The Korean wol-do (월도) is a pole weapon similar in design to the Chinese Guan Dao. In hanja (Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and appearing in Korean), wol-do is written ‘月刀,’ basically, ‘moon blade.’ The wol-do is usually larger than the guan dao though both Chinese and Korean versions exhibit great variation. In both countries, proficiency in the ‘moon blade’ was a means of gaining promotion in the military and often, the higher the rank sought, the heavier and larger the blade.
The Korean ‘moon blade’ (월도 – 月刀)
The Chinese style Guan Dao (關刀)
In the Muyedobotongji, 무예도보통지 (c 1790), the wol-do is cited as having a 6″4′ handle and a blade of 2″. It was a popular weapon of the Hwarang during the Shilla period. However, the weapon is cited earlier and appears in the Muyejebo (무예재보), published in 1749, where it was an infantry weapon. When the Muyedobotongji was published in 1795, an addition was the use of the ‘moon blade’ as a cavalry weapon (masang wol-do – 마상월도, 馬上月刀).
The wol-do original with accompanying hanja text
Numerous groups, such as ’24 ban-mu-ye’ (24반무예) have studied and continue to study the ancient texts in attempts to recreate the forms and individual techniques involved in the use of the wol-do and other weapons. However, doing so requires not just proficiency in Korean martial arts (musado – 무사도) but proficiency in hanja – the script used for much of the text. My teacher has studied in one such group and had to hone his hanja skills in order to understand the ‘instructions.’ Koreans study hanja in school and are supposed to be able to read around 1800 characters, but for many their ability is limited and indeed my hanja is better than some of my Korean friends. The significance and influence of hanja is very much similar to that of Latin or Greek in Europe. Groups will then research the practicality of movements, testing techniques and subsequently meet to discuss their merits. For this reason, Korean wol-do as well as other traditional weapons forms, exhibit some variation.
The Korean wol-do form, of which I only know of one deriving from original texts (though there may be another), differs significantly from Chinese Kung-fu style forms. It is much less dramatic, less ‘flashy’ and the individual moves all have instantly recognizable practicalities. The awe of Korean traditional weapons lies in their battle field application rather than individual artistic beauty and for this reason they can appear quite boring practiced by a single person. The immensely long na-seong for example, a branch-like spear with thorny off-shoots, has no appeal on its own. Long pole weapons such as the wol-do, need to be experienced as prescribed in texts, as battle field weapons used in cohorts or ‘squadrons.’ When the wol-do is displayed as part of a group, its power and effect can be better appreciated.
The wol-do, like the jin-keom (진검 – live blade), is also used in cutting demonstrations, most especially of straw (짚단). Indeed, we have a ‘live’ wol-do in my dojang and I am eagerly awaiting being able to wield it. For practice purposes, we use wooden wol-do.
One of the most widespread Korean cultural images concerning the Wol-do, and frequently appearing in comic books and animations, is that of the blade held behind the back with a fist or open pal extended. Indeed, this stance appears in a number of weapon forms.
one of the most famous stances
Monday is my long pole training day and I began learning the wol-do form several weeks ago. In 35 degree heat and in the middle of the monsoon season with extremely high humidity, wielding a wol-do hasn’t been easy. It requires space and a safe environment in which to practice. Back at my Korean apartment, I manage some practice on the roof with a wisteria long pole but this is a poor substitute because it is simply too light. Slowly however, the form is coming together.
Below are my ‘video notes’ on the wol-do (훨도), demonstrated by Master Danny Kwon (권용국), 6th dan.
The video is useful for stringing the moves together, and as I begin to appreciate the finer points of the form, I will include updates.