12 September 2011

What's the Difference Between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido?

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Since I have black belts in both (ITF) Taekwon-Do and Hapkido, I guess that I am in the position to answer that inevitable question: “What is the difference between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido?” The most common answer to this question is that:

Both Taekwon-Do and Hapkido are Korean martial arts and have as part of their respective arsenals kicking and striking techniques, as well as joint manipulation and throwing techniques, but that there is a difference in emphasis. Taekwon-Do emphasizes kicking and striking and Hapkido emphasizes joint manipulation and throwing.

The problem with this answer is that it doesn't really discuss the actual difference, the actual uniqueness of the two martial arts. It is pointing out their similarity and then arguing for a difference in degree. Basically this answer is saying that the two martial arts are essentially the same, like hot water and cold water that are in essence the same, but only different in temperature. That there is a difference in emphasis is true and may satisfy the curiosity of someone with little or no real knowledge of the martial arts, but for anyone else, the answer of emphasis seems, at worst a sign of little depth of understanding of the two martial arts, or at least a sign of explanatory laziness. To truly answer the question thoroughly will require an extensive discussion stretching many many pages! For this reason I am indeed guilty of explanatory laziness. However, in this post I will attempt to highlight some real differences between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido. Since my own study is mostly in ITF Taekwon-Do, this is where my focus will be: the difference between ITF Taekwon-Do and Hapkido (Footnote 1). Note, that there are people much more experienced who have studied both arts for a much longer time than myself, that are better qualified to answer the question.

Different Names, Different Origins

Not surprisingly, a good place to start is to see why there exists such an emphasis on the different techniques. In other words, why does Hapkido emphasize joint manipulation and throws and Taekwon-Do emphasize kicking and striking. As someone that spends his time with words (Footnote 2), I believe there is much to be learned from names.

Just by looking at the name Tae Kwon Do (foot-fist-way), it is already obvious that the emphasis in Taekwon-Do is kicking and striking. Taekwon-Do has two main roots, a native Korean root and a foreign Japanese root: Taekkyeon and Karate, respectively. The principle founder of Taekwon-Do, General Choi Hong-Hi, practised in Taekkyeon as a child and later in Shotokan Karate while studying in Japan.

Taekkyeon is a martial art with great emphasis on foot techniques which are often circular in nature (crescent style kicks). Taekkyeon kicks are frequently used for attacking the lower limbs—foot sweeps, but also include some high crescent kicks, as well as jumping kicks. There are also hand techniques in Taekkyeon that focus mostly on grabbing, pulling or pushing the opponent, often in combination with foot sweeps or foot hooks; the aim being to topple the opponent. The first syllable in Taekwon-Do was deliberately chosen to mimic the first syllable in Taekkyeon.

The second part of Taekwon-Do—i.e. “kwon”—means to “break or smash with the fist or hand,” sometimes translated into English merely as “[fighting] fist” or “boxing.” This connects with Taekwon-Do's Japanese root in Karate 空手. The name Karate literally translates as “empty hand” (Footnote 3). Many of Taekwon-Do's techniques derive from Karate, especially Shotokan Karate.

Korean marines training during the Vietnam War
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Taekwon-Do's chief developed as a modern martial art occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time the term “Tae Kwon Do” was chosen, the emphasis on “foot-fist-way”, i.e. the way of kicking and striking, was already firmly established. However, during this time other styles such as judo and the early forms of Hapkido were also practised in Korea. General Choi who pioneered and oversaw Taekwon-Do training in the South Korean military and some of the other pioneers who were also versed in these martial arts included techniques from these styles. Now joint-manipulation and throwing and other grappling techniques became part of the Taekwon-Do arsenal, but more as a “self-defence” supplementation than part of the core syllabus.

