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Kumdo: Korean Sword Training
This article was originally published in Martial Art Masters, September 1993

By Scott Shaw

The Japanese Samurai Swordsmen have long been depicted as the consummate sword warriors of Asia. And, the elaborate sword techniques of Chinese Kung Fu have been viewed and respected by Martial Artists worldwide. Both of these Martial Art weapon styles are known and revered for their own individual strengths and aesthetic beauties. There is, however, another nation in Asia where the techniques of the sword are no less developed, yet few even know of the style’s existence. The country is Korea. The sword style is Kumdo.

Kumdo, literally translates from Korean means, Sword Way. Created in a country mostly known for the explosive Martial Art style of Taekwondo, Kumdo is a modern adaptation of a Martial Art system of swordplay that can trace its origin back many centuries.

Ancient Korea
Swords, and the warfare thereof, came to Korea from China in the early fourth century C.E., during the Iron Age. During the fifth century C.E., there came to be a formalized group of fierce swordsmen, with no less of the code of honor than that of their later Japanese Samurai counterparts. They were known as the Hwa Rang, Flowering Youth Warriors.

Korea, at that time, was divided into three kingdoms: Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche. Silla was constantly under attack by its more powerful neighbors. During the reign of King Chin Heung of Silla, he formed an elite, aristocrat warrior corps, made up of young noblemen. The Hwa Rang, trained their bodies and minds in all forms of weaponry and Martial Arts available to them.

Early Sword Mastery
The techniques of the Korean sword, at this time, were stylistically formalized into twenty-five poses and postures that would best result in an opponent’s demise. As the sword was the key instrument of close contact warfare, it became one of the Hwa Rang warrior’s primary weapons. In historic documents, dating back to the sixth century, it is detailed that the Hwa Rang would have contests of strength and endurance battling with their swords, while barefoot upon frozen lakes.

The sword stylings and philosophic attitude of the Hwa Rang, based in Buddhism, began to be passed onto the island nation of Japan in the sixth century C.E. This ideology eventually gave birth to the military classes that much later came to be identified as the Samurai.

Korea Moves to the Modern Era
From the victories of the Hwa Rang came the unification of the three Kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula. This period of unification came to be known as the Yi Dynasty.

The Yi Dynasty lasted from 1392 to 1909. This period is considered Korea's ‘Age of Enlightenment.’ As martial law led to extended peace, arts and literature flourished and the populous began to take on a very anti-militarist posture. This attitude expanded, until by the early 18th century all forms of public Martial Arts were looked down upon, if not banned altogether in most of Korea’s geographical regions. This explains why the sword did not remain an elemental part of Korean culture as it did within Japan.

The Korean Yi Dynasty eventually ended with the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1909 to 1945. At this juncture, all forms of Korean Martial Arts were officially forbidden by the Japanese occupying forces. Martial artists in Korea retreated within the walls of various temples and secret schools. Many of the zealous practitioners moved from the country altogether.

The Birth of Kumdo
Kumdo was born in Korea in 1945, when Japan’s rule over the peninsula came to an end. Its inception came about as a widening public awareness, for the Korean citizen, to become more individually prepared in case of further invasions. This attitude continued to heighten as Korea split between North and South during the 1950’s.

As public attitude shifted to an almost militaristic temperament, Martial Art became the order of the day in Korea. So much so, that 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 as the Korean Martial Artist desired expansion of their martial knowledge.

Kumdo Foundational Factors
Kumdo began by reviving the sword techniques of the ancient Hwa Rang warrior—which had been recorded on temple walls and in ancient manuscripts such as the Moo Ye Do Bok Tong Gi. The ancient sword styling were then integrated them with the techniques of Japanese swordsmanship—particularly with various modern schools of Iaido and Kendo.

The Japanese influence on Kumdo cannot be denied. In brief, the influence may be seen as pertaining to the sword techniques and not to the mental attitude of the Kumdo practitioner.

Iaido Verse Kumdo
In Japanese Iaido, which is also a modern martial style adapted from ancient applications, all techniques which are performed are based in metaphysical reasoning for their implementation. The Iaido practitioner views their 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 on the mastery of the sword in order to physically overcome an opponent.

The Kumdo practitioner views the sword as a weapon of war. All of its techniques are, therefore, developed as an extension of the body. Which, of course, is commonly the way a Martial Artist views a weapon.

The Iaido practitioner, on the other hand, views the sword as an extension of their soul, not of their body. To this end, the large difference in the foundations of the two arts can be understood.

Kumdo’s focus is very physical and possesses a much stronger preoccupation with physical ability and power. By understanding the motivating factors of these two individual arts, it brings the Kumdo practitioner to a deeper understanding of the mindset which makes up his sword style.

