In Which I Attend A Bullfight

October 7, 2009



Korean bullfighting is a far cry from its Spanish counterpart. It is much less violent, not at all bloody, and the name “bull fighting” seems to actually suit it. In Korean bullfighting (and perhaps bullfighting in other countries. I’m no expert on spectatorial animal combat.) two bulls go head to head in a battle of wits raw power. I really feel like there is nothing at all cruel about this sport, as I imagine that such contests take place naturally as a sort of animal-play or ritualistic mating contest. The only difference is that the animals are brought into a large circular ring for hundreds of people to watch. So it could only be considered exploitative in the way that parents who force their children into geography bees or competitive figure skating could be said to exploit.

Last weekend was Chuseok, a Korean holiday similar to Thanksgiving, in which the brisk autumn air is welcomed and the (hopefully) abundant harvest is celebrated. In Uiryeong, bullfighting a Chuseok tradition. Most of the time, the bulls just sort of stand there pressing their heads together, their necks compressing accordion-like and their faces squishing like sea sponges. When they go at it for long periods of time, things get gross. When the bulls start to fatigue, their jowls slacken and their tongues hang out Jordanesquely; they slaver; they start to sneeze and cough up enormous amounts of saliva, and sometimes it looks like they are in fact vomiting drool. And when they jerk their heads, long strands of drool shoot off, and in midair they look like Jackson Pollock paint splatters, spinning and stretching until they hit the canvas of dirt and sand at the beasts’ feet. During one match, both bulls defecate. I am disturbed to notice later that one of the coaches, it appears, is not wearing shoes.



The bull’s owners/trainers/coaches wear bright nylon vests, one blue, and one red, and they drag the bulls around by ropes through their noses or through big metal noserings; the ropes are removed as the fight begins. Oftentimes the coaches will pull at the bull with all his strength as the bull digs his hooves into the ground or kneels and buries his head in the dirt in resistance. I am amazed that the bulls do not simply charge their owners and gore them with their horns, especially the coaches wearing bright red vests. There appear to be two main styles or schools of thought in Korean bullfighting. The younger coaches stand in close to the action, barking commands like boxing coach almost non-stop. Granted, these “commands” are just “Ha!… Ha!” while periodically waving their arms. Occasionally they give their bull a slap on the rump. The older coaches stand far back, their demeanor closer to a third base coach, letting their beast be the star, although at crucial moments they explode with enthusiam, gesticulating and shouting what seem to be full sentences at their animals.

Old school:


Rodeo clown:


When the bulls are standing placid and bored, the announcer will sometimes turn up the music (there is music) to a deafening volume, shout into the microphone, and incite the crowd to clap along to the beat, hoping, I suppose, that this sudden increase in decibels will inspire aggression in the animals and cause them to attack each other. But in praxis, this seems only to confuse them, and they continue to stand nonplussed, literally and figuratively bovine. At one point the announcer turns one of these lulls into a dance competition amongst the crowd; he walks around the stadium getting people to stand up and bust a move. He has now, in effect, moved from trying to inspire the bulls towards aggression to actually distracting the crowd from the fight itself (the supposed object of spectacle and reason for everyone’s presence), turning audience into entertainment, subject into object, until the action in the ring becomes more exciting on its own. At one point during this dance contest interlude, people start giving money to this bullfight-announcer-turned-peripatetic-talent-show-host. Naturally, he stops in front of me and yells into his microphone, while staring at me, what I believe to be something like “Give me money!” Surely, I have mistranslated. I look at H.F. “He wants you to give him 1,000 ₩,” he says. With the entire stadium of hundreds of Koreans staring at me, I don’t argue. I take out my wallet and hand over 1,000 ₩. Then the announcer walks away saying “1,000 ₩ from the American!” and immediately gives the money to the supposed winner of the dance competition. “What was that all about?” I ask. “It’s a kind of game,” H.F. tells me. To me, it seems not so much a game as extortion, but I’m out less than a buck, and it’s nothing to get in a fuss about.

That’s about all I have to say about the bullfight. So for now I will leave you with what I woke up to staring at me on Saturday morning:





4 Responses to “In Which I Attend A Bullfight”

  1. mattmcdonough said

    I will never sleep again, thanks to that bug, and the image of a Korean bullwrangler stepping barefoot in large piles up poop.

  2. weowmobile said

    Korean bugs!
    This bullfighting sounds alot like it could be Mike Vick’s new game.
    I hope you screamed incoherently throughout the match, and developed strong feelings in favor of one of the competing bulls.

  3. Keats said

    Praying Mantises are my favourite bug in the world. Bless you for taking its picture and spreading the love world wide. Btw, I saw your Dad at the 5th/3rd in Mt. Washington yesterday. He said you are well.

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