My Experience with Korean Bullfighting

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.

bullfighting 1

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.

bulfighting 2

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.

bullfighting 3

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.

bullfighting 4

bull closeup

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.

bullfighting 5

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.

bullfighting 6

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.

bullfighting 7

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.

bullfighting 8

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.

bullfighting 9

Luckily the employee was much smaller than the owner.

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.

bullfighting 10

The fight is over. This owner fell down trying to catch his 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.

bullfighting 11

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.

bullfighting 12

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About David Stewart

I am a writer of anything quirky and weird. I love most genres of fiction and in each there are stories that I would consider "my kind of story". View all posts by David Stewart

14 responses to “My Experience with Korean Bullfighting

  • Melissa

    I was once like you, one of the few white people in a building full of Dominicans, watching cock-fighting. Actually, now that I think about it, it was weirder because there were no other women there. Cock-fighting is brutal and bloody, with the loser being that night’s dinner. I wrote my study abroad research paper on it…big business in the DR. Anyhow, Korean bull fighting seems like a very humane form of animal “fighting” and better than any others I’ve seen. I think I’d want to see it once and then I’d be done.

  • Eric Alagan

    Cruel and manipulative? At the lower end, yes, but I would much prefer this compared to the Spanish-type bull fights which are cruel and blood lusty.

  • misguidedghost86

    I would say, personally, all type of animal sport is bad. But as long as the animal doesn’t have to die I guess that is okay. I’m glad to hear that in Korean Bull fighting the animal doesn’t die or get too badly hurt.

  • The Bumble Files

    Interesting…I think it’s an improvement over the Spanish version as everyone lives! I suppose in this situation, if the bull doesn’t want to fight he can run away. All of it seems a little strange to me. Watching animals fight or fighting an animal. I don’t know if I could ever watch a bullfight than ends in death. This one I could probably watch. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed your pictures.

  • islandsidechronicles

    Wow! This is something new! I thought the Spaniards held a monopoly on bullfighting. Seemingly much more humane, but I’m wondering if there is any behind the scenes, violent prep for these fights? Also, the bulls aren’t goaded or angered before the fights here eh? Thanks for sharing.

    • David Stewart

      No, the bulls are treated well, from what I saw and it all hinges around their territorial nature. They are very placid around the owners and they are just led into the ring and if they fight, they fight and if not, the next pair are led in.
      The owners are allowed to put some of the bulls tied up in the ring for some time before the fights, I guess so they get to know it and feel territorial about it.

  • nightlake

    It is certainly much more humane. So their territorial nature induces them to fight the opponent…Hopefully they are not drugged before the fight..

  • Madhu

    I have witnessed a Spanish bullfight and left midway in tears. This certainly seems kinder to the animal, although I still don’t understand the need to pit them against each other for the thrill 🙂

  • arjun bagga

    Brilliant Post. Very descriptive and stands well against the Spanish bullfight.

  • Luddy's Lens

    Well, it is more humane than cock- or dog-fighting (which seems like pure blood-lust), but like Madhu, I wonder about its roots.

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