History and characteristics of Korean Swords
by Park Je Gwang – Curator War Memorial of Korea

I. Introduction

The history of mankind shows an inseparable relationship between war and arms (which are essential elements of warfare). Arms can be classified according to their various purposes, such as offensive weapons, defensive weapons, and battle equipment. Weapons of attack are used to cripple an enemy's fighting ability, weapons of defense to protect friendly forces, and battle equipment as a supplement to combat operations.
The most important weapons among these are offensive weapons. These weapons not only are key factors in guaranteeing a victory in battle, but also have a significant impact on the organization of an army. However, the importance of weapons of defense and of battle equipment to victory cannot be ignored.

Traditional arms can also be classified as hand weapons and firearms, based on their history and functions. Hand weapons can be classified as long-range and short-range weapons. Long-range weapons, such as bows and crossbows, can fire projectiles over a long distance. Short-range weapons, such as spears, swords, axes, and sickles, are used in close contact. Firearms can be classified as rockets, projectile weapons, and cannon.

Swords, classified as short-range weapons in the hand weapons category, can be categorized according to their functions and purposes. They symbolize social justice and the eradication of injustice, and are used as a symbol of faith between reciprocal and political groups. In addition, they can be used as weapons in warfare and revolts, to escort and guard persons of high status, and also to avoid humiliation by permitting an honorable death at one’s own hand.

Based on these facts, this article examines not only the origin and history of Korean swords, but their historical function as well, also comparing differences from the swords of neighboring countries, such as Japan and China.

II. History of Korean swords
Swords used in ancient times symbolized the power of death, and were tools for eradicating evil. Although materials used to make swords have changed, they continued to be placed in tombs with the deceased’s other belongings. The materials used in sword making have changed according to the age, and reflect the characteristics of that age.
Polished stone daggers, which cannot be mass-produced, seem to have been copied from bronze. It is hard to say whether all polished stone swords were copied from a specific style of bronze sword, but it is true that polished stone swords were influenced to some degree by bronze swords. Though they did have practical uses, a stone sword buried in a tomb was mainly a symbol of the owner’s power amongst the members of a group. This shows that social complexity and class were significantly advanced during that era. In a word, the polished stone dagger is a symbol of a complex society in the Bronze Age.

Bronze daggers changed from Bipa-shaped bronze daggers (Bipa is a Korean Mandolin), known as Liaoning style bronze daggers, to Narrow bronze daggers. Bipa-shaped bronze daggers originated from mutual competition and exchanges in the early Joseon Dynasty era, in the Yoha (Liao-ho) and Daringha rivers, where the early Joseon, Northern people, overlapped with the Chinese Han. In that age, daggers were not used as weapons, but were considered status symbols before a formal nation was developed.

The Korean style of Narrow bronze daggers originated in early Joseon culture, which competed with the Chinese Yuan Dynasty, suggesting the possibility that daggers were used as weapons in that era. Based on the large number of Narrow bronze daggers produced in the Korean peninsula, it is concluded that these daggers symbolized secularized power, in contrast to Bipa-shaped bronze daggers that were buried in limited numbers in the tombs of leaders. The appearance of Narrow bronze daggers corresponded to the establishment of a primitive nation on the Korean peninsula, and so the importance of these weapons should not be overlooked.

Iron swords represent the change from daggers to long swords. The iron dagger was basically copied from the previous Narrow bronze dagger, and grew to have symbolic meaning. Long iron swords were a type of weapon used in the Chinese Han Dynasty, and were first produced in Korea in the Northwest, where Han districts were established. The reason that the long iron sword arrived about two centuries later in Southern Korea was due to Han Dynasty policy.

It is evident that the long iron sword used in Southern Korea was based on previously developed iron production technology in the area, but was produced by masters in that area by the introduction of new iron processing technology.

Decorated swords, Hwandudaedo, in particular Sohwandudaedo, are first seen in the South, in the second half of the first century B.C. The Hwandudaedo, widely used in this era, was a type of Sohwandudaedo that had a folded blade, and a ring pommel.

The Sohwandudaedo tradition continued to be seen in this era, along with the appearance of the Samyeophwandudaedo style. Also, inlay techniques developed in this era were used in the production and shape of the sword.

The Hwandudaedo was a symbol of the power of a ruler until the end of the fourth century, when due to its symbolic meaning it became limited to personal possession rather than use as a weapon. However, it use spread to the lower classes by the beginning of the fifth century, and it has been excavated throughout the country. The same type of Hwandudaedo excavated in various areas and tombs of the ruling class suggests that the Hwandudaedo was widely distributed as a symbol of political and military power.

