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Days 69-71: Traditional Korean Archery

It’s still dark outside. I’m writing this on the Monday morning after waking up at 4am and being unable to fall back asleep. It seemed like a good time to catch up.

My abs ache this morning, more on why in a little bit. First let’s rewind the clock.


​​With only a few days left until our exam I spend my Friday afternoon going to a Karaoke room again. This time it was just two of us and for two hours we sang and rapped our hearts out.

We are both fans of the korean pop group BTS and I am pretty sure that we sang (more like rapped) every single song of theirs on the karaoke machine. Rapping is a great stress reliever.

When I came back I studied until late. I had to rewrite my essay because r want good enough and I’ll ask my teacher to check it on Monday (so in two hours).

The Saturday had a dramatic beginning. I woke up early due to the sound of an ambulance down on the street. There is a hospital on the other side of our school building that we can see from our balcony.

I got up and began to study, but then there was the sound of firetruck sound and pretty soon there were helicopters flying around. The sound of the helicopters kept on going. There were three of them circling for a good hour before my roommate woke up. Standing at the window, we looked at the helicopters flying around, when suddenly out of the hospital back entrance (which is the only entrance we can see from our room), a hospital bed was being rolled out. Four doctors and two nurses were trying to hold it in place, as they rolled it down the hill towards the big road. And then comes patients in wheelchairs being pushed down the hill by nurses and doctors and relatives. Lots of wheelchairs. Lots of patients walking around with bandages everywhere.

The three helicopters are circling the hospital. One of them stops by the roof and a fireman get heisted up into the helicopter.

My roommate and I are both gaping barely able to believe what we're seeing. "Maybe I should check the news," I say and reach for my phone.

It turns out that a fire broke out inside the hospital and patients were being evacuated for that reason. From outside the building you couldn't see any fire, and nothing but the usual amount of smoke coming from the top of the building, so we had no way of knowing.

Thankfully they got it under control quickly and an hour later the patients were rolled back up the hill by the very exhausted doctors and nurses.

The rest of the day was spent being a good student. I summarised the three essays that I have already had checked and approved, so that I can easily memorise them for my essay writing exam. One of the questions on our essay writing exam is going to be asking us the same thing as the prompt for one of the essays we have already written essays for. The problem is that the other essay question is a new one and this time around I really have no idea what sort of form it might take, but it might be alright even though the topics are more difficult this time around.

I also did my practice exam which is due for Tuesday (10 or so pages that copy the styl eof our grammar exam and our ready exam). I did it on the allotted time, but was 10 min slow on my grammar exam. Mainly because I really struggled with the words. So I need to revise my vocabulary... lots to do.

So naturally, with the exam stress on, I decided that now was the time to do something new: Traditional Korean Archery.

A bit of background first.

Before I came to South Korea, I thought I would love to try my hand at archery here, since I do compound bow archery back at home. I know that korean Traditional Archery is very different, and I wanted to know more.

Not only that but also for research purposes for the future I knew that I HAD to know more about the Korean Archery history and tradition.

Well my time here was coming to an end and i had been so busy with other things that I had forgotten this, until.... last week when I went to my friend’s farewell party. There were four other people there, andone among them was none other than a Traditional Korean Archery teacher.

Not only that, but his family has been making Traditional Korean bows for centuries. He comes from a long line of bow makers and chose this path because someone in the family needed to carry on the tradition so that generations of learning doesn’t go lost. Not only that he comes from the place traditionally known for korean bow making. All of the bets archers have trained there and come from there, and through the centuries, his family made the very bows that these famous and expert archers used.

Yes. I kid you not. Dream meeting right? Not even in my dreams did I think it was possible to be quite that lucky. But I AM lucky, which is why they call me Chill here, which means Seven.

Two other people at that gathering take classes with him and they invited me along this Sunday. Naturally, I agreed.

It was very cold yesterday and as I waited for my two friends in the cold I began to memorise my essays (I have all three of them down now) while my heartbeat was mounting at the thought of getting to do something that I only imagined possible in dreams.

The class was taking place (indoors) at Chungmu Arts and Sports Centre (nearby Dongdaemun). I signed up with a membership to the centre. Had my fingerprint taken and handed over the very reasonable membership fee (20000 Won, roughly 15 Euro or 18 dollars).

For privacy reasons I did not take photos during the class and cannot share any photos of it, but I shall do my best to explain the experience.

We arrived a little late because my two friends had missed the first subway train, but we were still in time to join the last of the warm up exercises and then it began.

