Australian Ssireum Association

History of Ssireum

Ssireum is one of the oldest sports in the Korean Peninsular with a history extending back to the origin of a distinctive Korean language and culture. The tomb of the Wrestlers is a monument found in China, just across the border from North Korea and dates from the 4th century when the region was controlled by the Kogyro Dynasty. On the walls of this tomb are mural paintings with depictions of ssireum wrestlers in combat looking exactly as the sport is played today. Documents from the Koryo Period in 1330AD state that the king was criticised by his court officials for ignoring affairs of state in preference for practicing ssireum, so popular was its reach. 


The Yi Dynasty took control of the whole peninsular in 1392 and renamed the country Choson or Land of the Morning Calm. Ssireum was an incredible popular spectator sport in this period and there are several surviving pieces of art that verify this, including paper prints and paintings that have depictions of well supported sporting events held during the national Chuseok Harvest Festivals each September. Some of these artworks are now treated as national treasures by the South Korean government.


In the late 19th century foreign incursions by China, France, the USA and Japan destabilised the ruling dynasty setting off the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion of 1894 which saw Ssireum become a genuine military art used to train both soldiers and rebels. The Japanese intervention in this crisis ultimately lead to the annexation of Choson as part of the Japanese Empire and for the next half century Ssireum struggled to survive, as did all forms of Korean cultural expression which were repressively outlawed.


Despite this and in a direct act of defiance, in 1927 the Pan-Choson Ssireum Federation was created to organise clandestine national championships and this group somehow continued to function until 1940, when nearly all young, healthy Korean men were conscripted into the Japanese military. After 1945 Korean culture began its regrowth and the Korean Ssireum Federation was reformed but only five years later the peninsular was split in two by the world superpowers and the Korean War then took the lives of nearly a quarter of the population. Naturally this was the darkest period in Ssireum's history as basic survival took precedence over fun and games. Although a detent was declared in 1953 the Korean War has continued over the proceding 60 years making it one of the longest periods of continued hostility in world history.


In 1972 a major university competition in South Korea saw the sport gain a very large following which prompted several major Korean corporations to sponsor a professional championship in 1983 called the Chon ha Chang sa or Strongest Under the Sun. A large trophy in the shape of a bull ox, the animal considered by Korean farmers to be the most powerful beast of burden, was given to the winner of this title and until recently this was one of the most popular sporting events in South Korea. 


Unfortunately recent economic downturns and political intrigues within the Korean Ssireum Federation itself have impacted on the continued growth of the activity and in the last few years the sport has seen a decline like never before in its history. Most young Koreans prefer to play video games rather than participate in their own unique sporting heritage and Ssireum is perceived by many as an old fashioned, archaic pastime played only by rural farmers rather than sophisticted urban elites. There is a core group of men and women in South Korea who are actively trying to reverse this trend and they recognise the importance the sport has played to both Korean history and Korean cultural identity.


The World Ssireum Federation

Ssireum continues to be played in North Korea and by the large number of ethnic Koreans living in China but Korean migration around the world has been quite extensive for the last half century. The Korean Diaspora now reaches into almost every country and from the 1980s migration to Hoju, the Korean word for Australia, has been quite large. By current statistics there are over 150,000 Koreans living in Australia and every major city has its own Korea Towns in which Australians can experience the wonderful cuisine of the country through Korean BBQ restaurants. 


All of these Korean communities arrange friendly Ssireum tournaments during their national Chuseok and Tano holidays bringing a new international awareness to this ages old traditional style of wrestling. The Korean Society of Sydney's annual festival is quite large and thousands of spectators cheer very loudly when the competition is held around the moraepon sandpit. Similar scenes occur in several large American and European cities explaining how the sport can see such phenomenal global growth in the last few years.


In 2008 a committee came together in Seoul to create the World Ssireum Federation to coordinate the promotion of the sport internationally. They have formed a close alliance with FILA the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles and continental bodies have formed in Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America with one soon to be created on the Sixth Continent of Oceania.  

Please look at the site for the World Ssireum Federation for more information;


The Australian Ssireum Association

Despite the fact that popular Ssireum tournaments have been held in Australia since the early 1980s and that a professional team of Ssireum wrestlers from South Korea visited Sydney to do a show in 1996, there has been no general way to manage the sport as a coordinated national activity up until now. In the 2010 the Australian Ssireum Association was created with this in mind and close connections have been made with our counterparts in New Zealand.


The aim of these groups is to promote the sport both inside and outside the confines of the Korean communities opening it up to participants from a broad array of backgrounds. Ssireum is one of the safest forms of combat sports with the match started in a catch hold position with opponents gripping onto each others satba belts. Done on a large sandpit even if you are thrown the impact is generally absorbed by the cushioning effects of the sand. Not only is it safe but also fun to play with children often the most active particpants.


So the sport is beginning its growth in Australia much as the Korean martial arts of Taekwondo and Hapkido have done for the last 20 years. In 2010 Australian competitors almost participated in the Ssireum World Cup held in Seoul but political instability in the Peninsular prevented this from eventuating. Future opportunities will arise in which Oceania representatives can challenge these other countries at international events and if this is of interest to you please contact the Australian Ssireum Association through this site. A team has now competed at the 2012 World Ssireum Cahmpionships in Busan South Korean, marking our first entry into international competition and the association is now working at further promoting the sport around Australia and Oceania. 


Not only will tournaments continue to be held at Korean Festivals across the land but an Australian Ssireum League is in the planning with the sports promoter Henry Daunt taking on this challenge. If this has sparked your curiosity then please follow the developments through the Facebook site for the Australian Ssireum League. I hope we see you at one of these shows in the near future and the Australian Ssireum Association can also be found on Facebook at;



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