The two competitors kneel at opposite sides of the ring, a bamboo sword at each person’s side. They slowly don their armor. As they stand, two additional plates — called hache hogu in Korean — reveal themselves, hanging down from their belts and covering their thighs.
The referee brings them to the center, after which they bow, draw their swords and begin the bout.
So far, it looks like a standard kendo or kumdo match, but as they clash, the flavor of the fight changes — with lightning-fast spins, low-level maneuvers and attacks aimed at more than just the head and shoulders.
While numerous forms of weapons sparring are practiced around the world, none is better-known than kendo. It’s the frontman of competitive sword fighting and boasts more practitioners than any other art. However, in the eyes of many, it’s badly in need of an update, especially with respect to the variety of techniques permitted. Enter hwa rang do master Taejoon Lee.
Taejoon Lee, vice president of the World Hwa Rang Do Association and son of the art’s founder, Dr. Joo Bang Lee — as well as co-author of the landmark book Hwa Rang Do: Defend, Take Down, Submit — had his work cut out for him. The eighth-degree black sash knew that his art categorized its plethora of weapons according to how they’re used in battle — slicing, striking, thrusting, throwing and so on. He also knew that much of that versatility was prohibited by kendo’s rule structure.
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Taejoon Lee tasked himself with modernizing his art’s method of conducting sword fights to make it more appealing to modern practitioners. He wanted a solution that would permit the greatest possible expression of technique with both bladed and impact weapons, thus preserving the Korean art’s uniqueness. And he knew that the solution would have to maintain the safety factor for which kendo is renowned.
To give a glimpse into the thought processes that went into the endeavor, he recalls an allegory from his homeland.
A Tale of Three Nations
“Three martial arts masters — one from China, one from Japan and one from Korea — came up to a massive stone wall,” Taejoon says. “The Chinese master walked up to it, touched it, gave it a little push and then, realizing the wall was solid, went to look for a way around. The Japanese master walked up to the wall and stared at it, then took a stance and proceeded to punch it repeatedly. His fists were reduced to bloody stumps, but he eventually broke through. The Korean master looked at the wall, threw his favorite jump-spinning back kick and bounced off. He shrugged his shoulders, then went to search for a way around.”
While it may sound like a cultural joke, the sociological implications of the story are spot on. The martial arts of each nation have been influenced not only by the personalities of their masters but also by the geography of the land.
Japan is a collection of islands. When attackers invaded, the locals had precious little room to retreat before ending up in the sea. Thus, it’s not surprising that their combat mindset evolved to favor powerful and direct killing techniques. Systems such as kyokushin karate and kendo exemplify this idea with their hard-charging, one-punch-one-kill mentality.
China, on the other hand, is a vast land mass. If an invader came from one direction, retreat was almost always an option. Military strategies took into account the availability of maneuvering room and thus emphasized avoidance. That gave the Chinese the chance to develop martial arts that focused on yielding before delivering a finishing blow.
Situated between China and Japan, both geographically and ideologically, Korea is a peninsular nation. Historically, that afforded Koreans the ability to retreat toward the mainland if attacked from the ocean yet forced them to develop hard-core fight-or-die skills if backed up to the seaboard. Thus, their combative tendencies exhibit both linear and circular approaches.
Back to the Present
Taejoon Lee (left) faces his opponent with his sword held high (1). He strikes down the man's weapon (2) before initating a hoi-jeon technique, which entails turning clockwise (3) and attacking the opponent's armored thigh (4).
While striving to accomplish his task, Taejoon Lee appreciated that kumdo gave his students a chance to develop their linear sword skills in a sparring format, but he thought the standard rules prevented too many of the circular, spinning techniques that have always proved invaluable in combat.
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