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2020-11-06 14:06:02

YUNNAN, Southwest China — At the end of an ochre-red country road, a dense crowd of over 3,000 people squeezes onto a grassy slope surrounding a circular gravel pit.

Tanned men sitting in rows joke loudly as they smoke cigarettes and long cylindrical bongs. Giddy children fuss and play on family picnic mats. Young couples in hoodies and skinny jeans stand around holding hands, while tight-knit pockets of elderly women in embroidered black garments grin and laugh as they pass around snacks.

It’s a friendly, boisterous scene typical of community life in rural China. But this is no ordinary festive event: The crowd is here to watch ferocious brawls between hulking male water buffaloes.

The tournament in Shilin Yi Autonomous County — an agricultural region in southwestern China — will see more than 70 cattle fight in one-on-one bouts over a succession of knock-out rounds, with the eventual winner crowned “king of the bulls.” The owner of the top animal will take home a commemorative plaque, a live goat, and over 160,000 yuan ($24,000) in cash.

Bull 17 hooks and lifts his opponent high above him with his horn during a bullfight at an arena in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Bull 17 hooks and lifts his opponent high above him with his horn during a bullfight at an arena in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

It’s just one of dozens of bullfighting events held in Chinese venues during October’s weeklong national holiday. Though few in China’s major cities are aware of it, the sport is quietly thriving in the country’s Southwest, where it’s especially popular among the region’s ethnic minority communities.

Bullfighting traditions in China stretch back millennia, but it has grown increasingly popular over recent decades and has even started to gain the trappings of a professional sport. The biggest tournaments now take place in dedicated arenas and attract advertising deals and broadcasters, with champion bulls acquiring bona fide celebrity status.

Yet as the sport modernizes, it’s also starting to butt horns with Chinese animal welfare advocates. Though fans insist bullfighting is an important ethnic tradition and far less cruel than its more famous Spanish counterpart — as bulls rarely die in the ring in China — their opponents consider it a barbaric throwback that needs to be banned as soon as possible.

Shi Qunchun, however, doesn’t pay too much attention to this debate. For the 38-year-old, the sport is not only an all-consuming passion, it’s also his livelihood.

Bullfighting is about the spirit behind it all: We revere and respect the bulls’ bold courage and indomitable mentality.

Shi is one of two professional livestreamers who are keeping fans updated on the day’s action from the edge of the bull pit. When he’s not commentating or filming with his tripod-mounted camcorder, he’s sending tournament updates to thousands through group chats on social app WeChat, or handing out cigarettes and energy drinks to friends from a seemingly limitless supply.

Anticipation for today’s tournament is high, Shi tells Sixth Tone. It’s the final day of a three-day event, which will feature the largest buffaloes, with a chest size of up to 222 centimeters. Over 200 people have paid to access his livestream.

“There are a lot more people here than yesterday, because the prize money is high and there are many famous bulls,” says Shi. “It’s quite attractive to people.”

On the opposite side of the arena, a pair of rusty gates swings open and two bulls with gnarly crescent-moon horns and white numbers spray-painted on their flanks lumber into the ring. They’re guided by their handlers, who lead them firmly using ropes looped through their nose rings.

“These are old opponents — they’ve met before,” says Shi, leaning close to the camcorder so his online viewers can hear. “Bull 7777 doesn’t have a name, but we call him ‘Little Shanghai,’ because his breed comes from that region.”

After being released by his handler, Little Shanghai charges full pelt at his opponent, Bull 19, as a swell of anticipation rises from the crowd. The other bull, seeing the imminent danger, crouches as he braces for impact. Seconds later, the animals collide with a resounding crack of horn and skull.

Shi Qunchun checks social media group chats on his phone during a fight in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Shi Qunchun checks social media group chats on his phone during a fight in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Bull 7777, known as “Little Shanghai,” battles his opponent during a tournament in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Bull 7777, known as “Little Shanghai,” battles his opponent during a tournament in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

There’s a brief moment of confusion, and then Little Shanghai and Bull 19 are locked in a neck-to-neck tussle. Brown gravel sprays as the animals wrestle along the arena floor, sinewy muscles visibly twitching and straining from the effort. As they approach Shi’s side of the ring, the bulls’ guttural grunts can be clearly heard over the roars of the crowd.

For Shi, it’s the visceral excitement of encounters like this one that draws crowds to bullfighting events. “It’s just like in any sport,” he says. “You really never know what will happen.”

