When it comes to Korean martial arts, the first thing that comes to mind is obviously Taekwondo, which is known for its impressive head-height kicks, as you no doubt have seen from various Taekwondo demonstrations, youtube videos, or even the Olympics. However, another style of Korean martial arts is quickly making its presence known worldwide, and interestingly there’s no kicking involved.
You may have seen Korean historical dramas (sageuk) where warriors clash in sword fights on horseback. This form of ancient combat is the basis of Kummooyeh, or kumdo for short, which was actually developed from the fighting techniques of the elite warrior classes (hwarang) of ancient Korea.
Instead of kicking and punching, you get to wield a sword and spar with opponents, hone your technique slicing through (straw) targets, and even learn to extinguish a candle with your blade. You’ll also learn to master the art of using a bow and arrow!
A well-balanced martial art regime
For those familiar with sword arts, kumdo (sometimes spelled gumdo) is similar to Japanese kendo in that they both translate to the “way of the sword” and have specific sword forms.
However, the major difference between the two lies in the history: kumdo is influenced by ancient warriors in Korea who used a variety of weapons in battle. This is why kumdo has more circular manoeuvres, jumps, and angled cuts that were developed for use in a chaotic battlefield, whereas Japanese kendo is focused on a one-on-one duel scenario.
Another major difference is that practitioners of Kummooyeh not only have to master the sword, the curriculum also includes traditional Korean archery. Furthermore, Kummooyeh is more broadly about attaining a mindset, as the training involves meditation techniques.
In Singapore, there are many schools that teach Taekwondo, but far fewer teach Kummooyeh.
While most students at the J H Kim Taekwondo Institute (Bukit Timah, Toh Tuck, Sembawang, Woodlands) specifically study Taekwondo, the school added Kummooyeh in 2019 to further augment the martial arts aspect of Taekwondo. The benefit of studying in this way is that you can pick up kumdo from day one (if you want), whereas in most other schools, disciplines like kumdo or archery are only available after years of study. Alternatively you can take Taekwondo and Kummooyeh lessons concurrently, or any one discipline after the other based on your interest and personal development.
How is Kummooyeh structured?
Mastering any martial art requires discipline and dedication to training, whether it’s Taekwondo or kumdo. As with Taekwondo, a new Kummooyeh student begins their training with basic skills such as etiquette, as well as work on their postures and footwork.
Kummooyeh involves technique and movements, balanced with speed, accuracy, and purpose. While kumdo incorporates archery, it’s more focused on the sword – the balance being about 80:20 – meaning on any given day, your training starts with swordsmanship before moving on to archery.
Meditation is also a constant part of Kummooyeh training, as it helps you control and strengthen the Ki (aka Chi or Qi) in your body. The aim is to learn how to slow your heart rate when under pressure through breath control, and to develop a strong self control by practising sitting and moving meditation styles. Why does meditation matter? You’ve probably watched enough action movies to know that no one wins any fights by swinging the sword around like a nervous maniac.
Like Taekwondo, Kummooyeh has a grading system based on 10 coloured belts, starting with a white belt and completing with a black belt. On average, it takes 3 years to earn a Kummooyeh black belt. The curriculum includes:
Sword Form: You’ll learn a set of sword sequences to develop discipline, concentration, endurance, and power without physical contact. These forms are aligned with your rank, starting with a foam sword, and progressing to a wooden sword (mockum).
Mat Cutting: Putting your speed, accuracy, power, footwork, and concentration together, you’ll move on to practice slicing through tubes of straw/bamboo mats to hone your basic angle and control of the sword, beginning with a blunt aluminium blade (kakum) before moving onto the sharp sword (jinkum).
Only practitioners who’re nearing black belt – which takes from 2 to 3 years – are allowed to wield a jinkum (for safety, of course). This is for cutting fixed targets like straw mats. You’ll also be taught how to extinguish a candle with your sword – a feat that’s easier said than done, because you’ll need to be super calm in order to strike with precision.
Sparring: Putting all that combination of attacks and defensive techniques into action – testing your reaction time, accuracy, judgement, as well as mental and physical control – to use against an opponent! You’ll also learn new sparring combinations with each new belt rank; bamboo swords are used for one-on-one partner sparring, while foam swords are for freestyle sparring.
Korean Traditional Archery: This form of archery is influenced by Korea’s history and traditional archery techniques, and is practised primarily for self-control and mental training rather than for combat. You’ll not only learn how to shoot, but also how to string and unstring your simple composite reflex bow.
You’ll learn to pull a bow with up to 30lbs of tension – that’s almost like trying to pick up a corgi with one hand! Those who are up to the challenge can pull bows that are even heavier!
By the time you progress to a black belt, you’ll have mastered hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, as well as be able to conquer difficult situations with your newly-minted mental fortitude. You’ll also look great in your Instagram Stories slicing bamboo mats and extinguishing candles with your sword like a hero.
To earn that belt though, you’ll need to show good control of techniques (sword forms), improvisation (dynamic sparring), concentration (mat-cutting and candle extinguishing), and finally, physical endurance – you’ll need to do 200 head-cuts, plus 50 pushups in one set.
And that’s just the sword. For archery, you’ll need to have mastered how to string your own bow and hit three out of six targets from 10m away.
Kummooyeh is more than just weapons
While Taekwondo and Kummooyeh are both Korean martial arts, and have common historical roots, the skills you learn are very different. In Taekwondo a lot of advancement is about powering through and physically dominating different tasks. However, Kummooyeh is more than just a mastery of weapons, but a control over the self. You’ll learn how to focus better and stay calm in the face of adversity – a very essential skill that looks good on any resumé in today’s hectic and unpredictable new normal.
With the pandemic serving us a roller coaster ride of uncertainty, it’s no surprise that many are suffering from anxiety and doubt about the future. But with Kummooyeh’s meditation techniques, you’ll know how to tune out the white noise, and focus whether that’s on extinguishing a candle with a sword, or getting less distracted when you’re meant to be studying.
While a lot of Kummooyeh is internal, you can also get chances to compete. J H Kim Taekwondo Institute (Bukit Timah and its related schools) organises Kummooyeh competitions to give students a chance to pursue their specific interests more deeply. In 2021, students participated in worldwide, online Kummooyeh championships, with both sword forms and speed cutting. Archery championships were also held to help students hone their focus and precision.
When it comes to signing up for martial arts, Taekwondo remains a popular choice, but you can easily augment that training with a weapons-based martial art. With four branches spread across Singapore – at Bukit Timah, Toh Tuck, Sembawang, and Woodlands – J H Kim allows you to practise both at the same time, or one after the other.
Whether or not you have experience in any other martial arts, Kummooyeh is more than just self defence or a fun way to keep fit. For practitioners, it teaches technique, soul, and sword together in harmony.