CHEONGDO, South Korea (Reuters) - There is no blood, nor much gore. No matador, either, or even his colorful cloak. In South Korea, bull fights bull.
Weighing in at 600 kg to over 800 kg (1,322 to over 1,764 lb), dun-colored Korean Hanwoo bulls clash heads and horns in a sand bullring under the warm sunshine of Cheongdo, a rural town in the hills about two hours from the capital of Seoul.
Once a regular village entertainment in South Korea, bullfighting nearly died out as the nation rapidly industrialized, but festivals like the annual Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival help keep the cherished tradition alive.
“When I wake up, the first thing I do is train my bulls, letting them drag tires. Then, I feed them with nutritious porridge,” said Lee Jin-gu, a 59-year old rancher who has trained fighting bulls for seven years.
“I once stayed in the pens, sleeping next to my bulls for a week,” said Lee, who had four of his prize Korean bulls fighting their way through to the quarter-finals.
In all, 96 bulls are competing for the title of strongest bull during the festival, held April 18-22, for the top prize of 7 million won ($6,200).
In one bout, last year’s champion, “Fighting”, clashed with “Ggoltong”, which means “Dullard,” bellowing as he entered the ring and spectators cheered.
After about three minutes of shoving amid the clattering of horns, billowing dust and shouting fans, their duel was finished. “Fighting” made it through to the next round as his defeated opponent gave way and trotted from the ring.
The festival in its current form has been going on since 1999, although North Gyeongsang province has a history of the sport going back a thousand years.
Traditionally, a bull would have been the prized possession of a well-off Korean farmer.
“I was fearful if our bull lost the fight because my parents would scold me,” says Son Mal-jook, 68, who used to take fodder to the creatures when she was a young girl.
Cheongdo says that its bullfights are more humane than those in Spain because the bull is not killed by a matador.
“Spain’s bullfight is between man and bull and assumes that men will defeat bulls,” said Lee Joong Geun, county executive of Cheongdo. “But Cheongdo’s bullfighting is an energetic fight between two bulls.”
A carnival atmosphere prevails at the festival with cheerleaders and drummers prancing by the ring and a traditional band playing in a frenzy of gongs, drums and strings. Beer and local beef are sold at snack stands.
One U.S. spectator admitted to being initially bemused by the concept of a clash of the bulls, but appeared to have been won over.
“In the (United) States, I have seen rodeo, bronco riding, bull riding and also roping. But I have never seen two bulls fighting each other before,” said Maria Oliveira.
Lee Jin-gu, Fighting’s owner, confessed to a deep affection for his animal.
“It is a stronger devotion than parents might have towards their sons and daughters,” he said.
Reporting By Eun Jee Park, editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte