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Learning the way of the bowTraditional Korean archery on Jeju
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승인 2011.04.23  12:02:21
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▲ Clockwise from top, Halla Jung’s archery range in Geonip-dong, Jeju City. An archer aims at a target 145 meters away. A beginner practices with a tethered arrow. Members participating in a monthly competition. Photos by Sarah Delroy

Along the walking path between Sarabong and Byeoldobong is an unassuming wooden sign that reads ‘archery.’ Underneath, a small arrow points the way to Halla Jung, a private archery club. The club is one of six on the island (five in Seogwipo, one in Jeju) and upwards of 355 in Korea. Daily, members come to practice gungdo, the way of the bow.

Gungdo, or gukgung, is a sport steeped in tradition and ritual.

When an archer first arrives at the Jung, he or she bows to a sign with the Chinese characters “Jung Gan,” which literally means righteous space. This action acknowledges that the range is a place where one is expected to act with upright mind and body.

Beginners are assigned an archery master at Halla Jung. There is only one master at a time, so all new students learn the same form. Beginners, or “shinsa,” are not allowed to let a live arrow fly until their teacher deems they are ready.

A shinsa first learns how to grip the handle and push it away like a mountain and pull the bow string as if pulling a tiger’s tail. After a few weeks of perfecting the draw, a shinsa loads a tethered arrow into the bow. Several more weeks of practice follow before the student can load his or her first untethered arrow and fire it at the target.

Gukgung traditionally uses a composite bow that is made out of bamboo, oak, a special birch bark and ox horn. These must be stored in a heat-controlled space, are tricky to control, and take a high level of mastery. Most modern archers use a laminated fiberglass bow. The draw weight varies from 20 to 55 pounds.

Arrows can be made of either carbon fiber or bamboo, but bamboo must be used for national competitions.

Traditional Korean archery uses a thumb draw, which can lead to lots of blisters and cursing under one’s breath while drawing back the tail of the tiger.

Mr. Eskay, an archer at Halla Jung says, “The art and practice of gukgung is very easy. Learning the Dao is very hard. It may take 20 years or months or days; you never know.”

It’s hard to fathom how far away the target is. The International Archery Federation (FITA) uses outdoor targets at distances of 30 to 90 meters. Gukgung’s targets are 145 meters away from the shooting line. That is 35 meters longer than a football field, including end zones.

Korea is famous for its archers of both ancient and modern times. The Chinese used to refer to Koreans as the “East Bow-Men.” Indeed, the origins of archery’s popularity in Korea are thought to go back to prehistoric times.

“It’s in our [Korean] DNA,” says Mr. Eskay.

Archery was a staple of military training until the late 1800s. Guns eventually replaced the bow, but archery continued to be practiced until it was abolished by the Reform of 1894. It did not stay away for long. In 1899 King Kojong revived the practice of gukgung for three reasons: to preserve founding spirit, to defend the nation, and to develop physical strength. At this time bows and arrows were standardized, and the practice of archery moved from the rich and royal to the general public.

Korea has held top ranking in archery in the Olympic Games for the last several decades. Men’s group archery has only missed receiving gold twice since 1988. The women representing Korea have received group gold every year since 1988 and won individual gold every year but one since the same date.

Halla Jung has group member games once a month if not more often. Members stand in rows of five at the shooting line and take turns aiming for the target. Before letting the first arrow fly, no matter if an archer has been practicing for three or 30 years, he or she will say, “Hwalbae oomnida,” which translates into “I am learning the bow.” Others around will respond with, “Mani machusaeyo,” which means, “Have many hits.” The target is so far away that a sound system is set up to hear if the arrow has hit. The arrows are not tipped to allow for easy retrieval and faster practice rounds.

Several times Halla Jung has hosted all of Korea’s archery groups for a giant game. In 2002 Jeju swept the board, taking gold for group and individual games.

Yet, with all the sporting competition and fierce military background, gukgung is as peaceful as it gets. Morning cloud rolls over the field in a mist. Cherry trees let loose a snow of blossoms. Archers practice the Dao through their daily practice.

The first precept of gukgung is to be seen as a model of love and virtue. This is easily perceived as a new foreign shinsa is warmly welcomed into Hall Jung by its president and all members, as one of the family.

Halla Jung archery club accepts new members. There is an entrance fee and a monthly fee. Please call 064-755-4404 (or Master Mr. Ye at 017-690-6600) for more information.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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