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Korean Swords

Brief Korean Sword History

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Antique swords National Museum - Kyongju
1linkashillaswords2kyongjunationalmuseum.jpg

Traditional Swordsmithing in Korea

- A Brief History -

 

Stone age swords

Stone Age swords in Korea date back to at least 600 to 1,000 B.C.  In the Korean National Museum can be found stone, wood, bronze, iron and steel swords.

 

Iron into steel

The first use of iron in Korea appears to have been sometime between the 8th and 4th century B.C.  Korea has natural iron deposits which are relatively high in carbon.  Unlike Chinese iron, Korean iron artifacts usually have greater than 0.5% carbon content.  This makes steel production easier because traditional steel manufacturing uses a “carburization” process where wrought iron is held in a charcoal fire for prolonged periods of time and carbon is added via beating and folding red hot iron that has been dipped in ash.  At about 1,200 degrees centigrade carbon is absorbed by iron.   In sum, very hot fires and severe beatings are necessary to make the finest steel from iron.  Korea was blessed by nature in having naturally high carbon iron to begin with.  (For more on the history of iron in Korea see link to "Early Iron in Korea" below.)

 

Brief history

During the third, fourth and fifth Centuries, technologies learned in China passed to Korea and then Japan.  It appears that the iron used to make the first Japanese weapons came from Korea until about the fifth century.  (Ferris, 1996)

 

It appears during Paekche Dynasty, Japan was a vassal state of Korea and there was a close relationship between the nations.  (See link relating to “Seven Branched Sword.”)

 

Another key piece of evidence supporting the role of Korea in early Japanese weapon development comes from the “Inariyama Tumulus Sword.”  Discovered in Japan in 1968, this iron sword contains a 115 character inscription of gold inlay including characters denoting the year 471.  According to researchers Murayama and Miller (1979), the characters contain significant linguistic and orthographic indicators of Korean origin or influence in the text of the inscriptions.  They further suggest that author was probably a Korean due to overt linguistic evidence.  Because Inariyama and other swords utilized the Korean “Idu” system of writing, historical researcher Kim Soo-hyoong concluded that they originated in Paekche (Korean dynasty lasting from18 B.C. to 663 A.D.).  (Hong, 1994)

 

The oldest swords in Korea are straight and double edged.  Korean curved swords came along in the late Koryo dynasty.

 

During the Koryo dynasty Korean sword making was heavily influenced by Mongolian sword construction and design. Lasting from about 892 A.D. to 1259, the Koryo dynasty ended with Mongolian domination of the peninsula.  Though the Mongols failed to colonize Japan, various technologies from Genghis Khan’s (1162-1227) empire including swordsmithing reached Japan and dominated sword design in the Kamakura region.  Kamakura was the political center of Japan for about a century after 1192.

 

Korean curved swords can be distinguished from Japanese in that Japanese curved swords usually have a longitudinal channel or blood groove along the blunt edge of the sword whereas Korean curved blades usually do not.  Also, Korean curved swords tend to be smooth from the blunt edge to sharp edge, with no straight lines running the length of the blade. 

 

Until the Choson Dynasty (1392-1905), Korean sword makers were among the best in the world.  Korean swordsmithing began its decline during the Choson dynasty when King Yi Song Gye began transitioning Korea from a Buddhist to a Confucian nation.  Neo-Confucianism led to official disdain for the arts of war. Prior to the Choson dynasty swordsmiths in Korea lived in the palace.  During the Choson dynasty they were relegated to the lowest ranks of society.  Consequently, the militaristic society of feudal Japan encouraged weapons-making, while the scholastic society of Korea despised it. Thus, Korean sword-making technology was left to stagnate. 

 

About 100 years ago the ancient methodologies of Korean sword making were abandoned altogether. Numerous factors were involved, including newer methods of steel production, the use of guns and the Japanese occupation of Korea.

 

References

Ferris, William Wayne. (1996). Ancient Japan's Korean Connection. Korean Studies, 20, 1-22.

Hong, Wontack. (1994). Paekche of Korea and the Origin of Yamato Japan. Seoul: Kudara International.

Murayama, Shichiro and Miller, Roy Andrew. (1979). The Inariyama Tumulus Sword Inscription. The Journal of Japanese Studies, 5, 405-438.

 

 

SUPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

LINKS

a.         Two photos of Silla dynasty swords on display at the Korean

            National Museum   http://www.museum.go.kr

 

b.         Early Iron in Korea

            http://www.staff.hum.ku.dk/dbwagner/KoreanFe/KoreanFe.html#Heading3

 

c.         Seven Branched Sword.

            http://gias.snu.ac.kr/wthong/publication/paekche/eng/hi5-4.pdf

 

d.         Inariyama Tumulus Sword 

            http://www.dprkstudies.org/documents/asia002.html

 

e.         Wikipedia Entries on Korean Swords

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_sword

 

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hwandudaedo

 

f.          Interesting discussion of Korean swords and history can be

            found at The Dojang:

             http://www.martialartsresource.com/korean/korframe.htm

 

g.         Jimkum – Development of Korean Swords by Robert W.

            Young

            http://www.concentric.net/~sdseong/kmar.vid.sw.htm

 

 

h.         A fascinating and ancient history of Korean martial arts can

             be found in a book called: Muye Dobo Tongji

            http://www.turtlepress.com/info_muye_dobo_tongji.asp

 

            Also see:

            http://www.warrior-scholar.com/articles/sword01.htm

 

i.          Here is an article on traditional crafts (and the National

            living treasure law) that includes a number of paragraphs

            summarizing the archaeological

            information on the history of Korean swords (actually

            metalworking) more or less up thru the end of Silla Dynasty).

            Article by Han Byung-sam at the University of Indiana.

           http://www.indiana.edu/~easc/resources/korea_slides/crafts/4-1.htm

 

j.          Interesting story about Korean Swordsmanship by Jane

            Hallander can be found at:

 

            http://ourworld.cs.com/kuksoolcl/koreanswordsmanship.htm

 

k.         Information about Korean Sword Dance:

            http://www.culture-arts.go.kr/english/contents/con2_5.html

 

l.          About Great King Sejong and the Sword: "The sword is a weapon of

            peace…” http://members.aol.com/ABurrese/kingsejong.html

 

Story by Gregory C. Brundage     greg_brundage@yahoo.com

Additional references supplied by Kim Dammers

 

Story by Gregory C. Brundage    
greg_brundage@yahoo.com