A member of the Sani Yi ethnic group from rural Yunnan, Shi occasionally saw bullfights at traditional festivals as a child. But it wasn’t until 2012, when he happened upon an event in his home village, that his passion suddenly ignited.

“The bulls were fighting in the final, and it was all taking place just 2-3 meters from me,” Shi recalls. “When their horns clashed, I was astounded by the sight — and instantly drawn to it. Bulls fight so fiercely. There’s a strong sense of power, and a beauty, to it.”

For others, bullfighting is an expression of something deeper. Yang Liping, a local business owner who has 10 fighting bulls, says he invests in the sport because it’s an important part of Sani Yi culture. At its core, bullfighting isn’t just about violence, he insists.

“People who like bullfighting definitely think it’s something fun,” says Yang. “But more than that, it’s about the spirit behind it all: We revere and respect the bulls’ bold courage and indomitable mentality.”

Bullfighting isn’t unique to the Sani Yi. Ancient Chinese writings describe blood sports involving a number of different animals, including tigers, ducks, horses, dogs, rams, quails, crickets, and roosters, as well as bulls.

While bullfights used to take place all over the country, they’ve long disappeared from most provinces. Though there’s no law explicitly banning animal fights in China, few local governments are willing to grant approvals for such events.

In Yunnan and neighboring Guizhou province, however, bullfighting traditions have survived, despite attempts to suppress them during the decadelong Cultural Revolution beginning in the 1960s. The sport is especially popular among the Miao, Sani Yi, and Zhuang peoples — ethnic minorities with differing customs, languages, and mythologies, but which all venerate bulls as culturally important.

In these hilly regions, bulls played a vital role as agricultural beasts of burden until very recently. They’re often spiritually revered and employed in ritualistic sacrifices, which continue underground to this day. Though Sani Yi farmers rarely rely on the animals for their labor these days, people still like having them around and they remain a meat staple, according to Shi.

“Everyone says they’re just big pets,” says Shi. “It’s like how other people might raise birds or dogs. It’s the same.”

Sani Yi people offer varying explanations for how bullfights first arose in the region.

Shi says the tradition began naturally due to the bulls’ propensity to wrestle in exciting displays, while Yang says the first events were organized as a way to settle rice paddy water disputes between villages.

Left: A bull is transported to a tournament; Right: Shi Qunchun livestreams and films a famous bull outside a large bullfight arena in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Left: A bull is transported to a tournament; Right: Shi Qunchun livestreams and films a famous bull outside a large bullfight arena in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Another popular origin story is that two farmers once allowed their bulls to fight, but when no clear winner emerged after many hours, they decided they’d train their bulls at home and have a rematch in a year’s time.

In the 1980s, bullfighting only took place during a few traditional festivals in Shilin. At the time, the winners of these festive events would win glory for their home and village, and receive a symbolic prize, such as a sickle or a piece of red cloth.

Over the past 40 years, however, bullfighting has become increasingly popular and commercialized as the region has developed and local businesspeople have woken up to the sport’s potential.

Ticketed, paid events have become the norm and now happen throughout the year. Competition prizes have also ballooned. From the late 1980s, winners started to win black-and-white TVs — a luxury item in China at the time. Later came color TVs, then DVD players, fridges, washing machines, cars, pickup trucks, and finally thick wads of cash containing hundreds of thousands of yuan.

Since 2008, the sport has also been boosted by the emergence of a single superstar bull: Optimus Prime — named after the “Transformers” character — who came from Shi’s home village.

In the eyes of bullfighting fans, Optimus Prime was an extremely holy and awesome bull.

Optimus Prime won legions of fans with his unique and aggressive combat style. He would charge so fast that he’d often do a forward somersault due to the excessive momentum, or flip his opponents backward. He had so many exciting fights, vendors started selling DVDs with highlights of his top bouts, which attracted many new viewers to the sport — Shi included.

“He was like basketball’s Michael Jordan or soccer’s Lionel Messi,” says Shi, showing Sixth Tone a photo of himself standing next to Optimus Prime. “In the eyes of bullfighting fans, he was an extremely holy and awesome bull.”

Bulls are normally given a different number whenever they enter a competition, but like Jordan, Optimus Prime was famous enough to always keep the same number — in his case, 5. His owner would be paid up to 50,000 yuan just to attend tournaments, often traveling hundreds of kilometers for events.

After the bull died in the summer of 2019, Optimus Prime was given a religious funeral and his tomb in Guizhou became a shrine, which people visit for good luck. By that time, he’d single-hoovedly raised the profile of his entire sport.

