Female stick-to-itivenessFacing each other, two figures clothed in black, robe-like outfits, armored in leather, point the tips of their bamboo swords at each other. For a while only heavy breathing disturbs the calm of the Song Mu Geomdo Hall in southwest Seoul. Suddenly one of the figures moves toward the other and with a scream swings a sword above her head. As soon as the screaming begins, it’s over. Both sword bearers bow to each other and remove their helmets.
“That was pretty fast...I thought I parried that blow but you got through my defense,” says Chung Jeong-woo, 28, who lost the match in perhaps 30 seconds.
Only a handful of people in Korea can utter those words. Ms. Chung holds the level of 4 dan in geomdo, the Korean art of sword fighting, while the opponent who outmatched her is no less an expert in handling the geomdo sword: Lee Hong-jeom, who is 36, holds a 5 dan. Just to reach the first level of dan, a person must practice about an hour daily for a year. It takes another two years of dedication to ascend to the next level.
The aforementioned women warriors belong to Wonhwahoe, a club of about 30 geomdo devotees founded in 1998. To belong to this club one condition must be met: You cannot be a man. Some members, like Ms. Lee and Ms. Chung, are instructors, while others are just hobbyists.
Club officials once limited entry to women who reached a 3-dan level but recently scrapped that rule to make joining easier. The latest person to take advantage of that rule is Heidi Genesis, an English teacher from Canada who started up a conversation with Ms. Lee on the subway and ended up picking up the sword. “I knew taekwondo, but I did not know about geomdo at all,” says Ms. Genesis, who is 23.
Geomdo is widespread in Asia, just as fencing is in the West. The one notable difference between the two, fencing (except for the sabre discipline) focuses on stabbing action, while geomdo involves slashing to any body area above the waist ― the head included. Competitors score a point each time a slash is made, and win by scoring a certain number of points, which vary by match.
“It’s more than just sword fighting,” explains Ms. Lee. “You learn how to control yourself and maintain inner calm. If you are hotheaded you’ll never win a match ― you’ll get killed 100 percent of the time.”
Ms. Chung agrees that geomdo is about self-control. And while some women may perceive the sport as violent, she stresses it is exactly what women need.
“Why do you think I have such a great shape?” she says with a hearty laugh. “I don’t have to worry about getting fat. All of my female students agree with me.”
Ms. Lee was clerking at a duty free shop at Gimpo International Airport in 1989 when she first picked up the sword. What began as a hobby slowly evolved into a passion: In December 1997, she quit her job to become a geomdo instructor. By that time she had attained the 3-dan level, the minimum to be eligible as a junior-level instructor. A year later, she passed another test to become a 4-dan holder and a full-time instructor. But she did not stop there: she tacked on yet another dan last year.
Geomdo’s roots are thought to be early in Korea’s Shilla Dynasty (57 B.C. to A.D. 935), when Hwang Chang-rang, a member of a warrior class called Hwarang, purportedly conceived of this martial art to protect the land from the uncertainties of the time.
But by the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), when martial arts came to be viewed as an entertainment form for the lower classes and studies of Chinese literature hit the mainstream, martial arts on the peninsula including geomdo witnessed a decline. Only after the Japanese invaded the peninsula during the Joseon period did systematic martial arts education regain attention.
Under King Jeongjo (1752 to 1800) a martial art textbook called Muyedobotongji was published that methodically defined not only Korea’s native martial arts but also those of neighboring China and Japan. This encyclopedia discussed an art of sword fighting called Bongukgeombeop, which serves as the model for modern geomdo.
Today, there are about 500,000 followers of this martial art on the peninsula, according to the Korea Geomdo Association, of whom about 100,000 are registered as first dan or higher. Of this total, women sword fighters number only 2,000.
The highest position one can achieve in geomdo is the 10-dan level, but to date nobody has gotten there. Only one person, Cho Seung -ryong, holds a 9-dan level, while the highest level held by a woman is 5-dan. Only four women in the country claim that status, Ms. Lee being one of them.
Geomdo is known by many as kendo, for which the Japanese credit themselves as the inventors. Suh Nam-chul, an official with the Korea Geomdo Association and a 6-dan fighter, believes the sword-fighting art is embedded in both countries’ histories.
“It is true that Japan has a long history of sword fighting, but so do we,” he says, adding “it’s hard to say who started first. Right now both countries compete in international tournaments under the same rules and use their own unique fighting style.”
Mr. Suh explains how the two countries’ fighting styles differ: The Japanese are more defensive, he says, with fighters spending more time measuring each other out; Koreans, meanwhile, are more aggressive as they approach the match more practically.
“In Japan they think of a match in terms of a real sword fight,” says Mr. Suh. “This means that they won’t commit themselves to an attack unless they are absolutely sure they can score. Sure, it is sword fighting but without real blood the more you attack the more chances you can score. That’s our approach and nowadays Japan is following us.”
How about differences between male and female practitioners?
Ms. Lee believes that women employ tactics to compensate for their weaker physical condition. “O.K., in terms of power there is no denying that males generally have an edge. But women have finesse, they have a very elegant style and to make up for the lack of power, we emphasize skill. This is not some senseless hacking sport; it’s art in itself.”
In the public sphere, Korean geomdo boils down to two main schools. One is the Korea Geomdo Association, and the other is known as the Haedong Geomdo Federation. Members of the former practice and compete mainly with a bamboo sword, while Haedong Geomdo pupils turn to wooden swords in nearly all cases.
Fully grown adult competitors ― both men and women ― handle a sword that is 120 cm (47.2 inches) long, but the sword’s weight is slightly heavier for men at 510 grams (1.1 pounds) compared to womens’ 440-gram (1 pound) weapon.
Body armor, helmet, gloves and garb are the geomdo’s fundamental tools. Prices for body armor range from 300,000 won ($251) to 2 million won, although it is impolite to wear better armor than someone of a higher dan.
by Brian Lee