Energetic challenge of bulls! Sparkling crash!! Shouting for joy!

(Title taken directly from the English brochure**, in case you couldn’t tell.)

Last weekend was the long-awaited Bullfighting festival in Cheongdo. It had been delayed for a month due to Hoof and Mouth Disease, which has been shutting down festivals across the country for months (including those that don’t seem to involve any hooves, like the Jindo Sea Parting Festival).

The word ‘bullfighting’ probably brings up images of Spanish matadors and a fight to the death. But Korean bullfighting is quite different – bulls fight each other, and neither one is killed or even really hurt. But animal rights groups in Korea (yes, they exist over here in the land of eating dog and whale) have been trying to shut the festival down for years, claiming animal cruelty for forcing the bulls to fight and potentially feeding them performance-enhancing drugs. Those in favor of the festival claim that this kind of fighting is something bulls have done for thousands of years in pastures across the country. Which side is right? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but here’s my account…

Getting to the tiny city of Cheongdo was a bit of a pain – although the city borders Ulsan to the west, there’s no direct route. Getting there involved taking no fewer than two buses and two trains. As we were switching to the slow train in Daegu, we found ourselves surrounded by many big groups of loud foreigners headed to the festival. The festival seems to draw a lot of waygookens, as the main promotional picture prominently features a big group of white people.

Upon arrival in Cheongdo, we were quite eagerly greeted by a very friendly festival information booth, where they provided me with the Cheongdo tourist pamphlet the title of this post came from and led us all the way down the street to the local bus station (before being pulled away to talk to a ‘big group of Americans’). The bus took us to the city’s giant bullfighting stadium, where by early afternoon many cars already lined both sides of the road.

I felt like there were some mixed signals coming into the event:

Welcome to the Bullfighting Festival!
Aww! So cute.

An angry bull
AHH! So terrifying!

The bulls were on their hour lunch break, so we headed out back to check them out.

A drunk idiot tries to fight with one of the bulls
The first thing we saw was this drunk idiot trying to aggravate one of the bulls. Lucky for him, he failed.

Bulls in waiting
We found them lounging rather lazily in the bright mid-afternoon sun. Seeing them so peaceful like this, it was hard to imagine they’d soon be tearing into each other in the ring.

This one looks sort of like a demon...
Except with this guy, who looks pretty scary.

doesn't it?
…kind of demonic with those horns, no?

Relaxing in the sun after a fight
Apparently the blue stuff is because he got hurt. 😦

Heading into the arena, we met up with some friends who had snagged front row seats. It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t exactly crowded, either. I was expecting a bit of a better turnout.

2011 Cheongdo Bull Fighting Festival

As the fighting started back up, some ambassadors from Serbia and Nigeria were introduced. Seemed like a bit of a random selection.

Here’s how the fighting went down:

Led into the ring
The bulls are led in, one at a time.

Then the handlers try and get the two bulls to face-off, as the animals don’t seem to have any interest in each other.

But once the bulls were facing each other, they’d charge. And so (with a sparkling crash) the fighting begins!

Finally - it begins!

My tourist-y pamphlet outlined several of the techniques that these bulls are supposedly trained in:

‘Horn Hanging’
'Bull wrestling' seems more appropriate

‘Horn Striking’
Locking horns

‘Neck Striking’
Sideways push

‘The Stare Down’ (I made that one up)
Eyeing each other

‘Pushing’


This video was probably the most ‘action’ I saw in an afternoon of fighting, by the way.

The Bullfighting

This kind of wrestling would go on for anywhere from 1-30 minutes or so. Often the ‘fights’ went on for so long because the bulls would lose interest and have to be roped back in several times. Generally they were a bit slow, and so my friends and I entertained ourselves by betting on who would win and how long the fight would last. A winner wasn’t declared until this happened:

And then the next two bulls would be brought out, and this would repeat for a few hours.

So, is this ‘animal cruelty’? Are the bulls mistreated?

