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© Fred MacGregor

In early 2020, an assignment took me to the wonderful city of Seoul, South Korea. Such opportunities don’t come around every day, so I took it upon myself to learn a bit more about my destination.

Some of the more well-known Korean cultural exports (like food, technology and music) are very contemporary, or at least don’t explicitly reference their heritage. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering the rapid modernisation of the Republic from the 1960’s onward.

The shocking speed at which paddy fields were replaced by high-rise buildings in places like Gangnam arguably led to a de-coupling of Korean people from their recent, more traditional past.

The tradition of Ssireum goes back to before the Common Era, its popularity waxing and waning even after the organisation of a professional body in the 20th Century.

in 2018, Ssireum was Inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Thanks to the Korean Ssireum Association, I was privileged to be invited to Yong In University in order to watch the next generation of Ssireum wrestlers. This short monograph shows a glimpse into the culture around Ssireum, I hope that the people captured in these images go on to push the sport further forwards.

Ssireum (Hangul: 씨름)or Korean wrestling is a folk wrestling style and traditional national sport of Korea that began in the fourth century.

In the modern form each contestant wears a belt (satba) that wraps around the waist and the thigh. The competition employs a series of techniques, which inflict little harm or injury to the opponent: opponents lock on to each other's belt, and one achieves victory by bringing any part of the opponent's body above the knee to the ground.

Ssireum is conducted within a circular ring, measuring approximately 7 meters in diameter, which is covered with mounded sand. The two contestants begin the match by kneeling on the sand in a grappling position (baro japki), each grabbing a belt—known as a satba (샅바)—which is wrapped around his opponent's waist and thigh. The wrestlers then rise while retaining their hold on the other's 'satba.' The match is awarded to the wrestler who forces the other contestant to touch the ground with any part of his body at knee level or higher. Unlike sumo, pushing your opponent outside of the ring does not warrant a win, just a restart. Normally, professional ssireum is contested in a best-out-of-three style match.

There are 3 judges, a chief referee and three sub referees. The chief judge is positioned inside the ring, whereas the sub referees are located on the outside of the ring, one to the right and others to the left. If an unfair judgment is called or the chief referee is unable to render a decision, the sub referees can request a revocation of the decision or a rematch. In addition, they can recommend the cessation of the match when an injury occurs. The referees' decisions throughout the competition are absolute and held in the highest regard, meaning that athletes cannot challenge any judgments declared during the match.

Today there are also women Ssireum wrestlers. Women wrestle only among themselves but follow the same rules (except that men are topless whereas women wear tops).

There are 4 weight classes in professional wrestling: flyweight (Taebaek, 75 kg), lightweight (Geumgang, 90 kg), middleweight (Halla, 105 kg), and heavyweight (Baekdu, under 160 kg), named after the four famous peaks in Korea.

Traditionally Ssireum was contested with the top portion of the trousers rolled down to provide grip. The use of "satba" was invented with the birth of professional Ssireum in the mid-20th century. There is a movement to restore this traditional method of grip, in the spirit of maintaining its cultural and traditional roots, but it has met with some resistance as the use of "satba" has become entrenched in the modern form.

click to view the complete set of images in the archive

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