The Korean Art of the Sword
By Scott Shaw
This article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of Black Belt Magazine with the title, Kumdo: Just How Korean is Korea's Way of the Sword.
The sword art of Kumdo was inaugurated in Seoul, Korea in June 1948. With Japanese occupation lifted at the end of World War II, Korea entered into a period of rapid cultural reestablishment. Martial arts, which had been banned by the occupying forces, began to be rediscovered and new schools of martial arts were formed. Due to the long period of Japanese occupation, the Japanese understanding of martial arts influenced most of these new systems. Kumdo, was no exception.
Kumdo. literally means, "Sword Way." Kumdo is a Korean translation of the Japanese term, "Kendo." "Ken" meaning, "Sword," and, "Do" meaning, "Way."
The Korean art of Kumdo is a direct interpretation of its Japanese counterpart. In fact, some of the early founders of Kumdo claim that there is absolutely no difference between the two arts.
Though Kumdo is highly influenced by the modern Japanese sword arts, it was the Korean understanding of warfare that helped lay the foundations for the Japanese Samurai. Therefore, to truly understand the history of Kumdo, we must first look to Korea's history.
The Foundations of Kumdo
In the fourth century of the Common Era a new system of metallurgy was introduced to the Korea Peninsula from China. This introduction gave birth to a new and superior weaponry. Previously, the bow and the staff had been the primary tools of warfare. With the introduction of refined metal crafting, the sword took on new importance. This was because of the fact that this new metallurgy made the sword a much more reliable weapon, as it became more difficult to fracture during battle.
At this juncture of history, Korea was divided into three warring kingdoms: Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche. Due to this fact, beginning in the fifth century C.E., formalized groups of warriors came into existence on the Korean Peninsula. These warriors embraced Buddhism and devoted themselves to the cultivation of moral values, based in Confucian ideology. These warriors took martial warfare to a new and much more refined level of understanding than had been previously embraced. Among these armies were the Kyong Dang of Koguryo and, most notably, the Hwa Rang of Silla.
The Hwa Rang were formed during the reign of King Chin Heung. They were an elite, warrior corps, made up of young noblemen. These warriors trained their bodies and minds in all forms of martial understanding. The Hwa Rang, through refined military strategy, defeated their neighboring armies and unified the three Korean kingdoms. Throughout history, Korea has looked to the Hwa Rang for inspiration for the martial art tradition.
As the sword became the key instrument of close contact warfare, it was one of the Hwa Rang's primary weapons. The techniques of the Korean sword, at this period of time, were stylistically formalized into twenty-five poses and postures that would most rapidly result in an opponent's demise.
Korea and Japan: The Early Contact
The sword styling and philosophic attitude of the Hwa Rang was first passed onto the island nation of Japan in the sixth century C.E. The formalized military philosophy possessed by the Hwa Rang is believed to have directly influenced the development of the warrior class of Japan. This ideology eventually gave birth to what was later to become the Samurai.
The unification of the Korean peninsula led to the birth of the Silla Dynasty 668-935 C.E. This dynasty then gave birth to the Koryo Dynasty 935-1392 C.E. By the end of the Koryo Dynasty, the minds of the Korean populous had shifted away from warfare. As such, the ongoing development of the martial arts fell into decline.
At this juncture, Korea entered into the Yi Dynasty 1392-1909 C.E. This period of time is considered, "Korea's Age of Enlightenment." During this period, the arts and philosophy flourished. The martial arts were looked down upon and warfare was delegated solely to the military.
This philosophic mindset ideally depicts the difference which existed between Korean and Japanese culture. Whereas, Japan embraced the Samurai, in Korea, warriors were kept from interacting with the masses.
Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi
The conflicts between Japan and Korea are not unique to the twentieth century. They have been ongoing for centuries. Between 1592 and 1598 an attempted Japanese invasion of Korea took place. The Japanese invaders were defeated. Near the end of this conflict, a Chinese military text entitled, Ki Hyu Shin Zu, authored by the Chinese military strategist and martial artist, Chuk, Kye Kwang was discovered. The text had been acquired from a slain Japanese General. This manuscript was presented to Korean King Sun Jo (1567 - 1608). Within its pages was a system of Chinese weapons and hand-to-hand combat. King Sun Jo was so impressed by the methods presented in this text that he invited Chinese Generals and Chinese martial art masters who employed this system to visit his capital. From this contact, he ordered one of his Generals, Han Kyo, to take what he had learned from both the text and the demonstrations and design a new system of battlefield combat. This system was eventually written in six chapters and published as, Moo Yeh Jee Bo, "The Illustrations of the Martial Arts."
