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.
Debate continues in the South Korean martial arts community regarding the exact swordsmanship skills Admiral 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.
South Korean kumdo practitioner
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.
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.
Beginner in a haedong kumdo school in South Korea
Haedong kumdo takes its name from an ancient Chinese name for Korea: haemeans “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 hanjacalligraphy — 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 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.
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 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 bup from the Silla dynasty, haedong kumdo from the Koguryo dynasty and perhaps a few other skills. Although from different regions, the aforementioned contemporary sword arts would have shared some of these techniques and movements.
Straight sword of kuk sool won
If this is true, modern martial artists are privileged to have access to the sword skills from Korea’s historical dynasties. There are even rumors that “lost” sword arts still exist in remote towns and villages in the southwest part of South Korea. If and when they are located, it should prove interesting to compare their skills with those of the other Korean sword arts.
Story and Photos by Robert W. Young