For the longest time people assumed that ‘Arirang’ and ‘Mass Games’ were one and the same, but in fact the mass gymnastics and art performances known as Mass Games in North Korea have occurred since as early as 1946, with all of them having their own themes and influences.
Here’s our concise history of the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performances of North Korea.
Mass gymnastic performances trace their roots back to mid-19th century Europe at around the time of the industrial revolution. Initially they were military in nature, spreading from Germany to Czechoslovakia, and eventually to the mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – the USSR.
Soviet Mass Games
The first mass gymnastics performances in the Soviet Union first appeared in Moscow, and were seen as a great way of promoting socialist values, whilst also making people strong and able to protect their nation.
As the Soviet Union started to become more international in nature, alternative socialist activities and events sought to compete with the decadent events of the Western world (such as the Olympics or FIFA World Cup). Thus in 1928 the USSR hosted its first international sporting event: the legendary Spartakiad, named after the rebel slave Spartacus, and the Soviet sporting Spartak sports club. The event included mass gymnastics and dancing, and can be considered the birthplace of the modern Mass Games.
The Spread of Socialism
Following World War 2, the spread of socialism and the drawing of the Iron Curtain led to a mass expansion in the Soviet sphere of cultural influence, and despite the Soviets now deciding to compete in the Olympics, the Spartakiad not only continued as an internal event, but also spread throughout the countries of the newly formed Eastern Bloc. Most of these events had at least some element of mass gymnastics, with the last one held in the Soviet Union as late as 1991.
As was common in the Eastern Bloc, whilst all countries were to some extent subservient to the Soviet line, there was a degree of autonomy in each country, so the extent of mass games/mass gymnastics depended on the country in question, with Czechoslovakia, Romania and even the isolationist Albania being particularly adept.
Mass Games in Romania
Following an official visit to both the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Romanian leader Ceausescu was particularly impressed by what he saw, and in many ways tried to emulate both China during the Cultural Revolution and the DPRK of the 1970s. One of these manifestations were mass gymnastics performances that were probably the most similar to what you will see in the DPRK today.
Mass Games in Albania
Despite siding with China during the Sino-Soviet split, the Albanians held 6 Spartakiads, all of which had mass gymnastics displays. The last one was held in 1989, from which there is still video footage available.
The Mass Games in the DPRK
Despite not being in the Eastern Bloc, and retaining cordial relations with China during the Sino-Soviet split, the DPRK was still very much in the Soviet sphere of influence, and for the North Koreans the Spartakiad took on a life of its own, eventually morphing into what we have today: a spectacle that can involve as many as 100,000 individuals!
Mass gymnastics as part of sporting events similar to a Spartakiad have occurred in North Korea since as early as 1946, but the first “Mass Games” did not happen until 1961, with the theme being “The Era of the Workers Party”.
Since then there have been over 100 Mass Games performances in the DPRK (North Korea) under various forms or themes. The most famous of these are the Arirang Mass Games that took place between 2002 and 2013 (with the exception of 2006).
For 5 years there was a hiatus in mass games performances before we were gifted with is return in 2018 on the national day of the DPRK, entitled Glorious Fatherland! And yes, it was better than ever.
The Mass Games and Glorious Fatherland will happily return in August of 2019! Do not miss your chance to see it.