This text became the basis for formalized warfare for the Korean military. Within the pages of the text, the techniques of the Sang Soo Do, "Long Sword" Jang Chang, "Spear," Dang Pa, "Triple End Spear," Kon Bong, "Long Staff," and Dung Pa, "Shield Defense," are outlined.
Korean King Yong Jo (1724 - 1776) had the text revised during his reign. Twelve additional approaches to fighting were added. The manual was renamed, Moo Yeh Shin Bo, "The New Illustrations of the Martial Arts."
The fighting techniques added to the pages employed the Bon Kuk Kum, "Korean Straight Sword," Wae Kum, "Japanese Sword," Jee Dook Kum, "Admiral's Sword," Yee Do, "Short Sword," Sang Kum, "Twin Swords," Wae Kum, "Crescent Sword," Juk Jang, "Long Bamboo Spear," Hyup Do, "Spear with a Blade," Kee Jang, "Flag Spear," Pyun Kon, "Long Staff with end like a nunchaka," Kyo Jun, "Combat Engagement Strategy," and Kwon Bop, literally, "Karate."
In 1790, at the direction of the next King of Korea, King Jung Jo (1776 - 1800), the Korean military strategists, Yi, Duk Moo and Park, Je Ga again revised the text and added six additional chapters to the manuscript: Ma Sang, "Combat horsemanship," Ki Chang, "Spear fighting from horseback," Ma Sang Wol Do, "Sword fighting from horseback," Ma Sang Sang Kum, "Twin sword fighting from horseback," Ma Sang Pyun Kon, "Long staff with shorter end like nunchaka, fighting from horseback," and Kyuk Koo, "Gaming on horseback."
The text was retailed, Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi, "The Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of the Martial Arts." This text is the primary remaining document which modern Korean martial art sword practitioners turn to search out their foundational history.
Understand Korea's Martial History
It is essential to understand that the Japanese forces, which occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1909 until 1945, destroyed virtually all records of the actual techniques of the ancient Korean martial arts. Many modern masters of the Korean martial arts falsely claim they can trace the origins of their systems back to the dawn of Korean civilization. Unfortunately, this is historically not the case. There are only two remaining documents: the Moo Yeh Jee Bo and the Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi which give us insight into Korea's martial history. These are the only two sources to trace the history of Korean swordplay.
Moving into the Present
Kumdo was born when Japan's brutal rule over the Korean Peninsula came to an end at the culmination of World War II. As public attitude shifted to a militaristic temperament, swearing to never be over taken by a foreign military again, martial arts became the order of the day in Korea. This attitude continued to heighten as Korea split between North and South during the 1950's. Martial arts began to be taught in public school as a requirement of education for both boys and girls. The birth of Kumdo paralleled these trends.
Kumdo Foundational Factors
As detailed, the parallels between Korean Kumdo and Japanese Kendo cannot be overlooked as one comes to define this art. Though Kumdo possesses its own cultural identity, the correlation between the two arts is very clear.
To begin to see the influence Kendo has had upon Kumdo, one need only look at the uniform. Most Kumdo schools wear the same clothing as their Japanese counterpart. The Kumdo practitioner wears the "Hakama," the large pleated pants. Kendo armor, known as, "Hoogo," in Korean is also commonly worn during competitions.
Hoogoo is made up of the, "Ho Myun," head and face protector. "Gap," which protects the chest. "Ho Wam," which protects the hands. "Gap Sang," which is the apron which protects the waist and groin.
The Kendo bamboo sword, known as, "Shinai," in Japanese and "Juk Do," in Korean, is a key element of partner practice in Kumdo. The wooden sword, "Bokken," in Japanese and "Mok Kum" in Korean, is also a common training tool.
The practitioner of Kendo uses a long samurai sword or "Katana" for these drawing and striking techniques. The Kumdo practitioner performs his techniques with a long steel sword known in Korean as, "Jung Kum."
The Korean Sword
The basic difference between the Japanese and the Korean long sword is that the katana possesses a slight arch. The jung kum, on the other hand, is oftentimes straight. The use of the jung kum is not universal in Kumdo, however, and the Japanese katana oftentimes replaces it.
The straight design of the jung kum was brought into utilization predominately by the modern Korean systems of Kuk Sul Won and Hwa Rang Do. Both of these systems possess a more Chinese influenced art of swordplay than does Kumdo. Though the straight sword is now commonly associated with the Korean arts, in the Moo Yeh Do Bok Tong Gi, the long swords are detailed as possessing the same arch as those used by the Japanese Samurai.