My feelings are still a bit mixed. So I did a bit of research

First, a bit of history: The tradition dates back 1000 years, to when the first tribes were farming on the peninsula. It evolved with farmers who used bull fights to settle land disputes. Then, the Japanese prohibited it “fearing any festival that encouraged Koreans to get together.” A gradual revival after independence brought about the Cheongdo festival in 1990.

I would imagine the nationalist roots are a part of the reason it’s stuck around.

The animal rights groups attempting to ban the festival have only succeeded in a slight delay in festivities in 2008. Their main issue seems to be the treatment of the bulls, and that they may be given performance-enhancing drugs. But while such groups have gotten the government to shut down horse fighting on Jeju island, Cheongdo has managed to hold on to its bullfighting.

There do actually seem to be some benefits for the bulls: a longer life away from the slaughterhouse during which they get special meals (boiled beans, medicinal herbs, mudfish, snake meat and octopus, apparently) and plenty of exercise. The bulls we saw looked healthy.

But the fighting didn’t seem to be very voluntary or natural. The bulls had to be pushed quite a bit to fight, sometimes over and over again. They seemed much more content to play in the dirt and ignore each other. And while they aren’t killed, they are roughed up a bit. Apparently the bulls’ horns are filed to a point before matches, and during the fighting they were obviously getting scratched up.

The article offers the opinion of a ‘rodeo expert from Nebraska,’ who apparently should be an authority on the matter of Korean wrestling bulls…anyway these are his thoughts: “When I look at a bull, I know if it has been taken care of or abused,” and also, “they are not forced to fight…they want to fight.”

I still don’t buy it, and I couldn’t feel good cheering with the rest of the crowd when the bulls really got going after each other. But whether or not they want to fight, at least they’re taken care of.

What do you think?

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This was my first big, nation-wide Korean festival, which was interesting in itself.

First, the cute Cheongdo mascots:
Mascots on hand to cheer on the events

And second, the food available on-site.

The food they had far surpassed what would be available at an American festival-equivalent, which would be… hot dogs? popcorn? cardboard pizza? They had full menus of traditional Korean favorites and all kinds of barbeque, being cooked on-the-spot.

We grabbed some beef soup, in honor of seeing the cows, and some dong-dong-ju, which is a sort of rice wine served out of a bowl and drunk from littler bowls (like makkoli):
Lunch at the festival

This meat was also available:
Another lunch option:
(If you can’t tell what it is, there’s a picture in the background.)

———————————–

From the festival, we headed to the other big attraction in Cheongdo: The Persimmon Wine Tunnel

On the way there, we passed some pretty flowers.
Pretty flowers

Like many other cities in Korea, Cheongdo is famous for persimmons. But Cheongdo is unique in that they turn their persimmons into a sweet white wine.
Entrance to the Cheongdo Wine Tunnel

The low-lighting and wine and cheese plates provide all the makings of a good date spot, and according to my Cheongdo tourist pamphlet “It is very popular for date course”.

'It is very popular for date course.'

At the end of the tunnel, we ran into the Siberian and Nigerian ambassadors and entourage. It kind of seemed like everyone left the festival and headed to the wine tunnel.

Wine and wine glass

I wasn’t a huge fan of the persimmon wine. It tasted good at first sip – sweet and dessert-y. But as I drank a full glass, it got worse and worse. I think other places probably do sweet wines better.

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**In closing, a few more English gems from the tourist brochure, because you can’t make this up:
Incidental/Experience Events
Experience bullfighting
Cow& bunga is shooting nicely!

On stage event
Magic show of levitation
Poomba performance to crack up
Bull’s free dancing competition

Official event
Entrance of color guards composed of bull

I don’t know what this cow & bunga business is, but it showed up twice in the program. Could it be anything other than cowabunga?? As in, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s cowabunga?? Googling ‘bunga’ and ‘cow bunga’ doesn’t turn up any other results, so I think this must be so!