The number of decorated swords among burial goods decreased in Korea in the mid sixth century. However, Korean decorated swords significantly influenced Japanese decorated swords. In the case of Japanese swords, the Yongjakhwandudaedo was produced and distributed in the second half of the sixth century throughout the country. These are classified according to their decoration, for example the Wondudaedo, Gyududaedo, Bangdudaedo, and Duchudaedo.

This classification is based on the decoration of the pommel rings. If there is no decoration present in the rings, it is classified as a Sohwandudaedo. The Sohwandudaedo can have circular, pentagonal, or tetragonal rings, or circular rings above and tetragonal rings below. A Samyeophwandudaedo has three opened leaves decorating the ring, while a Samruhwandudaedo has three rings that are joined to form a triangular shape. In addition, dragons or Chinese phoenixes may appear on the pommel ring. These are the Yonghwandudaedo (single and twin dragons), Bonghwandudaedo (single and twin phoenixes), or Yongbonghwandudaedo (dragon and phoenix). In general, a Samyeopmun decoration is similar to an Indongdangchomun decoration, which is an arabesque pattern. Finally, the Samruhwandudaedo has three C-shaped three rings that are joined to form a triangular shape.

Hwandudaedo came in various shapes and sizes, which ranged from 40cm to 116cm. In the Baekje and Gaya Dynasties, the Hwandudaedo appeared in the following order: Sohwandudaedo, Bonghwangmun (which is a Chinese peacock pattern), and Yongmun, (a dragon pattern). In the Silla Dynasty, the order of appearance was Samyeophwandudaedo, Samruhwandudaedo, and Yonghwandudaedo.

The Sohwandudaedo and Samyeophwandudaedo were mainly excavated in an area associated with the Goguryeo Dynasty. The Sohwandudaedo, Samyeophwandudaedo, and Yongbonghwandudaedo styles were largely excavated at a site associated with the Baekje Dynasty. The Sohwandudaedo, Samyeophwandudaedo, Yongbonghwandudaedo, and Samruhwandudaedo were mainly excavated in an area associated with the Silla Dynasty. Finally, the Sohwandudaedo and Samyeophwandudaedo were mainly excavated at a site of the Gaya period. In particular, the Samruhwandudaedo and Samyeophwandudaedo are representative of swords in the Silla and Gaya period, respectively.

Because the swords used in the Goryeo Dynasty are very rare, there is little information on them available, making detailed study difficult. It is evident, however, that there were as many swords in this period as in the Three States period, not only due to external aggression but also due to the military government in that period. It is also not difficult to imagine that highly advanced techniques were used in the production of these swords. Based on records of Goryeo history and the Seonhwabongsa-Goryeodogyeong, it is possible to determine that swords which have a long blade and sword guard were used. Also, it is likely that there were some swords in the latter period of the Goryeo Dynasty that were influenced by the Chinese Won Dynasty. The available evidence shows that the swords of the Goryeo Dynasty were mainly used as weapons, ornaments, and for self-defense.

In recent years, two examples of swords were excavated at a site related to the Goryeo Dynasty. The excavated sword had no rings, but had an elliptical-shaped sword guard to protect the hand. These swords were called Simbudaedo and had a shape similar to the Hwando produced in the later Joseon Dynasty. It showed that the Hwandudaedo, which had no sword guards in the Three Kingdoms period, changed by the addition of sword guards in the latter half of the sixth century where competition between these countries significantly increased. It is necessary to further investigate this point.

One sword of the Joseon Dynasty became during the reign of King Munjong a standard style due to war with the Yuchen. It is known as the Hwando, a sword which is hung at the waist using rings attached to the scabbard. The Hwando is a typical Joseon Dynasty sword.

The Hwando was fabricated by master craftsmen under the Gungigam, an organization which produced weapons. The swords produced in this organization were used as ornaments for nobility and the royal family. In addition, they developed into luxury articles equal to that of silver wares. While true that the Hwando produced in the capital of the Joseon Dynasty were used as an ornament for the nobility, similar swords produced in local areas were used as military weapon.

Although daggers were largely used for ornamental purpose swords were used for military purposes. There are several reasons why swords were mainly used in battles. First, they were strong enough to resist the shock of impact, due to the thick back of the sword, and could easily cut down the enemy. This is different from that of daggers, which could be easily broken by an impact due to their double-edged design. Second, production time and cost was low because the sword had a single blade. Finally, swords were used as major combat equipment due to convenient supply and combat performance.

