Korean History

Ancient Korean Swords and Sword Arts (Part 2)

Debate continues in the South Korean martial arts community regarding the exact swordsmanship skills Adm. Yi Sun-shin and his men used to fight off the Japanese in the late 16th century.

Practitioners of kumdo (the Korean pronunciation of the characters used to write kendo) insist their art is the direct descendant of the one Adm. Yi Sun-shin used in battle.

Photo showing the tangs of Adm. Yi Sun-shin’s oversize swords

Yet Korean kumdo is undeniably similar, some might argue identical, to Japanese kendo. Many kumdo instructors, including Lee Jeong-hee in Pusan, readily acknowledge that their art is a recent import from Japan taught with few or no modifications. They tell how both Korean and Japanese swordsmen train and compete under the same set of rules, then proudly announce that Korean practitioners give their Japanese counterparts a run for their money in tournaments.

The similarities of the two arts’ footwork, hand movements, protective gear, real and practice weapons, and sparring rules lend credence to claims that kumdo came from kendo and not from an ancient Korean art.

kumdoSouth Korean kumdo practitioner

Stolen Skills?

Purists in South Korea counter with what seems a far-fetched theory: Japan honed kendo into a fine art using as raw material “stolen” kumdo skills from Korea. While the explanation parallels that of Korean and Japanese sword development, it may be a byproduct of Korean nationalism.

At least one part of kumdo, however, differs significantly from kendo. It is the bon guk kum bup, or roughly “indigenous sword form.” The unique routine consists of a series of movements that cannot be found in Japanese kendo. For this reason, many Koreans still believe the entire art of kumdo comes from the ancient sword ways of their ancestors and has nothing to do with Japan.

Detractors, however, insist the bon guk kum bup form is merely a modern recreation of the movements depicted in Mu Yea Do Bo Tong Ji, a textbook that is said to date from the 1700s. Obviously, more research needs to be done concerning the relationship between kumdo and kendo, as well as other Korean and Japanese sword arts.

Haedong Kumdo

It is unfortunate that few martial artists in the West know of haedong kumdo, a unique sword art that, even in its modern incarnation, exhibits a decidedly Korean character. Many South Koreans believe that it, rather than kumdo, is the art that descended from Korean sword skills of ages past.

haedong kumdoBeginner in a haedong kumdo school in South Korea

Haedong kumdo takes its name from an ancient Chinese name for Korea: hae means “sea” and dong means “east.” It probably came about because Korea lay across the water to the east, on the other side of the stretch of sea separating the peninsula from the Chinese mainland.

The first thing one notices upon entering a haedong kumdo school is the absence of the traditional Japanese decorations — such as the large drum and hanja calligraphy — that typically adorn kumdo studios. Instructors wear a regular dobok (uniform) top with dark baggy pants, and students wear ordinary black uniforms with conventional belt rankings.

Everyone wields a hardwood practice sword, which is quite similar to the Japanese bokken (called mok kum, or wooden sword, in Korean) but several inches longer than those used in kumdo and kendo. Because of the greater weight of the sword, haedong kumdo tends to use longer strikes, more circular slashing movements and more frequent body spins in forms and sparring.

haedong kumdo in South KoreaHaedong kumdo class in South Korea

Although still a minor player on the international stage, the art is popular enough to have its own organization, called naturally enough the Korea Haedong Kumdo Association. There is some evidence to suggest that the relationship between it and the Korea Kumdo Association is not very cordial, however. It probably involves a battle for government recognition and support, and regular kumdo appears to be winning for the time being. For this reason, it is unlikely that haedong kumdo will become as popular as kumdo in the near future.

Historical Form

In comparing these South Korean sword arts, it is interesting to mention once again bon guk kum bup. Kumdo students learn the form, but it bears little resemblance to the rest of the art’s techniques. Haedong kumdo students do not learn bon guk kum bup, but the form’s techniques appear similar to those of haedong kumdo. And kuk sool won students learn entirely different forms that are considered historical.

kuk sool wonKuk sool won is another Korean art that teaches the sword

This anomaly is sometimes explained by postulating that during Korea’s Three Kingdoms Period (37 B.C. – A.D. 668), Silla, Paekche and Koguryo each possessed its own specialized sword art. Many of the techniques from this period have disappeared — except for bon guk kum …

Ancient Korean Swords and Sword Arts (Part 1)

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.

battle painting from South Korea

Modern painting of a Korean battle scene

The Hardware

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.
Korean swords in 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 …

From Hapkido to Kuk Sool: Exploring Korea’s Martial Arts

Korean martial artsI found several kumdo schools (kendo in Japanese), countless taekwondo, hapkido and kuk sool academies, and a boxing gym within 100 yards of the apartment I occupied in Pusan, Korea. On the same block as my building, there stood a school that taught the rare art of tae kyon, and if I expanded the search radius to 300 yards, I could find facilities for wrestling, muay Thai and ssirum.

