At a number of famous sights in Korea we were amazed to see so many young women wearing traditional Korean dresses (hanbok) and even some young men wearing traditional garb. At first we wondered if it were some special occasion, but soon found out that they were wearing rental clothes. Many are young Koreans but far more are tourists, mainly from China. Apparently it’s very popular and cool to have one’s photo taken at an old or traditional sight/site wearing traditional Korean clothes—to kind of fit into the scene and make it feel more authentic.
The rental stands are usually near the Information Center, or where one can rent out audio guides.
Here is a small selection of pictures to show how popular this tourist pastime is.
The first set is from Unhyeong Royal Residence in Seoul (see previous post about the palace). At Unhyeong the costumes can be rented from 10am-6pm April-Oct, and 10am-5pm November-March. The cost is only 3,300 won (just over US$3). I’m told that you have to leave your ID as a guarantee.
The second set is from Jeonju Hanok Village in Jeonju, SW Korea, a very popular destination. The historical area of the city has many outstanding hanok (traditional architecture) buildings, many places to buy and learn traditional crafts, such as making paper or folding fans, an old palace and many shrines.
A really fascinating part of Korean folk art is totem poles, known as jangseung and Sotdae. We first saw some at the National Folk Museum in Seoul a number of years ago, then at the Nagan Eupseong Folk Village near Suncheon last August. There, we saw rows of jangseung at the edge of the village and single jangseung at the entrance to most of the houses within the village. This April we visited the National Folk Museum in Seoul again and sought out the jangseung. They are so striking and unusual that I wanted to find out more.
A Jangseung is usually made of wood, but sometimes can be made of stone. At the National Folk Museum, we saw many examples of stone totems in the grounds, next to the wooden ones.
Although nowadays the Jangseung are mostly found at folk villages or in museums, they were traditionally placed at the edges of most villages in Korea. They had multiple functions: to greet visitors, to mark the village boundaries and frighten away demons or evil spirits that caused famines, natural disasters, epidemics or other diseases. They were also worshipped as village protective gods and villagers prayed for the health of their families, for a baby, or for a good spouse, and for good abundant crops. They believed the jangseung had their ears open to the wishes and hopes of villagers. Each year villagers would hold jangseung rituals, placing offerings of rice cakes and fruit at the foot of their honored guardian.
Jangseung often appear in male and female pairs, with their names written on their bodies, and are distinguished by their head apparel; the male hat is more elaborate, and is probably a soldier’s or government official’s hat. Quite often, the inscriptions refer to ‘generals,’ major generals’ or male and female generals.
Jangseung frquently elicit an emotional reaction. The first impression of a jangseung is that it is both scary and humorous, a dichotomy that seems o have grown out of the artists’ attempts to portray folk gods in a more familiar and accessible manner within people’s everyday lives.
Some are painted, but many are not. Usually, there is an intentional altering of human facial features, such as coarsely-shaped bulging eyes, a fist-like nose, andprotruding canines and front teeth. Through such distortion and exaggeration, the talented jangseung craftsmen depicted a guardian god image, reminiscent of a monster or god from the underworld, while at the same time offering a kind of portrait of the common people in a friendly yet satirical way. So, we might see sagging and benevolent faces of a grandfather- and grandmother-like jangseung; or a toothless, wrinkled smile of a grandmother jangseung and the long braided whiskers of a grandfather jangseung; a character with huge ears, or a gaping mouth, or a scowling mouth.
Part of a jangseung’s allure lies in the relationship between the form of the wood and the way in which the artist has used that to carve something that fits perfectly. Look at any of them, and you’ll see that the face fits the form of the wood. Frequently, next to a jangseung you can find a sotdae, which is another kind of guardian pole with a carved bird attached to the top. Sotdae are still commonly seen in rural villages, even today, and have similar functions as the jangseung.
In the southern areas of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, jangseung are also called beopsu or beoksu, meaning a male shaman.
This was the second stop on the JRS day tour out of Suncheon.
