Archery scenes are common in TV dramas set in the Joseon Kingdom, such as the 2010 KBS‘Sungkyunkwan Scandal.' / Korea Times file
By Chung Hae-eun
From ancient times, Koreans believed that the attainment of enlightenment and virtue through cultivation of one's mind and body should be one's lifelong duty. With this goal in mind, they enjoyed many recreational sports. Particularly, archery was practiced by people of all ages, from kings to commoners.
The only extant copy of ‘Eosahwagi' (Records of a King Shooting Arrows) / Courtesy of the Jangseogak Archives
It is believed that the bow appeared for the first time on the Korean peninsula around 5,000 BCE. From the fact that the ancient Chinese referred Korean people as dongyijok, meaning "people in the East who are masters of archery," we can surmise that the bow had been a weapon directly related to survival of the ancient Koreans as well as a pastime.
In the traditional Korean society, archery was not merely a form of martial arts; nor was the practice of archery monopolized by military men only. The ancient Chinese book, Yegi (The Book of Rites) explains that "Archery is a way of benevolence. The archer seeks to be correct in himself." Archery was also included among the Six Arts (rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics) that formed the basis of education of Confucian gentlemen. Therefore, archery was highly regarded as a means of cultivating one's morals.
An entry in the official annals from the early Joseon period recounts the following story. One day the officials of King Taejong tried to dissuade the king from teaching archery to Prince Yangnyeong. The king replied: "According to an ancient saying, ‘One can observe the virtue in archery. To complete in archery is the way of gentleman.' Therefore, I cannot let him give up archery."
If archery was an index of the Confucian scholar's virtue, it also served as a barometer of combat skills in military officers. Nocking the arrow and drawing the bow was not only a requisite skill for military officers but also the source of pride. The mugwa exam (the civil service exam for military officers) was first implemented during the reigns of Kings Yejong and Gongyang of Goryeo and later became the permanent part of the regular gwageo exam in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). The first mugwa exam held in 1402 (the second year of the reign of King Taejong of Joseon) consisted of two parts ― a practical test of military skills and an oral exam of applicants' knowledge of Confucian military thought.
According to the only extant copy of Mugwa Chongyo (Records on Military Service Exam) housed at the Jangseogak Archives, regularly held mugwa exam tested the applicants in six subject areas: mokjeon (wooden arrow), cheoljeon (iron arrow), pyeonjeon (split arrow), gisa (fighting on horseback), gichang (spear fighting on horseback), and gyeokgu (sport played on horseback; similar to polo game). The first four subjects among these were for judging one's archery skills. After the Imjin War, gisa and gyeokgu were dropped and the following 5 new subjects were added to the exam: gichu (shooting dummy targets on horseback with arrow), gwanhyeok (target archery), yuyeopjeon (willow leaf arrow), jochong (matchlock) and pyeonchu (striking dummy targets on horseback with iron whip). Although the matchlock arquebus was adopted after the Imjin War, archery still represented a significant part of the military service exam, especially with the addition of gwanhyeok and yuyeopjeon. This illustrates that the mastery of archery was essential in order to become a military officer during the Joseon era.
As the importance of the archery grew and people continued to perfect their archery skills, the level of archery skills and techniques also improved in the Joseon era. One unique development was the use of pyeonjeon (split arrow), which was also called aegisal (baby arrow) or tongjeon. Since its length was only about one third of that of an ordinary arrow, it required the use of tongah, a tube made from a bamboo tree trunk, as an arrow guide.
It may not look powerful, but the pyeonjeon's effects were tremendous. In the Seongho Saseol, Silhak scholar Seongho Yi Ik points out the pyeonjeon as a specialty of Joseon and writes: "Because it fires off a great distance and has a strong penetrating power, the enemies were afraid of pyeonjeon." Yeonryeosilgisul ("Writings by Yeonryeosil," a 59-volume series of unofficial history of Korea ) in the Jangseogak Archives records that "Pyeonjeon is unique to our country. It came to be considered unrivaled in the world, together with the China's spears or Japan's matchlocks.
The striking ability of pyeonjeon was well-known in neighboring countries. When Joseon envoys made a visit to the imperial court of Ming and Qing, they were frequently asked to give a demonstration of shooting pyeonjeon. Upon the visit of the delegation of Joseon in 1712 (the eighth year of the reign of King Sukjong), the emperor of the Qing dynasty invited an excellent archer among the group to request a display of his archery skills with pyeonjeon. After this, the emperor himself and his archers showed their archery skills to the envoys. Upon hearing about this event, Joseon's military officer Choe Dukjung wrote the following in his journal entry:
In my opinion, it is the pyeonjeon that Qing is afraid of and could not learn themselves. The reason behind this unprecedented action is certainly to watch and learn how to shoot pyeonjeon. Alas, we Joseon people did not suspect their intention and showed them the way. How deplorable!
While the pyeonjeon made a shocking impression on China, Japan was dazzled by the great spectacle created by Joseon's horse archers who were able to shoot dummy targets while riding on horseback. As per Japan's request, Joseon Tongsinsa performed a demonstration of the art of archery on every visit.
During their visit to Japan in 1748 (the 24th year of King Yeongjo's reign), military officers among the Joseon Tongsinsa envoys displayed their archery skills on horseback. The masterful skills of Yi Ilje were especially remarkable. After he hit the first dummy target, the saddle shifted. When everyone thought he was going to fall off his horse, he rose and sat up straight, and struck rest of the targets while riding the rose. The Japanese audience gazed at the spectacle, with their mouth agape in awe and amazement.
Archery was widely enjoyed by many during the Joseon period. Even kings practiced archery inside the palace; Kings Taejo and Jeongjo are well-known to be excellent archers. The Easahwagi (Records of a King Shooting Arrows), whose only extant copy is in the collection of the Jangseogak Archives, documents the number of shootings and the scores of an unnamed king, offering a glimpse into how much time and effort kings devoted to mastering the bow.
Among the common people, an archery event called hyangsarye was held in order to maintain the social order and customs in the village. People also enjoyed archery as a leisure activity that held the community together, and wagered on the outcome of competitions. In his book Korean Games, American ethnographer Stewart Culin (1858-1929) writes that the archery is practiced under the Korean name, "Hpyen-sa-ha-ki" or "side shooting" where players would form sides and have a contest. Some vintage photographs by foreigners that were taken after the modernization of Korea show women practicing archery.
The reason archery was widely popular among the Korean people can be found in its versatility. For military officers, the mastery of the bow and arrow was a requisite skill for combat. At the same time, archery could be also enjoyed as a sport for cultivating both mind and body for Confucian scholars, or as a pastime for the common people. I wonder if this love of archery among our ancestors had somehow been passed down to our generation in the form of a so-called "cultural gene," leading to Korea's success in archery on the world stage.
The writer is a researcher at The Academy of Korean Studies.