CHAPTER XVIII. Fights - Prize fights - Fist fights - Special moon for fighting - Summary justice - The use of the top-knot - Cruelty - A butcher combatant - Stone-fights - Belligerent children - Battle between two guilds - Wounded and killed.
One of the characteristic sights in Cho-sen is a private fight. The natives, as a rule, are quiet and gentle, but when their temper is roused they seem never to have enough of fighting. They often-times disport themselves in witnessing prize-fights among the champions of different towns, or of different wards in the same town, and on these occasions large crowds assemble to view the performance. The combatants generally fight with their fists, but, like the French, are much given to use their knees and feet as well in the contest. Much betting, also, goes on amongst the excited spectators, and it is not seldom that a private contest of this kind degenerates into a free fight.
The lower classes in the towns thoroughly enjoy this kind of sport, and the slightest provocation is sufficient to make them come to blows. The curious point about their fighting is that during the first moon of the new year all rows can be settled in this rough and ready manner, without committing any breach of the law. Hence it is that during that moon, one sees hardly anything but people quarrelling and fighting. All the anger of the past year is preserved until the New Year festivities are over, but then free play is straightway given to the bottled-up passions. Were a man even to kill his antagonist during a fight at this legalised season, I doubt whether he would be imprisoned or punished; very likely not.
For about fifteen days, in truth, things are simply dreadful in the streets. Go in one direction, and you see people quarrelling; go in another, and you see them fighting. The original causa movens of all this is generally cash!
When a deadly fight takes place in the streets, you may at once set it down as having arisen over, say, a farthing! Debts ought always to be paid before the old year is over; and, occasionally, grace is allowed for the first fifteen days in the first moon; after that, the defaulting debtors get summary justice administered to them. Creditors go about the town in search of their debtors, and should they come face to face, generally a few unparliamentary remarks are passed, followed by a challenge. Hats are immediately removed, and given for safe keeping to some one or other of the spectators, a crowd of whom has, of course, at once assembled; and then the creditor, as is customary under such circumstances in all countries, makes a dash for his debtor. The main feature about these fights, so far as I could judge, was the attempt of each antagonist to seize hold of the other by his top-knot. Should this feat be successfully accomplished, a violent process of head-shaking would ensue, followed by a shower of blows and scratches from the free hand, the lower extremities meanwhile being kept busy distributing kicks, really meant for the antagonist, but, occasionally, in fact often, delivered to some innocent passer-by, owing to the streets of Cho-senese towns not being as a rule over-wide.
When in a passion, the Coreans can be very cruel. No devices are spared which can inflict injury on the adversary, and scratching and biting during these fights are common concomitants. One afternoon, as I was returning from a call at the Japanese Legation, and was proceeding down a slight incline, riding Mr. Greathouse's horse, I witnessed a dreadful scene. A butcher and another tradesman were settling questions in their own delightful way, and were knocking each other about. At last, the butcher felled the other man with a blow of a short club - like a policeman's club - which is often made use of in these fights. As the man lay motionless on the ground, the other, far from being content with what he had done, seized a huge block of wood, one of those upon which they chop up the meat, and, lifting it up with a great effort, dropped it on his antagonist's head, with a dreadful sounding crack, which smashed his skull, as one would a nut. Then, sitting triumphantly on the wooden block, he solicited the compliments of the spectators.
Special interest is taken when the women fight, that is, among the very lowest classes, and frequently the strings of cash earned during the day are lost or doubled on the odds of the favourite.
The better classes, it must be said to their credit, never indulge in fist-fighting in public, though occasionally they have competitions in their own compounds, champions being brought there at great expense and made to fight in their presence. I believe they consider it to be degrading, either first, to lose one's temper, or secondly, to administer justice in such a fashion.
The most important contests of all are the stone and club-fights, which are a national institution, approved by the Government and patronised by everybody. They sometimes attain such large proportions as to be regular battles. Supposing that one town or village has, from motives of jealousy or other causes, reason to complain of a neighbouring city or borough, a stone-fight during the first moon is invariably selected as the proper method of settling the difference. Private families, with their friends, fight in this way against other private families and their allies; and entire guilds of tradesmen sometimes fight other guilds, several hundreds of men being brought into the field on either side.