CHONGDO, South Korea (Reuters Life!) - Think bullfighting and images of capes, swords and death — usually for the bull, rarely for the bullfighter — spring to mind.
But in South Korea, which hosts several bullfighting festivals a year, a longstanding agricultural tradition views fatalities in the ring as a waste of good bull.
South Koreans have adapted the public show associated with Spain and Portugal into a horn-to-horn battle between two bulls who are matched by size and weight.
Some bulls walk out, some leave running, but all leave alive.
Chongdo, a small country town in the south eastern province of North Kyongsang, hosts the country’s biggest bullfighting festival in March, which attracts up to half a million people.
According to Chongdo County Executive Lee Won Dong, the idea sprang up from farmers noting that their cattle would often start pushing battles after a long day’s work.
Fighting spirit and martial ability matter in Korea, historically the battle ground for the imperial ambitions of other nations, and which built itself into Asia’s third biggest economy after the 1950-53 war with North Korea left it destitute.
“If the bull does his best and wins, people celebrate, but if their bull does not succeed people are understanding of the circumstances. The spirit is the same as that of the Korean people. We celebrate victory but don’t dwell too long on defeat when it comes,” said Lee.
It didn’t take much for spectacle-loving Koreans to turn the fights into an occasion for a party. The festival throbs with the boom of traditional drums and gongs, and the arena is encircled by a tent city of bustling restaurants.
The festival draws in grain and fruit farmers as well as workers from the steel, shipbuilding and car industries in nearby Pohang and Ulsan. A smattering of sophisticated Seoulites also squeeze into the temporary bullring outside the town.
“You will see elderly people coming here to bring back memories of the old days but a lot of young people and people from the big industrial cities want to see this too,” said local trade spokeswoman Hwangbo Kyeonghwa.
Once they have slaked their thirst for soju, a grain-based spirit, and filled up on pork barbecue, eel soup or sea urchins, most festival-goers settle down on tarpaulins spread out on the ground or perch on benches to watch the bulls battle it out.
Conditioned by pulling heavy weights and trotting over mountains, two-year-old bulls are taught attacking techniques. After three to six years of training they are ready for the ring.
The combatants are introduced in pairs, one wearing a red sash, the other blue, accompanied by stirring music and commentary befitting professional wrestling matches.
The initially passive bulls are brought nose to nose by their handlers. Bouts can be slow to start and may last just seconds, if one bull is not feeling very martial, or run for more than an hour if the fighters are well-matched.
After the ground-pawing and snorting preliminaries, the fight starts and the bulls wheel and heave against each other like wrestlers before the loser is forced to break off.
“No Kissing!” shouts one commentator as two bulls sniff each other at the start of one bout.
Knowledgeable fans also offer up their own commentaries, criticizing lack of decisiveness in one bull and praising another which sees off a bigger adversary.
Lee said Korean bullfights are a far cry from the fights of Spain or the rodeos of the United States because everyone goes home happy, including the bulls.
“In Chongdo the fighting is purely between the bulls. It’s all about the animal’s independent spirit,” he said.
“In the Spanish and American cases the interaction is between the bulls and the people.”
Additional reporting by Marie-France Han