[Visual History of Korea] Gakgung, the Korean composite arch that saved Koreans throughout history

Gakgung maker Kim Gwang-deuk, who has been making Korean bows since 1997, is testing a finished gakgung in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province. © 2021 Hyungwon Kang

To say that Korea wouldn’t be here today without Korean Gakgung Bow would be an understatement!

Since ancient times, the Gakgung, which means “bow made of animal horn”, has been the weapon of choice for hunting and protecting Koreans against invaders.

The fact that most of Korea’s territory is mountainous makes bow and arrow a perfect weapon to defend fortresses from invaders.

Goguryeo archers hunt using the Korean Gakgung bow in this reproduction of the ancient Goguryeo burial painting by Kim Gwang-deuk.  © 2021 Hyungwon Kang

Goguryeo archers hunt using the Korean Gakgung bow in this reproduction of the ancient Goguryeo burial painting by Kim Gwang-deuk. © 2021 Hyungwon Kang

Koreans have always been known to be excellent archers. Neighboring kingdoms were even afraid to compete with Korean archers.

According to Yi Ki-hoon, author of “Korean History Written by China Before the Northeast Project,” there is a historical episode recorded during the Tang Dynasty when the only female ruler in all of Chinese history, Empress Wu Zetian (624 – 705) wanted to organize an archery competition between Goguryeo archers and Tang archers, she was persuaded against this by her subjects who said: “Han Chinese archers will not be left as snipers after this competition so i bow and pray please stop this archery competition.

The Sui dynasty, which the Tang replaced in 618, absolutely failed to win a single fortress from Goguryeo in their four wars from 598 to 614, even with their 1.1 million soldiers and sailors, this which is considered the largest military campaign in the history of the world, with another million or more logistics personnel to transport war supplies.

Goguryeo, with nearly all of their villagers sheltering in hillside fortresses during the wars, repelled the invaders with bows and arrows while removing food and livestock from their dwellings to deprive the invaders of war supplies. .

A pair of water buffalo horns, which are used to make bows, are on display at the Bow and Arrows Museum in Paju, Gyeonggi Province.  © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

A pair of water buffalo horns, which are used to make bows, are on display at the Bow and Arrows Museum in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

In fact, until the advent of firearms, archery was the primary weapon of choice for Koreans.

Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty – who dug the Grand Canal, the world’s longest canal or man-made river, connecting Beijing to the Yangtze River by 612, in preparation for the war against Goguryeo – was denied a dignified death when the Sui dynasty (581-618) collapsed. Yang was not allowed to kill himself, but was strangled to death by one of his subjects on April 11, 618.

At the tomb of the last emperor of the Sui dynasty, Emperor Yang, in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, the emperor who failed in his invasion of Goguryeo is remembered as the man who “lost his way.” world by causing unrest in the Liaodong Peninsula. The Liaodong Peninsula is located in the ancient land of Goguryeo in the Manchuria region.

Gakgung arches are used by soldiers in this 1587 painting of “The Battle of the Wooden Barricade”, in Korea's Noktundo Delta on the Tumen River at the northern tip of Korea.  © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

Gakgung arches are used by soldiers in this 1587 painting of “The Battle of the Wooden Barricade”, in Korea’s Noktundo Delta on the Tumen River at the northern tip of Korea. © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

From 631 to 646, all able-bodied men of Goguryeo were trained in building the “1,000 mile wall” just on the eastern side of the Great Wall of China, along the western border of the outskirts of Goguryeo in the current Liaodong Province, to prevent the invasion of the Tang Dynasty.

The 1,000 mile wall did not stop the highest ruler of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong Li Shimin who drove out his father and killed his brother to become the second Tang Emperor in 626 from invading Goguryeo. Li Shimin lost one of his eyes from a Goguryeo arrow and died from this injury during the invasion of Anshi Fortress in 645. The Impenetrable Fortress was possible with Koreans armed with Gakgung bows.

Emperor Taizong Li Shimin’s last words were “No more Goguryeo expedition!”

The secret of the Korean composite bow, which hits targets up to 145 meters, lies in the explosive power of the Gakgung. For reference, the target distance for the Olympic archery event is 70 meters.

Gochang Fortress in North Jeolla Province © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

Gochang Fortress in North Jeolla Province © 2020 Hyungwon Kang

The powerful weapon ability of the Gakgung lies in construction using three types of wood and a pair of water buffalo horns, wrapped in buffalo sinew.

Meticulously carved bamboo, locust and Korean oak wood are glued with bison sinew using a traditional glue made from croaker’s air bladder.

The process of making Gakgung begins in late fall, when the weather turns cold enough to harden the glue made from the croaker’s air bladder, until the following summer.

Many kings and rulers in Korean history were excellent snipers.

Jumong (58 BCE – 19 BCE), the founder of Goguryeo, was known for his divine skills in archery. In fact, the name Jumong means “expert archer” in the Buyeo language. Goguryeo parted ways with Buyeo, which historians say dates from the 10th century BCE.

The earliest stories of Jumong and his archery skills date back to his childhood. According to the tale, his mother made him a toy bow and arrows with which Jumong accurately shot flies.

During the Goryeo Empire, which continued the tradition of Goguryeo until 1392, General Yi Sung-gae, the future king, led an expedition against a horde of Japanese forces at Hwangsan Mountain in South Korea during from one of the last battles of the Great Japanese War. from 1380.

A cross section of a Korean arch shows water buffalo horn bamboo and oak wood (right) wrapped in several layers of cattle sinew, glued with a boiled air bladder from a croaker fish.  © 2021 Hyungwon Kang

A cross section of a Korean arch shows bamboo and water buffalo horn oak wood (right) wrapped in several layers of bovine tendon, glued with a boiled air bladder from a croaker fish. © 2021 Hyungwon Kang

An enemy commander named Agibaldo, in full armor, appeared flanked by a squad of soldiers from both sides. General Yi Sung-gae fired his arrows, hitting the left eyes of all the soldiers to the left of the enemy commander and the right eyes of all the soldiers on the right side. Then, with the help of a heavy pointed arrow, making a thunderous noise, he knocked down Agiblaldo’s helmet and, with the following arrow, pierced his neck.

General Yi Sun-sin, the most beloved general in Korean history, is best known for decimating an overwhelming number of enemy Japanese battleships in the Battle of Myeongnyang on October 26, 1597.

On April 13, 1592, the eve of the Japanese invasion of Korea’s first attack, the Joseon army saw hundreds of Japanese warships anchored just off the coast of Busan but took no action. When Admiral Yi Sun-sin heard the news a few days later, he was heard to say, “We could have prevented the Japanese invasions of Korea at an early stage by burning their ships, if we had used arrows. arsonists that night.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean-American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture through images and words for future generations. – Ed.

By Kim Hae-yeon ([email protected])