Folk Games

Subak, Taekwon-Do

Taekwon-Do is a national art of attack and defence using nimble movements of the legs and hands. There are over 3,200 kinds of major movements in Taekwon-Do.

Judging by vivid portrayals of this art in murals in Koguryoperiod tombs, Taekwon-Do has a long history and tradition. At that time it was called subak (hand-striking art). It was an art of hitting or striking an opponent and checking his attacks with the bare hands. In the latter period of the Ri dynasty (18th- 19th centuries) the use of the legs developed, which was called taekkyon. In the Pyongyang region it was noted as nalpharam (agile action), mainly depending on the use of the fists, kicking and head-butting.

Today Taekwon-Do has spread all over the world. Taekwon- Do contests are divided into demonstrations of patterns, contests, and displays of power and special skills. During displays of power the performer chops pine-wood boards in two with the edges of his hands, feet or heels. The special skill of Kim Sin Rak (Rikidozan), a professional wrestling champion in the 1950s and 1960s, was his so-called "right hand of justice", which corresponds to the "hand-knife".


Korean wrestling, or ssirum, has a long history. Two contestants strive to throw each other to the ground, using various grips and holding a strip of cloth bound round the other's left thigh.

It is an official event of the annual people's sports meeting. Murals in a tomb in Jian County, Jilin Province, in China (dating from the late 4th century) and Changchuan tomb No. 1 (mid-5th century) in the same region, both of which belong to the Koguryo period, give a vivid portrayal of wrestling in those days. This shows that wrestling has a long history.

A good wrestler was called yongsa (brave man) in the Koryo period. Wrestling became a staple contest at the Tano Festival and Harvest Moon Day, held in May and August, respectively.

At wrestling contests an ox is traditionally presented as the top prize. The wrestler who wins the contest leisurely returns home, riding the ox which is garlanded with flowers, and followed by the fellow-villagers who have cheered him on. Nowadays, national TV wrestling contests are popular with TV viewers.


Tug of War

The tug of war was traditionally held on the day of the first full moon of the year by the lunar calendar and in some provinces at the Tano Festival or Harvest Moon Day. Now it is held in any place and at any time without special preparation. Formally, the tug of war was held by teams representing rival villages. It used to involve many contestants and several thousand supporters. The tug of war between villages began with the "minor tug of war" by boys 12 or 13 years old, at the beginning of the year. It was the prelude to the main contest, a preliminary contest between villages. As it exerted a psychological influence on the outcome of the major tug of war, all the villages showed a great interest in it. After the preliminary contest, the young winners made a round of the village singing the song of victory and carrying their rope and that of the losers on their shoulders. The contest was continuously performed every evening till the night of the 12th-13th of January, and the villagers cheered their young contestants, by beating gongs and playing on a kind of trumpet called saenap.

\ The main tug of war between older people was held on the 14th of January by the lunar calendar. The rope prepared for the purpose was some 50-60 mm thick, and 30-40 metres long. The contest was held on a meadow on the boundary between two villages. The main tug of war was participated in by several hundred contestants from both villages and watched by all the members of the two villages.

On the day of the contest, people start gathering in the morning, led by people holding banners and a peasant band in colourful clothes and boys and girls dancing to the music. The sound of the peasant band, the excited cheers of innumerable spectators and contestants putting forth their strength seem to shake Heaven and Earth. At the heads of both teams, the team leaders command their teams and supporters, with a flag in his hand. The winning team takes its rope and the losers' and make a round of their village with the band playing in the van.

This contest, which the Korean people have enjoyed from olden times, is now widespread as a cheerful folk contest, as it displays the united might of the collective and helps build up physical strength and endurance. It is now held in any place and at any time. On public holidays high-ranking cadres of the Party and the State take part in this contest together with the working people.


Jumping Seesaw

Jumping seesaw is a contest in which two women, standing at opposite ends of a long board, balanced in the middle, compete to jump higher, coming down heavily on the board. Tradition says that in the olden days women, who were kept indoors almost all day long, practised jumping seesaw in order to get a glimpse of the world outside the wall. At any rate, it has long been a custom for women to dress in colourful clothes and get together on the lunar New Year's Day and on the 15th of January by the lunar calendar every year and enjoy seesawing till late in the evening.

This sport helps build up leg strength and increase lung capacity, and trains the body through balancing and the practice of accurate rhythmic movements. As an exercise involving the whole body, it helps to improve one's figure. Various jumping seesaw stunts performed by the national circus are popular among spectators both at home and abroad. Jumping seesaw is peculiar to Korea and has a long history. As for neighbouring countries, it was practised only in Ryukyu (Okinawa), Japan, having been introduced there from Korea.



Swinging is a contest in which a person standing on a bord held by two ropes hanging from a certain height tries to swing as high as possible, by swinging forward and backward. Swinging contests are so much part of the Tano Festival as to be almost synonymous with it. With the approach of the festival, everywhere in cities and rural villages people swing on swings suspended from willow or pine trees or from crossbars placed between pairs of tall poles in places with a good view. Single swinging and double swinging are practised. The swinger whose foot touches a bell hung high in the air wins the contest.

Unlike jumping seesaw, swinging was practised in other countries, too, but was not so widespread as in Korea, where from olden times swinging contests were held across the country, and especially in the northwestern region. The swinging contest at the Tano festival in Pyongyang was particularly famous. Now it is an event in national contests.


Janggi, Korean Chess

Chess is a fascinating game with countless varieties of moves which sharpens one's thinking faculty. It is played in every country but differs from country to country in the form of the chessmen, the number of chequered squares on the board and the method of play.

It is the custom with the Koreans that the poorer player moves first. Also the older player always uses the red pieces, while the younger player uses the blue pieces. This is out of respect for elders.

The skill of Korean chess is diverse and complicated. It is said that a whole lifetime is needed to master the skill.



Yut is a game in which the players compete with each other by moving markers on a board according to the patterns in which four sticks thrown in the air fall. In the old days, yut was played at the end of the year and the beginning of the next year. Now it has developed into a mass game which is played by all, young and old, men and women, in any place and at any time, to say nothing of during public holidays.

The four yut sticks thrown in the air fall on their obverse or reverse sides, so they give rise to five patterns. When three sticks fall on the obverse sides and one on the reverse side, this is called do, and is given one mark. When two sticks fall on the obverse sides and the other two on the reverse sides, it is called kae, and given two marks. When one stick falls on the obverse side and the other three on the reverse sides, it is called kol, and given three marks. When all the sticks fall on the reverse sides, it is called yut or sshung, and is given four marks. When all the sticks fall on the obverse sides, it is called mo, and given five marks. The board has 29 positions. The positions are said to have been marked in imitation of constellations.

The winner is the first to complete the required rounds of the board by moving his or her markers on the board, according to the patterns in which the sticks fall. Here the skill of throwing sticks in the air is important; what is more important is to use one's brain and watch the board attentively in order to make good moves. It is a widespread pastime, because it is a game many people can play with interest.