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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.
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. The finds within the Korean Peninsula span (by province):
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).
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.
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).
Korean swords are very scarce today, since most surviving examples were confiscated and destroyed during the colonial period. 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.[verification needed][verification needed]
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.
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.[dead link]
As well there are practice wooden swords (mokgeom), metal swords (shingeom) and practical swords (Jingeom); the list would include:
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. The term "hand-and-a-half" is modern (late 19th century). This name was given because the balance of the sword made it usable in one hand, as well as two.
Korean historical action films have elements of swordsmanship within them. Important recent films readily available (and subtitle in Chinese/English) include:
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.
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