It's Sharp, but It's Going Out of Style

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It's Sharp, but It's Going Out of Style

Korea is known internationally as a strong competitor in archery, and it is not rare to find Korean archers standing on the podium wearing medals at the Olympic Games.

But the bows and arrows used in gukgung, Korean archery, have largely been abandoned in favor of more durable, cheaply produced equipment like that used in the West. As a result, knowledge of the craft of producing traditional bows and arrows has almost been lost in Korea.

"During the Choson dynasty, China was famous for its spears, Japan for its swords, and Korea for its bows and arrows," says Yu Young-ki, who is a master of making arrows - a si-jang. (The word si means arrow and jang means craftsman.) Mr. Yu is from Jangdan, Kyonggi province, once famous for its arrowmaking industry. He inherited both his family's business and its commitment to keeping alive traditional methods of arrow production.

Arrows made by Mr. Yu and his son over the last 20 years are to be exhibited at the Yongjib Bow and Arrow Museum, scheduled to open on May 19 in Paju city, Kyonggi province. Mr. Yu's ambition is to recreate all the types of arrows used in Korea from the Stone Age to the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). He travels all over the nation, visiting museums and historic remains with his son, Yu Se-hyun. Together, they look for old records and research materials about arrows of the old days.

Mr. Yu began to learn his skills when his family moved to the south because of the Korean War in1950. He was only 15 at that time. His father left all his belongings, including important documents for his estates, at home but carried the tools and materials necessary for making arrows.

It was not easy to find materials needed to make arrows during the war. The body of a traditional arrow is made from a two-year-old bamboo tree. The ideal type of bamboo for these arrows is found near the sea since it is straight and evenly weighted. This bamboo had to be cut in the winter since it will completely dry only in the severe cold. To find the right type of bamboo, young Mr. Yu would spend cold winters searching the seashores in South Chungchong province, South Cholla province and Cheju island as they were less affected by the war.

Finding iron with which to make the arrowheads was even more difficult, and Mr. Yu would sometimes have to use empty bullet cartridges as substitutes. Other material needed for arrow production is the bark from peach trees and cow tendons. Both ends of a rod need to be secured with bark and tendon after the arrowhead and feathers are glued to it, or the bamboo rod would easily split.

The feathers used on arrow tips are pheasants' feathers. Usually only three arrows can be made from one pheasant's plumage. Mr. Yu had to look for the feathers of pheasants from the northern part of Korea as they usually had more plentiful and bigger feathers to protect themselves from the cold.

In addition, he had to find feathers of male pheasants only, since it was believed that archers disliked using arrows made from the feathers of female pheasants.

There will be about 100 arrows on display at the exhibition at the Yongjib Bow and Arrow Museum. These include hyosi, a type of arrow that was used as a signal because of the noise it makes when discharged. Other exhibits include a hwajeon, a fire arrow, and a sin-gijeon, a set of arrows discharged simultaneously. Mr. Yu and his son even recreated some old bows to test whether the arrows they make actually work. There will also be a catapult called a soenoe displayed at the museum, which can only be loaded by several strong men.

Arrows made by Mr. Yu cost between 300,000 won ($230) and 3 million won, but he takes limited orders only. Admission to Yongjib Bow and Arrow Museum costs 2,000 won.

For more information, call the museum at 031-944-6800 (Korean service only).

by Sung Ho-jun

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