Tag Archives: gungdo

Archery in Seoul pt. 2

2 June, 2015

 For the first part of ‘Archery in Seoul’: click here

Mount Ingsawan.

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 gallery


HwangHakJeong gallery


HwangHakJeong gallery

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.


Seokhojeong range, showing part of the cable pulley system

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:




Cheonggyecheon stream

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.

Archery in Seoul: pt 1

26 May, 2015

Modern laminate gukgong. ©theinfinitecurve.com

After my adventures in Shanghai, I made my way to Seoul, a city I had been itching to visit for some time. I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot to say about this extraordinary place, so I’m going to split this up into two parts.

Thanks to some internet contacts, I got to meet Andrew White. Andrew is a professor of English at one of Seoul’s universities and a serious archer. He was kind enough to spend some time giving me an introduction to Korean traditional archery, or gungdo, at the Surakjeong (수락정) range out in the north-east of this enormous city.

SuRakJeong range. ©theinfinitecurve.com

South Korea is one of the most mountainous democracies on Earth – over 70% of the country is classed as uplands or mountains. The capital Seoul is hemmed in on all sides by towering rocks that have served to shape the city’s temporal and spiritual history. All Seoul’s traditional archery ranges are elevated, perched on the slopes of the surrounding peaks, and most of them are anything but flat fields. To varyingly rugged degrees they are tied much more firmly to the natural world than Western ranges, and Surakjeong – the ‘Surak’ part refers to the local Suraksan mountain, ‘Jeong’ meaning ‘range’ – is no exception. The range is rural, wild, green and peaceful, with a channelled mountain stream burbling diagonally across the field. I am mildly startled by a four foot snake making his leisurely way back to the undergrowth, although I manage to take a photograph. I mention it and show the photo to club members, and apparently he is a familiar sight out here. This is, of course, his territory as well as ours.


Many gungdo clubhouses, or jung gahn, are built in a traditional style, featuring curved, extended wooden eaves which exactly resemble the architecture of the five great palaces of Seoul, right down to the identical colour scheme, which is said to symbolise a tree. There couldn’t be a more direct expression of the sport’s direct links to royal, dynastic and military tradition, and archers are expected to bow to the clubhouse when entering and leaving the range.

The jung gahn here holds a familiar trove of trophies and memorabilia, dusty history and old equipment. There is another open shed for bow storage and maintenance, with a few modern low-poundage recurve bows too which are sometimes used with local schools. It is not well known that FITA fields are actually very rare in Korea, despite the high-profile Olympic success. Recurve and compound target archery simply doesn’t exist as a mass-participation sport with nationwide clubs like in Europe and the Americas – although a handful of ranges accommodate both traditional and target styles.

There is also a bell with a fish clapper to mark shooting, the fish being an object of deep Buddhist significance.



The distance of these ranges is always 145 metres, a distance similar to that used in a Joseon Dynasty-era military exam. On these terrains the target bed is frequently elevated or lowered from the shooting line, here it is a few feet higher. Gungdo targets are approximately 2 metres by 2.5 metres, with a rubberised surface that the arrow is designed to bounce off rather than penetrate – the targets feature an electronic indicator connected to a light to indicate a hit.


There’s also no such thing as an indoor season to speak of – shooting continues year-round outdoors. In Korea’s harsh winters the line here is greenhoused and heated, and Andrew says there’s nothing quite like getting the first hit of the morning after a snowy night and seeing a grand white sheet of snow slump off the target in one go.

Traditional gakgung bow. ©theinfinitecurve.com Traditional gakgung bow. ©theinfinitecurve.com DSC_0123

The only bowstyle shot here is the traditional Korean bow, a reflexed composite weapon without an arrow shelf.  Beginners and casual archers use modern laminated bows and carbon / aluminium arrows familiar to Westerners, but as one moves up the levels past the fourth dan, archers must use traditional water-buffalo horn bows known as gakgung and bamboo arrows to progress further. These exquisite objects, which take years to make, are kept in a specially temperature-controlled cupboard buried into the mountainside, the natural materials requiring a great deal of care to maintain.


The bamboo arrows are also difficult to construct, requiring the sourcing of bamboo with identical length stalks as well as thickness, in order to spine correctly. Traditional arrows are fitted with pheasant feathers and numbered in various decorative ways, and all arrows are crimped with blunt bronze points.


Out on the mountain soil, long-standing members of the club are given small plots on the expanse of the range as an allotment. Andrew is raising peppers and hops for homebrew on his, next to a crop of what looks like kale. A session of archery interrupted by a spot of gardening is not at all an unusual afternoon out here – and naturally, old arrows get used to mark things out.  The plots are mostly out of the line of fire to the targets. Mostly. Given the relatively high trajectories of Korean archery, apparently other ranges around the country even feature roads running between the line and the targets. Every type of land is employed, there are ranges shooting over ponds, rice paddies, tree groves, and even ocean inlets.


Andrew White.

Each end consists of five arrows – no more, no less – and the arrows are tucked inside a sash worn round the body: quivers are not normally used. The colour and markings of the belt indicate the dan level the archer has achieved – the first key stage is achieving a perfect end of five out of five, known as a mohlgi.

