When we think of bullfighting, the image that comes to mind is undoubtedly Spanish: matadors, flashing capes, and Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.
Korean bullfighting is very different. There are no humans combatants: the bulls fight each other, and it is more like wresting than a death struggle. The bulls do have sharp horns so it is possible to draw blood, but that is pretty rare and bulls being injured or killed is all but unheard of. At least in my experience, I have never seen it.
I first heard about Korean bullfighting (called so-ssaeum, or 소싸음) from a co-worker of mine, who mentioned that there was an annual festival near Daegu. I was intrigued, because for a Canadian, the whole idea of bullfighting is very strange and exotic. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the town where I teach has an annual bullfighting tournament as well.
I went after school, the only non-Korean in a crowd of several hundred people. The ring was fenced off by wooden poles and the entrance was built like a tunnel through a high bank, where the people sat. It may seem like this did not give much protection, but in Korean bullfighting, the bulls are fairly docile and do not attack people. They are very used to being handled and taken care of and they only fight each other. That being said, I still wouldn’t play around with a 1-ton bull that didn’t know me.
The tournament is four days long and has a festival atmosphere to it. Besides the fights, there are also booths selling food and local products, plus a stage for music. People sit on the ground under tents to watch the fights.
The bulls are tied up in booths in a separate area until it is time for their fight. They are sent to fight in a rotation and then on the last day, the semi-final and final matches are fought to decide the ultimate champion.
When it is time for their fight, the owners leads the bulls into the ring one at a time, leading them by a rope tied to the ring in their nose. The only people allowed in the ring are the bull owners and the referees.
The referees wear special uniforms. The bulls are not subject to any rules, of course, but the referees make sure the owners do not interfere. Occasionally, one of the bulls will refuse to fight and the referees call a forfeit after a certain amount of time.
The bulls fight by butting their heads together and trying to twist around to jab each other with their horns. Their skin is so thick that although I’m sure it hurts to get jabbed with a horn, I never saw a bull draw blood with its horns.
One of the owners is designated blue and the other is red, as shown by the vests they wear. They usually stand near the bulls and shout encouragement and are ready to catch them, if need be.
I saw one fight where the man in the ring wearing the owner’s vest wasn’t actually the owner, but an employee. The real owner did not like what he was doing and kept yelling at him, but the man in the ring just ignored him. Finally, the owner walked into the ring, picked up the man bodily and carried him out of the ring, while the crowd roared with laughter. Then the owner put on the vest and came in to finish the fight. Not that the bulls took any notice, of course.
The fight lasts until one of the bulls gives up, usually by suddenly breaking off and running away. Most fights only last a few minutes, although some can go 15 minutes or more. The very long fights are pretty intense, especially when you consider that the bulls are straining against each other in the hot sun the whole time; almost a ton of muscle pushing in each direction. Always though, one of the bulls runs away eventually and a roar goes up from the crowd, of congratulations for the winner, or derision for the losing bull.
The bulls then go back through the tunnel to the stalls, very hot and thirsty. The owners hose them down, give them a lot of water and put them back in the shade to wait, either to go home or to fight again.
Overall, it was a very interesting experience. While some people may argue that it is exploitive of animals, it is much more humane than the Spanish variety, where the animal always dies in the end. Also, because the bulls are evenly matched, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion, as with Spanish bullfighting. Yes, there is some tension as to whether the matador will emerge unscathed, but ultimately, the bull never wins. In Korean bullfighting, there is a certain majesty watching two huge animals wrestle as they might in the wild and they also live to tell about it.
What do you think? Do you think this is an improvement on other types of animal sports or is it all cruel and manipulative? Let me know in the comments.