Kumdo Verses Iaido
As the modern era dawned and the sword was no longer used as an offensive or defensive weapon, its practice became refined as a method for one to achieve a unity between body, mind, and spirit. This style of sword training is ideally depicted by the Japanese art of Iaido.
Japanese Iaido is a modern martial art, which was adapted from ancient applications. In Iaido, all techniques, which are performed, are based in metaphysical reasoning for their implementation. The Iaido practitioner views his sword practice as a form of meditation and not as a system of advanced self defense. Kumdo, on the other hand, mimics many of the Iaido sword techniques, but emphasis is not placed upon the spiritual elements of the art. Rather, it is focused primarily upon the mastery of the sword in order to overcome an opponent.
The Iaido practitioner views the sword as a metaphysical extension of his soul, not of his body. The Kumdo practitioner, on the other hand, views the sword as a weapon of war. All of its techniques are, therefore, developed as an extension of the body. To this end, the large difference in the foundations of these two arts can be understood.
Mastering the Sword
As with Kendo and Iaido, in Kumdo there exist several schools, which teach varying techniques. Though each of these schools possess differing methods, there are certain fundamental elements, which they each embrace; namely: respect for the sword, the development of proper stance, the use of breath in association with each sword technique, and the interaction with ki, "Universal energy."
When one begins the practice of Kumdo, the primary focus is placed upon "Iwa Sae" or proper stance. It is understood that without a proper stance no sword technique can be performed efficiently. Therefore, extensive emphasis is placed on this element of Kumdo training.
The Center of Gravity
The "Tanjun," more commonly known by the Japanese term, "Hara," is understood to be an individual's center of gravity. This bodily location exists approximately four inches below the navel.
In Kumdo, it is understood that all sword techniques must be launched with a consciousness placed on this bodily location or the practitioner will easily be set off balance by his sword. From a more metaphysical perspective the tanjun is also understood to be the location where ki, "Internal energy" congregates. Thus, this location is quite revered.
Human breath is known to be the link to ki. Thus, a Kumdo practitioner always breathes in ki and mentally directs it to his tanjun at the outset of each sword movement. When the sword is unleashed, this ki filled breath is released with a, "Kiap," a martial arts yell. This signals that ki is being expelled as the sword moves towards its target.
Holding the Sword
In Kumdo, the sword is held with your lead hand placed just under the sword guard. In some designs the jung kum possesses no sword guard. In these cases, your lead is placed in the same location, at the upper region of the sword's handle. Your rear hand is located at the bottom of the sword's handle. From this grasp, maximum control is maintained over the sword.
In certain Kumdo techniques, the sword is wielded with one hand. In this case, the hand holding the sword remains close under the sword guard. Thus, maintaining maximum balance and control over the sword.
When the jung kum is held, your elbows should remain slightly bent. This is true in all Kumdo drawing, ready position, and striking techniques. From this, you allow your arms to remain loose. Thus, possessing the ability to readily direct or redirect your sword technique with speed and accuracy.
Drawing the Sword
In Kumdo, as with Iaido, the primary focusing technique witnesses the practitioner precisely draw the sword and unleash a highly defined striking technique. In Kumdo, once the sword has been unsheathed, these defined strikes often times include the use of the sheath as a blocking tool. This use of the sheath, as a defensive weapon, is one of the factors, which separates Kumdo from most schools of Iaido.
Eight Primary Strikes
All techniques used in Kumdo are based in eight primary strikes:
1) Overhead Strike, Straight
2) Overhead Slash, Left Side
3) Overhead Slash, Right Side
4) Side Slash, from the left
5) Side Slash, from the right
6) Under Slash, from the left
7) Under Slash, from the right
8) Under Body Strike
Variations are added to these techniques as the Kumdo practitioner becomes more advanced with his use of the sword.
In Kumdo the strike of the sword is never over extended. The practitioner must always control the blade as opposed to being controlled by its weight and momentum. This is accomplished by never randomly striking at the imaginary targets. All strikes are performed consciously with precise impact points in mind.
The development of proper sword strike ability is achieved through conscious practice and proper technique. A sword, in practice, is always extended with the same intent or controlled force that would be used in a true confrontational situation. It is a misnomer that a sword is wielded with a different intensity when one is defending against an imaginary opponent or a real object.
Understanding The Kumdo Sword Strike
Kumdo sword strikes are made in linear fashion. That is to say, they are performed in a straight to the target pattern. Whenever a strike is performed with the sword, it is quickly and precisely snapped into its final position. The sword techniques are not ornamented or flashy. And, no unnecessary energy is used when they are performed. This is where Kumdo differs from some of the Chinese schools of swordplay.