A bull handler exercises his bull — named Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon — in the countryside near Guiyang, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

A bull handler exercises his bull — named Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon — in the countryside near Guiyang, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

“This bull was the muse that led many of us bullfighting enthusiasts into the hobby,” says Shi. “Many places in China don’t have water buffaloes, but many people came to know, understand, and appreciate bullfighting after clips of his videos spread online.”     

Today, the bullfighting industry is big enough to support a small ecosystem of peripheral businesses. Stalls selling everything from lamb skewers to plastic dinosaurs pay rental fees to set up at tournaments; film producers make and sell fight DVDs; and livestreamers like Shi provide content to paid subscribers and pay a small license fee to event organizers.

Bullfights are now a medium for advertising, too. Long red banners promoting local businesses hang from the walls of bullrings, and bulls are often spray-painted with local company names and contact numbers, like sponsors on soccer jerseys. Two bulls fighting on the same day as Little Shanghai had “Eastern Express Delivery” and “Maple Yue Guesthouse” written on their flanks.

Wealthy local businesspeople like Yang, meanwhile, are willing to invest large sums in the sport. Known locally as “bosses,” they keep the bullfighting scene running by organizing events, building stadiums, and buying the best bulls from farmers at a premium.

Yang says investing in bullfighting doesn’t make big profits — and often in fact incurs losses — but he does it anyway for the sake of both personal enjoyment and as a form of cultural preservation. A former coal mine owner in his 50s, he says bullfighting is a release from the stress of business.

“Being in a trade as dangerous as the coal industry, I used to have a lot of pressure,” says Yang. “But as I watched bullfighting … all these emotions of mine would fade away. It was definitely good for my mental health.”

A handler watches two bulls with bloody, muddied horns locked in a long stalemate during a fight in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

A handler watches two bulls with bloody, muddied horns locked in a long stalemate during a fight in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Bosses pay big money for promising young bulls, Yang says. The record price paid for a fighting bull in Shilin is 860,000 yuan — enough to buy a luxury car. For local farmers, raising champion bulls can offer a route out of poverty — either by selling them, or by keeping them as tournament-winning cash cows.

“If their bull wins, they’ll definitely be in a wonderful mood … Oh, they’ll definitely invite friends over to eat and drink,” says Yang, unleashing an unexpectedly high-pitched giggle. “The improvement in life standards winning bulls can bring to farmers’ families is considerable.”

Back in the ring, Little Shanghai has finally started to gain the upper hand.  He twists his opponent’s head with his horns, digs down to get under him, and then launches him high with a deft movement. The crowd roars in approval.

Deciding he’s done for the day, Bull 19 now breaks and turns, running as fast as he can with wild, fear-filled eyes as Little Shanghai pursues him. “Chase! Chase!” cries the commentator.

The fight is now over. In most events, contests are halted after one of the animals submits. If neither has given up after six minutes, the bulls are pulled apart by their hind legs, a draw is declared, and both advance to the next round.

A crowd gathers around a hillside to watch bullfights at an event in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

A crowd gathers around a hillside to watch bullfights at an event in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

For the audience, however, the chaotic fun has just begun. They let out whoops as two teams of cowboy handlers in red and yellow bibs desperately try to restrain Little Shanghai and stop Bull 19 from fleeing.

Eventually, some of the younger cowboys grab the bulls’ horns on either side, while others throw themselves onto their backs. Once stopped and separated, the bulls appear to calm down surprisingly quickly, and their handlers lead them out of the “exit” gate, winner first. Bull 19, desperate to get away from his tormenter, makes pitiful squeaking noises like a chewed dog toy.

Bullfighting fans say the sport has become safer and more humane as it has professionalized. The arena-building spree that has taken place across Guizhou and Yunnan over the past decade means that crowds are now protected by high walls, whereas traditional venues were often little more than flat open spaces.

Bulls used to compete in arbitrarily defined divisions irrespective of their size, but now they’re categorized by waist size and weight. In some Guizhou contests, bulls with short legs aren’t allowed to compete, because they can easily damage their opponents’ eyes with their horns. Fights used to have no time limits, but now all bouts before a tournament final last only six minutes, which is kinder to the bull and speeds up the events, says Shi.

A winning bull with blood around his eyes prepares to be led out of the bullfight arena in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

A winning bull with blood around his eyes prepares to be led out of the bullfight arena in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Yet as Little Shanghai and Bull 19 lumber up a slippery mud path away from the arena, their battle wounds — not so visible from a distance — are painfully apparent. Bright, bleeding scratches crisscross their sides. The tips of their horns — filed to be extra sharp before competitions — shine red with blood, while their mane hair is also blood-soaked.

