Wrestling with Ssireum: Korean Folk Game vs. Globalization
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Ssireum is a Korean form of grappling. Wrestlers grip sashes that are looped around their opponent's waist and thigh while competing inside a sand circle with the goal of making any part of their opponent's body above the knee touch the ground. In Korea ssireum is understood to be a national sport developed during the country’s modernization in the early 20th century that has origins as a thousands-of-years-old folk game. By the start of 21st century ssireum's popularity had waned and a once prosperous professional league collapsed. The effects of globalization are frequently cited as the cause. However, the sport continues to be played at various levels throughout the public education system in addition to semi-pro and amateur leagues. This dissertation asks the question, "What does it mean collectively to play ssireum?" The answer comes from fifteen months of participant observation and interviews in Korea's collegiate ssireum league. The goal is to establish the first major body of academic information about ssireum and to place it within the larger cultural context of contemporary Korean society. Fieldwork data is interpreted using theories drawn from Roger Abrahams, Fredrik Barth, Pierre Bourdieu, and Eric Hobsbawm. Ssireum's ritualized use of symbols appropriated from the past is a means of maintaining the boundaries of an ethnic identity that allows everyone involved to assume they are "playing the same game." Ssireum is a vehicle for negotiating, performing, and evaluating a unique identity. For those involved, playing ssireum makes Koreanness. Ssireum dramatizes a traditional identity which has incorporated distinctly modern ideologies about the world. The relationships of people within ssireum are inextricably linked to existing protocols for social interactions in Korea; recruitment of talent, training regimens, competition events, future careers, and industry solvency could not be maintained otherwise. Globalization, frequently invoked in the rhetoric about ssireum, fills contradictory roles of boogeyman and savior, and misdirects attention away from counterproductive internal processes damaging the industry.
Sparks, Christopher A. (2011). Wrestling with Ssireum: Korean Folk Game vs. Globalization. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from