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Taekwondo, also spelled Tae Kwon Do, is a Korean martial art with roots dating back some 2,000 years. It is known as Korea's national sport and is now an athletic event in the Olympics.
As a martial art, Taekwondo is characterized not only by its use of blocks, punches, and sweeps, but also by its emphasis on kicking. Taekwondo uses moves such as sidekicks, roundhouses, and skip kicks, sometimes in conjunction with spinning and jumping maneuvers.
The term Taekwondo is derived from three Korean words: Tae, meaning to kick or destroy using one's feet; Kwon, meaning to punch or strike with one's fists; and Do, which means a method, path, or way. Put together, the essence of Taekwondo can be taken to mean the "way of the hands and feet."
According to Taekwondo followers, the core philosophies of Taekwondo come from an ancient martial art form called Taek Kyon which goes back to 50 BC. Taek Kyon was thought to have been one of the martial arts practiced by the Hwa Rang Do, an elite team of young warrior-nobles who were instrumental in uniting the three kingdoms that once made up Korea: Koguryo, Paekje, and Silla. These kingdoms were unified under Silla around 660 CE. It is believed that the code of ethics which governed the Hwa Rang Do is the basis for Taekwondo's honor code today.
While the ideals of the art are entrenched in the past, the techniques and fighting forms used in modern Taekwondo are a studied evolution. It is generally thought that modern Taekwondo is an amalgamation of a variety of martial arts. In World War II, for instance, many Koreans became trained in Japanese karate, and karate soon found its way into Taekwondo.
Taekwondo distinguishes between six colors of belts. A student starts with a white belt, which symbolizes innocence and an absence of knowledge. After successfully completing the class, he will move on to a yellow belt. Yellow is meant to signify some learning, similar to the color of roots - the roots of knowledge are beginning to take hold.
A student shall then advance to green belt. The student is now growing in Taekwondo, and is beginning to sprout leaves of learning. The next stage is the blue belt, which represents the student's high goals - the student is likened to a stalk reaching for the sky. After more study, the student will receive a red belt. Red is the color of danger, and warns the both the student and his opponents of his skill and knowledge.
Finally, the student, if over 16 year of age, will receive the black belt. Students younger than 16 receive a poon, a belt which is half red and half black. The student is thus ready for even more complex learning and will begin his ascent into higher dans, or ranks.
I'd just like to add that you can actually divide taekowndo into two different styles:
The World Taekwondo Federation is the official Olympic strand of sparring. Competitors use a 'hogu' (chest guard' as well and head, groin and shin guards. Sparring is full contact and, though kicks to the head are permitted, punching to the head is forbidden. Knockouts are permissible and occur fairly frequently through counter-attacking kicks.
ITF Taekwondo is semi-contact. Competitors wear footpads and hand-mitts with the absence of a chest guard. The competitors may strike to the face with the fist or foot but knockouts are less common, due to the "tagging" style of fighting.
Both have their strong and weak points, as a lifelong W.T.F practitioner I trained with I.T.F guys at college and enjoyed the challenge of cross-training.