Guardian Zelkova Trees

I wrote about a couple of old trees in Korea recently (see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/venerable-old-trees/ ).

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Zelkova at palace in Suwon

In many parts of the world villages have collective expressions of spirit belief, as in the reverence paid to a particularly large old tree that has shaded generations of ancestors. It’s believed that there’s a special spirit, or sometimes a God, of the tree and that this spirit will protect the village and villagers under certain conditions.

Here I want to focus on the wonderful old Zelkova trees that we often find at temples or palaces in Korea. These amazing trees stand as a welcome near the entrance to temples, usually in the temple or palace gardens. These are Zelkova serrata (Japanese zelkova, Japanese elm, or Keyaki), a type of tree that’s native to Japan, Korea, eastern China, and Taiwan.

Besides being beautiful old trees, they are lovingly looked after by generations and often propped up if necessary.

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Zelkova sign at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace

The first one we found was at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace in Suwon, an old city about 48 km south of Seoul. This zelkova on the edge of the entrance courtyard to the palace is more than 600 years old and is very sacred. It has grown here and protected Suwon city since before the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung Palace.

It was believed that there was a God of the tree, which would punish anyone who broke one of its leaves or branches. There is a legend that if you make a wish to the tree the wish will come true. A plaque near the tree suggests: “Make a wish for your family or friends to the tree, which still holds the spirit of King Jeongjo. Write your wish on the paper and tie it to a straw rope around the tree.” Many people do this and there are lots of white papers tied to the rope. We asked our Korean friends about this, and they laughed and said, “maybe we believe in that. But it’s a good thing to try.”

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At the Folk Village
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Viv M makes a wish at the Folk Village

The next tree was at the Naganeupseong Folk Village, which we visited on a day trip organized by the conference held at Sunchon National University, in Suncheon not far away. It’s a really interesting Folk Village (which I’ll cover in more detail later), established during the Chosun Dynasty and at least 600 years old. It’s thought that the tree is a similar age. This tree didn’t have ropes with notes tied to it, but close by was a special small hanok house with a table outside. There, visitors could get a strip of yellow paper, write a wish on it and then tie it to a piece of twine strung out like a clothes line. I did that (but the wish is a secret!)

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At Naesosa Temple
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At Naesosa Temple

The final zelkovas that we found on this trip were at Naesosa Temple (I’ll write about that in more detail later). It’s an ancient Buddhist Temple, built around 633 AD, on the Byeonsan peninsula (the same peninsula with the salt fields and cliffs I wrote about). Trees are all around, as the temple complex is surrounded by the fir forests of the Buan-Gun National Park. But, the huge zelkovas are different. They are very big, and very much a part of the temple proceedings—bedecked with strings of colorful banners and thick straw ropes in different shapes. So nice to see.

 

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