▲ An artist's depiction of a stone battle circa 1902. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection
The Korean Lunar New Year is a celebration of a new beginning: a chance to right wrongs and to change the bad luck of the previous year. During the Joseon period, this was often done through competition and traditional combat.
Boys and young men were the chief combatants and fought not only in the large open fields near cities and villages but in the sky as well. Kite fighting was extremely popular and, according to Horace N. Allen, an American who lived in Korea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was “the finest sport [for a] Korean boy.” The combatants often coated their kite strings with powdered glass making it easier to cut the strings of their opponents’. Allen wrote:
“The great attraction of this sport consists in sawing in two the cord of a rival. When the kite falls there is such excitement in the chase to get it, that even old men catch the contagion and hobble off in search of the unlucky kite – finders being keepers.”
But kite fighting was not the greatest Lunar New Year competition – that honor belongs to the seokjeon, or stone battle. These battles often took place between two villages or guilds – usually one side claiming that it had been wronged by the other. These battles took place in large open fields and involved hundreds of participants armed with rounded polished stones, iron and wooden cudgels, armor made from twisted straw, wooden shields, and leather caps.
Crowds of spectators, including women and children, watched from the safety of surrounding hills and city walls – much like our modern stadiums – eating and drinking and calling out encouragement to their favorite team while jeering the opponents. Naturally enough, betting was also a part of the event.
From opposite sides of the field, the combatants advanced upon one another hurtling stones as well as insults. When they were close enough to one another, the cudgels and shields were employed.
These pitched battles went on for hours, if not days, and surged from one side of the field to the other. The game ended when one side was completely routed from the field – the victors were treated as heroes while the losers were scorned and cursed.
The injuries were horrendous. Shattered teeth, broken bones – especially about the face and arms – were quite common and even casualties were an expected part of the game.
Even children held their own stone battles. One Westerner observed a children’s battle in 1890 in what is now downtown Seoul. Mothers brought their young sons, some as young as eight years old, to the battlefield where they were divided into two teams. Then, much like the battles of their older peers, the young boys hurled stones and beat one another with their clubs while their parents cheered and urged them on. Undoubtedly, these battles were much shorter than their adult counterparts but were nonetheless as brutal with comparable injuries.
Seokjeon does not appear to have been popular on Jeju Island which had its own type of stone battles – deumdol-deulgi, or stone lifting.
Prof. David Nemeth suggests that jealousy may have been the origin of deumdol-deulgi. According to him, a couple centuries ago, Taerim, a village on the northwestern side of Jeju Island, experienced a rash of bad luck. A geomancer was consulted and he informed the village elders that the land was cursed because of its unbalance. He advised that the balance could be restored if they placed two huge stones, one upon the other, near the village’s border.
The stones were rolled to the site but no one in the village could devise a method to lift one of the stones onto the other – they were just too heavy. The village seemed doomed until, reminiscent of the tale of King Arthur, an unlikely hero appeared – a young villager named Pak, who, single-handedly, lifted one of the stones and placed it upon the other – thus saving the village. Immediately, the village began to prosper and in honor of the miracle that had taken place, the village came to be known as Ipseok – “Standing-stone village.”
But every action has a reaction and the geomantic balancing of Taerim (Ipseok) caused an unbalancing in the nearby village of Suwon. Over the years Taerim began to prosper and was blessed with the birth of many strong sons while the once prosperous village of Suwon b