Alliance Korea

Kumdo, the way of the sword

Kumdo Kumdo, the way of the sword

Kumdo and kendo are, save for a few cosmetic differences, completely identical. Both words mean the same thing (the way of the sword), and are written in the same Chinese characters (both Korean and Japanese make use of much of the Chinese language, including the writing system). Koreans now use their native language in the sport, have changed the color of the scoring flags, and have abandoned the squatting bow (sonkyo) that is religiously adhered to by Japanese fencers. Apart from this, a viewer would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a kendo and a kumdo practitioner.

Both sports are much like western fencing. Combatants seek to score points on one another by striking certain targets with a bamboo or carbon-graphite sword (only the head, side, wrist, and throat are legal targets). Elaborate suits of armor are worn, and a stomping lunge is usually employed to strike, often leading to the combatants’ bodies colliding sharply as they cry out or “kiai” (kheup in Korean) which is believed to summon the necessary aggressive spirit to defeat one’s opponent. Both maintain a sporting character, with national championship tournaments, a world championship held once every four years in a different country, and strong competition for trophies and medals at high-school and collegiate levels.

In spite of this, both maintain a strong metaphysical character, including meditation before and after practice, ritualized bowing, and zen-conceptions of achieving victory by emptying the mind of distracting thought of any kind.

Korean revisionist histories of the development of swordsmanship can be found in many history books. Most trace Korean fencing in an unbroken line back to the Palhae dynasty in the early 7th century. The evolution of modern kumdo is credited to the establishment of the “Ghilhuck-Gum” as a mandatory training regimen at Korean police-academies during the beginning of the 19th century (kendo and kumdo both remain enormously popular among the police forces of both nations).

No mention of a Japanese contribution is ever made, though privately, younger Korean fencers will admit in hushed tones that they are essentially practicing a Japanese sport and don’t understand the cultural insistence on what they know to be the national equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. The older generation, many of whom still practice kumdo actively, wear the scars of the occupation. To many of them, any hint of such a contribution is anathema. Tournaments are held separately according to Japanese or Korean rules (which are wholly identical), with only rare visits by one style to the other’s tournament.

Koreans generally keep to their side of the fence and the Japanese to theirs. This is changing slowly as younger generations of fencers begin to question the validity of the old grudges. In the fashion esteemed by both cultures, politeness is rigidly maintained when fencers, whatever their national origins, meet in competition.

The Korean tradition has its patient moments as well, but places much more emphasis on vicious attack. Metaphysics have their role, but are downplayed in favor of raw speed and bodily force. Korean fencers are more willing to trade flurries of blows with an opponent, often relying on a vigorous attack to create the openings required to score. The dynamic style of Korean fencing makes it more palatable to viewers, as the action is veritably nonstop. The large-motions that comprise much the esteemed beauty of the Japanese tradition are eschewed in favor of smaller, faster strikes.

Please ask for more information about Kumdo at Alliance Corea