Inside Haidong Gumdo, Queens’ sword-based martial arts club

The Journal takes a dive into one of the oldest clubs on campus

Haidong Gumdo, an ancient martial art, has been a club at Queen's since 1995. 
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When most people think of recreational clubs, they think of the staples: archery, gymnastics, eSports—maybe even Quidditch.

They rarely think of ancient forms of martial art.

Haidong Gumdo—one of Queen’s resident recreational clubs—is just that. A military martial art that originated in ancient Korea, it teaches principles of self-defence, discipline, and mindfulness through sword-based combat.

First taught over 2,000 years ago in the kingdom of Koguryo, Haidong Gumdo began as a martial art used by a highly skilled group of warriors known as the ‘Samurang,’ the ancestors of those who would eventually create the Samurai order in Japan. The techniques, principles, and combat strategies employed by the Samurang allowed them to help secure vast swathes of land which now make up the current geography shared by North and South Korea.

Two millennia later, Haidong Gumdo is still being practised—in Queen’s gyms.

Established in 1995, Queen’s Haidong Gumdo (QHG) is the oldest club of its kind in Ontario and currently has the oldest active instructor in the province too.

To learn more about the elusive and mysterious sport, The Journal spoke to Kai Battaile, ArtSci ’22, who’s a Gumdo practitioner and executive team member of Queen’s Haidong Gumdo.

“It’s sort of like learning a dance, almost.”

According to Battaile, the club was started by Brian Ghim, a Gumdo Master who, in addition to founding QHG, was a member of the Provincial Gumdo regulatory gaming body. After Ghim left the club in 2003, the club’s advanced members took up the mantle of instructing the club.

This “second generation” of Gumdo members, as Battaile called them, were almost fanatical about the club and its activities. They became so close, in fact, that most of the members piled into a single residence.

“At one point, there was a whole Gumdo house,” he said. “Everyone in the club was living in a house together.”

Not only that, but Gumdo members used to perform at something called the Queen’s Culture Show, a venue where they showcased choreographed sets of their techniques alongside other similar groups on campus.

Since, the club has only gotten smaller, with only 12 regular members, but Battaile assured that the social atmosphere within the club has grown increasingly varied. Although nobody is living together now, the team has more social events to keep everyone just as close. 

As for what goes on at a Gumdo practice, Battaile said that it’s usually split between practicing forms and sparring competitively. Despite being a “martial art” in a literal sense, the performative aspects of Gumdo are just as important as the defensive ones—the discipline and mindfulness associated with the sport are directly tied to memorizing and executing moves to precision.

All that said, Battaile still urged that Gumdo is just as ‘martial’ as any other art. Similar to Karate, Gumdo has a belt system, and after rising through the ranks, students can go from sparring with wooden swords— “Motgums” he called them—to steel ones, which are blunted for safety.

As expected, QHG has been unable to meet in practice for months now due to COVID-19, but Battaile said the club has found one particular way of combatting their isolation from each other during lockdown.

“People will record themselves doing a form or two, and then send it in to the instructors for them to assess it.”

Earlier in the year, QHG would also do practices in a nearby park to abide by social distancing protocols. Although neither methods are perfect, Battaile said there’s only so much that can be done at the moment.

Looking to the future, Battaile spoke about numerous things he hopes the club will do when the pandemic passes. The most notable of these is retaining the “open” and welcoming atmosphere he feels defines the club.

Second will be reconnecting with other Gumdo clubs around the province and engaging in actual competitions with them. Finally, Battaile hopes QHG will start making more appearances at cultural celebrations like the “Queen’s Culture Show” again.

When asked for his Haidong Gumdo elevator pitch to close out the interview, Battaile kept it short and sweet.

“You get to do physical activity, a little bit of meditation, and at the end of the day—you’re swingin’ swords around.”

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