Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

The Odd Origins of the Taekwon-Do Bow

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the taekwon-do bow? Ever noticed that the Ch’ang Hon (ITF) style bow is a little different from everyone else’s? And I mean everyone else’s.

First of all, our taekwon-do bow is not the regular Korean bow. Koreans bow with their hands by their sides or in front of their bodies, not flared out.

Other martial arts don’t seem to hold any clues to the origins of the taekwon-do bow, either. Taekwon-do largely came from Shotokan karate, but Shotokan students also bow with their hands at their sides. So do students of WTF-style taekwondo. The only martial art I can find with an even remotely similar bow is Kyokushin karate and its variants. Interestingly, Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin, was a Korean who moved to Japan when he was young. I have no idea if that has any bearing on the taekwon-do bow. Probably not.

We didn’t always bow this way

It seems like our current, unique, bow is a pretty modern invention.

In a video series put together by General Choi in what appears (based on the uniforms) to be the late 1960s or early 1970s, we can see the demonstrators using a more typical Korean bow. These guys were apparently under the direction of General Choi himself, so the modern bow obviously hadn’t been adopted at that time or else he would have made them do it.

In 1965, the General published his first book in English: Taekwon-Do: The Art of Self-Defence. There are no photos of the attention stance or the bow procedure inside. But there are photos of walking ready stance and L-ready stance, showing the arms flared out to the sides. So we know there was at least some precedent back then that would go on to influence how we bow.

Choi’s 1972 book on taekwon-do shows a bow similar to the one we use today. So it would seem that the new bow was introduced sometime between 1965 and 1972. However, in a video from the 1988 world championships, the competitors are still using a typical Korean-style bow. So I get the distinct impression that the new bow took a long time to catch on.

Charyot of fire

First of all, excuse the pun. I couldn’t resist.

Second, what I still don’t know is why General Choi put the new bow in place. But I have the beginnings of a theory.

I mentioned earlier that students of Shotokan karate and WTF-style taekwondo bow with their hands at their sides. Fittingly, their attention stances put them in the correct position for their bows. So it seems like, somewhere along the way, General Choi decided that he needed a new attention stance (perhaps one that aligned with the other ready stances), and then it only made sense to bow from this position.

All I know for certain is that sometime between 1965 and 1972, General Choi introduced the modern Ch’ang Hon TKD bow. What I don’t know is exactly when or why. To the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t seem to relate to any other Korean bow, to any military position, or to any other martial art. So, in short, I’m confused. The origins of the taekwon-do bow are bit of a mystery. If anyone has any more information, please let me know.