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Three Kingdoms era swords generally have a ring pommel. More elaborate swords hold images of dragons or phoenixes in the ring.

Korean swords are hard to define; influences from various countries have made Korean swords vary in size, shape, and structure. Korean swords are hard to categorize since they don't come in a uniform shape like Japanese swords nor do they come in any singular style. Koreans have used bladed weapons since prehistoric times and have manufactured these weapons since then. Currently, there are a handful of artisans that are trying to bring back the old manufacturing processes of the Joseon era. Although many manufacturers may claim to be completely "authentic" one must be careful when purchasing a Korean sword. Some who are unable to distinguish the difference between a Korean style sword and a Japanese or Chinese sword may claim that their swords are indeed "Korean" when in fact they are not. This article will break down the specific demographics and history of Korean swords so one may be able to understand the key elements of a Korean manufactured sword.

History[edit | edit source]

Archaeological finds in the Korean Peninsula and southern/southwestern Manchuria suggest that Korean sword manufacturing may go back as far as 3000 years, to include stone blades dating to prehistoric times.[citation needed] The finds within the Korean Peninsula span (by province):

Three Kingdoms (57 BC to 668 AD) and the North-South States period (668 AD to 918 AD)[edit | edit source]

Long swords during the Korean Three Kingdoms period were used primarily by cavalry and commanders (who were also usually mounted), not infantry. At this time land warfare consisted mostly of spearmen and bowmen on foot, mounted archers on horseback using two-handed bows, and mounted swordsmen with twin blades. Swords were not a primary weapon for all combat but were instead used mostly for shock attacks, defensive strokes, and for close-in fighting. Blades were heavy as they were made mostly of bronze and later iron, and pommels were often knobbed and used as balances or for very close-in work. Short swords may have been used in follow-up attacks, as short sword carriers were armoured completely.

By the last third of the Three Kingdoms period (i.e. 450 AD and beyond), steel making techniques had come from China (possibly during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period in China) and were also employed in Korean swordmaking by all three Korean kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla).

Records indicate that the art of sword manufacturing, still in a rudimentary state, may have been transmitted to the Japanese Archipelago from the Korean Peninsula some time in the Three Kingdoms period, along with iron smelting and manufacture and later that of steel work; these methods and techniques, as well as their updates, continued to be transmitted during the North South States Period to the Japanese Archipelago until connections with the Asian mainland were largely closed off by Japan in the early part of the Heian period (794 AD to 1195 AD; the early part is considered to have ended in 967 AD).

Goryeo Dynasty (918 AD to 1392 AD)[edit | edit source]

During the Goryeo dynasty, a limited number of Korean swords were exported for trade missions in Asia. It is likely that Korean swordmaking was influenced by the various influences present in Mongol and Chinese weapon manufacture after Goryeo's submission as a Mongol vassal after 6 Mongol invasions ending in 1259.

Joseon Dynasty and Empire of Korea (1392 AD to 1910 AD)[edit | edit source]

Despite its founding and continuation by a family of generals, the Jeonju Yi clan, the Korean Confucian culture of this period placed more emphasis on intellectual and practical achievements in the sciences, arts, agriculture rather than on martial practices. The Korean tradition of scholar kings and placing more value on scholars/scholarly work than on warriors/martial arts became even more ingrained and emphasized in Korean culture. Still, the Joseon government continued to develop and improve military technology, especially that on cannons and swords. An eclectic variety of swords were systematically produced by skilled blacksmiths, although this was set back by the limited spans of peace that Korea enjoyed internally (during which their work and advances were culturally de-emphasized, often to the great military detriment of Korea) - the regular barbarian raids/invasions were insufficient to continually promote martial developments.

During the Joseon dynasty, swords were in production both for military and ceremonial use. Several types of ceremonial swords were made; among these sword types are the jingeom (dragon sword) and ingeom (tiger sword), which by tradition could be forged only at certain times. The highest grade of these, sa-ingeom (four tigers sword) and possibly the sa-jingeom (four dragons sword - none are extant) were reserved for the monarch and could only be made during a window of 2 hours every 12 years. The lower-grade swords - i-jingeom, sam-jingeom, i-ingeom, sam-ingeom (two dragons, three dragons, two tigers, three tigers) - could be made more frequently.

The swords that Joseon soldiers used were crafted with the greatest care, using only high quality steel considered for the use of military swords. Some of the swords that were used uniformly by these soldiers include the hwandudaedo, jedok geom, and bonguk geom. The three types of blades listed here are single edged and usually between 3–4 feet long, although the jedok geom could reach a length of 6 feet.

It was not uncommon for non-military sword carriers to import swords, frequently from Japan's renowned swordsmiths, in the event that Korean sources could not be secured (as they were frequently dedicated to the production of weapons for military use).