During the reign of King Munjong, an attempt was made to standardize the Hwando. Jing-Ok Lee, who was a field commander of the Hamgildo, inquired into the production and improvement of the sword for battle. The Hwando that he wanted to produce had a straight and short shape called 'Jikdan'. Based on the shape of this sword, the standard specifications of the Hwando were determined, even though there was opposition to the standardization of the Hwando.

However, it is not clear whether or not this additional standardization was performed after or before the establishment of the Hwando as a style. The Beyonggidoseol, a treatise on arms containing text and illustrations that was a part of the Gukjooryeui-seorye, a manual for national courtesies and ceremonies, was published 23 years after the standardization of the Hwando, but did not include the standardized specifications of the Hwando. This is not a simple omission, but the loss of the significance of the standardization of the Hwando. In reality, it is evident that the effect of the standardization of the Hwando diminished because a person's physical strength varies according to their condition.

The features of a straight blade and short body seen in the Hwando, obtained from their practicality in real combat, affected the standardization of the Hwando during the King Munjong period. The straight shape, Jikdan, was the first shape for Hwando swords, and had a similar thrust advantage like that of a dagger. A Jikdan shape was an advantage in an urgent situation. This is why the Hwando sword had a short blade rather than a long one.

The Hwando production process of the Joseon Dynasty changed after the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. The length of the Hwando became longer. This was in reaction to the superiority of the Japan sword. However, the actual specifications of the sword followed the standard of Chinese swords. The Hwando was lengthened in the latter period of the Joseon Dynasty due to battlefield necessity. However, the traditional short sword was still needed for its easy use in actual battle. It is said in the introduction of the Yedo in the Muyedobo-tongji, a basic manual for learning the techniques of the Danbyeonggi, that the government provided a long Hwando to soldiers as a personal weapon, but soldiers generally preferred a short Hwando. Soldiers avoided the long Hwando because they disliked the heavy weight of the sword due to a lack of training in its use. They preferred a short Hwando due to its light weight and short blade which made for easy handling.

The Muyedobo-tongji, and the Gyojeonbo, which was an illustration that introduced certain martial arts, recorded Japanese swordsmanship as having 24 techniques. The fact that the Gyojeonbo referred to these techniques indicated that these techniques were effective in real battlefields. In addition, the government actively moved to purchase thousands of Hwando and firearms during an embassy to Japan.

However, the swords recognized as art in Japan are different from the basic swords used in the early period of the Joseon, Dynasty and correspond to the Woldo, a half moon shaped sword, and Ssangeom, a pair of swords for dual use, that appeared in the Julganbyeongbeop of the Gihyosinseo. The Woldo and other similar swords were only used in demonstrations, and were not used on the battlefield.

The reign of King Jungjo was the period of the Korean Renaissance, and was a time of transition to establish traditional values and new reforms throughout society. The buildup of military forces was one of the factors which contributed to a formal weapons system. A major element of this weapons system was the “24 techniques” of swordsmanship, though with the advent of firearms, the Muyedobo-tongji did not include bows and arrows as traditional weapons. As noted in the introduction, the basic ‘cut and thrust techniques' referred to close combat weapons. This was the best example of military arts that include the handed technique and established the generalization and standardization of the martial arts of that age.

The function and tactical use of swords decreased in the later period of the Joseon Dynasty, due to the introduction of western guns and cannons. However, soldiers armed with various traditional arms were still used in royal processions, and soldiers equipped with traditional arms still were mobilized from the beginning to the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Both infantry and cavalry soldiers equipped with swords were in charge of the escort of the King. These soldiers wore a Dondari with red sleeves on their military uniform, and were exposed to danger more than other soldiers.

The Danbyeonggi disappeared from the battle field with the appearance of modern soldiers and arms. While the tactical value of swords disappeared in modern warfare, certain aspects of this military tradition have survived in the form of the bayonet, fencing, accessories of command, and ceremony.

III. Characteristics of Korean swords
Daggers that have double blades are different from swords that have a single blade. In addition, they are classified again by the characteristics of the blades and tips. Daggers have been used as a useful tool from ancient times to the present and were made from stone, bronze, or iron, according to the age. The production, destruction, and burying of daggers was varied, and the material that was used showed its historical and cultural significance. Because daggers were often produced as burial accessories, there were many daggers buried in tombs. In some cases the dagger was confused with a spear if the shaft of the dagger was not properly hilted.

