Bullfighting in Korea dates back over a thousand years, to well before the beginnings of the bloodthirsty and savage pursuit that exists in Spain and Latin America. Korean bullfighting involves neither matadors nor murder. It involves neither the tormenting of animals nor the goring of people. Instead, it reflects the ancient bond between man and ox -so important to a historically agrarian society-and the natural forces of the world that have bulls competing over territory.
Where once bulls fought for grass and pride, now trainers lead them before audiences who bay not for blood but for sport. In a specially constructed 10,000 seat stadium, over four days in March of every year since 1999, trainers lead their best bulls into a ring and compete for a prize of millions of won.
The bulls are lead by ropes pierced through their noses and gently coerced until their horns are locked, and nature takes its course. Then, the bulls fight and jostle for seconds, minutes or even hours, until the fight is settled with the resignation of one of the bulls. They push and crash their heads together, but blood is rarely shed.
The bulls are all impressive beasts to behold, even from the safety of back row seats. They are divided into three weight distinctions, all massively heavy. Yet the fearless trainers stand shoulder to shoulder with their fighters, throwing mock punches and delivering encouraging slaps to the rear. There is the definite sense that these men treat their bulls with respect, and the bulls return the favor.
Outside, the bulls are on parade before the audience. These prize fighters are well-kept animals. Some of the trainers feed soju as a form of liquid persuasion to bulls surrounded by thousands of spectators, facing opponents weighing hundreds of kilograms and fighting for the pride of their nation.
For it is here that Korea and Japan go head to head in the ring, with the best of Korean livestock and the best of Japanese livestock pitted against one another between bouts of singing from multi-colored hanbok-clad dancers and crooners who manage to get the mostly older audience clapping in unison. An announcer yells frantically over the loudspeaker from start to finish, and each time a bull bucks or charges, the audience roars.
For four days, the quiet hills outside the sleepy town of Cheongdo are a bright, noisy fusion of old and new, of man and beast. The quiet green fields become parking lots and the roads are lined with vendors and makeshift restaurants. For the duration of the festival, Cheongdo feels like the most exciting town in Korea.
Words by David Wills
Photo provided by Cheongdo District Office and shot by Jeonghee Hwang