Japanese occupation of Korea (1910 AD to 1945 AD)[edit | edit source]

Korean swords are very scarce today, since most surviving examples were confiscated and destroyed during the colonial period.[citation needed] A systematic attempt was made to collect and destroy all Korean swords, coats of armour, and all Korean martial arts equipment. The entire history of Korean swords and armour was almost lost forever, along with much of Korea's culture and traditions, because of Japanese colonial policies.[1][verification needed][2][verification needed]

Interwar (1945 AD to 1950 AD) and postwar (1953 AD to date) periods[edit | edit source]

After the liberation of Korea in 1945, ceremonial swords were once again manufactured both in southern and northern Korea, and by the 1960s, sword-making was a vibrant and increasingly secure industry; however, due to the depredations and systematic destruction by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Korea, many traditions and techniques lost and were either completely unrecoverable or had yet to be recovered.

Only by the mid-1990s did Korean swordmaking come back to expert levels comparable to the Joseon era.

Sword ownership in Korea is currently restricted (private weapons ownership was culturally frowned upon and largely restricted during other times in Korean history, particularly during the Joseon era and the Japanese occupation period - albeit for different reasons in either period), and there are very few traditional sword collectors in Korea today. General/flag-grade officers are given dress swords upon assuming command in the Republic of Korea (ROK) army. Despite restrictions on sword ownership and a lingering social preference against armed martial arts (dating at least to the Joseon era), practical sword fighting is enjoying a small revival amongst elite military regiments, and fencing is once again attracting interest in Korean universities. The Republic of Korea currently fields a strong Olympic fencing team.

Types[edit | edit source]

Traditionally there are about fifteen types of Korean swords with some better known than others.

Elements of the Korean sword include: geomjip or scabbard, most often of lacquer; hyuljo or fuller (most genuine Korean swords didn't have a fuller); hwando magi or collar; ho in or collar; kodeungi or hand guard; a ring-design pommel; tassels; a round and wide designed sword guard, or a straight lotus design.[3]

As well there are practice wooden swords (mokgeom), metal swords (shingeom) and practical swords (Jingeom); the list would include:

  • Yedo (예도; 銳刀) This sword is generally a single edged saber ranging from 3 to 4 feet (1.2 m).
  • Geom (검; 劍) Literally 'sword'. This term is usually used for double edged swords, but its also used for single edged swords. Today, many people would use the terminology 'kal'.
  • Haedong jingeom (해동진검; 海東劍) This literally means 'East Asian Practical Sword'. It is a newly used terminology that is used for today's practical Korean swords.
  • Samgakdo (삼각도; 三角刀) The samgakdo, is also a recently used terminology for swords used for mat cutting. The cross section of the sword is triangular in shape; hence the name Samgakdo (which means 3 sided sword).
  • Ssangdo or Ssanggeom (쌍도; 雙刀; 쌍검: 雙劍) This literally means "Twin Swords." It can vary from twin long swords or twin short swords. These techniques can also be used on Horseback as 'Masang ssanggeom'. The Korean cavalry was famous for using Twin Sword techniques on horseback, while balancing on the horse with grace.
  • Samjeongdo (삼정도; 三正刀) the sword given to newly promoted Korean military generals each year by the Ministry of National Defense.
  • Woldo (월도; 月刀) This is a large crescent blade that is a variant of the Kwan Dao (官刀) of China. Literally translated as 'Moon Blade'.
  • Danwoldo: This is an even larger crescent blade that is actually more of a sword than a polearm. About half of the weapon was pure metal and the other half was the handle of the sword. The blade was about 3 feet (0.91 m) long and about a foot wide. Literally translated as 'The Great Moon Blade'.
  • Hyeopdo (협도; 俠刀) This is also a large crescent blade that is similar to the 'Pudao' but wider and thicker. A tassle attached to the end of the blade.
  • Jedok geom: This sword was used by generals and other high-ranking officials of the Korean kingdoms. The sword was usually about 5–6 feet tall and single edged. The sword was also straight and wielded with one or two hands.
  • Ssangsudo (쌍수도; 雙手刀) This is a single edged long sword that varied from 5 to 7 feet (2.1 m). Its name means 'Two-handed sword'
  • Sainchamsageom: This sword's name literally means 'Great Four Tiger Sword'. This is a ceremonial sword that is used for demon slaying and Shamanistic rituals. At times, these swords were also used in combat.[4]

The In Geom (Tiger Swords) were usually of the same designs but of different strengths. They were all made according to the Year, Month, Week, Day, or Hour of the Tiger.[4][dead link]