Among the bronze daggers excavated in the Korean peninsula the Yugyeong style is well-represented. It has a tang on the blade of a bronze dagger, wherein the blade and handle were produced separately, and is well represented. In contrast, Chinese daggers of the same period were cast as a single piece. Narrow bronze daggers had a thicker, straight blade, which increased its practicality compared to that of Bipa-shaped daggers. In addition, it is apparent that there was a large amount of private production on the Korean peninsula.

Iron daggers were produced by copying the Narrow bronze dagger. The different symbolic meanings and applications of Iron daggers can be noted by the appearance of long daggers, at lengths of from 50cm~100cm. The Hwandodaedo had the largest quantity and variety of excavated materials and shapes among decorated daggers. The Hwandudaedo was produced for combat purposes and believed to have originated during the Goryeo Dynasty. It had a thick back and sharpened blade. The Danggeom which was a type of short sword, had a wider and longer blade compared to that of the complicated conventional shape, and had a diamond-shaped cross section.

The Jikdan form of the Hwando shows a clear difference from the curved blade introduced in the Beyonggidoseol, the result of a change in tactical function from the chopping and thrusting attacks of an infantry weapon to the slashing attack of a cavalry weapon.

The straight short Hwando used in the mid-period of the Joseon Dynasty is a good example of tools for 'self-defense'. These Hwando could be used as a major weapon on the battle field and for personal protection. Thus, the sword belonging to the Gungigam was marked 'Gungi' in order to distinguish it from private property. Also, the local militia name was marked on the Hwando in order to prevent it’s being used for private purposes. There is evidence that attests to personal use of the Hwando in the murder case that occurred in the Sung of Changwongun during the reign of King Sungjong. The Hwando was used for personal protection, even though it was produced as a weapon for combat. The transition from combat to protection was due to the fact that the Hwando could be easily carried and used in an emergency due to its short length.

Swordsmanship developed along with changes in swords. In general, Chinese swords had a heavy body and thick back like the Eunwoldo, which was a type of the Woldo, used in chopping and thrusting attacks. Japanese swordsmen used slashing techniques, and their swords had a light body and thin blade. Swords of the Joseon Dynasty had characteristics both of Chinese and of Japanese swords, as well as variations on these characteristics that had no relation to the development of swordsmanship. The characteristics of swords and swordsmanship can be compared using the examples of the personal sword.

Although the Hwando of the Joseon Dynasty is similar to that of the Chinese Yodo and Dando, and to Japanese swords, there are some differences among these swords when they are compared, physically, in drawings, and in written descriptions. Hwando had a mostly straight body, like the Jikdo, compared to that of Chinese and Japanese swords. The Chinese and Japanese swords had an advantage in slashing attacks, due to their curvature, while the straight Jikdo had an advantage in thrusting attacks. Based on these characteristics, the Hwando of the Joseon Dynasty performed poorly in combat against to the Chinese and Japanese sword. In particular, Japanese swords had the highest performance in shape, strength, and sharpness, and thus, it showed superior performance on the battlefield.

Though the military application and function of swords decreased with the development and increase in the tactical use of firearms, traditional swords continued to be used by soldiers as a personal close-combat weapon. For instance, in the case of the Chongtonggun, who used firearms, soldiers still carried a personal bow and arrow or sword, instead of a gun, even though other soldiers were using firearms.

The Wungeom and Byeolwungeom were used by honor guards, and were the symbols of that position. The Ingeom and Bogeom were also swords used by honor guards, and were symbols of power. The Ingeom can be classified as the Samingeom and Saingeom. There was a rule that the Samingeom must be produced in the year Innyon (the year of the Tiger), in the month of Inwol (the month of the Tiger), on the day of Inil (the day of the Tiger), at Insi (the hour of the Tiger - 3 to 5), and the Saingeom were produced at Innyon, Inwol, and Inil. These Ingeom were mainly produced by royal families because they represented the vital essence that could defeat evil. In addition, these swords were granted to high-ranking officers. Certain constellations, such as the Great Bear and 28 characters, were engraved on the sword, and 27 sword characters were also marked on the sword. In addition, Buddhist prayers, such as 'Om Mani Padme Hum,' were written on the sword. These were presented as lucky omens and applied to avoid misfortune and defeat devils.

The Bogeom is a sword gorgeously decorated with various jewels. The sheath of the Bogeom was decorated with blue gem beads, as was the sword guard.

