Ssireum – Korean traditional wrestling

If you are a fan of the Korean variety show, Running Man, you may have seen a number of times that the MCs and the guests played ssireum (씨름) – Korean traditional wrestling in which two players compete by grabbing the opponent’s satba (샅바 – a cloth belt tied around the waist and thigh) and trying to knock the opponent down by using strength and techniques. You can watch this video for one of the episodes of Running Man in which ssireum was played.

In January 2017, the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration has designated ssireum as a national intangible cultural asset.  An application has also been submitted to list ssireum as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO and the final decision will be made in 2018.  Let’s talk about this traditional Korean sports in this post.

History of Ssireum

Ssireum has a long history in Korea.  It began in primitive societies in which people needed to protect themselves against hostile tribes and wild beasts, and to hunt animals for food.  Later, various wrestling techniques developed, and ssireum became a military art during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC-AD 668).  During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), ssireum became a popular folk competition, and has also become a part of celebrations held for important Korean festivals like Dano Festival and Chuseok.

The ssireum competition was first televised in 1972, and ssireum reached its heyday in 1980’s with champions getting hefty prizes and becoming national celebrities. For example, the champion of the first Ssireum Champion Competition in 1983 won a prize of 15 million won, which was equivalent to the cost of a mid-sized apartment in Seoul at the time.

However, in the 2000’s, with the loss of corporate sponsorships after the Asian financial crisis, the popularity of ssireum has declined significantly.  In 2016, in order to boost the sport’s popularity, the Korea Ssireum Association hosted the Korea Open Ssireum competitions for 6 days for different participants, including Korean and foreign wrestlers, college students and women.  It is hoped that with the designation as a national intangible cultural asset, ssireum can regain popularity among the Koreans.

Rules of Ssireum

Ssireum competitions may be in the form of individual or group competitions. Victory is determined by the individual player or the group winning two out of three rounds of competition.  Time limit of each round varies according to category and may be 2 or 3 minutes.  Extended round may need to be held if there is no winner in a certain round.

The two players compete in a circular sand-filled ring, and during the match a player is defeated if any part of the player’s body above the knee touches the ground or the player steps out of the ring.  Actions hindering the opponent’s performance such as squeezing the neck, hitting with the head, twisting the arms, kicking with feet, covering the eyes, etc., are prohibited and can be grounds for revocation of the right of further participating in the competitions.

Cheonhajangsa (천하장사), which means the strongest person under the heaven, is the title given to the winner of tournaments for ssireum.

Ssireum as an expression of Korean traditional culture

The Koreans think that ssireum reflects the Korean philosopy of unity and harmony – it is a sport focusing on strength and techniques and does not inflict serious harm on the opponent.  In addition, the ring in which the competition is held represents the twelve animal gods of the zodiac to protect the land, and the red and blue colors of the satba (which are also used in South Korea’s national flag) represent yin and yang, or harmony.  Together with its long history, it is no surprise that ssireum has been designated as a national intangible cultural asset in South Korea.

At the end of this post, let’s watch a video depicting a ssireum match between Kang Ho-dong (a former ssireum champion who has become a well-known variety show MC) and Rain, (a famous Korean star well-known for his strength) in the variety show, Knowing Brothers (아는 형님).  Who do you think will win?  Click this link to the video to get the answer.

Reminder: You can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  For flash news on Korean culture, you can also follow me on Twitter (Kalbi8888).  



Kim Hyesung, “Ssireum designated intangible cultural asset in Korea“, Arirang News, 2017-01-13

Korean traditional wrestling Ssireum designated intangible cultural asset“, Yonhap News Agency, 2017-01-04

Baek Byung-yeul, “Korean wrestling ssireum competition to kick off“, The Korea Times, 2016-11-15

Korean Culture and Information Service, Guide to Korean Culture, Republic of Korea: Seoul, 2016, pp.290-296

Lee Sang-jun, “Traditional Korean wrestling faces its toughest bout yet“, CNN Travel, 2011-07-28

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