…Traditions of the Joseon Dynasty Live On…

Jeonju Hanok Village became the seventh Korean area to be named a “slow city” by Cittaslow International, last year. Still palpable are the traced of Yi Seong-gye, who built the Joseon Dynasty, and Jeonju in Jeollabuk-do Province, southwest of Korea, has become the place where people are proud of Korean culture and arts.

The hanok village in Jeonju, located in the southern province of Jeollabuk-do Province, is not your average rural village. On a typical weekend, Koreans and foreign tourists easily mix, to a point that it can be hard to tell if you’re actualy in Korea. They are immersed in cultural experiences and shopping for traditional souvenirs.

“We’ve got about 20 people who provide commentary on culture, and on weekends, we have so many visitors that all of our guides are out on streets,” said Kang Chul-min of Jeonju’s municipal tourist information center, who guided us through the village. “Look at our office. It can be really crazy. We’re trying our best to serve every single visitor.”

The passion and pride of Jeonju residents for their culture and art are beyond imagination. For instance, there is no admission fee to walk on these broad streets with so much to offer. Parking is also free. And street vendors are more intent on explaining the history of their hometown than on selling their goods.

Jeonju came to national prominence during the Joseon Dynasty. Yi Seong-gye, who founded the 500-year dynasty, and his ancestors were born and raised in Jeonju. The city’s residents took great pride in the fact that their hometown was the birthplace of the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, one of the most important figures in Korean history. The Hanok Village stores the portrait of Yi Seong-gye in its Gyeonggijeon Shrine, which honors the Yi family.

The founding of Jeonju Hanok Village is also rooted in history. During the Joseon Dynasty, Jeonju had a huge fortress and four gates, just as Seoul did. But during the Japanese colonial rule, three of the four gates were removed and the Japanese started living where the gates once stood. So Jeonju people began building hanok to protest the Japanese occupation. Seeing the traditional Korean homes nestled among Japanese and Western buildings in what today is Pungnam-dong and Gyo-dong, the residents of Jeonju felt proud of their heritage.

The Last Imperial Descendant

Sadly, most of the hanok in the village are now gone and only about 550 remain standing. The Jeonju municipal government has a policy of preserving those remaining hanok, a source of pride for the residents. “Jeonju is a place where our basic necessities of life and traditional culture are all vividly alive,” said Song Ha-jin, mayor of Jeonju. “We will try t make sure Jeonju will duly represent Korean traditions and help globalize Korean culture”. Hanji, or traditional Korean paper, has helped turn Jeonju into one of the country’s top art towns. The city’s clean water, which has a relatively low iron content, allows mulberry trees to flourish. The region is home to some of the best hanji craftsmen in the country, who use this high-quality mulberry tree pulp in their work. the quality paper has given rise to great calligraphers, too, which in turn led to the development of the are’s publishing industry. The fact that the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty – registered on UNESCO’s Memory of the World for its detailed recording of the dynasty’s history – is stored in Jeonju’s historic library is no accident. Other hanji-based crafts, such as hapjukseon, a kind of traditional fan, along with pansori, a type of music performed with a fan in hand, have all thrived in Jeonju for similar reasons.

Visitors to Jeonju Hanok Village should be sure to check out Seunggwangjae, the home of Yi Seok, the last living descendant of the Joseon Dynasty. He was born to Prince Imperial Ui, who was the son of Emperor Gojong. He was born in Sadong Palace in Gwanhun-dong near Jogyesa Temple in Seoul. Having spent his childhood in a royal palace, Yi Seok is particularly passionate about hanok.

“I still remember when I was a child, my father, Prince Ui, put me in front of him on horseback as we ran around the front yard of the palace,” Yi said. “The towering ridge of that palace was magnificent. The grand and yet elegant hanok roof is part of my memories.”

These days, Yi lectures visitors to Seunggwangjae on the history of Joseon and virtues of the royal culture. Yi dreams of spending the rest of his life reproducing traditional royal wedding ceremonies at palaces such as Gyeongbokgung in Seoul.

Last November, Jeonju became the seventh Korean city to be designated a “slow city” by Cittaslow International. It’s the first such city with more than 50,000 in population. In keeping with the new designation, the city also offers a slew of slow traditional Korean food, including bibimbap. With so much history and culture, time almost stands still in jeonju and its hanok village. If you want to discover Korea and its traditions, don’t miss Jeonju.

Source: Korea People & Culture Magazine, March 2011

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