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.

Children are much encouraged in this sport, it being supposed that they are thus made strong, brave and fearless; and I have actually seen mothers bring children of only eight or nine years old up to the scratch, against an equal number of lads urged on by their mothers on the other side. One boy on each side, generally the pluckiest of the lot, is the leader, and he is provided with a small club, besides wearing on his head a large felt hat with a sort of wreath round the crown, probably as a protection against the blows that might reach his head. After him come ten, twenty, or more other children in their little red jackets, some armed with a club like their leader, the others with armfuls of stones. A good mound of this ammunition is also, as a rule, collected in the rear, to provide for the wants of the battle. The two leaders then advance and formally challenge each other, the main body of their forces following in a triangle; and when, after a certain amount of hesitation, the two have exchanged a few sonorous blows with their clubs on each other's skulls, the battle begins in earnest, volleys of stones are fired and blows freely distributed until the forces of one leader succeed in pushing back and disbanding the others.

A fight of this kind, even among children, lasts for several hours, and, as can well be imagined, at the end of it there are a great many bleeding noses and broken teeth, besides bruises in profusion. The victor in these fights is made much of and receives presents from his parents and the friends of the family. The principal streets and open spaces in Seoul, during the fighting period, are alive with these youthful combatants, and large crowds assemble to witness their battles, taking as much interest in them as do the Spaniards in their bull-fights, and certainly causing as much excitement.

More serious than these, however, are the hostilities which occasionally take place between two guilds. When I was in Seoul, there was a great feud between the butchers and those practising the noble art of plastering the houses with mud. Both trades are considered by the Coreans to belong to the lowest grade of society; and, this being so, the contest would naturally prove of an envenomed and brutal character. A day was fixed, upon which a battle should take place, to decide whose claims were to prevail, and a battle-field was selected on a plain just outside the South Gate of the city. The battle-field was intersected by the same small frozen rivulet which also crosses Seoul; and it was on the western side, near the city wall, where stood a low hill, that on the day appointed I took up my position to view the fight, sketch and note-book in hand.

The two armies duly arrived, and placed themselves in position, the butchers on one side of the stream, the plasterers on the other. There were altogether about eighteen hundred men in the field, that is to say, about nine hundred on each side. As I could not get a very good view from my high point of vantage, I foolishly descended to the valley to inspect the fighting trim of the combatants, with the result that when the signal for the battle to begin was given I found myself under a shower of missiles of all weights and sizes, which poured down upon me with incredible rapidity and solidity. Piles of stones had been previously massed together by the belligerent parties, and fresh supplies came pelting down incessantly. I must acknowledge I did not enjoy my position at all, for the stones went whistling past, above my head, fired as they were with tremendous force by means of slings.

The confusion was great. Some men were busy collecting the stones into heaps again, while others were running to and fro - going to fetch, or carrying, fresh ammunition to the front; and all the time the two armies were gradually approaching one another until at last they came together on the banks of the narrow stream. Here, considering the well-directed pelting of stones, it was difficult to say which army would succeed in dislodging the other. Those on the opposite side to where I was made a rush upon us, but were fired upon with such increased vigour that they were repulsed; then, however, concentrating their forces on one point, they made a fresh attack and broke right into our ranks, fighting corps a corps, and pushing back the men on my side, until the whole of their contingent was brought over to our side of the stream. I was not, of course, taking any active part in the fighting, but, seeing the bad turn the struggle was assuming, I made up my mind that I was destined to have my own skull broken before the fray was over. Though the duelling was fierce, however, each man being pitted against his opponent with clubs and drawn knives, and hammering or stabbing at him to his heart's content, I, somehow, was in no way molested, except of course, that I was naturally much knocked about and bruised, and several times actually came in contact, and face to face, with the irate enemy.

If you can imagine eighteen hundred people fighting by twos in a comparatively limited space and all crowded together; if you can form an idea of the screaming, howling, and yelling in their excitement; and if you can depict the whole scene with its envelopment of dust, then you will have a fair notion of what that stone-fight was like. The fighting continued briskly for over three hours, and many a skull was smashed. Some fell and were trampled to death; others had very severe knife wounds; a few were killed right out. When the battle was over, few were found to have escaped without a bruise or a wound, and yet, after all, very few were actually killed, considering how viciously they fought. Indeed, there were in all only about half a dozen dead bodies left on the battle-field when the combatants departed to the sound of the "big bell" which announced the closing of the city gates.

After a long discussion on the part of the leaders, it was announced that the battle was to be considered a draw, and that it would, therefore, have to be renewed on the next afternoon. The argument, I was told, was that, though the other side had managed to penetrate the camp on my side, yet they had not been able to completely rout us, we having made a firm stand against them. For the following two or three days, however, it snowed heavily, and the fighting had to be postponed; and on the day it actually did take place, to my great sorrow, I was unable to attend, owing to a command to go to the palace. To my satisfaction I was subsequently informed that the plasterers, that is to say, my side, had ultimately come off victorious.

The police generally attend these battles, but only to protect the spectators, and not to interfere in any way with the belligerents. Soldiers are prohibited from taking any active part in fights which have no concern for them; but they may fight as much as ever they please among themselves during the free period allowed by the law. The fights of the latter class are usually very fierce, and are invariably carried out with bare chest and arms, that their uniforms may not be spoiled.

When that dreadful fortnight of fighting is over, the country again assumes its wonted quiet; new debts are contracted, fresh hatreds and jealousies are fomented, and fresh causes are procured for further stone-battles during the first moon of the next year.

Such is life in Cho-sen, where, with the exception of those fifteen days, there is calm, too much of it, not only in the morning, in accordance with the national designation, but all through both day and night; where, month after month, people vegetate, instead of live, leading the most monotonous of all monotonous lives. It is not surprising, then, that once a year, as a kind of redeeming point, they feel the want of a vigorous re-action; and, I am sure, for such a purpose as this, they could not have devised anything wilder or more exciting than a stone-battle.

The King himself follows with the utmost interest the results of the important battles fought out between the different guilds, and reports of the victories obtained are always conveyed to him at once, either by the leaders of the conquering parties, or through some high official at Court.