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  • Writer's picturePSBN David

Pointy End Forward - Korean Swords


Contrary to popular belief, people thousands of years ago also preferred to not be killed in combat. Yes, the Noble Swordsman would be around, but the average person would rather just live to see their family again if at all possible. This is clearly outlined by the general trend of weapons over history: starting with throwing rocks, now we have intercontinental missiles. Wooden clubs can break, so you use metal. Arrows will get you from afar, so you wear armour that protects from them. Ultimately, it's about the average person surviving and trying to be as far away from the danger as they can.


This is why that the average soldier used more practical weapons: spears (a knife on a stick) or a bow (a longer range, slightly smaller knife on a stick). The geography of Korea, with its narrow mountain passes and wide valleys, actually favour these kinds of weapons as well. The sword was used mainly as a secondary weapon, for close-quarters combat. As such, it was most often used by cavalry or commanders.


Although Kuk Sool Won teaches traditional Korean sword, it is not the main focus. There is a martial art in Korea called Haedong Kumdo, which focuses on swordsmanship, though there’s a bit of a scholarly argument around if it is more traditionally Korean or largely came instead from Japan’s Kendo. Origins aside, it has undoubtably been infused with Korean culture and reflects that. There are several demonstrations available on YouTube, but this one is quite good as an introduction https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0JVZu_-TSQ.


 

Overview


The history is quite fuzzy on the specifics, but one theory is that Korea imported the steelmaking techniques from China, which then filtered later from Korea to Japan after being refined further. There’s been traces of swords being imported from China during the Bronze Age, about mid-first millennium BCE. Korean production appears around mid-first millennium CE, although molds for early bronze swords were found in Korea’s south Gyeonsang province dating roughly around the first century BC. Unfortunately, much history was lost during the Japanese occupation, though some swords and artifacts were hidden away or recovered from abroad later on.


There was a shift in Korea during the Joseon period to a state ideology of neo-Confucianism (around 1392 CE), which focuses on education and harmony between the universe and individual. This led to things like swordsmithing taking a back seat as society began to look down upon all things war in its shift to education.


 

Neo-Confucianism and Martial Arts


As an aside, this brings up a bit of a paradox: if swords and the like were seen so negatively, then how were martial arts in general any better? The answer to this is quite nuanced and can be read in detail at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271013933_Neo-Confucianism_and_the_East_Asian_Martial_Arts, but briefly summarized:


At the heart of Confucianism, there is a single Truth that everyone seeks. There are many ways for people to reach this Truth, the One. From the One Truth comes the Two, Yin and Yang. From there then branches the 5 Elements: Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, Metal. Together these are Nature.


Applying a bit of math-style logic to this idea, you can equate Nature to the Truth. Thus, through studying Nature, you can reach the Truth. Martial arts, through forms and techniques, draw many concepts and movements from Nature. Think of simulating the movements of the Crane or Mantis. By training within martial arts, you are training in the arts of nature, and thus pursuing the Truth.


Thus, the status quo is preserved and martial arts are A-OK! This is how even though swords themselves were looked down upon, Korean swordsmanship peaked in the Joseon Dynasty.


 

Design


The perceptions of sword designs are often heavily influenced by modern pop culture. When we think of a Japanese sword, most will picture a fairly long single-edged sword with a small curve, thinking of a samurai. When we think of a Chinese sword, a mid-sized double-edged straight sword comes to mind, usually of Crouching Tiger fame. Korean culture hasn’t pervaded into the Western world until much more recently, so we don’t have a history of Kung Fu or samurai movies to draw upon. Add in the fact that, since the Joseon period, swords were largely put aside and you have not much to go on in pop culture!


Geom is the typical word used for sword. Strictly speaking, the swords we practice with in Kuk Sool Won are Yedo or Do (a single edged), whereas geom refers to a double edged. These come from the Chinese words “Dao” and “Kum”, respectively. As you can imagine, Chinese designs largely influenced the early Koreans, with traditional Korean swords being straight or very slightly curved. You can see examples of these here http://www.swordsofkorea.com/swords.htm


Traditionally, the scabbard or sheath will be lacquered and quite extravagant, with the blades being similar having inscriptions or engravings. However, keep in mind that swords were also largely used for ceremonial purposes. The Jingum, or “True Sword”, were the ones meant strictly for combat. You can imagine how having a motivational saying scratched out of the metal in your sword seems like a good idea until it breaks in half between “Laugh” and “Love”.


Most examples of Jingum you’ll find will be fairly plain and can be easily mistaken for a Japanese katana. Typically, these will differ with the blade of the Jingum being both thinner and wider, making for a lighter blade. This will vary, based on the swordsmith’s preferences. There are also examples of Jingum that are the exact opposite!


There are lots of wiggle-words in that paragraph on purpose: “typically”, “most”, “largely”. This is unavoidable as, noted above, there’s a lot of history and experimentation that happened over the last several thousand years. You can get an idea of this in the Korean Sword Design subsection on the Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_sword#Various_examples_of_Korean_sword_design.


 

Similar to other things in martial arts, like punches and kicks, people have discovered there’s generally one pretty good design for the job, and the cultures will generally converge onto this over time.


The sword designs that weren’t as effective had a very Darwinian way of being weeded out of the Sword Family Tree.



 

Further reading and sources



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