The Korean Peninsula has a rich and noteworthy history among the countries of Asia, dating back thousands of years. It is because of this history that a variety of diverse combat arts and accompanying weaponry have developed. The peninsula was formerly made up of many separate kingdoms, but it was later brought together under the leadership of King Munmu, who led an elite core of student warriors known as the hwarang.
Several diverse versions of Korean martial arts evolved during this period, many of which were similar in technique but with significant changes due to influences from China and Japan. Many of these variations are still practiced today. Examine some of the traditional Korean martial arts that are still practiced today in both North and South Korea.
Korea’s Martial Arts
Let us first examine the various martial arts that arose in Korea, all of which would later develop unique weaponry.
Historians consider Taekkyeon to be the oldest martial art to have arisen in Korea, and it is unique to the peninsula. It is closely related to Hwa Rang Do, practiced by the warrior scholars of the Silla Dynasty. Still performed in some areas of Korea today, its first look gives the impression that it is very closely related to Kung Fu, with flowing circular movements and linear snapping kicks.
The technique is essentially a kicking art, and it takes advantage of the superior muscle mass and reach of the legs to deliver strikes and blows, while also employing fluid circular movements of the hands to unbalance and distract the opponent during the fighting process.
It was designated as a tangible cultural property of Korea in the 1980s, and the martial art has been practiced for many thousand years, dating back to the Joseon dynasty, when it was codified as a fighting style and formalized as a single martial art. Some scholars say that it is the ancestor style of many other Korean martial arts that would follow, particularly Hapkido and Hanmudo, and that it is the origin of these disciplines.
Taekwondo is the national sport of both Koreas, and it is widely practiced all over the world, especially in Asia. Many regard Taekwondo as a suitable martial art for beginners since it makes extensive use of the legs and striking blows, with the hands utilized mostly for blocking techniques. It is the only Korean sport and martial art practiced at the Olympics, and it is practiced by over 70 million people around the world.
With the takedowns and blocks working well to defend against attacks, and the kicks and strikes, which are often practiced in a linear fashion, being devastating enough to deliver serious damage and get past many other martial arts defenses, experts consider it to be a good all-around martial art for both attack and defense.
The practice of this martial art is likely the second most popular outside of the Koreas, despite the fact that it is still highly popular within the two nations themselves. It is only second in popularity to Taekwondo in terms of the number of practitioners. This martial art, like Taekwondo, is likely based on an older form of Taekkyeon. Many of the strikes and kicks used in the older martial art appear in the more modern version of the art.
Korea’s grappling art is likewise descended from Taekkyeon. It is a kind of self-defense that teaches joint locks and throws, as well as traditional weaponry such as swords and spears, among other techniques. It employs both close-quarters and long-range attacks, with strikes concentrating particularly on pressure points and nerve bundles in order to render an opponent helpless.
As one of Korea’s “softer” martial arts, it is actually more of a middle range martial art when compared to other Asian fighting styles, as Korea’s martial arts tend to be on the “harder” side.
Every Asian culture, including Korea, has some form of bow and arrow combat, and Korea is no exception. Historians believe gungdo evolved solely in Korea, independent of other bow-based martial arts, before being subsequently affected by Chinese arts brought in by invading Chinese soldiers, is maybe what distinguishes it from other martial arts of the time.
The Chinese martial art of Pa Kua and the Japanese martial art of Kyudo both had significant influences on the bow martial arts of their respective neighbors in their respective regions, but Korea’s archery martial art is distinct.
This technique, which incorporates the use of a reflex bow made of water buffalo horn, developed during a period in which the peninsula considered itself at war with China. Practitioners of this method become proficient in the use of the reflex bow while also engaging in deep breathing exercises to improve concentration.
Korean Martial Arts Weapons
When most martial arts were first developed, practitioners used them as a method of self-defense or for preparing armies for combat, and they all made use of weapons in some capacity. Despite the fact that some styles, such as Taekwondo, prefer to focus only on hand-to-hand combat, the complete form of these martial arts does include the instruction of weapons as part of the overall training.
Many Asian kingdoms prohibited the peasantry from carrying weapons, which resulted in many of the weapons they used to protect themselves, most adapted from farm implements.