The bulls must win seven or more of these fights to be crowned champion at the end of the day. Between rounds, handlers give the animals eggs, Red Bull energy drinks, painkillers, and liquor to keep up their battle lust.

Occasionally, bulls sustain serious injuries, including broken legs, broken horns, concussions, and gouged eyes. Post-fight clips shared in WeChat bullfighting groups show bulls with gaping black holes poked in their faces and behind their ears. Deaths are rare, but can occur when two charging bulls meet in the ring.

The blood-spilling hasn’t gone unnoticed. Though bullfighting isn’t well-known in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the sport has attracted attention from animal welfare groups as clips showing injured animals have proliferated on Chinese social media.

We cannot tolerate this kind of attitude that appreciates cruelty to animals — it’s completely inappropriate in a civilized society.

Qin Xiaona, founder and director of the Beijing-based Capital Animal Welfare Association, is one of those campaigning for bullfighting to be banned outright. In her view, the sport constitutes animal abuse and promotes violence, especially among impressionable young children.

“This kind of animal-based entertainment should disappear as society grows increasingly civilized,” Qin tells Sixth Tone over a phone call. “We cannot tolerate this kind of attitude that appreciates cruelty to animals — it’s completely inappropriate in a civilized society.”

For Qin, China’s failure to pass a law against animal cruelty and stamp out blood sports like bullfighting is dismaying — and runs counter to trends happening across most of the developed world. She blames Chinese authorities and media for allowing such practices to be painted as precious-but-fading remnants of minority groups’ cultural heritage. 

In reality, however, bullfighting is thriving, often buoyed by the support of local governments eager to make money through tourism and live events. “As we’ve become more civilized, wealthy, and cultured as a people, animal fights have not only not disappeared or been controlled, they’re even increasingly being encouraged in these border regions,” says Qin. “This is a totally abnormal social phenomenon.”

When they share content related to their hobby online, fans of the sport now regularly find themselves targets of criticism. Huang Fei — a 21-year-old whose family raises four fighting bulls in Guizhou province — recently received backlash after posting a clip of her holding a red cloth bullfighting trophy on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok.

Left: Huang Fei’s bull swims in a pool by a disused quarry; Right: Huang Fei takes pictures at the pool near Guiyang, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Left: Huang Fei’s bull swims in a pool by a disused quarry; Right: Huang Fei takes pictures at the pool near Guiyang, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

“I hate you people! Always exploiting the lives of bulls to entertain people,” wrote one commenter. “If you really loved bulls, you wouldn’t tolerate bullfights,” another comment read.

But Huang, who is Han Chinese, rejects her critics’ characterization of bullfighting. She says people need to appreciate that the sport has developed over thousands of years, and claims the animals are well-treated.

“Big city types like you don’t understand bullfighting — you just think it’s cruel,” Huang tells Sixth Tone. “Actually, fighting bulls undergo training, and if they get hurt, we give them painkillers and apply medicine to their injuries. It’s not like we just ignore it if they get hurt.”

Huang’s older brother, 25-year-old Huang Chao, points out that fighting bulls arguably live better lives than other bovines. While most Chinese bulls are slaughtered for their meat at the age of 3, fighting bulls can live for over a decade longer and are often kept until they die of old age.

We definitely feel bad for them if they get injured, but what can you do?

Bullfighting enthusiasts also commonly assert that the animals choose their own path. Not every bull can become a fighting bull. Trainers will only select calves that display specific characteristics, such as physical fitness, bulk, and a keen interest in fighting — or “playing,” as bull owners describe it.

“We definitely feel bad for them if they get injured, but what can you do?” says the Huangs’ father, as he watches his bulls graze by a highway. “They were naturally made to fight, right?”

Perhaps surprisingly, the bull owners who spoke with Sixth Tone all professed a deep love and affection for their animals. In addition to feeding them a relatively luxurious diet of corn, eggs, and Red Bull, many owners bathe and massage their animals on a daily basis.

When Boss Yang bought his first bull, Return from a Dream, in 2009, the original owner missed the animal so much, he’d return with his family several times a year. He’d sit down near the bull in the field, feed it fresh grass, and talk to it at length, Yang recalls.

“I once caught a glimpse of him crying as he left the bull, which moved me deeply,” says Yang. He added that after Return from a Dream retired, he gave the bull back to his original owner, with whom the animal still lives.