As is the same with the kicking and punching techniques indigenous to Korea, all sword strikes are not ended at the beginning of the target. They are, instead, performed in an application that would penetrate and go through said target. This implementation does not negate the previously mentioned conscious impact point. What it does entail is that the Kumdo swordsmen learns how much impact must be delivered in each sword application to penetrate their intended target.
All Kumdo sword strikes are precisely implemented movements. Through continued practice the swordsman comes to the understand how each sword technique is most efficiently performed. This is accomplished by observing how much force is used in each sword technique, where that energy is most effectively focused, and how much power it will take to achieve the desired result. All of this come from continued practice and developed understanding.
The Practice of Kumdo
The Kumdo technician focuses his training upon three formats in order to increase and perfect his skills:
1) Hyung or forms practice
2) Imaginary opponent practice
3) Partner training drills
The practice and development of Kumdo relies heavily upon forms training. Forms are known by the Korean word, "Hyung." Specifically Kumdo forms are referred to as, "Bon Kuk Kum Bop."
There are ten primary forms that are used in Kumdo. With in these forms, the majority of all the sword techniques are used and then integrated with the various applicable foot and hand techniques.
In many schools of Kumdo, the techniques of the sword are integrated with the weaponless fighting styles of Korea. For example, kicks and to a lesser degree, hand strikes are incorporated into all methods of sword practice. This is particularly the case of the hyung of Kumdo.
Imaginary Opponent Practice
The imaginary opponent practice in Kumdo may loosely be compared to Shadow Boxing. This is the aspect of training when a Kumdo practitioner perfects his techniques through solo practice. This is achieved by executing and delivering attacks, defensive maneuvers, and counter strikes to imaginary targets and opponents.
Through this style of practice, one is given the opportunity to perfect specific sword techniques and develop new mastery over the weapon. For the novice Kumdo practitioner, this is a time to experiment and discover how the sword moves and feels while performing the various techniques.
Partner Training Drills
Swords, even when made of bamboo or wood, are very dangerous weapons. It is for this reason that the Kumdo practitioner spend many months and even years performing sword forms and individual solo practice sessions, in order to become very familiar with the weapon before he moves onto the more advanced partner training drills. As detailed, commonly, in Kumdo, when one works with a partner, the Kendo armor is worn.
The Kumdo partner training drills involve the calculated and prescribed movements of a sword attack being launched and then blocked and possibly countered by a trained opponent. Commonly, the wooden or bamboo sword is used in these drills.
The techniques that make up these partner-training drills are ones common to Kumdo. For example, an opponent will unleash an over head strike, which will be sidestepped, then a side strike will be delivered.
In the beginning of the partner training the practice opponent is told what sword technique will be launched at him and what block or counter attack he will answer with. As deeper understanding of the sword is mastered, training partners then move on from the specified techniques to more random sword attacks, blocks, and counter strikes. In this way actual sword fighting timing and skill is developed.
The advanced Kumdo stylist who has had the training time to develop precise strike and block abilities with the sword engages in these practice sessions. It can not be undertaken at an early stage by the sword aspirant, as he does not yet possess the developed control needed to insure the safety of his training partner.
At the most advanced level of training, the Kumdo practitioner enters actual combat competitions. This is what one commonly sees in Kendo matches, where two opponents face off, deliver appropriate strikes, with one ultimately emerging victorious.
Kumdo: The Three Levels of Mastery
In Kumdo, it is taught that the student progresses through three levels of understanding while mastering the sword:
1. Physical Mastery.
2. Mental Mastery.
3. Spiritual Alignment.
In the first level, the Kumdo student, through years of practice, becomes proficient with all of the physical aspects of the art. These include understanding correct sword etiquette, mastery of the stances, and proper techniques in drawing and moving with the sword.
The second level witnesses the Kumdo practitioner beginning to rise above the objective techniques of the sword. The Kumdo technician no longer needs to contemplate whether or not he is in the correct stance or unsheathing the sword efficiently. Through long periods of practice, all movements have become natural and there is no unnecessary thought given to them.
At the third and final level, the Kumdo stylist transcends the limitations of his body and his thinking mind, merging with meditative consciousness. The mind is silenced through refined focus and the sword is used solely as a tool to link the body and mind with the infinite.
Juk do — bamboo sword
Jung Kum — long sword
Kal — sword or knife
Kal geut — tip of the blade
Kal jip — sheath
Kum — sword
Kumdo — way of the sword
Kum sool — term for sword skills
Mok kum — wooden practice sword
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No part of this article may be used without the expressed permission of Scott Shaw or his representatives.