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The opposite happened with Hapkido. It is generally accepted that Hapkido started with Choi Yong-Sul, a Korean man that acted as a servant in the household of a Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu master. What is Aiki-Jujutsu? Tokyo Asahi explained it as follows in 1930: “This technique is a perfect self-defense art where you avoid being cut, hit or kicked, while at the same time you don't hit, kick or cut. As the attack comes you handle it expediently using the power of your opponent. So even women and children can execute these techniques.” (Footnote 4) In other words, Aiki-Jujutsu did not emphasize kicking and hitting / striking. It was based on exploiting the momentum of the attacker, focusing on throwing and joint-manipulation. When Choi Yong-Sul returned to Korea from Japan after WWII, he began to teach, what he called Yusul. “Yu-” is the Korean pronunciation for “Ju-” in Japanese, as found in “Jujutsu” or “Judo.” It literally means “soft”; “Yusul” means soft techniques, in other words techniques that exploit the opponent's motions by pulling or pushing the opponent and manipulating his limbs. Soft-styles are low on active offensive techniques like kicking and striking. Because Yusul might be confused with Judo (Judo in Korean is Yudo), Grandmaster Choi later changed the name from Yusul to Yu Kwon Sul; i.e. “soft-fist-techniques.” This change in name also indicates that something additional came into what he was teaching. It wasn't just “soft techniques,” meaning joint-manipulation and throwing techniques, anymore, but now also included “fist” techniques. A strong cross-pollination with the modern eclectic styles in Korea occurred, especially in the late 1950s—at this time the hard styles had already merged under the umbrella term “Taekwon-Do” in 1955. This early form of Hapkido began to include techniques from the prevailing Korean styles such as kicking techniques and striking techniques. By the time new names for this style such as Hapki Yusul and Hapki Yu Kwon Sul and Kido emerged, it goes without saying, that “soft techniques” was still the foundation and kicking and striking were supplementary. In the middle of the 1960s the International Taekwon-Do Federation, i.e. ITF Taekwon-Do, was established. At the same time the name Hapkido became widely accepted. Hap-ki-do can be translated as “coordinate-energy-way” or the Way of Harmonious Energy. Unlike the earlier name Yu Kwon Sul, or even Tae Kwon Do, that basically describe the techniques these styles emphasize, the name Hapkido (Footnote 5) is more a description of underlying principles.

So far we have established why there exists a difference in the type of techniques emphasized in Taekwon-Do and Hapkido respectively. From their very start Taekwon-Do focused on kicking and striking and Hapkido focussed on “soft techniques”—joint manipulation and throwing techniques. Kicking and striking is something that was incorporated into Hapkido later in its development and similarly joint-manipulation and throwing techniques were also assimilated into Taekwon-Do when it was already established as a foot-fist-way. So what are the truly unique things in these individual Korean styles?

Arresting Techniques

We find the answer when looking at the early authorities that used these styles. Taekwon-Do was from its very beginning a military combative system. The spearhead for Taekwon-Do was the 29th Infantry Division of the South Korean military, which developed towards the end or shortly after World War II and the Korean War. It was later again battle tested in the Vietnam War. Hapkido on the other hand was taken up by the Korean Police Force. The brutality of Taekwon-Do that was appropriate for the battlefield was ill-equipped for controlling civilians. Unlike a soldier who uses combat to kill or seriously injure an enemy, a police officer is there to protect civilians. For this, a police officer needs techniques that can control a person, without causing serious harm or killing them. Hapkido provided the solution.

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Joint-manipulation techniques in Hapkido are used to control the opponent by either causing pain—resulting in pain compliance—or physically manipulating the skeletal system or musculature of the person. Either way, it is possible to physically control the opponent, or literally pin the opponent down on the floor. This usually involves what is generally known as joint-locks. In the police force such techniques are invaluable. In Korean these techniques are known as chepo-sulgi 체포술기, from the verb chepo-hada 체포하다 that basically means arresting or apprehending. In other words, these are techniques used by law enforcement to arrest or apprehend a person.

ITF Taekwon-Do does not have chepo-sulgi or joint locks. Joint-manipulation in Taekwon-Do are not used to control (i.e. arrest or “lock”) an opponent, but to break the joint. A typical self-defense maneuver in Hapkido for when somebody grabs your wrist is to put the opponent's grabbing hand into a wrist lock. The equivalent in Taekwon-Do is not a joint-lock but a joint-break. For such self-defense scenarios the ITF Encyclopaedia prescribes three solutions: an attack, a release with counter-attack, or a break. In other words, if someone were to grab your wrist you can defend yourself from this by either directly attacking your attacker with your free limbs; or you “release” yourself by pulling your wrist free from his grip and then doing a counter-attack; or you can break the opponent's wrist. The ITF Encyclopaedia does not provide as one of the options joint-manipulation to cause pain to the opponent's joint. The ITF Encyclopaedia is very specific about the fact that it is a joint-breaking technique. Any joint-locks or chepo-sulgi currently found in ITF Taekwon-Do is something that was added much much later and is not part of the original curriculum (i.e. it is not in the ITF Encyclopaedia).

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Furthermore, Hapkido has many techniques used for pinning the opponent against the floor or against a wall. Such techniques are used to keep the opponent immobilized until more police backup arrives and the person is formally arrested and taken away. Taekwon-Do does not have pinning techniques. Instead it offers various attacks for finishing off the opponent while he is on the floor, which is inline with Taekwon-Do's function as an originally military combat system.

Here we see a true distinction between Taekwon-Do and Hapkido. Hapkido has chepo-sulgi—arresting or locking and pinning techniques—that Taekwon-Do just doesn't have.


