Mention ‘swordfighting’ in the context of Asia, and both China and Japan come to mind. We’ve all seen historical dramas that are either wuxia (China) or samurai (Japan). However, Korea – being wedged between the two nations – also has its own version of swordfighting.
You may be familiar with kendo, the Japanese martial art where practitioners wield wooden swords. Koreans also practise kendo – except it’s called ‘Geomdo’ or ‘Kumdo’ (the way of the sword), with minor differences. While Kumdo is influenced by the Japanese, its history of swordfighting dates back to before the Japanese colonialisation.
History of Korean swords
While the use of swords in Korea dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57BC to 668AD), they were primarily for use by commanders on horses. Swords weren’t the primary weapon for all combat – they preferred spears and bows – and it was used mostly for shock attacks, defensive strokes, and for close-in fighting.
By the time of Korea’s Joseon period (15th to 19th centuries), the military trained its soldiers on the use of swords and other bladed weapons to defend their land from invaders. Soldiers would carry a large two-handed sword known as sword called a Ssangsudo or a common sidearm called hwando which is light and gently curved or straight.
Another type of sword is the geom – a short, straight-edged blade that was sharpened on both sides. Referred to as “scholars’ sword,” they’re more for ceremonial use.
Korean swords during the Joseon period were reserved for military and ceremonial use; private ownership was largely restricted to members of the wealthy and/or politically influential classes. This is because high-quality steel was used for forging military swords, and the quantity was very limited, which is why the Korean infantry used spears, tridents, and bows/arrows. Any commoners who possessed them were treated with suspicion by authorities.
The art of using swords for combative purposes is called Geom Beop, which today refers to the study of traditional Korean swords as a weapons system.
Sadly, there aren’t many traditional Korean swords left today – during the Japanese colonial period, swords, armour, and other martial arts equipment were confiscated and destroyed, and the surviving specimens are highly sought after.
Fast forward to Kumdo
In the modern era, Korean swords were used as a recreational sport – a martial art called Geomdo or Kumdo (way of the sword). This is basically the Korean version of the Japanese kendo, which uses swords for recreational or self-improvement purposes. This art was actually brought to the Korean peninsula by the Japanese toward the end of the 19th century when Korea was subject to Japanese policy and administration.
Kendo was adopted as ‘Kumdo’ and made a required course in Korean schools in 1939, and continued to be taught until 1945. After WWII, Kumdo and kendo diverged to form separate but nearly identical practices. Practitioners of Kumdo today would use wood or bamboo swords for training similar to kendo, for instance.
Kumdo then evolved to become an umbrella term for all forms of newer sword-based martial arts, including Haedong Geomdo, Daehan Geomdo, and Han Geomdo. Haedong Geomdo is rooted in a Joseon-era military swordsmanship techniques called “muyejebo“ which is the oldest Korean martial arts manual written in the early 17th century. Haedong Goemdo focuses on forms and one-person exercises, and differs from kendo because practitioners also use a real sword called gageom.
The classic Daehan Geomdo is closest to kendo, as it practises many of the Kendo no Kata forms. Han Geomdo is a newer form which takes inspiration from the Korean Hangeul alphabet, with 24 techniques for the 24 letters of the Korean alphabet.
Learning the art of Korean sword
Kumdo is more popularly known as Kummooyeh in Singapore, and there are several Korean martial arts schools that teach this discipline.
Beginners will begin with a wooden sword called mokum, a wooden sword before advancing to the kakum, a blunt aluminium sword for form practise and the heavier sword, jinkum, for cutting practise.
Trivia: Jimin of BTS was a practitioner of kumdo for about 7-8 years!