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Engraving of a photograph of a stone battle outside of Seoul (1902)

Words BY Robert Neff

A hundred years ago, many Koreans spent their New Year appeasing evil spirits and throwing stones at each other.

In the early 1890s, Pyongyang was described as one of the vilest cities in Korea, filled with violent-tempered residents who opposed Westerners, especially Christians, in their city. It was also infamous for the destruction of the merchant vessel General Sherman in 1866.
One of the earliest missionaries to live in the city was Mattie Wilcox Noble, a five-foot-three, 102-pound woman, who accompanied her husband William Arthur Noble and ended up staying in the city for nearly four decades. It is through Mattie’s diary, peppered with missionary smugness and disdain for Korean beliefs, that we are able to glean what Pyongyang was like during the Lunar New Year in 1898.
The streets of Pyongyang were a kaleidoscope of colors. Children in bright-colored clothing played in the streets or accompanied their parents on holiday visits to their relatives. But not all of their bright clothing was for appearance some articles were worn as good-luck charms. Even the sky was filled with color. Boys and men flew colorful kites with strings lined with broken glass that battled with one another in the sky. One of Mattie’s fellow missionaries, Rosetta Hall, claimed that it was nearly impossible to walk down the streets without becoming entangled in kite strings. But kites were not the only things in the sky:
[Over] many houses, suns & moons & shoes cut out of paper, [were] put up in sacrifice. Over each gateway was a new paper fetish in honor of the gateway evil spirit. Inside the fishermen’s homes [were] the sounds of the sorcerer’s drum and dancing while over their roofs were the fantastically made flags, all in the effort to gain the fish god’s favor for the coming year.
Fetishes were objects that were regarded as being the habitation of potent spirits or having magical abilities to help ward off malevolent spirits. While visiting the home of one Korean family Maggie observed some fourteen fetishes scattered throughout the house and dedicated to different spirits. These fetishes were presented with gifts of clothing and rice.

Postcard of Eulmildae (watch tower at the castle)

It was extremely important to keep the spirits happy especially during the New Year. One hunchbacked girl confided in Mattie that she never left her yard for fear of being ridiculed by her neighbors. The Koreans, Mattie explained, believe all misfortunes to be sent by evil spirits for wrong doing, so the people would laugh on seeing the child’s deformity as being sins brought to light & the parents and the child’s reproach by the evil spirits. 
But perhaps the most important event during the Lunar New Year was the seokjeon (stone fight). Mattie experienced her first stone fight in Seoul in March 1893. She described it as a battle between two groups of men armed with pieces of wood and stone for the amusement of the people, like the old Romans’ gladiatorial combats.
For the most part, she was correct. Two sides, often representing different villages or guilds, would equip themselves with polished stones, iron and wooden cudgels, armor of twisted straw, wooden shields, and leather caps for helms and meet outside the city to fight. In Pyongyang, it was held in a valley just outside the Westgate in a natural amphitheater.
The fights drew huge crowds of spectators, who lined the city walls and hillsides. They make a strange sight dotting the hillsides, nearly all dressed in white or pale colors with here & there one dressed in red, green or purple. The children who are not in mourning dress in gay colors, observed Mattie.
The battles lasted for hours if not days, and surged from one side of the field to the other, causing the spectators that had gotten too close to the action to flee for their lives or be trampled by the rush of the fleeing participants and their pursuers. The battle ended when one side was chased from the field of battle. The victors were heroes and models for young boys to look up to, while the defeated sulked off, swearing revenge.
The injuries were horrendous: broken bones and noses, shattered teeth, and bruised bodies. Not surprisingly, there were often fatalities as well. In Pyeongyang, Mattie noted that two or three men are killed in the fight each day.

Hyeonmu-moon (gate) in Pyeongyang, circa 1910 (both built in 7th Century)

But it wasn’t only the adults who took part in these stone fights. Mattie recalled in Seoul passing a group of boys imitating their elders and playing stone battle. Small boys were encouraged to take part in battles of their own believing that it would make them strong, brave and fearless. Mothers brought their young sons, some as young as eight, and divided them into two teams of equal numbers, usually neighborhood against neighborhood. One Westerner in Seoul noted that large crowds of adults gathered to watch these battles, made wagers and encouraged their sons and yelled curses at the opposing side’s combatants.
These battles lasted for hours, filling the air with the children’s screams of pain and the cheers of excitement from the crowd. They only ended after one side forced the other from the field. The victors were given presents by their parents and treated as heroes, while the vanquished made their way home in humiliation. As with the adults, many of these youngsters suffered serious injuries.
During that New Year of 1898, Mattie had only one really bad experience. Just as she and her husband were entering the city gate after an evening walk, someone threw a huge stone at them. Fortunately it missed.
For some Koreans, the Lunar New Year was a time for chasing away evil spirits and unwanted guests including missionaries like Mattie Noble.

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