The Survival of Korea’s Cultural Heritage

In this modern age of quickly trends and pop culture, Korea’s intangible cultural properties are standing the test of time, gaining recognition in the international community one step at a time.

It is easy these days to know what’s happening on the other side of the world, at any time of day or night, with the fast growing culture of the internet and cutting-edge electronic devices that bring the web straight into people’s palms. This instant exchange of information leads to lightning-fast cultural trends, but also endangers more traditional customs unable to keep up with the wired community.

The general public is often only exposed to what’s discussed online, which then results in a skewed distribution of cultural information. And when it comes to intangible heritage, it becomes even harder to preserve.

That is why it is essential to actively promote and spread Korean traditional culture overseas, along with the trendy K-pop movement. UNESCO, in particular, has been recognizing crafts from Korean history since 2001 by listing them as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity items. Three more traditional skills were inscribed onto the list in November 2011.

택견 [taekkyeon] (a Korean traditional martial art), 줄타기 [julthagi] (tightrope walking) and the weaving of 모시 (ramie fabric) that originated in the Hansan region of Chungcheongnam-do Province, were dubbed intangible cultural treasures by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Bali, Indonesia. The committee this year added 11 entries to the organization’s intangible heritage list.

“This recent recognition means that the current generation is not only trying to preserve the local traditions, but also trying to hand them down to future generations,” said the Cultural Heritage Administration, a government organization that seeks to preserve Korean culture, after the announcement was made by UNESCO.

UNESCO first gave shape to its plan to protect intangible heritage in 2001, and Korean crafts were some of the first included on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. So far, over 200 traditions from more than 80 nations have been placed on the list.

With the latest additions, Korea now has a total of 14 recognized by UNESCO. The 11 that have been designated previously are Jongmyo jerye (a royal ritual and its music); 판소리 [phansori] (Korean traditional opera); 강릉 단오제 [gangneung danoje] festival; 처용무 [cheoyongmu] (mask dance); 강강술래 [ganggangsullae] (a 5000-year-old circle dance), 남사당놀이 [namsadangnori] (performances by Korean itinerant troupes); 영산재 [yeongsanjae] (Buddhist ritual); 제주 칠머리당 영등굿 [jeju chilmeoridang yeongdeunggut] (a shamanistic ritual); 가곡 [gagok] (vocal music genre); 대목장 [daemokjang] (a master of traditional wooden architecture); and falconry.

Jongmyo, which was also designated a UNESCO World Heritage in 1995, is a Confucian shrine dedicated to the memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Jongmyo jerye is the royal ancestral rites at Jongmyo, and Jongmyo jeryeak is the ritual music and dance performed for the rite.

Though the ritual was originally performed five times a year, since 1971, the ritual has only been performed on the first Sunday every May, at the Jongmyo shrine in central Seoul.

It’s not just public organizations dedicated to cultural preservation that see the value of Korea’s royal rites. Radio France, through its world music label Ocora, produced a Jongmyo jeryeak album in October, complete with explanations in French, English and Korean. It contains recordings of a performance by musicians from the National Gugak Center in 2003. The album is the first audio recording of the entire ritual and is accompanied with photos of the performance and a detailed description of the rite.

Radio France, which has introduced Asian traditional music since 1980, aims to release one to two albums of Korean traditional music every year for the next decade as part of its Korean music project. For its first album, it chose Jongmyo jeryeak and enlisted the aid of music producer Kim Sun-kuk of Just Music Entertainment. “It sounds like noble, refined music, hieratic at times yet always full of dignity. I am pleased to start our cooperation with such a musical standard,” the producer of Radio France said.

If traditional music like Jongmyo jeryeak is too inaccessible to ears morea accustomed to K-pop, gagok might be just the bridging element needed to help music-lovers ease into older Korean traditional genres.

Gagok, which made UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage of Humanity list in 2010, is music that was originally composed to accompany 시조 [sijo] (a traditional poetic form), which was mostly produced by the aristocracy in the Joseon Dynasty. Gagok melodies are typically combinations of wind and string instruments, such as the 피리 [phiri] (Korean pipe) and 가야금 [gayageum] or 거문고 [geomungo] (stringed zither instruments).

The book Korean Art Song, recently published in October, compiled several gagok numbers with Korean lyrics, their English translations and musical scores. The lyrics to the songs were written by renowned artists including poet Kim Sowol, and the melodies were composed by notable musicians such as Yun I-sang and many more.

The Korean Art Song Research Institute is planning to publish more books featuring other musical genres, according to director Choi Young-sik. “The book was written to have more people learn about the beauty of Korean music and actually make it possible for them to sing along or hum,” Choi said.

If music is something that can travel to foreign continents and reach out to people overseas, there are also some intangible heritage items that can only be understood and experienced when seen in person. Daemokjang, which can be translated as “head carpenter”, was designated a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity item in 2010. A daemokjang, who directs and manages the construction of structures made of wood, heavily influences the completed presentation of the overall structure.

Daemokjang Shin Eung-soo has worked with many major Korean traditional wooden structures, including the ones that are major tourist attractions. He has worked on buildings at Gyeongbokgung Palace for the past 20 years and the restoration of Gwanghwamun, the main gate to the palace that was completed in August 2010. He is currently working on restoring Namdaemun Gate, which was destroyed by an arsonist in 2008.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shin has had his hands on the some of the most important traditional buildings in Korea, which need regular maintenance and repair work to stay in such pristine condition.

“There is new technology that has been developed to make the reconstruction process easier, but I believe that traditional homes need to be repaired following the old ways,” Shin said. “I would rather use a hand ax than an electric saw when cutting wood, and I would rather use traditional cranes to move large woodblocks into place.”

It is his responsibility to decide how to maintain the Korean tradition in those wooden structures. He carefully inspects the overall harmony of each building and meticulously matches each decorative flourish to its original. “The inticrate wood patterns may all seem the same to laypeople, but the details and colors are different from gate to gate and palace to palace,” Shin said.

Since the techniques that he mastered can only be acquired by experience, Shin is also working on training carpenters who can later become Daemokjang. The restoration process of each structure he works on is being recorded for future reference, but how he came to make each decision is impossible to document. It is human skill and inherent technique that make his work so valuable.

This is the most crucial reason why local governments and organizations like UNESCO strive to find ways to recognize the existence of such heritage and preserve it. In modern times, customs and cultures are being lost. Though people still dance, they no longer wear traditional masks and perform as they once did.

Even in Dano, a Korean traditional holiday that has spawned many festivals – including the UNESCO-recognized Gangneung Danoje Festival – participating in traditional activities has become more of a novelty than a cherished custom. The Gangneung festival in particular is well known for its folk play performances and cultural arts. From riding old-style swings to washing one’s hair with a 창포 [changpho] (sweet flag) mix, most of the events are now one-time experiences.

With valuable cultural heritage diminishing in everyday life, designated human intangible properties remind us that it is important to look for ways to keep traditions going. Even though people’s lifestyles will continue to change as new trends evolve into new traditions, there can be a lesson learned on how to preserve one’s history.

“We cannot force people to take a serious role in keepung traditions alive,” said Jung Kyung-hwa, an official practitioner of taekkyeon. “But the government and other organizations specialized in preserving the tradition can try to support people who are already skillful in certain endangered cultural heritages, so that we can be the central force for handing down the tradition to the next generation.”

The Cultural Heritage Administration, a major proponent in the field of preservation, has acknowledged the need for greater efforts in protecting Korea’s history. It has increased its budget for preservation to 545 billion won in 2012, and one of its top priorities is to continue preserving and managing the cultural heritages that are recognized by international organizations.

Source : KOREA People & Culture Magazine, January 2012


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