It is possible to transform everyday objects like walking staves, wheat threshers, and grass-cutting sickles into weapons of defense for those who secretly practice martial arts, though forbidden to do so by law. Because of the location of the Korean Peninsula, it has been the site of innumerable conflicts and invasions over the centuries, and many of the weapons and techniques used to wield them were derived from adaptations of weaponry used by the country’s opponents.
However, while some are variations of the following weapons found in the martial arts of adjacent nations, some of them are considered uniquely Korean in their particular form as well as in the martial arts practiced in that country.
This long staff, also known as the bo staff in Japanese martial arts, was a common and popular weapon because anyone could carry one and would not look out of place in the hands of someone who was traveling vast distances on foot. There are no metal parts in the construction, so crafting one requires no forging or metallurgy skills. It is possible to make one from a long branch or a straight sapling tree, which are both easy to find.
Typically, they are roughly 1 meter long, or a little less than 6 feet in length, and the moves required to master them are typically modifications of current empty-hand combat techniques. In most cases, it is held relatively horizontally, with the hand placed in such a way that it can spin or twirl in any direction around the practitioner’s torso, allowing the practitioner to defend against strikes from any direction.
Sahm dan bong
This weapon, also known as the three-section staff, is uncommon in other martial arts and is closely related to the nunchucks of the Japanese arts. In any martial art, it is one of the most difficult weapons to learn, but it is also one of the most versatile, functioning well in close quarters combat to trap an opponent while also providing the practitioner with a long reach when used as a whip.
The weapon is constructed of three wooden sticks joined together by a rope or chain. Its original use was for threshing wheat, similar to the nunchucks, which are made up of two sticks tied together by a rope, but it was later adapted for use as a martial weapon.
This weapon is a simple 5-foot spear, which is typically made of soft woods such as yew or bamboo. Because it was simple and easy to use, many consider it to be one of the easiest weapons to use on the battlefield, along with the long staff.
This is a larger flag spear topped with both a sharp nine-inch metal tip and a flag, and used to create confusion on the battlefield when soldiers used it to distract the target. With the help of the waving flag, it was possible to quickly change directions and launch blocking attacks aimed at diverting the enemy’s attention away from impending direct attacks.
Bon Kuk Gum
In the legend of Hwang-chang, a Shilla Hwarang warrior, the bon kuk gum is mentioned as a native Chosun sword style, and the bon kuk gum is a distinctive battlefield sword. There is evidence that some of the techniques of the bon kuk gum were adopted by both Japan and China at some point.
This weapon is a flail, an eight foot long staff with a two-foot-long club attached to the end of it by means of a metal ring or chain. The pyun gon is similar in appearance to a nunchaku, with the exception that one section is significantly longer than the other, whereas the nunchuk sticks are all of equal length. In medieval times, it was frequently used to club adversaries who were attempting to scale the walls of a castle or fort.
No matter how intricate the weapons of the martial arts are, especially those developed for military training, practically every martial artist learns to fight with a knife at some point. When used in close combat, a simple knife with a length ranging from 3 to 9 inches can be one of the most adaptable weapons available.
Even today, modern militaries continue to supply basic knives to their military members in the shape of field knives and bayonets, and the practice of learning to use knives in warfare is an ancient one that dates back thousands of years. In appearance, the Korean Kai, aka Kama, resembles a kitchen knife in that it has a wide belly that tapers to a tapering drop tip, as well as a high handle that is around six inches in length.
In Korea’s Three Kingdoms Era, the hwandudaedo, which literally translates as “ring-pommeled sword,” was a single-edged sword utilized in combat. This weapon was distinguished by its ring pommel design, for which it was well-known throughout the Korean Peninsula. Weapons-smiths designed it for use as a single-edged or double-edged weapon, and both versions appeared in historical records.
In the course of the Korean Peninsula’s unification into a single country, a slew of powerful and bizarre-looking weapons emerged, which were employed by the martial artists who gave rise to their use. However, while some weapons were simple and recognized across a wide range of Asian civilizations and martial systems, others were really unique to Korean culture and history.
Although Korea used some weapons that were inherited from other cultures, primarily from the Chinese and Japanese, the Koreans made them distinctive by adorning them with flags and rings and by using numerous spear tips on a single weapon, as an example. The weapons showcased here are merely a small selection of some of the weaponry that has emerged from Korean martial arts. A proficient practitioner wielding these weapons is truly a sight to behold.