Tradition or Dirty Novelty? A Visit to South Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival

Swinging one leg over the rim of the blowup pool, I use its buoyancy to push myself back up on the other side. My toes grip at the bottom of the mud bath as I wade over to my spot in line. Bending your knees, I learned by observing, is key in not skidding to the ground, a blooper shot for one of the many photographers surrounding the pool.

On the opposite side of the mud bath, another team of 12 people face us and we all turn to hold onto the waist of the person in front of us. “Fight-ting!” We echo the emcee, a common war cry in Korea that’s meant to embolden and excite. Shirt tails in hand and squatting low, both teams move in a circular, twisting pattern towards the other.

The objective seems to be to kick as much mud at the opposing team as possible, make a lot of noise, and get them dirty. Nobody came here to remain clean.

It’s my first taste of South Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival, celebrating its 20th year on Daecheon Beach. It began in 1998 as a marketing technique to promote Boryeong’s cosmetic industry and its age-fighting mud.

“It’s unique,” says one attendee, who came to the festival on Saturday with her younger daughter and her own mother. “Korean people think the ground is the most important for their life. We can get energy from the ground, so they think the mud is the same thing,” she adds.

But the real novelty of the festival lies in how bizarre it is.

The event is circus-sized, in a gated arena, but really it takes over all of Boryeong. From the epicenter at Daecheon Beach, the festival sprawls down every street to make room for the vendors, food stalls and homestays that will likely make their yearly profit off this two-week stretch where room prices nearly triple.

The beachside festival has 57 stations where visitors can become unrecognizable with mud:

In a chamber with walls that are oozing mud, a group of 10 walks in and turns their backs to the prison bars. There are spigots above them that plaster their skin, and staff members hurl bucketloads and fistfuls of mud at their backs.

A young boy in a mud soccer pit arches his shoulders and dives onto the ball, tripping his three adult opponents into immediate mud masks.

“Oh, so that’s what your face looks like,” an American I’ve met tells me after I’ve jumped into the sea to clean myself.

More western men, with haircuts and builds that read military”, observe the mud games from just outside the barrier. They’re wearing bathing suits and nursing soju bottles, Korea’s highly potent rice liquor, as if they are beers. It’s 11 in the morning.

Audibly, it’s easy to tell there are many foreigners. The normal chatter of Korean background conversation has morphed to English like changing a radio station, and I’m reminded how much inadvertent eavesdropping I miss while living in a country where I don’t speak the language.

Everyone I know in South Korea is here. As I lace through the crowd with my plastic-bagged camera held safely in the air, I’m greeting people I’ve met in Seoul, or on trips around Korea before.

I lose my friends on the beach. I find them, lose them again. Each time, I call the one member of the group brave enough to take his cell phone into the mud games. “We’re near the tent,” they yell over live music, while I look out across endless tents on the beach. Or, another time, “Can you see me? I’m holding my beer in the air, and I’m next to the gigantic slide.”

There are two gigantic slides, and an unreasonable amount of beer cans in the air.

Last summer, Boryeong Mud Festival attracted around 3.95 million visitors, 439,000 of those being non-Koreans. “Foreigners make the festival,” Dong- Seog, a volunteer for Boryeong Mud Festival Organization Committee said. In fact, the event is nationally recognized specifically for that reason, as it attracts more tourists than any other gathering in the country.

Aside from being award-winning for its participant pool, Boryeong Mud Festival was awarded Korea’s Representative Festival by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for three consecutive years (2008-2010). Several Korean officials from the event agreed with this title, though their reasons seemed only to cite the size, and the two-decade long history of the event, as demonstrably “Korean”.

Rachel, a four-year expat in Sokcho, is hobbling through a street fair, supported on either arm by her friends, when I approach her. She had taken a spill off her post in the mud-fighting pit, and been splinted by the medical staff near the entrance to the festival. “I mean, the mud’s nice, and I heard it’s really good for your skin and everything,” she tells me, “but as far as representing Korean culture, I don’t see a lot of Korean themes.”

Another participant, a native South Korean, compared the event to the La Tomatina festival in Spain, where thousands of participants hurl tomatoes at each other in a gigantic food fight. “Not Korean culture.”

In the mud pit, my team snakes inwards for 30 seconds before the emcee booms what I guess is congratulations. I am told of the opposing teams’ victory by the body movements of the Koreans behind and in front of me. They kneel down with their backs facing our opponents, and I follow a half-beat later. Man-made waves of mud flow into and over us, covering every bit of our skin, hair and clothes. This is punishment, but it feels more like fun.

By late evening on Saturday, it seems everyone here has lost at one point or another. Identifying features are given over to mud entirely. Everyone is barefoot and gray blue, the color of cement. They (we) look like statues, the like street performers you see standing petrified among foot traffic in a city.

It is no longer clear who is and isn’t Korean – I realize as I again attempt to scout out my friends from another traffic jam of people – let alone what is and isn’t Korean culture.

All photos by Jenna Kunze.

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