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Discovering Shared Values in the Tug-of-War of Asia

Every culture seems to have its own form of tug-of-war. While the different tug-of-war manifestations have common features in keeping with climate and environment, they also have the unique characteristics based on the cultural environment in which they develop. In East and Southeast Asia, the tug-of-war has been historically and intricately linked to rice cultivation culture and is therefore largely found in agricultural societies, where the tug-of-war has been performed as a ritual to pray for rain or to predict the upcoming harvest.

As part of such efforts, in 2013, Dangjin City and ICHCAP proposed conducting a field survey project on the traditional tug-of-war in Southeast Asia. Subsequently, the two organizations held international symposiums in 2013 and 2015 that formed the basis for the interchange of culture and information, established international collaborative research between institutes and researchers, and formed the framework for comparative research of various tug-of-war cultures.

Onto the groundwork, Cambodia, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Vietnam made multi-nomination of the ‘Tugging Rituals and Games’ as the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at 10.COM(2015).

We hope to catalyze a renaissance of tug-of-war through collaborative efforts and to reaffirm the need for safeguarding and researching tug-of-war culture.

Korea Juldarigi

The Korean tug-of-war has many different features following the different regional characteristics, but they also have similar patterns. It is possible to speculate that the diverse characteristics of each region’s tug-of-war is due to the area’s geo-ecological, sociocultural, and magico-religious factors and culture exchange.

The Korean tug-of-war is practiced in two different ways; those held at a certain fixed time, and others held in special cases. The latter case implies special circumstances, such as an extreme drought or an epidemic. The tug-of-war events held during certain fixed times would most likely be practiced before and after the first full moon of the lunar calendar year (daeboreum). However, when reviewing literature from the past, we can find that tug-of-war events were also held during the fifth day of the fifth month of the year according to the lunar calendar (Dano) and on the Korean Thanksgiving Day (Chuseok).

The tug-of-war is mostly implemented during beginning of the year to bid farewell to the old year and greet the new, but it has also taken place during Dano and Chuseok in some regions. Usually Daeboreum, Dano, and Chuseok are classified as holidays, but when considering the cultural characteristics, these are in the turning points of the year and seasons, and they were regional festivals for communities to organize and systematize a year.

Vietnam Keo Co

There are many variations of tugging rituals and games (keo co) in Vietnam, characterized by multi-ethnicity and territorial regions. In general, keo co is practiced by different communities across the country, from north to south, mountains to plains. However, tugging rituals and games are concentrated mostly in the northern midlands—the Red River Delta and North Central region, where the Viet (or Kinh, the majority people) has long resided and is the cradle of the wet rice and Red River civilizations. Besides, keo co is also played widely by ethnic minority groups who are the pioneers of rice cultivation in northern mountainous areas, such as Tay, Thai, and Giay.

Tugging rituals and games are often held as a part of spring festivals within villages, marking the beginning of a new agricultural cycle and expressing wishes for bumper crops, prosperity, and happiness. Tugging rituals and games are often organized in front of a village’s communal house or shrine, after commemorative rites to the local protective deities. The materials used in tugging vary from region to region; they can be made of bamboo poles, rattan cords, or hemp.

Diversity of tugging rituals and games reflects the diversity of communities, because the heritage represents the living expression of the unique traits of the different communities. At the same time, tugging rituals and games share strong commonalities regarding the themes of fertility, prosperity, and harmony. It is essentially part of agricultural rituals and thus bears the characteristics of agricultural culture, weather, and crops.

Cambodia Teanh Prot

In Khmer, the term teanh prot is a compound of teanh (pull) and prot (a type of rope traditionally made of woven strips of buffalo or cowhide). Thus, teanh prot literally means “to pull the rope made of the woven strips of the buffalo or cowhide.” However, different kinds of rope are used. Some materials include vine, woven rattans, or simply plastic rope.

Teanh prot is played at the end of the Chlong Chet ceremony. The game is often played in open spaces of Buddhist monastery compounds, of a village, or just in front of someone’s house.

It is possible to suggest that the game commonly derives from rice cultivating communities since time immemorial and spread throughout Asia. The significances of Teanh Prot are marking the passage of time, recreating social order and perfect time, and bringing enough rain for eternally coninuing lives.

Philippines Punnuk

The punnuk is a tugging ritual of the village folk from three communities in Hungduan, Ifugao in Northern Luzon, Philippines. It is performed at the confluence of Hapao River and a tributary as the final ritual after the rice harvest. Its consummation brings to a close an agricultural cycle and signals the beginning of a new one.

The punnuk is a ritual of pomp and revelry. Garbed in their predominantly red-colored attire of the Tuwali ethno-linguistic subgroup, the participants negotiate the terraced fields in a single file amidst lush greens under the blue skies. The tempo builds up as the participants reach the riverbank, each group positioned opposite the other. The excitement is sustained through the final tugging match, and the sinewy brawn of the participants is highlighted by the river’s rushing water.

The yearly observance and practice of the punnuk expresses the people’s celebration, reverence, and recognition of the importance of safeguarding the geo-physical features of their environment such as the watersheds and forest covers that have sustained their communities’ rice-based agricultural economy for hundreds of generations.