Stones, along with sticks, were probably the first weapons used by early man. The stone had an advantage in that it is was also a distance weapon, in that it can easily be thrown or dropped. Stone tips were added to sticks, and spears and arrows were invented. Throughout history there have been battles where stone throwers were legitimate battle troops. (Many more records of ancient troops using slings exist, than just throwing by hand.) However, we know that the Ancient Egyptians used stones in naval battles, both those thrown by hand and those hurled by catapult. Then later the Roman writer Vegetius wrote “recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hands and the sling.” He goes on to add that soldiers “are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy.” Stones hurt and can do tremendous damage to the human body as well as kill.
So it is all the more surprising that at least 1,400 years ago people in Korea were playing a ‘game’ that involved two teams throwing rocks at each other. Think paintball but with stones that could maim or kill you. Called Seokjeon, stone battle, it was first mentioned in the 6th century in Goguryeo, an early Korean Kingdom. Although it is described as a game in the first account there are Chinese records of troops using thrown stones in battle so the game no doubt descended from the military use of stone throwing troops. Korea, being a mountainous country could obviously use stone throwers to great advantage, particularly if they held the high ground. Such troops could be devastating to the enemy below.
By the time of Goryeo ( 10th century) under King Taejo, the military had stone battle game teams attached to military units as well as a separate stone battle corps.
King Sejong who reigned 1418–1450 was famous for many things, but I’m not sure how many people know that he organized a volunteer group of stone battle players.The military stone battle corps was trained differently and was made up of soldiers, whilst the stone battle teams players were volunteers. People volunteered to join the game teams because despite the dangers there were opportunities for civil service positions and financial gain. King Sejong, as well as many of the general population enjoyed watching stone battles as a spectator sport. One did have to make sure however that you were watching from a safe place. One such game took place on Jongno Avenue while King Sejong watched from the safety of a tower. After the game ended he gave out prizes and had doctors tend the wounded. Some time later when he heard of barbarian raids across the northern border he sent his Seokjeon teams as well as his troops.
It was not just official teams that played, local villages would also have matches against each other. These were often held in a valley while spectators lined the sloping hillsides. Matches could go on for hours and sometimes days because not only was the villager’s pride was at stake, they believed their luck was too. The winning team was the one who had driven all their opponents from the field.
Seokjeon became increasingly popular, and was often played at Dano Festivals, along with Neolttwigi (seesaw game), Geune Ttwigi (swinging), and Ssireum (wrestling). The game was banned by the Correctional Tribunal when the injuries became too many, and too severe. All the ban did, however, was drive the game out into the countryside. A much later account from the late 19th century describes the game along with a note that the players wore body armor of twisted straw and had leather caps on their heads, so it sounds that the game had evolved a little over time. The game continued to be played up until the Japanese Occupation of Korea, (1910-1945) when the Japanese deliberately tried to get rid of much of Korea’s cultural identity. Also you don’t want expert rock throwers as your enemy, as Israel knows with at least 14 dead in recent years from rocks thrown by Palestinians.
Seokjeon didn’t make a comeback after the Japanese left, although Neolttwigi, Geune Ttwigi, Ssireum and other traditional games can still be found in Folk Villages and at Festivals. The Gangneung Dano Festival is one of the largest, and U.N.E.S.C.O has designated it “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.
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