Item: cc1250

Korean Sword. Joseon Dynasty Carved Bamboo Royal Officer’s or Confucian Scholar Seonbi Sword, Circa 1800



    One in a rare group of Korean swords characterized by its construction from bamboo, decorated with scenes from Korean folk culture, and often of idiosyncratic designs incorporating aspects of Japanese, Chinese, and indigenous Korean influence. There are two different theories for the origin of these swords. The first theory is that these swords were worn by Joseon Dynasty military officers on parade (Hough 1891; Boots 1934). The second theory, attributed to Nak Hyun Kwak, researcherat the Academy of Korean Studies, and in the collection of the same institution, is that they were carried by Confucian Government scholars called seonb font-size: 14px;. The Smithsonian Institution’s distinctive example of this type of sword (Acc. Nr. 151601) was described by Hough (1891) close to the time of its acquisition from P. L. Jouy where Hough noted:

    Sword (Hwan-do). Hilt incl scabbard of hard wood with elegant fretted, foliated carving, illustrating the ten long lives, viz, sun, moon, swans, deer, etc. Mounted with copper gilt fittings; spring in hilt holds sword in place. Blade, curved. Collected by P. L. Jouy. Worn by all officers in uniforms. Such swords are made to order in the districts of Jun-ju and Na-ju.

    Most interestingly, the entry by Hough denotes where these swords would have been manufactured. This is likely close to the historical reality, considering the specificity of the geographical locations and that the description was written to its accession to the then U.S. National Museum, now the Smithsonian Institution. The description in Hough’s volume was a very early instance, if not the first documented case, of American and Korean joint scholarship, as the descriptions and research were cross-referenced with three important Korean-American scholars and diplomats residing in the United States: Pom Kwang Soh, a distinguished Korean aristocrat who was a member of the Korean delegation in Washington, D.C. during that time period (Haddo 1893); Dr. Philip Jaisohn, the anglicized name used by Soh Jaipil, a noted champion for Korea's independence, journalist, and the first Korean to become a naturalized citizen of the United States; and Penn Su, who was the first Korean student to study and graduate from an American university. This theory promoted by Hough is supported by J.L. Boots (1934) who illustrates several less impressive examples in his monograph on Korean arms and armor. An example nearly identical to the one described above is also in the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig (published 2013; cat nr. 1206).

    The alternate theory posited by Nak Hyun Kwak, a respected Korean researcher of Korean arms and armor, relates to a similar bamboo carved sword recently discovered in the Academy of Korean Studies and called a nakjukjangdo, noted as having belonged to Korean Confucian Government scholars called seonbi. In the South Korean Intangible Cultural List (no. 60), nakjukjangdo are listed as having been made by jangdojangs, smiths who created jangdo knives. These edged weapons were mainly produced in Seoul, Ulsan, Yeongju, Namwon, Gwangyang, and other provinces, though examples from Gwangyang are considered to be of the highest quality (Chonnam Tribune 2005).

    In either case, due to the wide variety of official and court ceremonies as outlined and documented in Joseon era uigwe, or the royal court illustrated records, these swords were made for outward display and were not only a reflection of the martial prowess of the officer or scholar but demonstrated the syncretization of influences in Korean society in the carved scenes. This sword offers a window into not only into the decoration of this type of sword but also into an expression of Korean decorative arts that is rarely seen in arms and armor. The imagery of horses moving across a floating landscape with a geometrical background is indicative of the influence of Korean hunting screens, which typically show Mongol-influenced imagery but, to our knowledge, is rarely reflected on Korean swords. The presence of those designs, described below, indicate the contemporaneous movement of folk design and imagery from the decorative arts world to the martial world of the Joseon era military (Moes 1983).

    The overall form of the sword follows a traditional Korean design, influenced by Japanese forms (most traditionally, the katana shape), but with Chinese influences in the form of the materials, most prominently, the exceptional quality gilded copper sword guard in the form of an eight petaled chrysanthemum flower. The openwork design of the crossguard appears to be influenced by Qing Period Chinese Sino-Tibetan fittings, and most interestingly has distinct corollaries with the 18th-century Chinese sword we offer in this catalog (Nr. 18). However, the design has distinct Japanese features as well, namely the more circular form of the guard coupled with the greater open space in the design, which provides a sinuous design element. This combination of features is a greater hallmark of syncretic design found on Korean fittings.