Huang Fei massages her bulls at a pool near Guiyang, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Huang Fei massages her bulls at a pool near Guiyang, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

The Huang siblings and a friend wash their family’s bull with shampoo in Guangshun Town, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

The Huang siblings and a friend wash their family’s bull with shampoo in Guangshun Town, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Huang Fei appears to have an equally close relationship with her bulls. On a hot summer afternoon, she invites Sixth Tone to accompany her to a nearby lake, where her animals are bathing. She giggles as she points out each one’s unique mannerisms.

“This is Little Frog Prince; he’s super cute,” Huang Fei says. “Have you noticed that our bulls are way better looking than the others? Ours have hair; the others don’t. They’re so ugly.”

When Huang Fei first took her bull to a competition, she was so nervous that she couldn’t sleep the night before. She’s especially worried about her charges having their eyes gouged one day.

Not all bull owners, however, are as gentle with their animals. Huang Fei shows Sixth Tone a video clip on her phone of a bull walking away from a fight with its head completely soaked in blood.

“Look at this! It’s so cruel,” says Huang Fei. She explains that in informally organized fights, bulls are sometimes made to fight for excessive periods of time.

Huang Fei (left) and her older brother Huang Chao visit a bullfight arena in Guangshun Town, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Huang Fei (left) and her older brother Huang Chao visit a bullfight arena in Guangshun Town, Guizhou province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Even at major events, bulls can receive rough treatment. If they’re reluctant to fight in the ring, their handlers will often try to goad them, pushing them toward their opponents or whipping their behinds.

Livestreamer Shi maintains that fans don’t delight in the bloody side of bullfighting, and bull handlers who might appear harsh in the arena often treat their bulls very kindly at home.

“You really will sometimes see things like quite serious injuries, such as broken horns or broken legs,” he says. “This is indeed very cruel, but it isn’t at all something us bullfighting fans like to see.”

Late in the evening, floodlights illuminate the arena in Shilin, casting a ghostly pale over the audience. As the bulls battle on, steam rises from their backs, glistening in the pit’s bright glare.

With the tournament entering its latter stages, the gaps between fights get shorter. Before each round, teams of handlers rush round their bulls, like pit stop crews servicing a Formula One car: One will sharpen the bull’s horns with a large file, while others treat its wounds and pour water on its back to keep it cool.

The final fight of the night is between Little Shanghai and Bull 12 — a “dark horse” with little experience, says Shi, who is still furiously typing match updates at his monitor.

Two bulls surrounded by cowboy handlers fight late into the night during the final stages of the competition in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Two bulls surrounded by cowboy handlers fight late into the night during the final stages of the competition in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

A girl in traditional Sani Yi dress dispays a plaque honoring the owner of the event’s best “charging bull” after a bullfight event in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

A girl in traditional Sani Yi dress dispays a plaque honoring the owner of the event’s best “charging bull” after a bullfight event in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

The final has no time limit and must produce a victor, but within 20 minutes Little Shanghai’s owner decides his bull has fought enough and concedes, making Bull 12 the day’s surprise victor.

Bull 12 — now a niuwang, or “king of the bulls” — stands in the center of the arena, and a small crowd gathers to take pictures with him. One young boy is placed on the bull’s back for a photo.

Done for the day at last, Shi packs up his gear and trudges up the muddy hill — now covered with trash left behind by spectators — back to his minivan. 

As he drives home, the exhausted-looking livestreamer says the future of Chinese bullfighting in his region is uncertain, but he’s not concerned about opposition from animal welfare groups — few people are against the sport locally, or even nationally, he asserts.

Instead, Shi worries about the attitude of authorities in Yunnan, which don’t support the sport as enthusiastically as neighboring Guizhou. Rather than seeing bullfighting as a potential asset for the region, Yunnan’s officials tend to act cautiously, out of fear the events will cause deadly — and career-damaging — accidents, Shi says.

If a major incident were ever to happen at a competition, Shi suspects the government might shut down bullfighting for good. Events were already suspended for six months following China’s COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, and are sometimes still canceled on a whim. For this reason — and to stop bullfighting from being further slandered — Shi never posts graphic clips on social media.

For now, however, Shi has a packed calendar of tournaments to cover, with the next one just three days away. As long as the sport continues, he’ll keep charting the rise and fall of the niuwang, he says.

“A day might come when this thing is banned, but … I don’t think it’ll happen very soon,” says Shi. “There’s bound to be people that don’t understand it or are opposed to it. This is normal.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan; photo editor: Ding Yining.

(Header image: Handlers attempt to stop a bull as he charges down his defeated opponent at a bullring in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, October 2020. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone)