Revaluing South Korea’s Heritage
Ann Hills on how Korea’s rich history is displayed.
Ch'anggyonggung Palace in the centre of Seoul, South Korea, is pristine after a three year restoration programme focusing on its origins in the reign of King Sejong 1418-50. Under the eves of dipped and gabled roofs visitors gaze on intricate, traditional patterns painted in red, green and gold: a rainbow of colours. Garden ponds are linked to fountains; stone bridges have arches and date-less carvings.
Restoration began by removing all traces of Japanese influence; even the cherry trees were replaced. The Palace, destroyed in the Japanese invasion in 1592, suffered yet again (after a series of disasters) under twentieth-century Japanese occupation when its status was reduced with a zoo and botanical garden in the grounds. The Japanese finally left in 1945, though they are still much in evidence as tourists because South Korea is cheaper than Japan. But rivalry is ever-present and the bad old days are recalled by the older generation who reiterate accounts of oppression, such as the banning of their own language and the han’gul alphabet.
Such memories are being fuelled with the opening of Independence Hall, east of Onyang between Seoul and Pusan, with an exhibition of historical materials from Korea's struggle for freedom from foreign masters from 1910 to 1945.
The war of 1950 to 1953 (when two million died) left a still-dangerous border with North Korea, which has been 'packaged' for guided coach tours. About 60,000 escorted visitors a year cross 'Freedom Bridge', have a first hand account of the demilitarised zone, are warned not to make gestures at the North Korean guards and – quite dramatically – are led underground into a tunnel said to have been discovered in 1978, which would have enabled 30,000 equipped troops an hour to have invaded.
With the Olympics on the horizon (September 17th to October 2nd, 1988) South Korea wants to minimise dangers born of historical enmity - but the reality is student unrest and an unyielding government backed by 40,000 American troops and fearful of acts of terrorism (such as last year's bomb at Kimpo Airport). Instead Korea is keen to publicise its cultural and historical attributes - hence the new advertising slogan: 'Home of the Olympics and More'.
Westerners, who arrive in small numbers (about 25,000 in 1986 from Britain and the majority of them for business) do not realise the historic riches - complains the Korean National Tourism Corporation. The architectural legacy is astounding - ; for instance Haeinsa Temple, dating l from 802 AD in a national park where monks preserve a collection of more than 80,000 thirteenth-century wooden printing blocks used in composing the Buddhist Tripitaka Koreana.
High in the mountains, Haeinsa has the air of a living retreat where building works continue to upgrade the premises: craftsmen emulate historic skills - as illustrated elsewhere at the Folk Village outside Seoul, still being enlarged lo recapture 19th-century and earlier public buildings and homesteads where visitors can watch weaving, silk making, ceramics being fired, paper and pipemaking and sample a dose of herbal medicine with a liquorice taste.
Maybe history is being reinterpreted to such an extent because Korea is developing at unprecedented speed. 'Only ten years ago all these fields would have been worked using cows; now there are tractors’, said my guide as we travelled on a modern motorway to the ancient, seventh-century capital of the Shilla Kingdom, Kyongju. Near the Ch'omsongdae Observatory (a hefty chimney or bottle-shaped stone construction dating from that era), archaeological work continues. In the Tumuli Museum the prize exhibit is the Flying Horse Tomb, named after a painting and precious horse trappings found among treasure on this spot (the tomb has been reconstructed).
The city, now with a 120,000 strong population, has a 1980s museum whose oldest items include a seventh century excavated oared boat and the largest bill in the Orient - cast in 771 AD.
Presenting the past has become priority, boosting national pride in a country where brides still wear traditional dress and where customs include ornately clad farmers parading with musical instruments when the rice has been harvested. On the semi-tropical island of Chejudo a small folk village recreates life in thatched hovels - a contrast to the grandiose architecture associated with kings and priests.
Our image of Korea as the producer of cheap goods is woefully inadequate. Koreans value a visible heritage which is being safeguarded with a massive government investment. In their own land, they are inveterate tourists more especially as passports are restricted to necessary, not vacational, foreign travel but now - with the Olympics coming - the West has a chance to assess an unfamiliar history.
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