    The remaining original fittings are formed of dark patinated bronze and serve the purpose of drawing the viewer’s attention to the guard and carving. The scabbard and grip are both composed of bamboo, lacquered black or very dark red, now turning slightly lighter in color. The grip and scabbard are carved on one side only - the side which would have been exposed during important ceremonial occasions. The handle is carved with traditional Korean designs included a cross-hatched pattern base and a stylized Imugi, which is a mythical, serpent monster that seeks to become a dragon by searching for a magic pearl that imparts the ability to fly like a dragon. A similar carved Imugi can be found on a sword in the Korea Army Museum collection (Korea Army Museum Vol.11, pg 86).

    The scabbard is carved with a series of three panels, possibly inspired by hunting screens, each with flowing representations of the distinct Korean Cheju pony in movement. The delicateness of the carving is indicative of a highly artistically-inclined carver who was able to capture the movement of the hardy Cheju ponies depicted in the panels. Cheju ponies are a distinct Korean horse breed, bred for hardiness on the island of Cheju, and forming the majority of the horse stock of the Joseon era army. The horse has a finely shaped head with a straight profile, large eyes, and small ears. The jaw is deep, tapering to a small muzzle (Hendricks, 1995). The neck is short and muscular while the back is short and straight and the tail is set fairly high and is long and full. Despite the delicateness of the carving, and a testament to the artistic skill of the carver, the depictions of this horse along the scabbard show some of the distinct features of this breed, most prominently the bushy tail and its pony-like proportions.

    The art of carving horses in bamboo was not only found in Korea, as this sword demonstrates, but in China as well. An important brush holder in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan, carved by Wu Zhi Fan in the late 17th century shows herding horses on a larger scale but with a similar aesthetic of showing the horses in mid-flight. The largest panel along the lower two-thirds of the scabbard features a depiction of six horses, each in different positions of flight as indicated by the various angles used by the carver to indicate movement. The horse depicted nearest the scabbard chape has its forelegs outspread in mid-gallop while it turns its neck backward to gaze on the remaining ponies. The next has its forelegs tucked under its torso with its gaze on the remaining four in the panel and with its hind legs appearing be kicking out as if it has just galloped forward. The succeeding pony appears in mid-stride with its legs near the ground. The following two are carved as if they are in mid-collision with a jumble of features including limbs akimbo and heads askew, as one appears to butt into the lower front chest of another. The final example in this first panel is also shown in mid-flight with fore and hind legs stretched, and its head turned backwards. The second smaller panel likewise shows two horses facing each other, carved also in mid-flight, with the characteristic long and bushy tails that are indicative of the Cheju breed.

    The final and smallest panel nearest the guard departs from this depiction of horses and features what appears to be a resplendent mythical stylized tiger or Girin, a maned creature with the torso of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse. Girins were one of the four divine creatures – along with the dragon, phoenix, and turtle – that were extensively depicted in Korean royal arts. The only creature not carved in movement, the Girin is carved as if observing the scene that unfolds along the remaining panels.

    The scabbard’s overall carved scene gives a viewer a feeling of movement and flight, which is rarely found in the field of arms and armor, and elevates this object to a higher category of Korean art more related to Korean painting and the objects made for Confucian scholars. The blade is made of iron with a gilded copper seat, which fits the blade into the scabbard, and is related in form and function to the Japanese habaki and Chinese tunkou, all features which have their origins in Central Asian swords of the early 2nd millennia A.D. (Rivkin and Isaacs 2017).


    Boots, J.L. (1932). Korean Weapons and Armor. Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

    Chonnam Tribune. (2005) The Road to Namdo: A Master Who Resembles the Spirit of Bamboo. Chonnam Tribune (12 August)

    Haddo, G. (1893) “The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Party in Korea” in The Chautauquan. Vol. 16. 1892-1893.

    Hendricks, B. (1995). International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds. University of Oklahoma Press GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig (2013) . Korean Art Collection. GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig: Leipzig

    Journal of the Korea Army Museum. (2004). Journal of the Korea Army Museum. Volume 11.

    Moes, R. (1983) Auspicious Spirits: Korean folk paintings and related objects. International Exhibitions Foundations. New York

    National Palace Museum. Uncanny Ingenuity and Celestial Feats: The Carvings of Ming and Qing Dynasties- The Art of Bamboo Carving. Gallery 304. Permanent Exhibit of the National Palace Museum.

    Rivkin. K., and Isaacs, B. (2017). A Study of the Eastern Sword.

    Yamna Sheng, W-S, and Weng, G-W. (1983). Chinese Bamboo Carving. Chinese Institute of America