Posted by: Matt Kelley | 7 April 2009

Cheongdo’s Bullfighting Festival

20090406_cheongdo_bullfight

There’s a small budget film here in Korea that’s made a very big buzz over the past few months. The film, Old Partner, documents an elderly farmer’s special relationship with his ox. Living in very modern Seoul, this may seem like a bygone portrait of South Korea. Yet, it was only a few decades ago that Korea was an agrarian society, and the bull was the farmer’s most prized possession.

20090406_cheongdo_venueThe North Gyeongsang Province village of Cheongdo has built an impressive stadium for its annual bullfighting festival.

So it’s probably no surprise that bullfighting was a popular source of entertainment for villagers. Of course, with modernization has come the decline of village life, and with it, the traditional bullfight. But there are still towns across Korea where you can see regular bullfights, and one of them is the village of Cheongdo, in North Gyeongsang Province. From March 27-31, Cheongdo hosted its annual bullfighting festival (청도소싸움축제), and a couple of friends and I went to check it out… this being the year of the ox, and all!

20090406_cheongdo_duel1The bulls’ trainers start each bout by bringing two bulls into the ring. Typically, they engage with little prodding. On some occasions, a bull will refuse to fight when the other’s snorting and sand kicking intimidates him.

Cheongdo is located about 40 kilometers south of Daegu. Since 1999, they’ve hosted an annual bullfighting festival to restore a traditional pastime while creating a tourism draw. A 10,000 person-capacity stadium was erected for this purpose, and hundreds of bulls fight annually for a prize of several million won, or a few thousand U.S. dollars.

20090406_cheongdo_quadThe longest duel we saw was between a black and a tan bull.

Unlike in Spain and Latin America, Korean bullfights do not feature matadors, nor is there much blood or gore. Typically, the bulls, whose names are printed prominently on their sides, spend minutes (or hours) butting heads until one yields. To start the bout, the trainers release them from two pens and draw them together with ropes. Typically, the feisty males eagerly engage, but in several of the  tête-à-têtes  that we saw, one of the 1,000-kilogram beasts simply refused to fight, apparently intimidated by the other one’s snorting and dirt kicking.

20090406_cheongdo_trainerFollowing a bout, this bull panted in one of the ringside pens.

What makes a successful bull, you ask? Well, you might imagine that it’s hard to impart “skills” on a bull. But what South Korea’s 500-or-so rancher-trainers do to prepare their battle oxen is to build their strength and stamina. A recent New York Times article profiled a trainer who runs several kilometers daily alongside his bull, and feeds him pricey seafood, in addition to the more typical veggie diet. On game day, it’s not uncommon for trainers to slip their bulls some of the grain or potato-based alcohol called soju. But apart from liquid courage, trainers say that a thick neck, low torso and big horns are what they look for when choosing a bull.

20090406_cheongdo_zoo2This collective pen was one of the festival’s stranger side exhibits.

Obviously the events inside the stadium are the festival’s main draw, but there was also a small museum, a number of booths selling dried persimmon products and persimmon wine, and a very strange mini zoo of sorts. My friends and I watched the hilarious and disturbing sight of a pen that contained a chicken, pig, two ducks and a ewe on whose back a black hen rested. There was also a sheepdog whose entire body was shaved, save his shaggy head. Next door was a miniature pony, and cages holding a Turkish Angora cat and two traumatized raccoons.

20090406_cheongdo_webulls1Inspired by what we saw, my KBS co-host Abby Rhodes and I sported horns of our own.

The outdoor animal circus aside, my friends and I enjoyed ourselves. And after the fight we sampled some of the town’s famous… well, you guessed it, beef for lunch. So next year, if you’re looking for an enjoyable reminder of traditional Korean culture, consider traveling to Cheongdo for their annual Bullfighting Festival. The village is conveniently located between Daegu and Busan.

More information:
The Official Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival Web site (in Korean)

Photo Album:
New: Visit the full Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival photo gallery here.
map_cheongdo

Getting There:
→ From Seoul, trains leave nine times daily to Cheongdo Station between 06:00-21:20 (transfer at Dongdaegu or Miryang). The fastest trip takes approx. 2.5 hours and costs 38,400 won. The 4+ hour options run about 29,100 won.

→ From the station, the 30-minute bus for Punggak leaves every 25 minutes. Get off at the Chilseung-ri, Iseo-myeon stop. Or, take a taxi from the station. The 20-minute ride should run you about 8,000 won.

→  The entrance fee is 5,000 won for adults, which includes parking. 

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on April 11, 2009.)

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the report. I also enjoyed the bull fight and the surrounding activities.

    http://koreanrumdiary.blogspot.com/2009/04/oxes-of-evil.html

  2. Hi David,
    Imagine that… I would have thought our parties would have spotted each other, being probably the only two foreigner groups in attendance. Anyhow, I’ll check out your post on the topic. I already like the name.

    Best, Matt


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