Jangseung and Sotdae
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.