[Visual History of Korea] Korean bullfighting tradition turns into hanwoo sports and sports betting
Hanwoo bulls lock horns during a bullfight at Cheongdo Bullfighting Stadium in Cheongdo County, North Gyeongsang Province. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
Only wealthy families owned cattle. Owning a cow or bull back then is like owning a tractor today.
Cattle were widely considered a liquid asset, as rural Korean families often sold cattle to cover their children’s college fees.
Before modern commercial feeds became available, feeding cooked meals to “hanwoo” – the term for Korean cattle – during the fall and winter meant that at least one person in the family had to take care of the cow or bull, preparing boiled chopped dry straw. with broth to make organic meals.
Since bulls, which are uncastrated male cattle, naturally fight to determine hierarchy, villagers organized bullfighting as a cultural tradition when the animals were not busy working in the fields.
In bullfights and rodeos, bulls and/or people are often injured or killed. Not in Korea.
Korean bullfighting is unique in that fighting bulls, often weighing more than a ton, never harm people.
No matter the size and power of the bulls, Korean bulls are docile to humans, with pierced nose rings fitted to control the pack animal from around 6 months of age.
The oldest visual record of cattle in Korea is found in a Stone Age rock carving at the Bangudae Petroglyph Site, National Treasure No. 285, near Ulsan.
Researchers count more than 300 images of whales, land mammals and human figures in rock carvings at the Bangudae site.
Once revered as a family asset, Koreans’ love of livestock continues today, but more so in the context of cooking. Since cattle are no longer used in agriculture or to pull cars, today’s hanwoo is in high demand for its delicious beef.
Hanwoo beef comes from hanwoo cattle, which are usually slaughtered between 24 and 30 months old. In Korea, it is more popular than cheaper imported beef from Australia, Canada and the United States.
Hanwoo fighting bulls live longer and receive nutritious food to help them build endurance and muscle while exercising regularly to become super athletes. Hanwoo fighting bulls can usually enter the arena to fight from around 4 years old. There are bulls over 10 years old that still compete in bullfights.
The athleticism of the fighting bulls is evident in the circular arena, when the testosterone-rich bulls display dominant behaviors such as deep, haunting howls while heaving sand before charging, banging their heads with great force. A victorious bull often runs around the arena at high speed, much like a fast bison at Yellowstone National Park in the United States that can run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
A boy rides an ox in this Buddhist painting at Haeinsa, a temple in Gayasan National Park, South Gyeongsang Province, depicting the state of dealing with a wandering spirit. Photo © Hyungwon Kang
The absolute unpredictability of bullfights makes them the perfect “sports betting” where spectators can bet between 100 and 10,000 won ($0.07 to $7.85) on each fight, with varying degrees of odds possible. The game lasts a total of 30 minutes with a maximum of six rounds, each round lasting five minutes, during which the bulls fight continuously.
In Korean culture, bulls are commonly referred to as oxen, which is one of the 12 Korean zodiac animals. People born in the year of the Ox are associated with personality traits like being sincere, hardworking, and stubborn.
One of the goals of Buddhism is to make sense of the four phases of life: birth, aging, illness and death. An ox often appears in Buddhist art as a symbolic representation of our wandering spirits.
A boy chasing a roaming ox in Buddhist art represents a spirit removed from its physical reality. On the other hand, a boy riding an ox in Buddhist paintings refers to the state of managing a wandering mind, a path to enlightenment.
“In Buddhist art, the image of a bull symbolizes our wandering minds. Our minds can be as open as the vast ocean, but sometimes it is so narrow that there is not even a hole for a needle can go in. The purpose is to be enlightened and learn to manage our minds,” said Ven. Jibong, director of the Yeongcheon History Museum in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang Province.
By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])
Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.
By Korea Herald ([email protected])