In South Korea’s museums, the oldest swords, called jik do, have straight double-edged blades. Most scholars believe that the ancient sword-making skills that produced them came to Korea from China — as did much of the nation’s culture and technology. They speculate that Korean technicians then refined the imported metalworking techniques over the centuries. Unfortunately for researchers, the lineage of Korean sword-fighting skills is not quite so easy to determine.
Modern painting of a Korean battle scene
If you were to return to those museums and search the more recent displays for sword exhibits, you would find mostly Japanese weapons from the colonial period (1910-1945). Many of them were probably taken from dead or captured Japanese troops.
If you then skipped ahead to modern times, you would find two distinct varieties of swords: the kum (from the Chinese word jien) and the do (from the Chinese word dao). The kum (also spelled geom or gum) is a light, double-edged weapon with a grip that usually accommodates one hand. It is intended mostly for thrusting techniques. The do is a heavier weapon with a handle that is large enough for both hands. The blade is sharp on one edge only and intended mainly for slashing techniques. (Interestingly, the aforementioned jik do is more like a kum than a do.)
In South Korea, the explanation for the development of the two types of weapons goes something like this: In the distant past, Chinese sword makers concentrated on the jien. Not surprisingly, their sword skills focused on one-hand techniques, with a shield often held in the other hand. After these techniques and skills filtered into Korea, local craftsmen developed more advanced manufacturing processes, and word of this high quality helped spread the reputation of Korean blades throughout Asia.
Primitive Korean sword (top) with more modern weapons
It is widely believed — at least in South Korea — that Japanese sword-making skills originated from imported Korean methods. Japanese craftsmen proceeded to perfect the process, while in Korea the rise of Neo-Confucianism led to official disdain for the arts of war. Consequently, the militaristic society of feudal Japan encouraged weapons making, while the scholastic society of Korea despised it.
Korean sword-making techniques were left to stagnate. Had it been otherwise, Korean long swords might have been prized by modern collectors around the world, just like Japanese katana are today.
Similar But Not the Same
Careful observation of several features can help visitors to South Korean museums distinguish Korean swords from Japanese swords. Near the blunt edge of a Japanese blade, one usually finds a longitudinal channel, called a bo hi. Korean swords usually do not have this. The tips of Japanese swords often have visible lines where different angles and cutting edges have been created. Korean swords tend to be smooth from the blunt edge to the sharp edge and the point. Furthermore, Korean weapons don't normally have an angled ridge (shinogi in Japanese) running the length of the blade.
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The Japanese often wrap the handles of their swords with thin strips of material such as suede, leather or silk (tsuka ito). The Koreans usually construct their sword handles from wood. The sheaths of Japanese swords — at least the ones found in South Korea — usually are made of smooth, black wood. Korean sheaths are more extravagant, often adorned with gold or mother of pearl. Occasionally, a Buddhist symbol that’s similar to a reversed swastika is used, and metal bands and lashing rings are often attached.
Right: a sword presented by the Chinese emperor
There Be Giants
Of particular interest to Korean-sword aficionados is Hyon Chung Sa, a shrine located in Chungchong-namdo (province), South Korea. The compound is dedicated to Adm. Yi Sun-shin, perhaps Korea’s most revered war hero.
Adm. Yi Sun-shin is reputed to have fought off Japanese invaders with the aid of two huge swords (77 inches long, 12 pounds). They — along with two Chinese swords presented by the Chinese emperor, spears, fire arrows and even a scale model of a so-called turtle ship (the world’s first iron-clad vessel, developed by Adm. Yi Sun-shin) — are permanently displayed in the shrine’s Relics Museum.
The swords of Adm. Yi Sun-shin
Both of Adm. Yi Sun-shin's swords can be viewed up close in a brightly lit glass case. Nearby photographs reveal the hanja (Chinese-style writing) that is engraved on the tang, that part of the blade normally hidden by the handle. A plaque lists the swords’ specifications and history.
A number of theories exist in South Korea to explain how a mere mortal could have used such massive weapons. Some fancifully argue that Koreans grew larger then (some 400 years ago) and that wielding a 12-pound sword would have been possible. Others say the swords were never intended for use in battle but were symbols, similar to flags and standards, around which troops rallied.
Traditional Korean archery equipment on display
Still other South Koreans explain that because Adm. Yi Sun-shin fought primarily from the deck of a ship, the majority of his swordplay would have been against enemies trying to scale the sides of the vessel. True or false, it's not difficult to envision a strong man raising one of the swords overhead, then using a little muscle to help gravity pull it downward onto the head and shoulders of climbing attackers. The action would not be too different from using a heavy ax to split wood.
Story and Photos by Robert W. Young