Monday, July 27, 2015

The King's Archery Range

On October 1, 2014 one month after the official opening of the first archery range gallery in South Korea, Stephen Wunrow, photographer for the American publication Korean Quarterly, and I were given a grand tour and introduction to the newly established gallery. Dr. In-Souk Cho, PhD in Architectural History and member to the Hwanghakjeong Archery Range, and the archery range director, Dong-Sul Shin, introduced to us the many features of the range, from Confucian archery range targets to famous paintings telling the tales of yesteryear’s archery battles to a display of various world ethnic bows. The establishment of the gallery was sponsored by the district office, the Seoul city government, and the Korean government, and came to a sum of KRW700,000,000 (US654,000).

During our introduction to the gallery, various people from other archery ranges, a couple even from outside of Seoul, popped their heads in to visit the first archery gallery in Korea. Although there are eight archery ranges in Seoul and more than 360 registered ranges nationwide, Hwanghakjeong is considered the finest as it was the range to which the emperor-king was affiliated, and which is signified in the guild colors of gold (the emperor’s color) and red. Each of the other ranges have guild colors too and in shooting events, people are evaluated not only by their meditative style and skill but also on their guild of affiliation.

Hwanghakjeong, which translates as archery plus jeong meaning club or pavilion, was not always located at the present site. After a visit in 1899 by Prince Heinrich of Prussia who was fascinated with the Korean archery style and suggested making it a national sport, Emperor Kojong decreed the establishment of an archery range for the cultivation of the mind and the body of the people. In outcome, Hwanghakjeong was built in the same year in one of the western palaces, Gyeonghuigung. However, with the demolition of the palace and construction of the Monopoly Bureau of the Japanese Government-General on the site during Japanese occupation (1910-1945), Hwanghakjeong was moved on May 12, 1922 to its present location near Sajik Shrine. The site had been one of the five bow arbors in Seochan until the implementation of the Gabo Reforms in 1884, which caused many of the bow arbors to disappear around the country.

In the early days of the range’s establishment, Confucian values merited a rigid hierarchical system, and this was especially obvious at the archery range as the targets were totem objects denoting status and birth. Only Emperor Kojong and his son, Emperor Sunjong, could aim their arrows at the tiger head target. In 1897 King Kojong had proclaimed himself emperor of Korea and therefore an equal to the emperor in formerly Big Brother China and the emperor in Japan. Until that time, his archery totem animal had been the bear, the symbol of a king and the highest status formerly in Korea. High-ranking officers aimed at a deer head and commoners aimed at a pig or boar head. In the present day, westernization prevails and the target at the various ranges is the typical bull’s eye minus all totemic imagery.

Traditionally archery was not a skill for peasants. Before the Gabo Reforms began in 1894, archery was a secret martial art passed down through oral traditions. But by the late 19th century the use of the Korean bow was virtually an obsolete martial art and the Gabo Reforms of 1894 removed archery from the gwageo (Military Service Exam). From there archery went into rapid decline until patronized by Emperor Kojong a few short years later. During Japanese colonization of Korea, archery was little changed but it did become popularized through study and publication. In 1922 the Joseon Archery Association was established and in 1929 literary scholars in collusion with archers published a compilation on archery. One copy of the book, Joseoneui Gungsul (Korean Archery) is a part of the new gallery collection.

The gallery also houses several paintings related to archery, three of particular note. The first is Buksae Seon-eundo, a painting dating 1664 and of the buksae, or far north, of a camp where generals were trained and tested in the much respected art of archery. Another is the famous Dongraebu Sunjeoldo, depicting the invasion of Korea by the Japanese in the first year of the Imjin War (1592-1593). The painting is by an artist in 1760 depicting the assault on the walled city of Dongrae near the port of Pusan. Koreans with forces of 4,000 soldiers armed only with bows and arrows are surrounded and losing to the aggressive forces of 14,700 Japanese invaders armed with bows and arrows in addition to guns. The last painting is by Kim Hong-Do, a folklore artist from the 18th century. His simple painting is rather three sketches of a peasant archer—the archer with an arrow case opened and arrows in hand, the archer sitting on the ground bending his bow to string it, and the archer being guided by a gentleman-scholar in the correct form of holding the bow.

Other items on display in the gallery are a singijeon—a cannon-like construction that shoots 100 barbed arrows at a time—representative arrows from the Silla, Baekjae and Goguryeo Dynasties, as well as a wall displaying the materials for making a traditional gakgung, a “horn bow”. Seven materials are needed—bamboo, the imported water buffalo horn (hence the name), oak, tendon for elasticity, mountain mulberry wood, birch bark, and—the secret ingredient—the glue made from the mina fish.

Unlike Mongol bows and the Japanese “long” bows, both of which are far longer than the 120-130 centimeter Korean bow, the Korean bow has more of an arch and with the secret glue lending elasticity it can outshoot the longbows while requiring less strength in the draw. The downside of the gakgung is that high humidity and rain reduce its elasticity and therefore attack advantage. The first king of the Joseon Dynasty, Taejo (1335-1408), encountered such a problem in his aborted invasion against the Ming Dynasty. One of his five reasons not to invade the Ming Dynasty was the reduced effectiveness of his arrows due to the high humidity.

The traditional gakgung has changed little in material and design over the centuries, and the traditional bamboo arrow, hand-fletched with pheasant feathers, can be traced even further back in its form and design to the 3rd and 4th centuries. With one handmade arrow costing around KRW30,000 (US$28.50) and a handmade bow taking at least two months to construct with price-tag significantly higher, the cost of money and time in purchasing for Korea’s second most popularly followed sport can be prohibitive. Needless to say, the carbon bow and arrow offer a much cheaper way to practice the popular martial art focused on a symphony of meditation, composure and movement.

For more information, read Opening of First Archery Gallery in Seoul.

Cheryl Magnant, MA, MA, Assistant Professor at Korea University, writes from South Korea where she has lived off and on since 1991.

[Published in Korean Quarterly, Vol 18, No 2, Winter 2015, p 41, 43]

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