There are grading competitions a few times a year, and a program of local and national competitions. Members at Surakjeong have access 24/7, and there is a complicated hierarchical system in a country known for complicated hierarchical systems; archers are deferred to variously by age, dan ranking, and length of membership. Out back there is a long narrow building that serves as kitchen and mess hall, also housing the club’s leaderboard, clearly indicating the dan and other ranks of the members, and the order they were achieved in. Once you make a certain dan, you retain it for life.


Communal cooking and eating is normal, and I am kindly treated to a meal of noodles, kimchi and dureup jeon – woody shoots foraged from the local mountains by a club member and fried in batter – along with makgeolli, the milky-coloured, mildly alcoholic, utterly Korean rice beverage.


Dureup namu (두릅나무) in its raw state.


Dureup jeon (두릅전).

I was amazed by the standard of the permanent facilities, but rather more struck by the similarities, rather than the differences, between gungdo and outdoor target archery, especially as practiced in the UK. The relaxed air of a shooting afternoon, the birds louder than an arrow being released, the reciprocal arrangements (any member can usually shoot at any other range as a guest) and the social structure were very familiar. The demographics of archery club members in Korea is not entirely dissimilar to that of golf clubs – indeed, golf is apparently pretty popular among Korean archers. The different clubs around Seoul and the rest of the country differ variously in attitude, formality, snootiness, average level of ability, coaching, and the degree of drinking and socialising that goes on – again, something that will be very familiar to UK archers. 😉

SuRakJeong range. ©theinfinitecurve.com

Coached by Andrew, I am given a chance to shoot with a trainer bow, first on a set of practice targets out back, and then from about the halfway line of the range. A discussion of technique could fill a book; being used to recurve shooting with a tab, the thumb ring and Mongolian grip are the trickiest things to get used to, as well as the low anchor point. Still, from about 70m out, after ten or so arrows have hit the floor, I am pleased to hear a distance knocking sound and see the centre target light flash. The breeze ripples through the trees. I’m on my way.


Enormous, heartfelt thanks to Andrew White for enabling this piece and taking the time. 

You can read much more about Korean traditional archery in English at Martin Sadlon’s site (RIP) as well as the one maintained by Thomas Duvernay

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Archery in Seoul over the next couple of days.


18 February, 2015


仁 愛 德 行 / 인 애 덕 행 - "Be seen as a model of love and virtue."

仁 愛 德 行 / 인 애 덕 행 – “Be seen as a model of love and virtue.”


 誠 實 謙 遜   /  성 실 겸 손 - "Act with humbleness and honesty."

誠 實 謙 遜 / 성 실 겸 손 – “Act with humbleness and honesty.”


自 重 節 操  /   자 중 절 조  - ""You should solidly protect your integrity with discreet behaviour."

自 重 節 操 / 자 중 절 조 – “”You should solidly protect your integrity with discreet behaviour.”


禮 儀 嚴 守  /  예 의 엄 수 - "Be courteous."

禮 儀 嚴 守 / 예 의 엄 수 – “Be courteous.”


廉直果敢  /  염직과감 - "When in a position of power, act with integrity."

廉直果敢 / 염직과감 – “When in a position of power, act with integrity.”


習 射 無 言  /   습 사 무 언 - "When there is shooting, don't speak."

習 射 無 言 / 습 사 무 언 – “When there is shooting, don’t speak.”


正 心 正 己  / 정 심 정 기 - "Have a straight mind and a straight body."

正 心 正 己 / 정 심 정 기 – “Have a straight mind and a straight body.”


 不 怨 勝 者  /   불 원 승 자 - "Do not resent someone who wins." Photo used with permission from www.ArgeeImages.ca

不 怨 勝 者 / 불 원 승 자 – “Do not resent someone who wins.”
Photo used with permission from ArgeeImages.ca


莫 灣 他 弓  /  막 만 타 궁 - "Do not touch another's bow."

莫 灣 他 弓 / 막 만 타 궁 – “Do not touch another’s bow.”

Texts from Martin Sadlon’s site at KT Archery. RIP, Martin. You can find more information about Korean traditional archery there, and also here.

Special thanks to Kim miK, and Tobias. 

how a bow is born

19 March, 2014

Found these excellent videos on YouTube about traditional Korean bowmaking, constructing the gungdo (각궁) of bamboo, sinew, horn and various woods. Unfortunately, all the videos are in Korean, the only option is YouTube caption subtitles (click on the little icon below the screen that looks like an addressed envelope, and select ‘on’, ‘Translate Captions’, and then English or whatever language you like). While the captions are great at producing barely comprehensible joys as ‘Longing stroke / the sound of shoes voc robbed’, they do mostly give you the gist of what is going on, and occasionally deliver real insights (the ‘cloven hoof’.) Anyway, get stuck in:

Half a world away, I found this excellent slow and steady series of English longbow making videos from Bickerstaffe Bows, full of explanations, detail, and seriously hot woodworking. Enjoy.

(well, I say half a world away. Did you know that Britain and Korea share a megalithic culture? That you can find the same kind of mysterious late-Neolithic flowerings in Cornwall and Gochang? You do now…)