The proper names for ‘ITF’ and ‘WTF’ Taekwondo

(I started writing this article before the World Taekwondo Federation changed its name to just World Taekwondo, but the point still stands. Also, this article somewhat assumes that you haven’t read any of my other posts, as I use the conclusions of this post across the rest of the blog.)


The two most popular styles of Taekwondo are generally referred to as ‘WTF Taekwondo’ and ‘ITF Taekwondo’. I don’t know about you, but to me these are rather uninspiring names for styles of Taekwondo – sets of initials – they are quite stale and corporate.

‘WTF Taekwondo’ refers to the World Taekwondo Federation, which follows the style and curriculum of Kukki-won, the national centre for Taekwondo in Seoul, South Korea. It’s the style that’s used in the Olympics, so it’s a very visible style of Taekwondo.

‘ITF Taekwondo’, following a similar idea, refers to the International Taekwondo Federation. The ITF was founded by Choi Hong-hi, and the organisation follows the style of Taekwondo promulgated by Choi. However, since its inception, the ITF has split multiple times, and presently there is not just one International Taekwondo Federation, but at least three (which you can read about here: This division is the result of years of disagreements. Several separate organisations call themselves the ‘International Taekwondo Federation’, and each one claims to be the genuine ITF.

There are also other international organisations which practise the same style as the ITFs, but which don’t call themselves the ‘ITF’ (and aren’t necessarily direct secessions). Taekwondo International would be an example of this.

All of the different ITFs (and the other organisations like Taekwondo International) continue to follow Choi’s style of Taekwondo, but there are variations. An example is that students in some of these organisations practise the form Juche, and students in others practise Kodang. So when we say ‘ITF Taekwondo’, which ITF are we referring to? Which ITF is the authority on what ‘ITF Taekwondo’ is?

The name ‘ITF Taekwondo’ is therefore ambiguous. It doesn’t refer to just one style – it refers to one or all of several, ever-so-slightly different styles practised by the different ITFs and ITF-like organisations. (And when you have to explain to someone why the style of Taekwondo you practise is called ‘ITF Taekwondo’, you end up having to explain all of that history, and it gets confusing quickly.) Also, neither of these style names are Korean. I think in Taekwondo, a general principle should be: Korean first, English second (or any other language second). ‘ITF Taekwondo’ and ‘WTF Taekwondo’ are therefore not ideal names for these two styles.

Furthermore, while ‘ITF’ and ‘WTF’ Taekwondo are the two most popular styles, there are several other styles of Taekwondo. ‘GTF Taekwondo’ is the style of the Global Taekwondo Federation. The GTF was established by Bak Jung-tae, and follows a style that’s derived from Choi’s style. The proper name for ‘GTF Taekwondo’ is a topic for another post.

There’s also Cheongdo-kwan Taekwondo. Cheongdo-kwan was one of the original Kwans in 1950’s Korea. Today, the official Cheongdo-kwan supports the curriculum of Kukki-won, but there are other groups with the Cheongdo-kwan name which practise the original style of the school, which includes a number of forms from 松濤館 空手 Shōtōkan Karate.

It’s clear that the names generally used for many styles of Taekwondo are not ideal. So what should these styles be called? What form should these style names have?

Style names in Karate follow one of two schemes: the –ryu scheme, where the style name ends in 流 ryu, meaning ‘style’, such as 剛柔流 Gōjū-ryū or 一心流 Isshin-ryū, and the -kan scheme, where the style name ends in 館 kan, meaning ‘hall’ or ‘place’, such as 松濤館 Shōtōkan. Why is this relevant? Why are the naming conventions in Karate relevant to Taekwondo? Well Taekwondo is of course related to Karate, and one of the features that it borrows is that its name follows the same naming convention as many Japanese martial arts. The -do of Taekwondo is the same -do as in 空手道 karate-dō, 柔道 jūdō, and 剣道 kendō. Consequently, the conventions of style names of Japanese martial arts are also relevant for Taekwondo. Indeed, the original Kwans of Taekwondo all followed these conventions, and the -kwan (관 kwan is the Korean pronunciation of 館 kan) scheme (hence why they are called ‘Kwans’):

  • 창무관 彰武館 Changmu-kwan
  • 청도관 靑濤館 Cheongdo-kwan
  • 강덕원 講德院 Kangdeok-won
  • 한무관 韓武館 Hanmu-kwan
  • 정도관 正道館 Jeongdo-kwan
  • 지도관 智道館 Jido-kwan
  • 무덕관 武德館 Mudeok-kwan
  • 오도관 吾道館 Odo-kwan
  • 송무관 松武館 Songmu-kwan

You may have noticed that there is a Kwan in this list which does not follow the -kwan naming scheme. Kangdeok-won has the ending -won. 원 院 won means ‘institute’ or ‘centre’, and the fact that Kangdeok-won is considered influential in the development of Taekwondo establishes the -won ending as a valid ending for style names in Taekwondo.

Considering these naming schemes, we can write a list of conventions that a style name should follow. A traditional style name should:

  1. Be a Korean name, subsequently translated into English or romanised
  2. Follow
    1. The -ryu or -yu naming scheme (流 -ryū in Korean is pronounced either 류 -ryu or 유 -yu
    2. Or the -kwan naming scheme
    3. Or the -won naming scheme
  3. Be based on
    1. The name or pen-name of its founder (a traditional example of this would be Shōtōkan Karate, which was named after 船越 義珍 Funakoshi Gichin, whose pen-name was 松濤 Shōtō)
    2. Or a philosophical concept (a traditional example of this would be Gōjū-ryū, meaning ‘the hard and soft style’)
    3. Or a place (a traditional example of this would be 少林流 Shōrin-ryū, a style of Karate which is reportedly named after 少林寺 Shàolín sì – the Shàolín Temple in China)

So following these conventions, what are some better names for ‘ITF Taekwondo’ and ‘WTF Taekwondo’?

As for ‘ITF Taekwondo’, Choi’s pen-name was 창헌 Changheon, meaning ‘blue pavillion’, and so his style of Taekwondo could be called 창헌유 Changheon-yu. And indeed, Choi himself calls his style this in older versions of his encyclopaedia. This is the name I use for the style whenever I write about it (and is the name Choi’s style is known by in South Korea). Another possible name for Choi’s style could be Odo-kwan. Odo-kwan was one of the nine Kwans, and was founded by Choi. This follows the -kwan naming scheme, and 오도 吾道 odo means ‘our way’. If Choi ever called his style of Taekwondo this, he did not do so very often, and so this name should not be used to refer to Choi’s style of Taekwondo as it exists today.

As for ‘WTF Taekwondo’, ‘WTF Taekwondo’ is not the style that follows the philosophy and principles of a single person, but is instead the style put forth by the Taekwondo centre in Seoul, known as 국기원 國技院 Kukki-won. This name can be used for the style of Taekwondo, as well as the physical place, since the name already follows the conventions listed above – 국기 國技 gukgi means ‘national art’ or ‘national skill’, thus is a philosophical concept, and the name follows the -won scheme.

So these are my recommendations for how we should refer to the major styles of Taekwondo. ‘ITF Taekwondo’ is properly called Changheon-yu Taekwondo (or Ch’anghŏn-yu if you prefer the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation, and Changhon-yu if you prefer a simplified romanisation), and ‘WTF Taekwondo’ is properly called Kukki-won Taekwondo (which would be written Gukgi-won in the Revised Romanisation, and Kukki-wŏn in the McCune-Reischauer Romanisation). These names are unambiguous; they are Korean; and they are not stale or corporate in the way that ‘ITF’ and ‘WTF’ are.

‘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.