|Jinju fortress at night.|
Down to earth and strongly rooted in farming tradition, Korean bullfighting is a million miles away from its European counterpart.
Picture bullfighting and the chances are you imagine matadors taunting bulls in a grand ceremony in which an animal meets its end. Glorious to some, and horrific to others, it is an ongoing topic of controversy.
Korean bullfighting is different from the start: Ditching the pomp and ceremony of matadors, the event is a straight contest between two bulls.
The contests have been held since the Silla dynasty (B.C. 57-A.D. 935). The basic idea is that the bulls face off one-on-one, with the first to break and run being the loser. Similar contests are held in Okinawa, Japan, and in Switzerland there is a Royal Rumble-style version involving cows who battle simultaneously for herd supremacy.
// // The sport is still connected to farming — trainers are largely farmers who raise the cattle — and indeed is supposed to have evolved as a way for farmers to pass the time during the quiet seasons.
One of the best places to see bullfighting is Jinju, a historic town in South Gyeongsang Province also famous for Jinjuseong, a fortress that was the site of two major battles during the Japanese invasions of the 1590s.
There are regular meets at Jinju Bullfighting Stadium every Saturday, with two national tournaments — one in late May and one from Oct. 3-10, during the Jinju Lantern Festival.
The action begins in the early afternoon. Outside spectators enjoy lunch at the snack carts and restaurants around the bullring, while trainers spray the names of their bulls on their backs with stencils.
Each bull is led into a wide sand-covered ring by their trainer, each wearing a bull master’s jacket in either red or blue. The bulls are introduced to each other, held back by ropes attached to rings in their noses. Then, when the umpires and trainers are ready, the ropes are whipped away and the bulls move in.
Essentially a battle of strength and will, the bulls push, pull and vie for leverage until one breaks and runs away, leaving the victor howling a triumphant moo, mouth dripping with slobber from the effort.
There are various tactics that bulls use against their opponent — one early bull moves round and pushes into the side of his opponent’s neck, it’s too much — and after 20 minutes of fierce competition Jisu sends his rival packing.
Other bulls try to twist their opponents head, lock horns at an angle, or get low for extra leverage. Another tactic is to dig the horns into an opponent. Because running away is essentially the method of losing, the bulls run far less than you might think, locking horns from a close distance, while their trainers nervously egg them on.
The excitement is as much in the tension as anything else. When a bull has the upper hand, the advantage often switches quickly. Moreover, the competitions often end suddenly — and that ending can come after anything from three to 30 minutes.
At one point, both bulls bolt at exactly the same time — it’s a no result, in the final bout of the day. The bulls are caught — they’re surprisingly tame, considering they’re fighters — and the match continues for another five minutes.
The bullfighting ring is near Jinyang Lake. Apart from the drive-in movie theater (three showings a night) there is a zoo, walking trails, scenic spots, picnic areas and a children’s playground.
The national tournament in October happens during the Jinju Lantern festival, a famous festival in itself. Held to commemorate the bravery of the 70,000 civilians and soldiers who died fighting in the Jinjuseong Battle of 1593, the main feature of the event is the floating lamps in the Nam River.
The fortress was the scene of one of Korea’s biggest victories against the invading Japanese in1592. However, Japanese attacked again the following year, to bring a bloody defeat. The lamps are symbolic because they were used in the battle itself. General Kim Si-min used lanterns that flew using the wind or floated downstream to signal to his reinforcements. They also used lanterns to communicate with civilians outside the fort and help see Japanese soldiers trying to cross the river.
In the modern festival, some military-themed lanterns are floated down the river, but there is also a huge variety of other designs. Some are modeled on characters from children’s stories, others are famous landmarks, and of course there are dragons and other traditional symbols.
You can also make your own — much smaller– lantern at the festival, see the flying lanterns, and witness a recreation of the Battle of Jinjuseong.
This year, unfortunately, the festival has been called off due to fears of the spread of swine flu. Those who are interested should try it next year. But even without the lanterns, the area is worth visiting.
While you are there, be sure to visit the castle itself. There has been a castle standing here since the Silla Dynasty, and was made into a Stone fortress centuries later.
Kim marshaled his men here to hold off an attack from 30,000 Japanese troops in 1592. However, 100,000 troops returned to avenge the defeat, taking the castle and killing 70,000 people.
The castle was more or less uninvolved in battle since then, and during the Japanese colonial period the castle was used as an administrative office.
In the 1970s a movement was begun to restore the castle walls, and relocate citizens who lived inside the fortress. Now restored as a historic site, the inside of the walls is a largely flat area of parkland.
There are some landmarks marking important events in history, including a rock where Nongae — a “gisaeng,” similar to a Japanese geisha — threw herself off a rock into the Nam River and took the Japanese general with her, killing both of them. You can judge for yourself whether such a fall would have been suicidal or not.
Elsewhere you can see Joseon canons, complete with unfeasibly large ammunition, dotted around the castle walls. There are the usual large gates typical of the Joseon Dynasty, and a Cheokseongnu, a pavilion where traditional dances are now regularly performed.
The fortress is home to a temple, Hoguksa, which was a hotbed for freedom fighting monks during the Japanese invasions in the sixteenth century, later to be dubbed the “righteous warriors.” The temple since fell into ruin, but was rebuilt in the last century. Although it is a new temple, and quite small, it has a charming completeness to it. Next door there is a shrine to the warrior monks who fought to defend Korea.
Further round there are various memorials to fallen heroes, but there are also fragments of a different local landmark.
The dragon bridge is a landmark now gone, but pieces remain around Jinjuseong. The bridge was closely related to the story of Dolsoi, a governor’s servant, who fell in love with his master’s daughter.
The two were kept apart by decorum — it was impossible for Joseon society to tolerate a marriage across so big a social divide. So the two parted. Instead of moving on, the governor’s daughter pined away and died.
As the funeral procession was moving past, Dolsoi saw a reflection of his lover’s image in the stream below the Dragon Bridge. “My lady!” he shouted, and he was driven insane, later to hang himself from a nearby tree.
According to folklore, frogs go quiet whenever a couple crosses the bridge, and when a lovesick person crosses the bridge twice, he is cured. This supposedly was reflective of Dolsoi’s desire for others to be happily in love. The site of the bridge is now built over, but there are still pieces of it to be found in the fortress.
For those more down to earth, you might simply like to take in the fortress’ many shrines to patriots and freedom fighters, and the views from the watchtowers and pavilions.
Buses go to Jinju from Seoul Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam times a day. They take four hours and the fare is 14,000 won. The journey to Busan takes 1 hour 30 minutes, costs and runs every 30 minutes.
There is little in the way of rail connections to Jinju. There are just five trains a day from Seoul and two from Busan. Journey time is around 5 hours from Seoul.
Bullfights happen every Saturday at Jeju Bullfighting Ring near the Jinyang Lake. Entry is free. City bus number 16 will take you there from the fortress, the station or the bus station, among other places.
By Paul Kerry
Another awesome pic’s from this blog