It’s time to set the record straight about Haidong Gumdo. For those unfamiliar with this, Haidong Gumdo is a Korean martial art focused on the use of swords. The visual aesthetic is familiar to most Americans, and will remind one of the Japanese samurai due to the shape of the sword and the dress which is worn. Haidong Gumdo is about grace. It is about precision, and power. It is about mastering one’s own mind and body in the development of physical skill. It is not, however, about cultural imitations or derivations.
The sword used in Haidong Gumdo practice is known by multiple names, including hwando and jingum, which is the equivalent of the Japanese word shinken, or “real sword”. It is important for those more familiar with Japanese sword arts to realize that the jingum is not a katana, despite certain surface similarities. This is largely related to differences in cutting technique. While historical Korean swords come in many shapes and sizes, the modern jingum is easy to distinguish from a Japanese katana by the shape of the tip and the method in which the blade is mounted to the handle. Quality jingum typically have a wider tip, and are mounted with a pin and bolt in the handle.
The Haidong Gumdo uniform used by the World Haidong Gumdo Federation is something else that causes confusion to those more familiar with Japanese sword arts. This is because of the pants that are worn, which flare outwards similar to the Japanese hakama. As with the sword, however, there are differences between the Japanese and Korean styles. The Japanese hakama are worn outside of the gi (or jacket), while in Haidong Gumdo, the jacket is worn over the pants. Since the top of the pants is therefore not visible, they have an elastic waist, rather than the elaborate ties of the hakama.
In addition, Haidong Gumdo makes use of a short sleeved dobak, or uniform. This allows more freedom of movement, without worrying about catching the sword in the sleeve. Finally, Haidong Gumdo makes use of colored belts to denote rank, similar to more familiar arts such as the Korean Taekwondo, or the Japanese Judo.
Relations with “other” sword arts
Unfortunately, the aesthetic similarities between the Korean and Japanese sword arts, coupled with a history of tension between these two peoples, has given rise to a significant amount of misunderstanding and strife in the martial arts community.
This is not to say anything at all negative about Japanese sword martial arts! I feel no need, for example, to dispute the history or legitimacy of Iaido, which is a modern Japanese sword art as practiced by the All Japan Kendo Federation. It is beautiful and graceful, and, I might add, new. The same is true of Haidong Gumdo.
Yet the martial arts community remains plagued by the tension which has existed between these peoples for quite some time. As American practitioners of these arts in particular, we should respect each others’ chosen disciplines. That’s not even to begin to mention the negativity which arises from meaningless debates about historical origins, uniform styles, or effectiveness. This kind of slander only serves to weaken us in our pursuit of mastery.
So let’s move the discussion in a more positive direction. Do you practice a martial art? What do we even mean when we use that term?
The Meaning of “the Way”
I would argue that sports such as MMA (“mixed martial arts”) do not fit the definition of martial arts in the traditional sense. The word Gumdo translates as “the way of the sword”. “Way” is used here the same as it is used in Taoism. In fact, “Tao” and “Do” are the same character, pronounced differently in different languages. To quote Wikipedia:
“The martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a variety of reasons: self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, as well as mental, physical, and spiritual development.”
That second phrase is important. A significant part of martial arts practice is mental, physical, and spiritual development. So this would include the various styles of Chinese Kung Fu, Japanese Karate, and Korean Taekwondo, among others. It includes the various ryu of Japanese Samurai Swordsmanship, and yes, it includes Haidong Gumdo, an indigenous Korean sword art. Sure, nothing develops in a vacuum, and Korea necessarily shows influences related to its geographical location and its interaction with other cultures. But that does not diminish the art or its practitioners.
Haidong Gumdo focuses on multiple aspects of swordsmanship, from drawing and sheathing, to forms work and stance training, to test cutting with a live blade. There is no trick to being able to perform these cuts, whether on bamboo or other targets – no stage magic, just years of training and practice. Personal betterment and a constant striving to improve technique are what makes it work.
Martial artists of all disciplines should be interested to see a positive sharing of ideas. Show me some of your own martial arts practice, and let’s compare. Anyone in the area is also welcome to visit my studio, Blue Mountain Martial Arts, to see my sword work first hand. Check out http://www.BlueMountainMA.com for more information.