There are a number of major taekwondo styles as well as a few niche styles. Most styles are associated with a governing body or federation that defines the style. The major technical differences among taekwondo styles and organizations generally revolve around:
- the patterns practiced by each style (called hyeong 형, pumsae 품새, or teul 틀, depending on the style); these are sets of prescribed formal sequences of movements that demonstrate mastery of posture, positioning, and technique
- differences in the sparring rules for competition; specifically, WTF-style competition (the style used in the Olympics) is generally more sport-oriented and less combat-oriented than other styles
- martial arts philosophy.
1946: Traditional taekwondo
The term traditional taekwon typically refers to martial arts practiced in Korea during the 1940s and 1950s by the nine original kwans after the conclusion of the Japanese occupation of Korea at the end of World War II. The term taekwondo had not yet been coined. In reality, each of the nine kwans practiced its own style of martial arts, so the term traditional taekwondo serves as an umbrella term for these various styles. Traditional taekwondo is still studied today in addition to traditional Korean martial arts styles such as Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do.
The original schools (kwans) that formed the organization that would eventually become Kukkiwon continue to exist as independent fraternal membership organizations that support the World Taekwondo Federation and Kukkiwon. The official curriculum of the kwans is that of Kukkiwon. The kwans also function as a channel for the issuing of Kukkiwon dan and poom certification (black belt ranks) for their members.
1966: ITF/Chang Hon-style taekwondo
International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF)-style taekwondo, more accurately known as Chang Hon-style taekwondo, is defined by Choi Hong Hi’s Encyclopedia of Taekwon-do published in 1987.
In 1990, the Global Taekwondo Federation (GTF) split from the ITF due to the political controversies surrounding the ITF; the GTF continues to practice ITF-style taekwondo, however, with additional elements incorporated into the style. Likewise, the ITF itself split in 2001 and again in 2002 into three separate federations, headquartered in Austria, the United Kingdom, and Spain respectively.
The GTF and all three ITFs practice Choi’s ITF-style taekwondo. In ITF-style taekwondo, the word used for “forms” is teul; the specific set of teul used by the ITF is called Chang Hon. Choi defined 24 Chang Hon teul. The names and symbolism of the Chang Hon teul refer to elements of Korean history, culture and religious philosophy. The GTF-variant of ITF practices an additional six teul.
Within the ITF taekwon-do tradition there are two sub-styles:
- The style of taekwon-do practiced by the ITF before its 1973 split with the KTA is sometimes called by ITF practitioners “traditional taekwon-do”, though a more accurate term would be traditional ITF taekwon-do.
- After the 1973 split, Choi Hong Hi continued to develop and refine the style, ultimately publishing his work in his 1987 Encyclopedia of Taekwondo. Among the refinements incorporated into this new sub-style is the “sine wave”; one of Choi Hong Hi’s later principles of taekwondo is that the body’s center of gravity should be raised-and-lowered throughout a movement.
Some ITF schools adopt the sine wave style, while others do not. Essentially all ITF schools do, however, use the patterns (teul) defined in the Encyclopedia, with some exceptions related to the forms Juche and Ko-Dang.
1969: ATA/Songahm-style taekwondo
In 1969, Haeng Ung Lee, a former taekwondo instructor in the South Korean military, relocated to Omaha, Nebraska and established a chain of martial arts schools in the United States under the banner of the American Taekwondo Association (ATA). Like Jhoon Rhee taekwondo, ATA taekwondo has its roots in traditional taekwondo. The style of taekwondo practiced by the ATA is called Songahm taekwondo. The ATA went on to become one of the largest chains of taekwondo schools in the United States.
The ATA has established international spin-offs called the Songahm Taekwondo Federation (STF) and the World Traditional Taekwondo Union (WTTU) to promote the practice of Songahm taekwondo internationally.
1970s: Jhoon Rhee-style taekwondo
In 1962 Jhoon Rhee relocated to the United States and established a chain of martial arts schools primarily in the Washington, D.C. area that practiced traditional taekwondo. In the 1970s, at the urging of Choi Hong Hi, Rhee adopted ITF-style taekwondo within his chain of schools, but like the GTF later departed from the ITF due to the political controversies surrounding Choi and the ITF. Rhee went on to develop his own style of taekwondo called Jhoon Rhee-style taekwondo, incorporating elements of both traditional and ITF-style taekwondo as well as original elements.(Note that Jhoon Rhee-style taekwondo is distinct from the similarly named Rhee Taekwon-Do, based in Australia and New Zealand).
Jhoon Rhee-style taekwondo is still practiced primarily in the United States and eastern Europe.
1972: Kukki-style / WTF-taekwondo
In 1972 the Korea Taekwondo Association (KTA) Central Dojang opened in Seoul in 1972; in 1973 the name was changed to Kukkiwon. Under the sponsorship of the South Korean government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism the Kukkiwon became the new national academy for taekwondo, thereby establishing a new “unified” style of taekwondo. In 1973 the KTA established the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) to promote taekwondo as a sport. The International Olympic Committee recognized the WTF and taekwondo sparring in 1980. For this reason, the Kukkiwon-defined style of taekwondo is sometimes referred to as Sport-style taekwondo, Olympic-style taekwondo, or WTF-style taekwondo, but the style itself is defined by the Kukkiwon, not by the WTF, and the WTF competition ruleset itself only allows the use of a very small number of the total number of techniques included in the style. Therefore, the correct term for the South Korean govenmnent sponsored style of Taekwondo associated with the Kukkiwon, is Kukki Taekwondo, meaning “national taekwondo” in Korean.
In Kukki-style taekwondo, the word used for “forms” is poomsae. In 1967 the KTA established a new set of forms called the Palgwae poomse, named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching. In 1971 however (after additional kwans had joined the KTA), the KTA and Kukkiwon adopted a new set of color-belt forms instead, called the Taegeuk poomsae. Black belt forms are called yudanja poomsae. While ITF-style forms refer to key elements of Korean history, Kukki-style forms refer instead to elements of sino-Korean philosophy such as the I Ching and the taegeuk.
WTF-sanctioned tournaments allow any person, regardless of school affiliation or martial arts style, to compete in WTF events as long as he or she is a member of the WTF Member National Association in his or her nation; this allows essentially anyone to compete in WTF-sanctioned competitions.
Other styles and hybrids
As previously mentioned, in 1990 the Global Taekwondo Federation (GTF) split from the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) to form its own style of taekwondo based on ITF-style. Essentially this can be considered a variation of ITF-style.
Also in 1990, martial artist and actor Chuck Norris, an alumnus of Hwang Kee’s Moo Duk Kwan organization, established a hybrid martial art system called Chun Kuk Do. Chun Kuk Do shares many techniques, forms and names with Tang Soo Do and Taekwondo, and so can be considered a variation of traditional taekwondo. Similarly, Lim Ching Sing’s Hup Kwon Do and Kwang-jo Choi’s Choi Kwang Do also derive from taekwondo.
Additionally, there are hybrid martial arts that combine taekwondo with other styles. These include:
- Gwon Gyokdo – combines taekwondo and muay thai.
- Han Moo Do – Scandinavian martial art that combines taekwondo, hapkido, and hoi jeon moo sool.
- Han Mu Do – Korean martial art that combines taekwondo and hapkido.
- Teukgong Moosool – Korean martial art that combines elements of taekwondo, hapkido, judo, kyuk too ki, and Chinese martial arts.
- Yongmudo – developed at Korea’s Yong-In University, combines taekwondo, hapkido, judo, and ssireum.