Though each of the recognized cultural properties are important, the three heritages most recently recognized by UNESCO carry a particular significance in Korean history.
UNESCO officially designated three forms of Korean traditional culture as items of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in late 2011. Each addition marked a special significance in Korean history: 택견 [taekkyeon] was the first time a martial art has been recognized by UNESCO; 줄타기 [julthagi] tightrope walking was the first time Korean tightrope walking was acknowledged, and weaving 모시 [mosi] ramie was the underdog nominee that ended up making the final list.
Taekkyeon is a Korean martial art that involves rhythmic movements that resemble dance. There are roughly 50 official masters certified by the Taekkyeon Korea Association, but novices also practice the movements as a form of daily exercise. “Since the movements in taekkyeon are very fluid, it is good for flexibility when the body is stiff,” says Jung Kyung-hwa, a government-certified taekkyeon expert.
Though 태권도 [taekwondo] is a more well-known Korean traditional martial art, taekkyeon’s selection as a heritage of humanity will hopefully increase awareness of the art. Jung speculates that the reason taekkyeon was chosen was because of its dance-like, yet surprisingly powerful movements.
“When people learn a certain martial art, they expect the skill to look intimidating, so they can feel they are learning something that might help them protect themselves,” Jung says. “However, taekkyeon, at first glance, doesn’t really look like a ‘serious’ martial art, and I think that’s what has kept people away from learning the skill.”
Prior to UNESCO’s designation in November, it was expected that taekkyeon would be in competition for recognition with China’s kung fu. But China withdrew its bid before the committee meeting in Bali, Indonesia, after failing to submit sufficient information about the heritage.
While taekkyeon is a martial art unique to Korean culture, tightrope walking is considered more like entertainment, and questions have been raised over its distinguishing traits.
While the most common form of tightrope walking focuses on the acrobatic skill of maintaining balance, the Korean traditional form emphasizes the interaction between the tightrope walker and an earthbound clown. The walker performs a variety of acrobatic feats on the tightrope, while the clown exchanges banter and musicians accompany the act. A performance with all these elements is Namsadangnori, another intangible heritage.
Although both taekkyeon and julthagi were both highly expected to make it onto UNESCO’s list, it was a pleasant surprise to see that the skill of weaving mosi was also recognized. The designation of the skill, which has predominantly survived in Hansan, Chungcheongnam-do Province, was uncertain, as the UNESCO committee doubted there was a concrete process and method to maintain the tradition. However, committee members were convinced after being shown how systematic making quality mosi can be, and seeing the its sustainable benefits.
The skill of weaving mosi in Hansan has been handed down from mothers to daughters. The region has a suitable climate for growing ramie, and village women are involved in the harvesting of the plant, bleaching, yarn spinning and the final weaving. Today, about 500 people in Hansan still actively participate in mosi weaving.
“Mosi is as finely weaved as the wings of a dragonfly. The more you wear it, the stronger it gets. And to whomever wears it, the material gives a sense of elegance,” says Bang Yeon-ok, a mosi weaving master. Mosi is particularly well-suited to summertime, when the makers weave the ramie more loosely, allowing the fabric to breathe and cool the body.
As significant as the tradition is, the decreasing number of people learning the skill is making it difficult for the culture to survive. In the past, housewives from villages in the region would come together to weave – today, there is no group weaving on the same scale. “Since younger generations move to cities, only the older generations are left to weave,” Bang says.
This is not just a problem weavers face. The question of whom to bequeath these unique skills to is a burden practitioners of intangible cultural heritages have shouldered for years. On top of that, handing down the original skill is crucial as well. Since a craft is adapted in accordance to each master’s style, proper documentation is vital for future reference.
“Once an intangible cultural heritage is distorted, I think it will be impossible to undo it,” says Jung. “I think we need to have a specialized educational facility where all types of intangible cultural heritage masters can share their ideas and interpretations of each skill together. Ultimately, the goal is to keep the tradition alive.”
Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, January 2012