by Jeramy Johnson for FullContactMartialArts.org © 2010.
Kumdo is a Korean sword based martial art, derived from Japanese Kendo and classical Korean swordsmanship. The word Kumdo, alternatively Romanized as Gumdo, means 'way of the sword'. However, note that Haedong Gumdo is an entirely different art (see further).
History and Origins
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment that Kumdo came to be, due to the historical animosity between the Japanese and Korean peoples. A bit of history needs to be understood to explain this point.
From the turn of the 1900's through the end of World War II, Korea was forcefully occupied by Japan. During this time, Japan's aim was to transition Korea into a Japanese satellite state. To this end, all native Korean culture was outlawed and oppressed, including the martial arts.
The Japanese introduced Judo and Kendo into the public school system as part of Korea's first national physical education program. Koreans especially took to Kendo and it was practiced widely.
With the end of World War II, the Japanese occupation was over and Koreans began to rebuild their cultural identity. Martial artists who had studied various Japanese arts began to seek out masters of classical Korean martial arts who had kept those styles alive, underground, during the occupation. These students hybridized the Japanese and Korean styles and formed new martial systems from them. This is the source of the most popular Korean martial arts: Taekwondo, Hapkido, and Kumdo.
Kumdo and Kendo, however, have much in common. In fact, Kumdo masters who were part of the formation of the art will say that, at its inception, there was absolutely no difference between the two. In the years since it came to be, however, Kumdo has developed into a distinct art, and there are some significant differences which we will explore in this article. In competition, they are virtually identical in terms of rules and format. The Korean Kumdo Federation is a national member organization of the All Japan Kendo Federation and sends a team every year to the World Kendo Championships. Kumdo students learn the 10 waza of the Kendo no Kata, the standardized paired forms of the AJKF. In purely Korean competition though, there are some distinct differences. Koreans have done away with some of the ritual formalities of Kendo, and the terminology is all in Korean.
In Kendo, one on one competition is the main goal. Kumdo practitioners, however, study combat swordsmanship, with competition being used as more of a testing ground for their training. That is the hallmark difference between the two arts: One-on-one, duel style swordsmanship vs. a battlefield style that accounts for multiple opponents. In competition, Kumdo practitioners are often remarked as being much more aggressive than their Kendo counterparts. A Kendo stylist will wait patiently for the right moment to act, looking for an opening to deliver a single perfect strike. In contrast, a Kumdo student will seek to create his opening with a flurry of strategic strikes and feints. Kumdo can also be considered somewhat of a more complete swordsmanship system. At intermediate levels, students begin to use a live blade for sword cutting techniques, known as Samgakdo, and drawing techniques called Kuhapdo. These are taught as part of the core curriculum rather than the usual method in Japanese style swordsmanship, where Iaido may be learned as a complimentary, but separate discipline from Kendo.
The aim of Kumdo is to cultivate a strong spirit and achieve a sense of harmony and balance within oneself. There is great emphasis on developing the attitude and mentality of a warrior. Proper etiquette in the training hall is a must. Like other Korean martial arts, Kumdo is marked by a high level of intensity in training.
The various Kumdo schools have developed different techniques, but all have four principles in common: respect for the sword, the development of proper stance, the use of breath in association with each sword technique, and the interaction with ki, "Universal energy."
Core techniques include strikes, blocks, footwork, and stances, along with a study of strategy. In order to achieve a connection with classical Korean swordsmanship, Kumdo students practice solo forms laid out in the Muyedobotongji, an illustrated catalog of Asian martial arts that was published for the Korean military in the 1700's.
The equipment and uniform are also very similar to those used in Kendo. Usually a student will use a wooden training sword called a mokkum and a bamboo competition sword called a jukkum. When a student becomes more advanced in his ability, perhaps around blue belt level, he or she is given permission to wield a live blade. This is called a Jingum and is usually the same as a Japanese Katana.
Photo by Jeramy Johnson
Swords (top to bottom): Jingum and scabbard (steel sword with sharp edge), Jukkum (bamboo competition sword), two varieties of Mokkum (wooden training swords)
Korean Kumdo vs. Japanese Kendo vs. Haedong Gumdo
It is important to distinguish Kumdo from another Korean sword art known as Haedong Gumdo. Haedong Gumdo is a completely Korean system, reconstructed from ancient Korean military field manuals. The two arts have little in common, but some overlap exists in the form of solo hyung (forms) that are practiced in both of them.
attempt at supkyuk (pronounced like soup-kyook), stab to the throat.
Photo by Sean Barley/Istock
Historically, though, the sword that is preferred is slightly different. It is 2 to 3 inches shorter and has a slightly less pronounced curvature than a katana. However, these swords are extremely difficult to obtain and therefore, the Japanese style sword is generally used as a suitable substitute.
Protective equipment known as Hogu is used in competition and includes the same armor as used in Kendo competition. Kumdo students wear similar uniforms to those used in Kendo as well, but many have taken the liberty to deviate from the traditional indigo blue colored hakama and keikogi. The hakama are known as Chimabaji in Korean and the top is either a standard kendogi or Korean style dobok and can vary in color.
an illustration of sword techniques from the muyedobotongji
Kumdo is a great sword art for those who may be interested in Kendo, but might want to explore a more complete, combat oriented style. Many times it is part of the available curriculum at dojang where other Korean martial arts like Taekwondo and Hapkido are taught. It is a somewhat eclectic martial art and fairly significant variances can exist from school to school. Also, a school may not always be part of a widely recognized governing organization. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the instruction is any less authentic or of a lesser quality. When in doubt, ask questions and find out the instructor's qualification. If you use a bit of diligence, you can most certainly find a school in your area where you can train in this exquisite way of the sword.
About the author:
Jeramy Johnson has been studying martial arts for more than half of his life. He currently trains in the Korean arts of Taekwondo, Hapkido, and Kumdo under Master M.J. Butler at Millennium Martial Arts Academy in Kansas City, Missouri.
Korean sword picture by Samurai supply
Sword techniques from www.sipalkidbk.com.ar
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Photos by Gregory Brophy (hand wraps), Gerville Hall (TaeKwonDo girl), Lucian (Karate fight).
Reproduction strictly prohibited.
Traditional Korean sword made by swordsmith Paul Chen
Photo courtesy of Samurai Supply