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Something else that Hapkido has is weapons. Weapons were not part of the original practice in Hapkido, but with time a variety of weapons became part of the curriculum, such as the short stick, the staff, the cane, the nunchaku and the sword. Taekwon-Do may sometimes include weapon practice, but this is only as a means to an end. Defense against weapons is part of the Taekwon-Do curriculum, so many instructors feel that in order to properly defend oneself against a weapon, you should understand the weapon and these instructors therefore teach basic principles for using different weapons. Actual weapon training merely for the sake of using weapons is not part of the Taekwon-Do curriculum.


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Something that Taekwon-Do has, which Hapkido for the larger part does not have, is patterns or forms. In ITF Taekwon-Do they are known as teul 틀, while in WTF Taekwon-Do the word poomsae 품새 is more generally used. Historically the term hyung 형 was used. Patterns are basically a series of fundamental movements sequenced together to form a hypothetical combative encounter with an imaginary opponent. It is basically a type of choreographed shadow boxing and is common in many oriental martial arts. The purpose is to train certain sequences of fundamental movements, including footwork, balance, rhythm, breath control, and other qualities.The patterns are also used as a vehicle for teaching about Korean history, philosophy and oriental etiquette and ethics.


There are a number of other things both similarities, with different emphases, and unique differences that I have not included. For instance, Ki / Gi. In Hapkido there is a focus on Ki-training. ITF Taekwon-Do acknowledge the value of Ki, but training focusses primarily on the application of Newtonian physics. Or Korean history and oriental etiquette and ethics (“Moral Culture”) that are heavily emphasized in ITF Taekwon-Do, but not as much in Hapkido. Of course, each style also have some unique techniques; for instance both Taekwon-Do and Hapkido have unique kicks that they do not share with each other. How power generation works in the two styles also differ. Hapkido, for example, focus on the danjeon, while Taekwon-Do focus on the waist—danjeon and waist are possible synonyms, with slight differences in meaning. There is much still that can be discussed. I didn't even mention choking techniques, for instance. As I said earlier, a comprehensive analysis of the differences of the two styles would take a very very long time.


Taekwon-Do and Hapkido are both Korean martial arts and both developed primarily out of Korean and Japanese styles. Taekwon-Do was strongly influenced by Japan's hard style Karate, while Hapkido evolved out of the Japanese soft style Aiki-Jujutsu. While Taekwon-Do and Hapkido developed to both include kicking and striking, and joint-manipulation and trowing techniques, there has been a difference in emphasis from the start: Taekwon-Do focussing more on kicking and striking and Hapkido focussing more on joint-manipulation and throwing. Apart from the difference in emphasis, Taekwon-Do was rooted as a military combat system, while Hapkido grew to function within the police force. Hapkido therefore developed techniques useful for the police in arresting and apprehending civilians, while Taekwon-Do's techniques remained brutish, for use against foreign enemies, not native civilians. This resulted in Hapkido having “arresting techniques”, but Taekwon-Do not. Hapkido also incorporated weapon training as part of its eclectic arsenal. Taekwon-Do does not emphasize weapon training, although it does emphasize defense against weapons. Furthermore, Taekwon-Do has patterns which are often used to teach Korean history, philosophy, oriental etiquette and ethics, and other technical skills. Traditionally, Hapkido does not have patterns and doesn't emphasize the teaching of Korean history, philosophy and oriental ethics. These are just some of the major differences between these two Korean arts.


Footnote 1: My Hapkido black belts are from the Korea Hapkido Federation 대한합기도협회 and Korean Hapkido Federal Union 대한합기도총연맹. My primary training has been with instructors from the Korea Hapkido Federation.

Footnote 2: I'm a university lecturer in an English Department and teach, among other things, poetry. A big part of the study of poetry is to understand the denotative meaning of words.

Footnote 3: Although Karate 空手 currently translates as empty hand, it used to translate as Tang hand. Tang referring to China's Tang Dynasty. Karate's roots, in other words, are to be found in China. The Korean martial art Tang Soo Do translates as Tang Hand Way. It is sometimes called Karate-Do, or Korean Karate. Tang Soo Do is basically a Koreanized version of Karate.

Footnote 4: Tedeschi, M. 2000. Hapkido: Traditions, Philosophy, Technique

Footnote 5: It is noteworthy that Hapkido 合氣道 and Aikido 合気道 (a Japanese style that also developed out of Aiki-Jujutsu around the same period) means practically the same. However, unlike Hapkido that included a large variety of kicks and strikes into its syllabus, Aikido developed separately without such offensive techniques.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It is very helpful. Thank you!