It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 and I can easily see why, as it’s one of Korea’s best preserved fortress towns and traditional folk villages. We’ve always been interested in folk traditions in any country, so we were delighted to visit here and learn more about Korean old customs.
Very brief history: In 940 a small village on the site changed its name to Nagan-gun under the Goryeo Dynasty. It began to flourish in the later 1300s under the Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty. Then, in 1397 Kim Bin-gil raised an army against Japanese intruders, built an earthen fortress wall here and defeated the enemy. However, during King Sejong’s reign (perhaps Korea’s most important king) from 1418-1450, the wall was rebuilt with stone, and the village within it further developed, remaining virtually intact and unchanged for hundreds of years.
It is very much a tourist attraction now, with 1.3 million visitors recorded in 2013. But, the beauty is that it is also still a working, living village and not just a showpiece, where all the workers go home to someplace else at night. It’s unique for its setting, completely enclosed by stone fortress walls with three main gates, built to protect the inhabitants from marauding Japanese pirates. The gates were built in a grand style with painted curving tile roofs and beautiful decorated eaves. If you climb up on the wall from one of the gates, you get a good view out over the village, and across to rice paddies outside.
The village is crammed with narrow alleyways, leading to vegetable plots, penned animals, a lotus pond, many fruit trees, and adobe and stone thatched homes, and a few larger buildings with slate roofs.
We thought a visit here was a wonderful way of getting a glimpse of what rural life was like hundreds of years ago, and continuing today in some places. It’s fascinating to wander along the narrow dusty lanes with mud and thatch houses, trying to imagine what living here would be like. Our time was rushed, but what we saw was very interesting: village life and how they are maintaining some traditions. There are of course modern touches now—like electricity and cars and motorbikes—but still it’s a different way of life; small houses in a small community—maybe around 100 households now, with 280 people living in the area. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see old houses, with shiny new cars parked in the dusty yards. Each house has an enclosed yard, and we see fruit trees, small patches of vegetables, sesame drying on straw mats or a tarpaulin, a dog or a baby sleeping in the shade. We’re told that each house has 3 rooms in a line, an outhouse, a shed (for equipment or cows) and a toilet.
Outside the entrances to the village are special totem poles carved from wooden logs—they are often grouped in twos or fours and are kind of like guardians of the village. Each pole has a funny or scary face carved on it. Inside, all the houses have a street number, many etched on a wooden totem pole. Probably the guardian of that house.
Inside, a couple of the larger buildings have curved tile roofs; they were/are the official buildings, like the prison (fun to visit and watch a re-enactment of a prison beating), the governor’s house, the administrative office and the village school. The other houses have thatched roofs and it was interesting to see that many of them have pumpkins growing on the roofs.
Many houses are still inhabited, some are guesthouses now, a few are small shops or cafes, and some are demo places for traditional folk arts and crafts (for example, items made of rice straw, pottery, a wishing rope, calligraphy, and traditional Korean musical instruments). We were interested in the rice crafts, and what you can do with rice straw.
The scientists in our party also noted the large stacks of rice straw, many covered in black plastic. The straw is ammoniated, which is a way to improve digestibility.
The oldest and biggest tree in the village is a giant Ginkgo bilobe, which some believe is as old as from 1397. On our way out we also noted the Monument and Pavilion of General Lim Gyeong-Up. He was governor of Nagan in the 1620s and was much respected for good works. It was erected in 1628 when the General left Nagan. Sacrificial rites are given to him on Full Moon’s Day every year.
It’s a really interesting place but we had limited time, plus it was so hot and humid it was actually not very pleasant. Generally, one wouldn’t choose to come here in the hot summer. We missed a lot so it would be fun to return one day, in cooler weather and spend more time.
Open daily, with hours varying depending on season. Adults 4,000 won (US$3.30), middle and high school students 2,500 won (US$2), and elementary school children 1,500 won (US$1.25).
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.
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.”
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!)
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.