Taekkyon: A Martial Arts Comeback
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
Taekkyeon matches were frequent in the late Joseon Dynasty. For example, during the Dano-Festival, a tournament called Gyeollyeon was carried out. Players who beat five opponents consecutively could take a rest and re-enter the tournament again later.
Taekkyeon is documented as a living martial art in an 1895 book on Korean sports and games.
In the book "Haedong Jukji" by Choe Yeong-nyeon from 1921, the idu-writing is used to represent "Tak-gyeon". The translation is "push-shoulder". However this does not mean that the translation of Taekkyon is "push the shoulder", because idu is just a way to phonetically write pure Korean words with Chinese characters. At the same time, all the arm techniques of taekkyeon are generated from a shoulder movement first, by whipping the entire arm out. When fighting, there are numerous ways Taekkyeon pushes and pulls an opponent by the shoulders. Also in this book, there's a poem and a non-fictional text about Taekkyon, calling it lyrically "flying leg technique" (bi-gak-sul).
Taekkyeon is also depicted in the image "Dae Kwae Do" which was painted around 1850 by Hyesan Yu Suk. It shows Ssireum above and Taekkyeon below. Both combat sports were often done together at festivals, so Hyesan painted a lively scene with people from all social levels. The right Taekkyon player wears a coat called "Dopo" and ties their clothes together in order to have more freedom of motion. A Dopo was only worn by scholars. Soldiers are watching the games as well as ordinary people which can be identified by their clothes (white hanbok) and behaviour. For instance, one of the lower class men at the left turned up his trouser legs, which was not considered good manners by the upper classes.
Taekkyeon took a severe blow when Neo-Confucianism grew in popularity, and then the Japanese occupation nearly made the art extinct. Taekkyeon has enjoyed a resurgence in the decades following the end of the Japanese colonial period in 1945. The last Taekkyeon Master from the Joseon-dynasty, Song Duk-Ki, maintained his practice of the Art throughout the Japanese occupation and subsequently laid the seeds for the arts' regeneration. The style he practiced was called Widae (high-village). On June 1, 1983, taekkyeon was given the classification as Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 76" by the Korean government. It is the only Korean martial art which possesses such a classification.
In November 2011, Taekkyeon was recognized by UNESCO and placed on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List, being honored as the first martial art on UNESCO's list.