But most of the world doesn’t know that. How come? Because from 1910 to 1945, Korea was a colony of Japan. Its culture, language and martial arts were suppressed. In their place, Koreans were forced to act Japanese, speak Japanese and learn Japanese martial arts like karate, kendo and judo. But after World War II and especially since the end of the Korean War, all that began to change.

Koreans approach the martial arts with gusto. They’re expected to train five days a week, usually in the evening after work or school. Adults from abroad may have trouble keeping up with Korean martial artists, especially those who started training when they were kids — which pretty much includes everybody. Youngsters attend class one hour a day, five days a week. Typically, they take a belt test every month, which nets them a black belt in a year or two. Most of them don’t do martial arts again until they serve in the military, but those that elect to persevere get good. Fast.


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Because so many kids train, martial arts schools are big business. That’s great for the school owners but not so good if you’re searching for serious training on your own dime.

My first martial experience in country was at a kuk sool gym. Like most instructors, mine didn’t speak much English. At our first meeting, I strained to understand him, but I soon realized he was reciting a string of numbers, explaining the payment options. Yes, in Korea, the martial arts are a business.

I ended up paying $130 to sign up and purchase a uniform. Monthly tuition was $90, and belt tests were free. To register for a tournament cost $30. While checking a number of hapkido and taekwondo schools, I found that the rates were average. By Asian standards, that put Korea on the expensive side, but it’s offset by the opportunity to earn a good living as an English teacher. More on that later.

Korean dojang tend to focus on a single art. One time, I approached my kumdo teacher and broached the idea of lifting weights to build the muscles I needed to wield my sword and running to boost my cardio for those long sparring sessions. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Why would a kumdo competitor need to run and lift weights?” he asked. “This is kumdo.”

To stay in shape, I bought a gym membership for $80 a month. Gyms in Korea are unbelievably clean. They even provide you with workout clothes — when you’re finished, you toss them into a hamper and leave. Many facilities include a sauna and a public bath with hot and cold tubs.

At the dojang where I trained, students always arrived on time but would often start training late. That meant warm-ups were frequently rushed, forcing me to stretch on my own. On some days, we ran through intensive kicking drills that were every bit as hard as what I’d done in other countries. But on other days, we did rolls and tumbles, which kept the intensity at a level mere mortals can handle easily.

Training in Korea can be an incredible experience. It gives you a chance to learn the language and helps you get to know the people and their culture. As I mentioned earlier, it’s also a relatively easy place to find a job. All you need is a bachelor’s degree and a Korean school to sponsor your visa. If you contract to work 25 hours a week, you can score a free apartment and $2,000 a month for spending money. Bonus: Your employer might even cover your round-trip airfare.

In the past, you had to make the arrangements to teach in person, but with the ubiquity of the Internet, now you can visit a website such as Dave’s ESL Cafe (eslcafe.com) and find a job in a few hours. You can apply by email and be interviewed over the phone. If all your documents are in order, you could find yourself training in Korea a week later.

FAST FACTS
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CAPITAL: Seoul
POPULATION: 48.6 million
SIGHTSEEING: Olympic Village, Cheju Island, Kyungju City
NEIGHBORS: North Korea, China, …

Taejoon Lee: Hwa Rang Do Sword-Fighting Demo

From July 30 to August 7, 2010, the World Hwa Rang Do Association held its 50th-anniversary celebration in Los Angeles. It included black-sash testing; a tournament that attracted practitioners from as far away as Italy; and lectures by Dr. Joo Bang Lee, the art’s founder, and Taejoon Lee, the art’s grandmaster. For many, the highlight of the 10-day event was Saturday’s banquet, which featured a demonstration of hwa rang do grappling and sword fighting, speeches by Joo Bang Lee and Taejoon Lee, and the screening of a broadcast-quality hwa rang do documentary. In this exclusive video shot at the banquet, Grandmaster Taejoon Lee and several of his students demonstrate hwa rang do sword fighting.


Hwa Rang Do: The Untold Story (DOCUMENTARY DVD)

In 2010, the World Hwa Rang Do Association published a DVD documentary detailing the genesis and evolution of the Korean martial art of hwa rang do to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the art and the organization. Watch the untold story of hwa rang do founder Dr. Joo Bang Lee’s efforts to form a unified Korean martial arts system and the controversial path on which the art and its leader would find themselves. And learn the true story of the legendary Michael D. Echanis, perhaps Dr. Lee’s and hwa rang do’s most famous disciple. Features interviews with Dr. Lee and his eldest son, Grandmaster Taejoon Lee. Includes a treasure trove of archival footage and rare photos. (c) 2010 World Hwa Rang Do Association. “Hwa rang do” is a registered trademark of the World Hwa Rang Do Association.