For the first part of ‘Archery in Seoul’: click here.
There are a total of eight traditional Korean archery ranges in and around the capital. On an overcast, muggy day I climb up from Gyeongbokgung station, near Seoul’s greatest palace, up a winding road past a school, to HwangHakJeong (‘Yellow Crane Pavilion’) on the lower slopes of Mount Ingsawan. This commands a rocky elevation facing south over the city, looking down onto government buildings and the US Embassy. Unlike Surakjeong, here there is a clear downward slope to the targets which are, again, 145m away.
Here, the archers save on shoe leather and maximize their range time by employing a trustee to collect arrows; these are then returned in a basket via a motorized cable pulley which stretches back to the shooting line. The range is also home to a brand-new small museum-cum-gallery which contains several exhibits on the history of the range and gungdo – although there’s not a great deal of information in English up yet, either on display or on the internet. They are also planning courses in traditional bowmaking.
HwangHakJeong has royal patronage; it was built by the Emperor Gojong in 1898 in order to revive what he saw as a national tradition, to “let people enjoy archery to develop their physical strength.” The bow has been known on the Han Peninsula since prehistory, but its full flowering as a national totem came during the Joseon Dynasty: a Confucian kingdom lasting an impressive five centuries until 1897. The bow was a military weapon, and proficiency in it became a key part of the military service examination, part of a complex national series of testing and advancement which still resonates throughout the country today.
Martin Sadlon’s site explains more:
“The Joseon Dynasty adopted Neo-Confucianism as a ruling ideology to manage Korean society and maintained a political system in which the hegemony of political power was tightly grasped by the scholar officials. Archery was considered one of the basic skills (music, archery, chariot driving, writing, and arithmetic) even for scholars… it was not simply regarded as a physical skill in warfare or hunting, but as… a spiritual instrument to cultivate Confucian morality and to make people familiar with courtesy.
There is also a famous concept to view archery as a means of “assessing an archer ‘s virtuous conduct”… gradually in Korea this term appeared to be a representative view of archery as a means of cultivating and assessing virtue and courtesy of the archer himself. This is why archery, basically a martial art, is exceptionally recommended even for the literati.”
The Confucian traditions and precepts established over the various empires are still maintained in the complex hierarchies and etiquette at each range. Similar to the Hunger Games effect in the West, gungdo has experienced a national bump in interest due to a Korean fashion for historical epics such as War Of The Arrows.
The range is in action when I visit, and I meet a couple of chaps including Kim Taesung who taught the Hairy Bikers for BBC TV last year: you can watch the segment here, starting at about 27m.
HwangHakJeong was also where the Korean Olympic archery machine began in the 1960s. The founders of the team such as Park Kyung Rae came to study the best traditional archers, whose approach to alignment and training were hugely influential on the nascent systems of coaching and biomechanics that finally bore fruit in the 1980s with the influx of corporate money that fuelled, then as now, the Korean recurve machine. It turns out that the international Olympic success draws from deeply historical roots.
I manage to visit one more range: Seokhojeong, high on the slopes at Namsan Park, the mountain capped by the iconic Seoul Tower. This range is higher, more rugged and overgrown than the others, but has a proud history stretching back to the 17th century, and offers a chance to try archery for both Korean citizens and foreigners – there appears to be both public and private money intent on maintaining the tradition here. As well as the archery range, Namsan is crisscrossed by well-used padded hiking trails and enlivened with free outdoor gyms, part of a very public national commitment to fitness.
The long tradition and deep psychological roots of archery in Korea is expressed in Seoul public history; from artwork on the walls on the Cheonggyecheon stream, an extraordinary public waterway running through the centre of the city:
to the hanbok-clad actors in the guard-changing ceremony at the royal palaces:
There are also bow-and-arrow treasures from the past at the National Museum, from the Paleolithic to the Joseon. I didn’t get to see some other museums a little further afield, but there were a thousand other things to recommend this extraordinary city and country, and I hope to be back soon.
For more on the history of Korean traditional archery, you could read this essay by Thomas Duvernay and Moon-ok Lee.