definition of a religion. It would most likely exclude Confucianism (which I would also not consider a religion, but again some would argue differently). Some would argue that a religion is any codified set of beliefs.

Taekwondo – particularly Changheon-yu Taekwondo – does have a set of beliefs. These are the tenets, or virtues, of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. These are the tenets by which students are expected to act in Taekwondo classes. But it is also often remarked that Taekwondo is not just an activity that you do for a few hours a week – it is a way of life. The five tenets, as well as other aspects of Taekwondo and Korean culture, are supposed to be part of your life outside of the dojang too. Therefore, the tenets, and the culture of Taekwondo, is a set of beliefs about how to live, comparable (and indeed heavily influenced by) the values of Confucianism.

So under this broader definition of a religion, where a religion is simply any set of beliefs, Taekwondo could be considered a religion. However, this does also make it arguable that capitalism is a religion as well. (Again, I’m sure that some philosophers would argue that capitalism is a religion.)

So in conclusion. This question leads to the usual philosophical minefield about the definition of religion and what things you think should and shouldn’t be considered a religion. While there are some similarities between Taekwondo and world religions, I think they are sufficiently different that Taekwondo should not be considered a religion.

Special doboks for referees in Taekwondo

I have always liked the dobok. Its design allows for free movement while also looking strong and powerful. It is traditional, and a symbol of Korean culture, but not inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Two or three times a year I go to officiate at Taekwondo competitions, and have been doing so for about eight years. For the competitions, officials are instructed to wear black trousers, and a black v-neck t-shirt with the word ‘Official’ embroidered onto it – we’re given the t-shirt when we first go to officiate at a competition. Most people generally wear sports shoes.

I think that the monotonous and undistinctive clothing that the officials wear does not help to give the sense of authority and expertise that we need. The officials are ultimately the people running the competition, and that involves doing things like keeping the audience from intruding on the rounds, telling competitors where to go and more generally what to do, and even disqualifying competitors if they break the rules of the competition. The officials are also expected to know a lot about Taekwondo – both the art itself and the rules of the competition. The officials need to be seen as authorities and experts, and how we look can influence that.

As such, I have long thought that officials in Taekwondo need a special design of dobok to wear at competitions. Being a dobok, officials could wear their belts with it, which would remind everyone that these officials ARE black belts, and they are very skilled in Taekwondo themselves – they’re not just people who’ve been taught the rules and brought in to help. Having a different design – i.e., one that’s not white – rather than just wearing the existing black belt doboks, would make it easy to tell the officials and the competitors apart – which is vital during rounds – otherwise the competitors would mistake the referees for their opponents and start fighting them. Having an exclusive design would also add to the sense of authority that the officials have.

Having special clothing for referees would not be unique to Taekwondo – referees in Sumō have their own styles of clothing – indeed refereeing in Sumō is seen as an art as much as the wrestling itself is, and Sumō referees have their own traditions. And in Taekkyeon – one of the ancestors of Taekwondo – they have special referees’ doboks. In Taekkyeon they are bright yellow – perhaps not a good choice of colour for Taekwondo, but if Taekkyeon can have special referees’ doboks, then we in Taekwondo definitely can too.

So what should the design be? Well, the normal dobok is white, and black belts get some black edging to it. In the organisation that I train with, instructors have a black dobok, which has gold lettering embroidered onto it. It has always seemed slightly odd to me to give instructors a black dobok, since black is the colour of expertise or perfection in Taekwondo, but masters’ doboks are still white. Nevertheless, the referees’ dobok could also be black, symbolising a different kind of expertise to that of the instructors. The instructor is skilled in teaching; the referee is skilled in scoring a fight.

But to avoid the symbolism of black, the referees’ dobok could be dark blue or dark red. Blue and red are the colours of the Taegeuk, as seen on the flag of South Korea. If the doboks had gold embroidery, they would not look dissimilar to the clothing worn by the aristocracy of ancient Korea. Yellow also has traditional symbolism – it is one of the colours of the Samsaeg-ui Taegeuk – perhaps appropriate as it’s the colour that represents humankind (blue and red represent the sky and the earth). However, yellow is bright and garish, so likely to be unpopular. Orange, magenta, and purple are also too garish. Green has no particular symbolism, and is an odd colour choice for a dobok generally. Brown and grey are too dull.

So blue, red, or yellow would all be advisable colours, with gold embroidery. No black edging – I think that would be too much. Despite the challenge of designing and manufacturing a dobok, and then persuading practitioners to buy it and wear it, I think having special doboks for referees would be worth it.