Hwaetbul ssaum (Kor. 횃불싸움, lit. torch fight) is a combat-like event in which neighboring villages fight using torches as the main weapon. The activity takes place during the Great Full Moon Festival in the evening of the fourteenth or the fifteenth of the first lunar month. It is performed along with festival customs such as jwibul nori (Kor. 쥐불놀이, lit. mouse fire game), dalmaji (Kor. 달맞이, lit. welcoming the moon) and daljip taeugi (Kor. 달집태우기, lit. burning the moon house). The custom of torch fighting is no longer practiced in modern Korea. In the past, it was most common in the southwestern part of the peninsula. The number of participants varied depending on a village’s population.
A few days before the event, villagers made torches by covering the top of old broomsticks, hemp stalks, bushclover stalks, or bamboo tubes with straw, or by tying up mugwort stems into bundles measuring about 1m long. In the evening of the Great Full Moon Day, the villagers went to the farm fields and used the torches to set fire (jwibul, Kor. 쥐불, lit. mouse fire) to the grass and weeds surrounding the fields. As the fire progressed and the flames reached the boundary of neighboring villages, children tried to stoke the flames so that the fire would spread to the other villages’ fields. This would eventually lead to a torch fight between young boys of the two neighboring villages. The skirmish was to an extent unavoidable, given that the practice of setting fire on the edges of farm fields was used as a means of predicting the farming success of the year ahead. Thus, the wider the fire spread, the better it was thought for the village. As a result, villagers purposefully set the fire so that the flames covered the broadest possible area, and the competition quickly led to torch fights with other villages.
A group of brave adolescent boys would lead the first attack in a torch fight. The attack consisted of waving torches in the direction of the opponents in order to force them to retreat. Young adults usually joined the fight when they saw children of their village losing ground. A torch fight could also start in another way: the fire set on the edges of the fields was kept within the village’s area but with the rise of the moon the people from one village would come to the boundary between the villages and mock the other village’s people in order to provoke a fight.
The tradition of this war game gradually waned through the 1950s, with the last records of the practice dating from the 1960s. The custom of setting fire to the fields also underwent many significant changes: as Western goods became more available, villagers started to replace torches with empty cans stuffed with pine knots or oil-dipped cotton swaths.