The Korean Sword
The basic difference between the Japanese Samurai sword or Katana and the Korean long sword, known as Jung Kum, is that the Katana possess a slight arch. The Jung Kum, on the other hand, is straight. The use of the Jung Kum is not universal in Kumdo, however, as the Katana often times replaces it.

The straight design of the Jung Kum was brought into utilization predominately by such modern Korean Martial Art systems as Kook Sul Won and Hwa Rang Do—which both possess a Chinese influenced art of swordplay.

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.

The bamboo sword, commonly used in Japanese Kendo, is also a key element of Kumdo. The Bamboo sword is generally used in partner training.

The wooden sword, known as Bokken in Japanese or Mok Kum in Korean, is also a common training tool. It is used for the practice of sword striking techniques.

The Use of the Sword
Proper usage of the sword is a must to save one from not only injuring himself but one’s practice partner, as well. For this reasoning, proper sword handling must be understood for the sword zealot to get under way in his practice of Kumdo.

The sword, held properly, is grasped just under the sword guard by the lead hand. This grasp is firm, yet, it is not so tight as to not allow proper hand and wrist flex movements. The rear hand grasps near the bottom of the sword’s handle, in much lighter a fashion than does the lead hand. In this way this rear hand is allowed to slide or move in order to aid in the appropriate strike or slash positioning. The reason behind holding the sword at either end of its handle is that this allows you to have maximum control over the sword—which, to the uninitiated, is quite a heavy and awkward object when not controlled properly.

The elbows of the Kumdo swordsmen are allowed to remain slightly bent, even while striking. In this way, they are prevented from hyperextension due to impact force, momentum, and weight of the sword, when it is extended.

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

Of course, these are basic strikes and slashes and variations can be, and are, added as the practitioner becomes more advanced in his Kumdo techniques.

One of the primary differences between Kumdo and Iaido is that once the sword has been unsheathed, the sheath itself, then is often times used as a blocking tool or secondary striking weapon.

Kumdo’s Sword Strikes
Kumdo’s 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 Kumdo 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 sword techniques. In essence, all Kumdo techniques are direct and aimed precisely at their intended target.

The strike of the Kumdo sword is never over extended. The practitioner must control the blade, rather than being controlled by its weight and momentum. This is accomplished by not randomly striking at a target—imaginary or not. All strikes are performed consciously with impact point in mind.

The development of proper sword strike ability is developed through conscious practice and proper technique. The Kumdo sword, even 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. For if the practitioner does not practice delivering a blow with suitable intensity in exercise drills, he will not know how to control the sword to encounter physical objects if the situation ever occurs.

As is the same with the kicking and punching techniques indigenous to Korea, all 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 or opponent. This technique 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 understanding of 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
As it is no longer a common practice to battle sword to sword, to the death, with an opponent—as did the ancient Hwa Rang in their training, the Kumdo technician today, focuses upon three training formats in order to increase and perfect their skills:

1) Kyung or forms practice,
2) Imaginary opponent practice
3) Partner training drills

The practice and development of Kumdo relies heavily on Kyung or forms. Specifically these forms are referred to as Bon Kuk Kum Bop, in Korean.

There are ten primary Kyung that make up the sword system of 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 that can be used properly and effectively with the sword. The Kumdo sword forms are named Kum il, Kum ee, Kum som (Sword one, Sword two, Sword three, and so on).

The techniques of Kumdo 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, particularly in the Kyung of Kumdo.

Kumdo Shadow Boxing
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—executing and delivering attacks, defensive maneuvers, and counter strikes to imaginary targets and opponents.

Through this ongoing practice, you are given the opportunity to perfect specific sword techniques and develop new mastery over the weapon. For the novice 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 unsharpened or made of wood, are very dangerous objects. 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.

The 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 swords are used in these drills.

The techniques that make up these partner training drills are ones common to Kumdo; i.e.: over head strike, side strikes, spinning back strikes, and the various blocks and then counter attacks which would follow such initial attacks.

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.

These practice sessions are engaged in by the advanced Kumdo stylist who has had the training time to develop precise strike and block abilities with the sword. It cannot be undertaken at an early stage by the sword aspirant, as they do not yet possess the developed control needed to insure the safety of their training partner.

Kumdo and You
The sword techniques of Kumdo not only add to your arsenal of knowledge but from the use of the sword you additionally gains added balance, timing, and hand to eye coordination. Kumdo leads you, the modern Martial Artist, onto a new level of understanding, through the use of a weapon that has been revered for centuries.

Copyright © 1993—All Rights Reserved

For more information about Kumdo read:
Kumdo: The Korean Art of the Sword
and
Kumdo: Understanding the Varying Traditions