Keeping an ancient craft aliveFor Hong Seok-hyeon, a maker of Korean traditional swords, the work “seems to be my destiny.”
Mr. Hong, 50, who has a studio in Paju, Gyeonggi province, has been making the swords for more than 20 years. He is one of the few people in Korea to make the weapons by hand.
Unlike sword makers in Japan, who typically inherited the occupation from their ancestors, Mr. Hong is the first in his family to take up the craft.
And it was not his first occupation. For 17 years, starting when he was 14 years old, he made traditional Korean furniture called najeonchilgi, or lacquerwork inlaid with mother of pearl.
But one day in the early 1980s, he saw a replica of a saingeom, or Joseon Dynasty sword, made by Yu Jeok-seon, a well-known metal craftsman, who died in 1997. “I was just so fascinated,” Mr. Hong said.
In his studio is a saingeom that he completed. On its 90 centimeter (35 inch) long blade Chinese characters state, “Heaven descends with vigor and the earth helps the spirits. The sun and the moon form. Mountains and rivers appear, and lightning flashes. With the help of Heaven, and with wisdom, defeat the evil on earth. Cut and make it just.”
All the words were carved and inlaid in gold, filling the entire blade. On the reverse, 28 constellations were drawn, symbolizing the power of the universe. The phrase and the constellations reflect the ancient belief in yin and yang and the philosophy of Taoism.
The shiny silver blade, chillingly sharp on both edges, exerts a strong aura, as if it were a supernatural force like the ring in “Lord of the Rings.” The sword’s sheath, lacquered in black, appears regal.
The word “sain” means “four tigers,” and during the Joseon Dynasty, such swords were produced only during a “tiger” period ― on a tiger day during a tiger month in a tiger year, based on the Chinese zodiac calendar.
Saingeom blades were primarily molded, rather than hammered into shape, which allowed the process to proceed more rapidly. The completed swords were believed to have pure “yang” energy, and were kept in royal palaces and the houses of aristocrats as spirit guardians, since their power was believed to cast away evil spirits.
After Mr. Hong’s initial encounter with saingeom, an opportunity to actually make them came in 1983, when a close friend started a small sword making business and suggested Mr. Hong join him.
At first, he had to make samjeongdo, the sword given to newly promoted military generals each year. The Ministry of National Defense bought the swords he made for five years. After that, Mr. Hong finally was able to realize his dream, recreating the beautiful traditional swords of ancient dynasties.
His fascination with Korean swords grew even deeper when he saw a hwandudaedo, a sword from the Three Kindgoms era (4th to mid-7th centuries), in a museum.
This sword has been actively studied by both Korean and Japanese archaeologists since this type of weapon has also been found in Japan.
“Korean swords are the origin of Japanese samurai swords,” said Koo Ja-bong, a professor of cultural property at Kyungbuk College of Science. “Until the early 6th century, there were no swords in Japan. The first type of sword that the Japanese started using was the hwandudaedo, or long sword with a round handle, made in our country during the Three Kingdoms era.”
According to Mr. Koo, hwandudaedo were produced for kings and regional governors until the mid 6th century, when the kingdoms were united.
Despite long efforts, Mr. Hong was unable to find anyone or any records to show him how to make the swords by traditional methods. “I was frustrated, disappointed and sad,” he said.
Mr. Hong believed that the sword making business largely disappeared during the Japanese colonial period in the first half of the 20th century, when the promotion of Korean cultural heritage was banned by the Japanese government.
It has been the general conception among Koreans that many Korean craftsmen were abducted by the Japanese government during the Japanese invasion from 1592 to 1598 and during colonial rule.
Scholars, however, have differing views about the history of sword making in Korea.
“The history of swords basically ended with the founding of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), not because of Japan but for other reasons. When the nation pursued Confucianism, which valued scholarship more than military might, sword making became unpopular,” Mr. Koo said.
Park Jae-gwang, a conservator at the War Memorial of Korea, said, “Most of the sword experts disappeared naturally, as the demand for swords declined after modern weapons were invented.” He added that the reason for the lack of solid documentation on sword making is unclear.
Given the lack of records, all Mr. Hong could do was visit museums to observe the swords in person or search through the academic literature. “I was so eager to learn how to make swords, no matter how hard it would be. But there was no way I could learn the original methods,” Mr. Hong said.
Still, he did not give up the struggle to make swords that were as close as possible to the originals. In 1984, he began to reproduce famous traditional Korean swords, including the saingeom, hwandudaedo, and a sword used by Admiral Yi Sun-shin, a historic warrior during the 16th-century Japanese invasion of Korea.
Still, he is not satisfied. “Imitating the appearance of the swords is not really re-creating them,” he said. To make blades whose quality is as close as possible to the original swords, Mr. Hong once tried to produce metal in the traditional way instead of buying commercially produced steel, but was unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, his efforts have largely paid off. His name became well known among sword collectors, and the number of people wanting his weapons increased.
Over the past 20 years, he has sold his swords to hundreds of people, including former President Chun Doo-hwan, a former chief monk of Bulguk Temple on Mount Jiri, and the well-known fortuneteller Joh Ja-ryong, who predicted Kim Il Sung’s death.
Mr. Hong now produces various types of swords, ranging from relatively inexpensive weapons for Geomdo (traditional fencing) to the ancient swords. The prices range from 700,000 won ($694) to 20 million won.
To make one fine ancient sword it takes Mr. Hong about one year, since he does it alone.
“Sword making originally required many different experts because one sword is a combination of different kinds of art,” he said. “It needs skills in hammering, carving, inlaying, painting and other difficult jobs.”
To make one hwandudaedo during the Three Kingdoms era, at least 20 skilled craftsmen worked together. “There was one person who made the blade, someone else who made the sheath, and another who made the handle,” Mr. Koo said.
Mr. Hong, however, hopes that the nation supports its traditional craftsmen.
“I’m sad that only samurai swords are recognized internationally,” he said. “I would like to take part in a world sword competition one day with our swords.
“There should be more exhibitions and academic studies of our swords. The government should also help in preserving and promoting our extraordinary heritage,” he added.
Looking at a saingeom, Mr. Hong said, “This sword is a concentration of pure yang energy. Its power is so mysterious that people become humble around it.
“People think that gangsters or criminals shouldn’t be around those swords. But you know what? Even violent guys become calmer and more cautious around well-made swords because swords prevent evil spirits from entering a house.”
by Choi Sun-young
To purchase a sword, paperwork containing personal information must be filed with the nearest police station, along with the result of a medical test. For those who just want to look at swords, there is the Knife Gallery (02-735-4431/2) and Eogoemdang (02-733-4452) in the Kyung-In Museum in the Insa-dong area.