Traditional Games in South Korea

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Gaming is an important part of South Korean culture. In this lesson, we'll check out some of the more traditional games, see how they're played and consider their role in Korean history.

Games of Korea

The Korean Peninsula is one of those places that people have been crossing for millennia. We tend to think of Japan and China being linked through history, but we forget that most of their exchanges passed through Korea first. As a result, Korea has both influenced and received outside influence from a number of cultures around the world, and that influence is seen in an active cultural fascination with games and entertainment. Today, South Korea is amongst the most active participants in e-sports and online gaming, but Jeontongnori, which translates as traditional Korean games, can also still be found across the nation. With an ancient culture of competition, Korea loves its games.

Kites

South Korea is a country of many games, so let's just go over a few very popular ones of different varieties, starting with kite flying. Who doesn't love kites, right? In Korea, bamboo and paper kites are tremendously popular forms of recreation, associated especially with the Lunar New Year festival and are flown for good luck and well-being. Kite fighting, in which flyers try to knock each other's kites from the sky, is also extremely popular.

The Korean kite may be a recreation item now, but it actually has a long history in the military. According to tradition, kite flying was first used in 637 CE when Queen Chindok's generals launched a burning kite to imitate a shooting star, an auspicious symbol to ease the worries of the people. After that, kites were used to communicate military messages between troops, and even used to shoot off elevated firearms. By the 20th century, kite flying purely for recreation became so widespread that the government started sponsoring official kite-flying competitions. It's an important pastime for many communities to this day.

Chajeon Nori

Next, let's look at a very different form of community recreation. The sport of chajeon nori is basically communal jousting. Traditionally played between two villages, each team contains a group of men and a ''ship'' called the dongch'ae. This ''ship'' is actually two long logs tied together at the top to make an A-frame and contains a small platform between the two logs near the top. One man, the commander, stands on the platform - the top of the ship - to direct his teammates. The rest of the team members then lift the logs and ram the two ships into each other again and again. If your commander falls, or if your dongch'ae touches the ground, you lose.

Nol-Ttwigi

Chajeon nori was a game played by men, and in fact many Korean games were traditionally gender segregated, reflecting the different roles of men and women in Korean society. One game that was long part of women's lives, and is still popular mostly among women today, is nol-ttwigi (or neolttwigi), also known as Korean seesaw. This simple outdoor game is played with a basic seesaw, one person on each end, and often one person sitting in the middle. As opposed to European/American see-saw, however, nol-ttwigi participants stand on the board instead of sitting. The point is to jump as high and fast as you can, propelling the opposite person into the air. The goal is to see who can get the other person the highest in the air, so it can be a bit dangerous.

Nol-ttwigi in South Korea
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Nol-ttwigi is very popular during many festivals, but according to tradition, it was first a game of upper-class female children. Stuck inside their family compounds, they used the game to get a glance at the outside world. Again according to tradition, boys of the village also liked the game since it gave them a fleeting glance of the secluded upper-class girls whose faces suddenly popped above the walls.

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