There are some daggers that were mainly used for self-protection rather than combat. These daggers were made short in order to be easily hidden in the bosom or disguised as a walking stick. In general, the length of these daggers was about 30~50cm. A walking stick dagger would appear to be a Western walking stick, but contain a dagger to be used in emergencies. These daggers can be classified as the Jukjangdo, Changpogeom, and the self-defense dagger. The Changpogeom is named for its similarity to the shape of an iris leaf, shared by the Jukjangdo.

IV. Differences in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese swords
As previously mentioned, swords that were produced in the Joseon Dynasty showed differences from swords used in China and Japan. There are many differences in the external shape of the body, length and width of blade, curvature of the blade, and cross-section of blade. These can be summarized as follows.

First, a large part of the swords used in the Joseon era were designed for single hand use (Pyonsudo), unlike Japanese swords, which were designed for two-handed use. Although the Muyedobo-tongji explained methods to fight against the power of Japanese swords, the swords fabricated in this period kept their original shape to maintain 'practicality'. In addition, the length of the Hwando in the Joseon era was affected by Japanese swords, as well as by the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. However, the original shape of the Hwando persisted from before the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592 back 200 years to the period when the Muyedobo-tongji was published in the mid and latter period of the Joseon Dynasty. These characteristics can also be recognized in surviving examples, and in several documents and photographs that depict soldiers with swords, and one picture in particular that is titled 'Joseon soldier with a sword' painted by a French artist. It is evident that the length of the Hwando was shorter than that of a Japanese sword and it is therefore proper to categorize it as a 'Pyonsudo'.

Second, Joseon era swords were worn differently. The Joseon sword was hung at the waist, in contract to the Japanese “katana,” which was thrust into a sash. Comparisons have been made to the Japanese ‘tachi,’ used in the Muromachi period, which is also hung at the waist, but the theory that this style was borrowed in Korea is mistaken, as this way of wearing the sword was known much earlier in China. Comparisons between representative Chinese and Japanese swords, and representative Korean swords such as the Dangdaedo, Dangyangdaedo, Goryeodo, and Goryeoyangdaedo (excavated from the Jungchangwon) show more detailed and brilliant accessories for the Korean and Chinese swords than are seen in the Japanese tachi. In addition, the accessories used in the Song and Won Dynasty periods in China were similar to the Japanese tachi, but were more advanced in shape, indicating that the origin of this mode of wearing the sword was in China, not Japan. These wearing methods were employed and developed into a distinctive and beautiful form during the Joseon Dynasty.

Third, unlike Japanese swords, which were considered to embody the soul of warrior, the Korean Hwando was used in the Joseon era as an article of consumption like any other tool, albeit an expensive and valuable tool. The blade and fittings of a Joseon sword, therefore, could not easily be separated as individual objects, and if disassembly was attempted the sword would be damaged and require repair or reconstruction.

Fourth, the blade and hilt of a Joseon sword were assembled differently. The handle of a Japanese sword is attached to the tang by a pin (‘Mekugi’), usually of bamboo. In the Joseon sword a “fixer,” usually a tube, was used to attach the blade to the handle of the sword. It was placed through at the center of the hilt, leaving a hole through which was tied a tassel. In another method the tang was passed completely through the handle and hammered over to complete the assembly. Another method used a cooper pin like the Mekugi just above the sword guard, and a tube inserted into a hole in the handle, to which a tassel was attached.

Fifth, the curvature of the blade was different. Not all curved swords used in East Asia are Japanese, nor can it be said that all styles of curved swords found in East Asia are the result of Japanese influence. The curved sword originated in the Won Dynasty rather than in Japan. Also, curved Mongolian swords were used even earlier, before being adopted by Japan. Going further back, a curved bronze sword was excavated at the Byongmayonggang, the tomb of the Emperor of Chin. Thus, it is evident that the curved sword in Korea can be dated back to the Goryeo Dynasty.

Sixth, the cross-section of the blade is different. Various blade cross-sections, such as triangular, pentagonal, and hexagonal, were used in different ways in Joseon-era Korea, China, and Japan, as can be seen from surviving examples. In addition, these shapes are found in swords excavated in South Asia. A peculiar shape of sword used in the Joseon era is a type of Hwando called a Ilmyonpyongjosagakdo, which had a linear cross-section for one side and a tetragonal or pentagonal cross-section for the other. These swords were frequently found in both official and private use, but their type of cross-section is not usually found in Chinese sword remains.

The contents of this article are of the sole responsibility of its author



Hit Counter