Not Just for KicksCHEONGJU, North Chung-cheong -- Several hundred of the world's most dangerous men and women gathered here in central Korea -- and the crowd loved 'em.
Spectators gasped at the athleticism of the Chinese wushu performers, winced at the efficiency of the Belarussian kororus men and sighed at the elegance of the Indonesian pencak silat practitioners.
These snapshots come from the fifth Cheongju World Martial Arts Festival, an annual event that has become, according to Lee Si Jong, mayor of Cheongju, the largest such event anywhere.
Empty hyperbole from the mouth of a tourism promoter? Probably not. With teams from 31 foreign countries participating, plus 18 domestic squads, the festival may indeed be the finest exhibition of combative disciplines currently held internationally. "I have practiced the martial arts for 22 years in Britain, Japan and Korea," says Rupert Atkinson, 40, a British aikido instructor based in Seoul, "and to my knowledge, this is the biggest event of its kind."
The fest featured fighting arts as varied as Russian sambo self-defense and Sudanese nuba wrestling, Japanese karate-do and native North American war dance. Domestic teams demonstrated bodyguard tactics, sword cutting and, of course, the spectacular kicks for which Korea's martial arts are famed. Noticeably absent among the local teams participating, though, were representatives of Korea's national sport, taekwondo. However, the festival's location is appropriate: the Korean city of Cheongju (pop. 595,000) stages the national training center of Korea's traditional martial art, taekgyeon.
Content varied. A Moldovan wrestling exhibition started with a group of raucous lads drinking from and dancing around a barrel of liquor; a Russian self-defense demonstration blended singing, dancing, and soju drinking with throws, locks and strikes to the groin. The professional athletes of the Shanghai wushu troupe delivered an awesome display of flying feet and blurring feet, while the South African Zulu stickfighters took a more humorous approach to their 15 minutes, with plenty of laughing, playing and dancing.
The highlight of the festival for this writer was the controlled combat that took place on Saturday evening. On a stage ringed by flaming torches -- and spectacularly back-lit by sheet lightning silhouetting the mountains ringing the city -- Indonesian silat practitioners did battle with Korean taekgyeon stylists in a sparring exhibition; the evasion and angling of the Indonesians versus the ballistic kicks of the Koreans.
Beyond the demonstrations, a museum of weaponry and martial arts equipment was set up in Cheongju Stadium. Exhibits included prehistoric knives, automatic rifles, martial arts uniforms and ancient armor. In the forecourt of the stadium, scores of stalls were set up, dispensing everything from jade jewelry to local produce. In the evenings, when the tented food and drink stalls opened for business, a lively atmosphere abounded. And naturally there was no shortage of the no-holds-barred kitsch, without which no Korean festival can take place: tiny taekwondo figures for sale, a martial arts character show, and a couple in bear and rabbit suits to amuse the little ones.
The organizers are to be applauded on their effort to utilize English. English-speaking volunteers were mobilized effectively, and both written and spoken translations of most events were mostly accurate. (Mostly. "A Wine Sale Suspect Shop" proved to be a tasting stall for traditional wines, while the motto on the official Web site is a puzzling "Encounter of the 5,000 year ethnosoul with the World Martial Arts!")
But while the degree of international participation and the quality of the demonstrations was beyond reproach, whether the organization reached international standards is another matter.
Consider that this year's events took place not in one location, but three (Cheongju Stadium forecourt, Suanbo Spa and Anseong Spa: the latter two places are a 30-minute drive from Cheongju). "We had no idea how to get to Suanbo," said Canadian visitor Roy Collingwood, 32, upon arrival at Cheongju, "so one of the organizers, Park Jae-chol, drove us there in his own car. The Koreans came through in blazing style." Despite these acts of kindness, festival decentralization inconvenienced some visitors.
Consider also that every day, no martial events kicked off before noon; mornings were taken up with Korean cultural performances. "I came here to see martial arts, but instead I am watching a Korean shaman dance," said Mr. Collingwood, a 19-year martial arts veteran and resident of Ilsan who had traveled to Cheongju especially for the fest. With this timing, and martial events underway concurrently in three separate locations, it was impossible for anyone on a day trip to see much more than a quarter of what was offered. "You could see twice as much if they ran the demonstrations both morning and afternoon," suggested Mr. Collingwood.
Worse, no provision was made for the weather. When the gods decided to loose thunder and rain on Saturday evening, the last demonstrations on the Cheongju stage forecourt stage were called off, instead of simply being moved inside the stadium 30 meters away. On Sunday, at the Suanbo demonstration area, only two of the day's scheduled 12 demonstrations were completed before a downpour began: the rest were called off. This despite the fact that van-loads of fans continued to arrive after the 30 minutes or so of rain finished, and despite the fact that the hotel next to the stage had a grand hall that could have accommodated fans and the performers (a Japanese sword master did indeed take the initiative and give an impromptu seminar there during the deluge).
And while this event is world class, it appears not to be marketed worldwide. A number of foreign visitors were certainly in evidence, but none of those approached by this writer proved to have visited from outside Korea: all were current residents. International marketing was restricted to AFN Korea, Arirang TV and two Hong Kong outlets.
None of this is to say that the Cheongju World Martial Arts Festival is not a terrific event for both aspiring Bruce Lees and anyone with a mere passing interest in the ways of foot and fist. But if you decide to visit next year, don't bother turning up early.
And pack an umbrella.
The Cheongju Martial Art Festival continues until Thursday.
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