My teacher, the lovely man that I met a week earlier, was dressed in traditional clothing and after he taught the beginners the correct archery stance, I realised that his resting stance is the archery stance. He is very skilled and clearly knows his stuff.

Before we began, my teacher asked me if he remembered correctly that I understood korean, so I told him yes and he could speak comfortably in Korean.

Well oh my... he launches into the lesson and uses more Chinese and traditional korean idoems than I can count (at this point in my korean teaching I have only learnt two Chinese idoems, they’re some of the last things taught). He uses beautiful expressions and his languages makes every line sound like poetry.

It’s a higher level of korean than I have ever heard before, even on the news. But here is the thing: I understood everything.

Okay... I did not understand the idoems, but he explained why they came to be and thanks to his explanations I understood them. I also did not know all the names of the parts of the bow or the name of the stance, but neither did the Koreans and he explained everything. And how very glad and relieved I am that I was able to understand because his explanations were beautiful and really spoke to the traditional korean spirit.

Korean Traditional Archery is a whole genre on itself, and it’s very different from westernised archery.

First up, it’s made for long range shooting. In western archery most long range targets will be at a 40 meter distance. Naturally there are targets further away, but not like there is in korean archery.

Here, the furthest target is 145 meters!

Yes... I kid you not! It’s absolutely incredible. Compared to a huge modern western bow or even a traditional longbow, the korean bows are short and slim. The form is sometimes called horn archery because the shape of the bow looks like the horns of a buffalo. Yet, with these small bows archers accurately shoot targets that are incredibly far away.

How are they able to do it? Well it starts with the stance.

The entire way of shooting is different here. In western archery one shoots by standing to the side, so your body is perpendicular to the target, but in korean archery one faces the target straight on.

I’m western archery the arrow lies on the left side of the bow, but in korean archery it lies on the right. Our teacher taught us that this is because western archery is for short range (under 100 meters) and korean archery is made for long range. When you shoot long range, you raise your bow and aim at the air, but you still need to know where your target is. If your arrow lies on the left side of the bow, your eyeliner is blocked, and the arrow will not go straight, but if it lies on the right, you will be able to see your target directly below your arrow.

Every little move in the tradition of Lorena archery has a reason. Every little gesture has a reason for being.

It all begins with the stance.

The arrow is nocked, then one tenses one’s entire body. Toes need to clench onto the earth. Body needs to rest forward, as if wearing ski boots, legs and thighs and buttocks tense. Abs clenched. A deep breath that is held throughout.

Second, one raises the bow to ones chest. On the count of three, the bow is raised above the head.

And on the count of four something very interesting happens.

In western archery the left hand, holding the bow, is held still, and one pulls back with the right hand. Not in korean archery. Here one pulls both ways.

So on the count of four, using a thumb loop as I shall call it here as I honest forgot it’s korean name and do not know the English name for such a thing, one takes the bowstring and pulls back at the same time as the left hand pulls forward. Poetically, this is called to pull the tiger’s tail.

Elbow raised over the shoulder level. Keep the breath steady. The bow is now tense.

Aim on five and on six with a snap of the right hand one releases the arrow and all the energy clenched in one’s body all at once.

Then, hopefully, the arrow hits the target.

the stance in itself will take practice and a while to learn properly. And only once it is mastered is a bow and actual arrows to be used. So I did not get to shoot, this time. But I do not at all feel sad about that because I learnt so much more than I would have from blindly firing arrows at a target.

I also learnt how to correctly string a bow, which was very interesting.

After teaching us the stance, our teacher sat down for a cup of tea with all the beginners. He taught us about the history of the bow. The names of all parts of the bow and we went around saying our names.

He taught us how fragile bow making is. How it can only be done in the coldest and driest of winters. This year was a good bow making year in South Korea. It was dry and cold for a lot longer than usual.

He also explained that since korean bows are small, there is an ideal height and weight for them. They are perfect for women as the bows are made for light weighted people of medium to short height as that was the way korean people looked a thousand years ago when archery was the standard sport. It is also a great workout because although one doesn’t run around every muscle in the body is used while standing absolutely still. It requires focus and stamina.

It was a great lesson and I truly learnt a lot. I definitely found my expert on korean archery and history thereof.

He invited me to go shooting outdoors before I leave. So Tuesday next week (not tomorrow), I am going up to Namsan with him to this incredible looking shooting range (photo curtesy of google).

Dream come true.

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