Byung In Lee's Inverted Blade Another Dimension in Swordsmanship
By Jane Hollander
Martial Arts and Combat Sports - January 2000
Martial arts were originally structured around the use of weapons, not empty hands, because weapons, such as swords and staff, were more efficient in a fight than just bare hands. Since ancient martial arts were based on life and death combat situations, an important part of any martial artist's skill was the ability to keep using his weapon, no matter how the fighting condition's changed.
Swords were the primary weapons of Korean martial artists and military men. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, Korean swordsmen wielded their blades both single-handed and with two hands, cutting in wide, circular patterns as well as straight thrusts. This versatility was good as long as there was plenty of room in which to maneuver the heavy fighting blades. But what if they were forced into a corner, were fighting indoors, or were attacked from behind?
Korean fencing masters developed special techniques to handle close-quarter combat. They simply reversed the sword direction and continued with the fight, without losing any of the sword's effectiveness. Known as Yuk Gum (inverted sword), these techniques, made popular by the fierce Silla Warriors (about AD 600), added a new dimension to the art of swordsmanship.
Today, the Korean martial art of Kuk Sool Won continues with the study of yuk gum techniques, considering them as important to traditional Korean weapons' knowledge as any other sword technique. Byung In Lee, an eight Dan Kuk Sool Won master, teaches in Austin, Texas and is considered one of Kuk Sool's foremost experts at yuk gum technique.
Inverted sword techniques are said to have had their origins with one of Korea's oldest martial arts, sado mu sool (tribal or family martial arts). Later, during Korea's Three Kingdom Period (about AD 600), yuk gum techniques were adapted for military usage and made popular by the Silla Kingdom's legendary Wha Rang warriors, who were looked upon as Korea's version of Japan's samurai class. Yuk gum techniques were used for close-in fighting. When a swordsman had little or no room to swing his weapon in the powerful, broad, reaching arcs that cut through anything in the blade's path. Yuk gum principles also applied to situations where many enemies attacked at the same time.
"Coupled with the defender's spinning body motion, one slice could cut down several enemies, this was called sal sal sool - one motion can kill many," explains Lee.
Yuk gum techniques are well suited to use with only one hand. It was possible for soldier with an injured arm to continue defending himself by holding his sword in the inverted position with his good hand. The same applied to a warrior with damaged vision. Since yuk gum spinning techniques can cover large areas, there was little need to have precise aim. therefore, if a fighter had to seek out his enemies by sound alone, his yuk gum cuts would work equally well for offensive cutting or defensive blocking movements. Not only could he effectively keep enemies away from his front and back with inverted sword actions, but a blinded defender could also defend his sides with figure -eight slicing motions.
Since they are short-range techniques, inverted sword movements were strictly for use on foot, rather than horseback. They were man-to-man defense tactics that couldn't be jammed by other weapons, as could straight sword techniques. A good swordsman trained in yuk gum techniques could draw and cut before his opponent's blade was even out of its case.
As far as the technique itself, yuk gum is the opposite of the more common jung gum (straight sword technique), jung gum is the often seen two-handed or single-handed (tip forward) chopping, slicing, and stabbing techniques associated with most swordsmanship arts, jung gum places the fighter facing front, always striking to the front and side with straight, forward movements.
On the other hand, yuk gum techniques are always circular actions, arcing in any direction - to the front, rear, or either side. The yuk gum practitioner doesn't even have to face the direction in which he cuts. According to Byung In Lee, yuk gum techniques are just as versatile and fast as straight sword (jung gum) movements.
An inverted sword stylist doesn't need to move his body as much as one who thrusts and chops with straightforward sword techniques. Instead, his footwork is stable and solid, designed to give him the maximum strength his body can produce.
The weapon's handle is always grabbed sideways by the yuk gum practitioner, with either one or both hands, exposing the blade's cutting edge horizontally. Slices are made in one of five directions: cross body, out forward from the body, straight upward, downward and backward, x-shaped cuts are done by slicing up, angling across the body, bringing the sword around to one side, or cutting upward again in the opposite direction. If the yuk gum stylist wants extra strength, for instance, to brace against a powerful force, he might line up his forearm and elbow against the back of the blade.
When cutting to the side, the yuk gum stylist twists his waist, producing a quick whip-like power. This is important, since he doesn't have the entire length of his blade to use as an extension of his hands.
Korean straight sword techniques use both single and double-handed grips on the weapon. Inverted sword actions are no different. Although the single-handed grip is preferred with most yuk gum techniques, double-handed gripping is done whenever extra power is needed, such as with a straight downward thrust. both hands are also used when cuts to either side are made - when the sword is not braced against the forearm. Straight stabs to the rear can be either with one or two hands controlling the sword. Yuk gum techniques are flexible enough that they deciding factor of whether or not the swordsman uses one or both hands for griping is his own individual strength.
No matter how many hands hold the sword, the actual method of controlling the blade remains the same. The sword practitioner's arm and wrist must be flexible enough to maintain the constant circular, twisting, and rolling motion necessary to bring the blade into striking position. Those same wrist and arm movements also enable quick changes from straight sword techniques into inverted techniques and back again, according to the situation.
Yuk gum techniques include fast spinning motions, where the swordsman's entire body makes a complete 360-degree turn, cutting as many close-in opponents as possible. Called the motionless sword, this technique requires only the swordsman's body to move. The sword is carried tight against the body, as if it were actually part of the body, with the blade hidden from the opponent's view until the spin begins.
In the older days of Korea's fighting past, yuk gum spinning techniques often involved kicking while the sword cut its targets. Not only did kicks fit well with the inverted sword movements, but since the weapon was carried close to the body, other acrobatics (such as cartwheels, handsprings and front flips) could also be used effectively.
Since Korea contains a wide variety of different terrain, and since the sword was primarily a solder's weapon, ancient Korean swordsmen practiced their sword techniques under all types of conditions.
"One of the best times to practice sword techniques is in the early mornings when everything is calm," explains Lee. "If you want to improve your balance go to a beach. In the sand it's easy to lose your balance. In Korea we used the soft, sticky sand to improve our balance and footwork."
Different types of terrain provided expertise in all kinds of footwork. Rocks, sand, and wet grass all effect balance and footwork, and should be used for practice.
Even moonlight and complete darkness played important roles in the training of Korea's swordsmen. In the dark, sword practitioners were required to rely upon their sense of hearing and feel for contact with their enemies. If they practiced enough under those circumstances, the lack of daylight proved to be no problem at all.
Also wind often comes up at night, challenging the yuk gum swordsman to develop his sense of hearing to an acute stage. Morning, on the other hand, are good times to use the eyes for superior concentration. The final result combines hearing and sight, together with mind control, to produce an invincible fighter.
Climate made no difference either to ancient Silla swordsmen. It snows in Korea, making the winters cold and foreboding for outside practice. Yet that did not deter Korean swordsmen, who practiced year-round without jacket or shoes. They also used Korea's heavy rains and accompanying winds to further develop their hearing and sight. As rainwater seeped into their eyes, they improved their vision and balance. The winds made their hearing more acute.
Perhaps the greatest self-defense benefit to modern-day martial arts practitioners of inverted sword techniques is the versatility derived from this type of training. No longer needing to rely on the full length of a several-foot-long weapon, the martial artist can learn to use his or her body for power and mobility and can effectively defend with even a short stick or rolled up magazine.