Yang-myeong Han
Professor, Department of Folklore, Andong National University

During Dan-o, Daeboreum, and Chuseok, pre-modern Koreans used to hold celebrations composed of rituals to the communal deity, communal games, and various folk arts. Among the communal games, the tug-of-war was the most common. It was widely distributed around the central southern region of Korea and played simultaneously or in rotation with other communal games.

The Korean tug-of-war was practiced at the county level and the village level. The county-level tug-of-war was conducted on a small scale with participation limited to residents of the county center. However, during extraordinary circumstances, such as a full harvest or an epidemic, the game was expanded to include the entire county with people participating in village teams. The village-level tug-of-war was also practiced on a small scale, limited to individual villages, but it too was expanded into a larger inter-village tug-of-war during emergencies or unusual circumstances.

The tug-of-war rope was made of straw. However, in regions along the east coast, such as Uljin, kudzu vines were used until the 1920s and 1930s when straw started to be used. Later still, ropes were made from hemp and nylon of fishing nets. Records show that hemp and kudzu were commonly used as the main rope materials while bamboo and bark were used as reinforcement.

Today, there are three kinds of rope— the double rope, the single rope, and the crab rope. The single rope is common in the Honam region while the double rope is used in some areas of Honam as well as throughout the rest of the country. While the single rope has no gender symbolism attached to it, the double rope is made of a female rope and a male rope. With the crab rope, red color, and sharp claws of the crab are thought to ward off evil while crab’s numerous eggs symbolize fertility. Thus, tugging a crab rope is interpreted in folk tradition as bringing about prosperity and fertility.

Members of a geographic community are divided into two sides in the Korean tug-of-war. Teams are divided by gender or geographical space. When the sides are divided by gender, the female side includes not just women but also unmarried men. On the other hand, geographic demarcations are usually drawn according to east and west, north and south, or upper and lower regions. Division by gender is most common in single-rope games as well as double-rope games in Honam and Gyeonggi. The other tug-of-war variations divide teams according to geography.

The performance space for the tug-of-war depends on the length of the rope and regional geography. In inland regions, tug-of-war games are usually held in wide fields or large roads while small-scale games can also be held in alleys. Open spaces near riverbanks may be used in inland regions near large rivers. In coastal regions, the games are often held on beaches.

Korean tug-of-war games are accompanied by preliminary games and af ter games. When the rope is finished being made, preliminary games take place. These games are based on the size and form of the rope. In the case of large double ropes, each side carries a player on the rope head and travels through the village. When the two sides meet, they battle. The most famous of these is the knot battle of Otdol Village in Gwangju City. The most famous after game is the knotting tree battle of Yeongcheon in North Gyeongsang Province. The knotting tree battle is a fight to take over the tree that was used in the forming of the rope. The fighters from each side are positioned at the head of the rope and fight to take control of the knotting tree. The side that manages to occupy the tree at the predetermined deadline wins.

As the tug-of-war is a festive game, it displays strong festive qualities. The weakening and overturning of hierarchical human relationships is one of these. The bias in favour of the female side in the single-rope tug-of-war of Jeolla Province is a clear example of how the everyday male-centric social order is overturned. The same goes for the double rope tug-of-war in which teams are made of both men and women. In Pyeonghae, North Gyeongsang Province, there is a story about a recently married young woman reaching between a man’s legs to get hold of the rope during a tug-of-war. She later realizes that the man was her father-in- law. This shows the festive nature in which everything loses meaning except the act of tugging at the rope together.

The magico-religious quality of the Korean tug-of-war can be traced to Earth Goddess worship, the symbolic re-enactment of sexual intercourse in fertility rituals and dragon worship. In all forms of the tug-of-war, the victory of the female side or its equivalent is interpreted in the fortune-telling tradition to mean peace, prosperity, and fertility for the community. Such positive interpretations of the female victory are connected to the Earth Goddess faith. On the other hand, the joining of the male and female ropes in the double-rope tug-of-war is seen as the union of the two sexes. In most regions, the male and female ropes are referred to as the male dragon and female dragon, and the joining of the two ropes is seen as their sexual union. Dragon deities in Korean folk faith have the combined characteristics of agricultural deities and water deities. The tug-of-war is seen as an expression of the agricultural aspects of the dragon deity faith in the form of a game. Meanwhile, the interpretation of the joining of the ropes as a sexual union is based on the association between form and act, which leads to the magical belief system that sexual acts, real or mimicked, brings about prosperity and fertility.