February 21, 2004




[MARTIAL ARTS] Back to Their Roots

Sippalgi: Art of the Korean warrior redux

ith Korea sandwiched between China and Japan, the Korean people have lived under the constant threat of war. In order to survive, they perfected a sophisticated tradition of martial arts and self-defense techniques.

But in the wake of centuries of destruction on the peninsula, most of this recorded heritage was lost, necessitating the apt Korean maxim, "instruct orally and teach with the heart."

▲Gijang flag spears lead the call to battle.
More recently, Westerners have underestimated the skills of the Korean warrior, knowing only of the Japanese samurai; this may now be changing with the reinvigoration of these traditions.

The Society for the Preservation of the Traditional Martial Art Sippalgi, or 18 technical routines, is dedicated to the reconstruction of Korean military arts. There are now about 50,000 members here, including 18 university clubs, as well as practitioners in the United States and Spain.

The sippalgi society is presenting its training to the public on the first and third Sundays of November and December, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., in front of the National Folk Museum building at Gyeongbok Palace.

Members choreograph 22 of their graceful but lethally precise unarmed and armed techniques, from kicking and punching, to stick, spear and sword wielding.

Sippalgi was standard military training in the second half of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The main sippalgi text is titled Muyesinbo (New Chronicle of Various Martial Arts), a revised version of an earlier military text that was ordered by King Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776) in 1759, adding 12 techniques to bring the total to 18.

Sippalgi's modern revival began with founder Kim Gwang-suk, who in 1951 at age 16 apprenticed under his master Yun Meong-duk. Kim opened a training hall in front of Seoul Station in 1969 and made teaching sippalgi to the next generation his life's work.

▲Choi Bok-kyu (front) combines the five postures, mental concentration and sword-skills.
"Generally speaking, the practice of martial arts is to initiate the foundation of self-cultivation and build one's character. I think we should strive to spread this truth, to return to the proper path. Sippalgi is part of our treasured heritage, which we should preserve and without fail hand down to the next generation," Kim said.

"There is a proverb that stick skills require 100 days, spearmanship 10 days, and swordsmanship 10,000 days," said Choi Bok-kyu, a 15-year sippalgi practitioner and doctoral student of physical education at Seoul National University.

"The philosophy of modern sippalgi emphasizes four distinct aspects in training: health, self-defense, self-cultivation, and keeping Korean traditional culture and mind alive," he explained.

Central to this holistic approach is the highest level of physical, mental, and "gi" (vital energy) training.

"First we train in the five fundamental postures. These include the head, torso, legs, arms and mind," Choi explained. Mastery and integration of the five requires one and a half years of daily training, with the aim of harmonizing one's internal and external situation in battle.

With properly focused five principles, the body is calm and supple, and moves with precision in relation to things around him, he said.

▲The next generation of practitioners use the first level of armed techniques.
The 18 martial techniques begin with unarmed training, or gwonbeop, including punching, wrestling and kicking, all of which are fundamental to the higher levels of armed training.

Spears of various lengths and materials include the nangsun, a 4.5-meter-long spear made of bamboo or iron, studded with up to 11 metal hooks. Next are the gijang flag spear, the woldo (a staff with a crescent sword attached) and the hyeopdo spear sword.

On the battlefield, the 1.5-meter jangchang spear is a flexible weapon. The jukjangchang has a 10 cm blade perched on a 6 meter bamboo spear. The dangpa trident is of various lengths, often used for defense. The pyeongon is an 2.5- meter staff with a 60 cm flailing rod attached. And the gonbong is a 2- meter-long staff with a wide blade attached to the end.

Korean sword types include the double-edged straight blade, the curved single-edged blade and the straight single-edged blade.

Of these, the bongukgeom is said to have been used by the Hwarang, or elite youth corps of the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-A.D 935). The yeado is a short sword used for training soldiers. The ssangsudo is a 2-meter-long sword used for close combat. Ssanggeom is a technique of wielding twin single-bladed short swords. And deungpae is the method of combining a sword and shield.

Sword techniques include a straight-line cutting and thrusting movement of the swordsman, the single or two-handed technique, which includes defensive spinning and low cutting actions, and the inverted sword, with the sharp edge up, poking and slicing for close-range fighting.

The final three techniques include jedokgeom, a method of swinging the sword to break out of a surrounded position. Waegeom was a 16th century adaptation of the strengths of Japanese swordsmanship to use their own style against them, and gyojeon, denoting two swordsmen training together, Japanese style.

In the midst of the chaos and harrowing experiences of the battlefield, a calm spirit is crucial. Thus meditation, said Choi, is the third step in one's training, which melds the mind, body and weapon together.

Having mastered all 18 techniques, calmness of mind and vital energy training result in a consummate warrior.

"There are three forms of meditation," Choi explained. "The first is standing meditation, moving one's limbs and accumulating vital energy and circulating it through the body. Next is sitting meditation, and lastly, lying meditation just before sleep."

In the long history of Korean martial arts, Choi said health and vital energy training has been made into a science, and provides practitioners with a honed physical and mental strength.

Self-cultivation, an ever-present element of Asian philosophy and education, also plays a central role in sippalgi. The hours of daily training, the etiquette and self-discipline involved, along with the sense of pride in Korean culture and history, motivate practitioners to improve every aspect of their daily lives.

"I started just as a hobby, but sippalgi has become a kind of life-goal for me," said Bak Keum-su, an engineering student who has practiced sippalgi three or four times a week for three years. "I'm planning to get a degree in the philosophy of physical education, and in particular the philosophy of martial arts."

Choi said that although their training is based on ancient Korean knowledge, since sippalgi practitioners live in a modern society, they must reach out to modern customs as well.

"Korean martial arts used to be about war, but in modern society this goal has changed to personal self-defense," he said. Though the sword is a weapon for killing, it can find a place in modern life to help focus and train a practitioner to cultivate his or her health and outlook on life.

Judging by the positive reaction of members of the public who attended Sunday's performance, it is fortunate this Korean tradition will be transmitted to the growing ranks of the younger generation.

The demonstration is free of charge. For more information, call 02-734-1341 or visit the sippalgi Web site (in Korean) at www.muyewon.net.

By Todd Thacker


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