  • Samingeom: Literally translated to 'Three Tiger Sword'.
  • I-ingeom: Literally translated to 'Two Tiger Sword'.
  • Chilseonggeom (칠성검; 七星劍) This sword is a single edged or double sword that Buddhist practitioners used. Many of these swords had constellation engravings on the blades (usually the Big Dipper).
  • Yongbunggeom: This is a Baekje Kingdom sword. The sword is single edged and straight. There is also a distinctively large ring pommel held on the bottom section of the sword handle.
  • Ssangyunggeom: These are two twin swords that is held with one sheath. The sheath is twice as wide because it needs room for the second sword. The sword's length varies from three to four feet. Usually these swords were double edged and made entirely of Iron (including the sheath).
  • Bulsaegeom: This sword is pretty similar to the length and design of the Sainchamsagum. The difference is that the sword is made with less complex features.
  • Janggeom (장검; 長劍): Literally means "long Sword".
  • Hwando (환도): This is a single edged short sword that was strictly used with one hand. This was a common side arm for many soldiers during the Joseon era.
  • Hwandudaedo (환두대도; 環頭大刀): This sword is a type of single edged sword used during the three kingdoms area. It is known for having a ring pommel and being single or double edged. Most swords during this time was semi-uniform in nature and many martial arts practitioners tend to recognize this weapon as a "Genuine Korean Sword". The Hwandudaedo may have some connection to the Japanese straight swords (tsurugi) and the Chinese Jian.
  • Unggeom (웅검): This is a single edged long sword that was used with one or two hands. This was another common side arm for many soldiers during the Joseon era.
  • Seven-Branched Sword: This sword had seven blades protruding out of it. This was a sword forged in Baekjae in the order of the king. There is a theory that this is a sword that was to be a gift presented to the emperor of Japan. There was no handle found for the blade nor was there a swordsheath found for it while it was being excavated. Other scholars say that this weapon is heavy and it was definitely used with two hands. They say that the sword is extremely sturdy, and because of the protruding blades, it is extremely hard to break.
  • For martial arts students learning sword forms or Geombeop/Geomsul practice wood swords or mokgeom are most often used; then those made out of carbonized bamboo or Juk-do; lastly compression sponge, single or double-edged, with or without blood grooves. Combinations of sword and knife fighting would use plastic blades.

Master swordsmen[edit | edit source]

  • General Kim Yushin, was said to have been given an engraved sword and sacred books by the gods, and helped to unify Korea under Silla. His most famous son, Kim Wonsul, was a noted swordsman who fought against the Tang Dynasty armies in the late Three Kingdoms period.
  • Baek Dong Soo was a swordsman and martial artist who became a folk hero when his group protected King Jeongjo from assassination attempts. His most notable work, Muyedobotongji (illustrated manual of Korean martial arts).

Contemporary swordsmiths[edit | edit source]

  • Hong Seok-hyeon in Paju, Gyeonggi province, makes swords by hand, as he has done for more than 20 years.[5]
  • Lee Sang Seon in Munkyong City, Kyongsangbukdo Province
  • Lee Eun-cheul in Yeoju, Kyonggi Province. In addition to being self-taught like other contemporary Korean swordsmiths, he also received training under Aoki Yutaka (青木 豊), a master swordsmith in Okayama Prefecture, Japan to rediscover Korea’s forgotten swordsmithing skills, which were lost near the beginning of the Japanese colonization of Korea.[6]
  • Kang Cheul Kyu in Pocheon, Kyongki Province.[1]

Swords and armour: changing needs and tactics[edit | edit source]

File:Sword in the Moon reduced.jpg

Sword in the Moon

Most Korean armour was based with leather, cloth, and iron. The generals and other high-ranking officials of the Korean kingdoms generally wore plate-mail along with a helmet with a red tassle on the top and there were leather flaps on the sides and back of the helmet that were covered in plate-mail. The armor was usually black, and for the royal courts: gold. There are no real documented gauntlets. The shoulders were covered in plate-mail and there was a large metal breast plate that was covered in smoky designs. In the interior, they usually wore cloth, and for the rest of the uncovered body, they generally wore leather.

The sword was generally held in the hand. There was no real reason to hold it on their sides. However, they did strap it to their back at times when they were riding horses or using other weapons such as spears and bows. The Korean sword was first and foremost one-handed, though for more powerful strikes, two hands were used. The Korean techniques were generally hand and a half.

Contemporary films on Korean swordsmanship[edit | edit source]

Korean historical action films have elements of swordsmanship within them. Important recent films readily available (and subtitle in Chinese/English) include:

  • Musa The Warrior, 2001, 130 minutes, joint Korean/Chinese production

Chung Doo-Hong martial arts director. Set in the Goryeo dynasty, during 1375 chronicles General Choi Jung's mission to the Ming to make peace during their wars against the Yuan.

A Korean production that is a variant of Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War. This is set in the Three Kingdoms of Korea period where there were various uprisings in the military and many assassination attempts on the King.

Status and social standing[edit | edit source]

  • During the Joseon period, swords also had ranks depending on who wielded them and what their purpose was. The highest ranking of these swords was known as the Byeol-ungeom (별운검: 別雲劍), literally meaning "cloud-splitting sword." Only two such swords existed and were wielded by the King's two bodyguards, who always stood on either side of him and held the nobility title of Un'geom (운검: 雲劍). [2]

Gallery[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Hong Wontack 1994 Paekchae of Korea and the origin of Yamato Japan, Seoul Kadura International
  2. Coval, Dr John Carter and Alan, 1984, "Korean impact on Japanese culture: Japan's hidden History" Hollym International Corp., Elizabeth, New Jersey
  3. 한국환상사전. 무기와 방어구 편[dead link]
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ancient Art of Korea. Swords in Chosun Kingdom[dead link]
  5. JoongAng Daily. Keeping an ancient craft alive[dead link]
  6. Korean Swords: History, swordsmiths and manufacturers

External links[edit | edit source]

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