Ringing in the lunar new year in Korea, called Seollal (설날) in Korean, offers Koreans and tourists a chance to be a spectator at one of Korea’s longest standing traditions, ssireum (씨름) wrestling. The Korea Ssireum Association holds about 20 tournaments each year, with the Seollal event being the biggest. At this tournament champions walk away with pride, a trophy, and a 20 million won check (~$18,000). The second biggest event is during Chuseok (추석), or the fall harvest holiday, and winners there get just half of that amount.
The four day event dedicates a single day to each of the four weight classes: Taebaek Group (less than 80kg), Geumgang Group (less than 90kg), Halla Group (less than 105kg), and the Baekdu Group (less than 160kg). The four weight classes are named for different mountains on the Korean peninsula, increasing in size along with the weight class.
The rules are simple. Both men interlock grips in the center of the ring by grabbing a hold of the opponent’s belt called a satba (샅바) in Korean. The referee helps with this to ensure fairness. Once the referee is satisfied, he starts the round. Each round is 1 minute. The first player to get the other player to touch the sand with any part of his body from the knee up, wins the round. In all but the final, the matches are best of 3 rounds. In the final, it’s best of 5 rounds.
The referee stops the clock anytime the players go out of bounds, or if the referee wants to stop the action so the players can reposition themselves closer to the center of the ring. The referee can also give yellow or red cards to the players for not listening to his commands during the interlocking of grip phase. Two yellow cards equals a red; anything over a red gets you disqualified from and declared the loser of the round. The referee can also give cards for not attacking during the match.
If in the event that nobody wins the round, the winner is decided in one of two ways. First, if one of the players has a red card but the other one doesn’t, the player without the red card wins. If neither player has a red card, or both have one, the players step on a scale and weigh their bodies. The lighter player is awarded the victory.
Jim over at Tripologist, and his wife sat with me during the Halla Group matches. He has an excellent write-up about it. My favorite Halla Group player, Lee Ju-yong (이주용), won the final match, however, there was a bit of controversy. Lee went up against Woo Hyeong-weon (우형원). The match was full of yellow and red cards which led to Lee losing a round because of receiving a red card and ultimately Woo losing the fifth and final round due to fouling out. I know that rules are rules, but I’d prefer to see the guys wrestle for the win.
The Beakdu Group was another story. Jang Seong-bok (장성복) and Lee Seul-gi (이슬기) faced off in a fantastic final for the heavy weight division. Jang was the 2011 Chuseok tournament champion, and pretty much the guy to beat. Right before the first round, Jang stretched his arms to the sky and let out a warrior’s yell, typical of ssiruem players to do as they enter the arena. Jang won the first round quickly.
Before the second round, Lee threw his arms into the air and burst out his own yell, and not to be outdone, Jang yelled too. The crowd cheered wildly at this exchange of bravado. Jang won again and went up 2-0, putting Lee in a position where, in order to win the tournament, he would have to win three matches in a row. From here on forward, there would be no more yells. In an amazing feat, Lee, with his back against the wall, won the next three rounds in row to become the champion.
Sitting at my desk and looking back, this was definitely the best ssireum experience I’ve had yet. Not so much because the matches were that much better, but because I was able to meet Koreans who went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. The first was Mr. Choi Chang-shik (최창식), the planning director for the Korea Ssireum Association, who gave me permission to shoot photos anywhere I needed to along with him. He also introduced me to other directors and took me to eat lunch in the wrestlers’ dinning area. The second was Mrs. Wang Shil-ee (왕실이), a singer for the event who I met last fall. She sat with me the whole tournament, introduced me to the mayor of Gunsan, and to my favorite wrestler Tae-hyeon Lee (이태현), for which I am eternally grateful.
Korea Ssireum Association (Official)
Korean Wrestle Mania: The 2012 Seollal Tournament (Tripologist)
2009 Jinju Chuseok Ssireum Wrestling Championship (Tigers & Magpies)
2010 Seoul Seollal Ssireum Wrestling Championship (Tigers & Magpies)
2011 Yeosu Chuseok Ssireum Wrestling Championship (Tigers & Magpies)
Korea’s 7 “Can’t Miss” Festivals (Korea How)