An outstanding weapon that protects the country, with a culture for training both mind and body, listen to the story of our country’s bow.
The Superior and Ingenius Korean Bow and Arrow – Gakgung and Pyeonjeon
The bow has been a part of our history for a long, long time. By looking at excavated artifacts, we can see that bows have been in use since prehistoric times.
Records show that bows were used in Gojoseon and Buyeo, and among the Dongye, Okjeo, and Samhan.
In addition, they were just as good at making bows as they were at shooting them.
The names and uses of a bow differed according to the size and type of material used. But of all the bows, the main style of bow used was that made from water buffalo horns, the gakgung.
Before it could be used, the normally round gakgung would first be strung as seen here. But to string a gakgung, you would need a great deal of strength as you must uncurl it and pull it back in the opposite direction.
Nonetheless, the reason the bow doesn’t break is the extreme elasticity of the gakgung. The greater the elasticity, the more pliable the bow becomes. And the more pliable it is, the farther the arrows will fly. The range of a gakgung slightly over 1-meter-long is from 150 meters to a maximum of 300 meters.
It seems to have been quite a powerful weapon.
Then, where does the elasticity of the gakgung derive?
The secret to its elasticity is in the material. First, pieces of processed bamboo and mulberry are laid one on top of the other, followed by a thinly sliced water buffalo horn applied over the top. Then on the other side, strands of ox tendons are applied.
“The resilience of the loop part where the string is strung and the main body varies. Once the whole thing is assembled, the tension balances itself.”
Kwon Younghak, Bow Maker / Intangible National Cultural Property No. 47
We’ve formed the elasticity of the gakgung, but another key part of the bow is isinglass, a glue made from the bladder of the croaker fish. Another key component in forming the elasticity of the gakgung is the boiled and dried isinglass that makes a superb natural adhesive.
The croaker-bladder glue firmly bonds all components of the bow together while also maintaining its resilience and making it very flexible when stretched.
Employing advanced scientific knowledge and a sense of harmony with nature, the extraordinary bow called the gakgung was made.
If the bow was to be used as a weapon, it would also need a powerful arrow, wouldn’t it?
There was the fire arrow, the hwajeon, The practice arrow with tiny tip, the yuyeopjeon, The arrow used to send a message, the sejeon, The arrow tied with string, the jusal, The arrow with a heavy tip, the jangjeon, And in war, the arrow that signaled the order to attack, the hyosi.
There was even the bakdu arrow, which had a blunt tip, and the arrow called the muchokjeon.
The yungnyangjeon arrow was used during the military service examination. It tested just how far the candidates could send their arrows.
Of all these traditional arrows, there was one that was special, and that was the pyeonjeon, also called the “baby arrow.”
“This is the yuyeopjeon. Its size is pretty standard for an arrow. This small arrow here is called the pyeonjeon. You can only draw it back this far. With this sort of draw, the distance it will fly is very short. So you should place it in an empty casing, the tonga here, and shoot it.”
Yu Sehyeon / Intangible National Property No. 47, Arrow Master and Instructor
The pyeonjeon arrow placed inside the tonga is a typical Korean arrow. Though rather small, as a weapon it is extremely lethal. The pyeonjeon flies much straighter than other arrows, is faster, and goes much farther. It is recorded to have flown over a thousand paces.
The powerful arrow fired from the tonga, the pyeonjeon!
During the reign of King Sejong, training in shooting the pyeonjeon was prohibited along the northern border to prevent knowledge of its existence from leaking out.
Bows and arrows, the primary weapons of our country! They manifest the wisdom of our forefathers.
Weapon for Combat and Tool of Personal Cultivation - The Application and Value of the Bow
The Representative Korean Weapon, the Bow!
A big advantage to the bow and arrow is their ability to overpower enemies from long distances.
“The Korean topography is very rugged with many strategically placed mountain fortresses. This made the bow a very important weapon.”
Kim Jaebeom, Curator / Korea Army Museum
During the Military Service Exam in the Joseon Dynasty, candidates were tested in mounted combat, including fighting with a sword, spear, and flail, as well as hand-to-hand combat. They were also tested in various archery styles. This goes to show just how important the bow was as a weapon.
Not only that, with the development of ballistic weapons in the early Joseon Dynasty, a new weapon called the jochong, a type of matchlock musket, appeared during the Imjin Wars. Despite this new technology, the bow was an important weapon used in national defense up until the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
But while the bow was used as a weapon on the battlefield, it was also used as a tool for cleansing both body and mind.
In the Joseon Dynasty, since being skilled at both literature and martial arts was considered virtuous, civil servants also regarded archery as important.
He who practices archery and riding horses but also studies the ways of Confucius is the epitome of a man.
In this fashion, archery is not merely a style of martial art, it has become a way to learn to self-control and self-cultivation.
“Archery was a form of martial art used to train the body. However, ancient scholars also enjoyed archery to cultivate the mind. Archery is a cultural treasure that trains both mind and body.”
Jang Dong Yeol, Instructor / Hwanghakjeong
The bow and arrow, a method of combat, self-improvement, and so much more!
They are precious cultural relics that we must protect.
Must-Know Facts on Culture and Art in Korean History
1. Gakgung is an extremely flexible bow made from water buffalo horn, ox tendons, bamboo, mulberry, oak, and isinglass.
2. Also affectionately called the “baby arrow,” the pyeonjeon is a small but incredibly powerful arrow.
3. In the Joseon Military Service Examination, archery was one of the basic skills tested.