▲ A stone battle raging outside of Joseon-era Seoul. These battles were often held at New Year to settle real or imagined slights from the year ending. Photo courtesy Robert Neff
In a land that was often described as dirty and dreary, Joseon Korea’s New Year holiday inspired a contrast - a time of plenty and color. It was longer than the Western holiday, usually about two weeks, and was celebrated with feasts of large amounts of food and great quantities of alcohol. It filled the streets with people: adults dressed in their best, visiting neighbors and exchanging gifts, while children roamed and played in the streets dressed in their bright native clothing. Even the air was alive with color.
In the cold breezy days leading up to the New Year, the hazy gray skies were filled with large colorful bamboo and paper kites, often manipulated by small boys who compelled their kites to such heights that they almost disappeared from view. While the small boys were probably praised for their skill, it was not their kites that held the onlookers’ attraction. It was instead the kites of the older boys and young men who used them not as children’s toys but instead as weapons in elaborate dances of aerial combat. These warriors often coated their kite strings with pieces of powdered glass and then, with great dexterity, attempted to sever their opponents’ kite strings. Horace Allen, the American Minister to Korea, said that when one of the kites fell there was so much excitement in the chase to recover it that even old men caught the contagion and hobbled off in search of the unlucky kite - finders being keepers.
Not only was there combat in the air, but on the ground as well, and it was often costly in life and limb. Henry Savage-Landor, an early visitor to Korea, observed: “All the anger of the past year is preserved until the New Year festivities are over, but then free play is straightaway given to the bottled-up passions.” Part of this bottled-up passion was unpaid debts. It was expected that the debts of the previous year would be paid prior to the New Year; those who failed to do so were often hunted down in the streets by their creditors and soundly thrashed. These thrashings and fights almost always provoked betting amongst the onlookers, especially, according to Savage-Landor, when women of the lower class were the combatants. Frequently bettors lost their entire day’s wages on the outcome of these fights.
Perhaps the most important of these fights were the Soek-choen, or stone battles. Two sides, often villages or guilds who felt they had been wronged by the other side, armed with polished stones, iron and wooden cudgels, armor of twisted straw, wooden shields, and leather caps for helms, would meet outside the city and begin fighting. These battles lasted for hours if not days, and surged from one side of the field to the other, causing the spectators that had gotten too close to the action to flee for their lives or be trampled by the rush of the fleeing participants and their pursuers. The “game” ended when one side was chased from the field of battle. The victors were heroes - models for young boys to look up to -and the defeated sulked off, swearing revenge. Even the palace and King Kojong kept abreast of the results - but probably more for political reasons than entertainment.
The injuries were horrendous: broken bones and noses, shattered teeth, bruised bodies, and, not surprisingly, there were often casualties. Husbands, sons and brothers, died in these games, but no one was punished for their deaths - the fatalities were deemed unavoidable accidents, and depending on the outcome, were either viewed as a hero’s death or just an unfortunate player’s.
The adults were not the only ones to participate in these wars. Small boys were encouraged to take part in battles of their own believing that it would make them strong, brave and fearless. Mothers brought their young sons, some as young as eight, and divided them into two teams of equal numbers, usually neighborhood against neighborhood.
The fights lasted for hours and only ended after one side forced the other from the field. Like the adults’ battle there were injuries: broken bones and noses, shattered teeth and badly bruised bodies. The victors were cheered by the crowds of onlookers, given presents by their parents and treated as heroes by their peers, while the vanquished made their way home and licked their wounds in humiliation.
Not only was the air filled with the sounds of battle, but also smoke and the rank smell of burning hair and fingernail clippings. Many Koreans kept the fingernail clippings and locks of hair from their combs and brushes and burned them in small iron pots in front of their houses on the last day of the year. This prevented one of the many Korean demons from causing mischief within the household. It was also believed that through the use of these personal items, hexes or curses could be cast upon the former owner, so it was essential to destroy them. Some people wrote the misfortunes and calamities that had befallen them the previous year on pieces of paper and gave them to small boys to burn. It was believed that burning them would ensure that the same calamities did not reoccur.
In the days before and following the New Year the streets were often filled with temptation. People often made small dolls out of straw and affixed small coins to them, usually where the eyes would be, and then tossed them into the street to be trampled upon by the animals and passers-by. They believed that the dolls contained the troubles and bad luck of the household and if someone should pick up the doll, then the troubles would follow them back to their own homes. Small children, out of their innocent curiosity, were more likely to pick up the dolls, especially when they noticed the money on them, and would bring them home. Imagine the evil that befell the poor child when their mother realized what they had brought within their home. Perhaps this is why many Koreans believe that found money should be spent before going home. Horace Allen also suggested that some beggars and outcasts whose luck was so bad that it could not be made worse would take up the dolls in order to obtain the few coins to buy alcohol and thus the bad luck would be transferred to him.
Savage-Landor sarcastically noted that after the New Year holiday, “new debts are contracted, fresh hatreds and jealousies are fomented, and fresh causes are procured for further stone-battles” for the next year. Once again, Korea became the Land of the Morning Calm.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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