While there is not much about where it originated, Koreans first mentiond Taekkyeon as far back as the 1800’s. From what they see in books, Koreans held the tournaments and matches during the Joseon Dynasty. There are also many paintings that large crowds using it, illustrating its popularity amongst the public. Some historians state that it may have originated even further back, since the Goguryo Dynasty, as a means of self-defense.
Taekkyeon was not only a martial art style meant to bring down an opponent, but also a well-received sport. While at first soldiers and royals practiced it, it became popular when incorporated into the public – particularly in folk dance. Not only are there groups of people surrounding the two fighters in the paintings, but all classes of people watched the sport.
While its popularity may have flourished centuries before, its growth unfortunately came to a screeching halt when the Japanese eventually occupied Korea. Taekkyeon, along with many other things, remained suppressed for years, sooner or later losing its place in society. Japanese lost their grip over Korea around 1958 and the martial-art attempt to make its way back into social awareness.
In 1983, the Korean government eventually recognized this archaic martial art – beating out Taekwondo. The government classified it as the country’s ‘Important Intangible Cultural Asset No.76,’ no other Korean martial art possesses till today. After this occurrence, Song Duk-Ki – the last Taekkyeon Master and a man that maintained Taekkyeon’s practice even throughout the Japanese occupation – teach its methods once more to the public. Yet, unfortunately, even through all this positive change, Taekkyeon never managed to fully resurge into the public eye, failing to be as popular as it once was.
What makes Taekkyeon unique is the fact that users have to concurrently move their body always. This continuous, water-like movement gives this martial art a graceful, fluid appearance, making the motions gentle and soft. To some, it almost appears as if the practitioner is dancing in harmony with the wind. As Jung Kyong-Hwa, a skilled practitioner notes in describing Taekkyeon, “[It] is gentle in appearance, but strong in spirit. It may look soft but it is a martial art with a strong force.”
Over the years, many that are unfamiliar with Taekkyeon as a martial art have confused it with Taekwondo. Although the names may hold some similarity, their philosophies and techniques differ greatly. For one, Taekkyeon focuses primarily on the rhythmic motion of the body. This makes it highly dangerous when applied correctly. Due to this continuous swift movement, attacks and takedowns can be almost instantaneous.
Furthermore, unlike many other forms of martial arts, Taekkyeon does not put too much emphasis on defensive techniques. Practitioners are highly considerate of their opponents, even during an attack. For this reason, they could be fierce but they were largely centered around the ideas of communal peace and togetherness.
Therefore, while lethal if used correctly, the way of Taekkyeon – much like its graceful nature – serves more to neutralize an oncoming threat, rather than brutally beat down. This strong, subtle nature of this martial art may be one of the central reasons for why UNESCO classified it.