July 22, 2014
by An-Quang Nguyen and Eileen Yoon
We started off the day at 9am as usual. But instead of having class, we got to go on our last Seoul City tour! The first stop of the day was a Minsok Village (한국 민속촌), a traditional Korean folk village located in Gyeonggido (경기도), a province just outside of Seoul. The trip took a little over an hour by bus, and when we arrived, we were some of the first visitors of the day. Unlike other traditional “villages” we saw in Seoul, this entire village was inhabited and used as a place for tourists to go see the ins and outs of traditional buildings, enjoy shows and even see the backdrops for famous Korean movies and dramas. To add to the authenticity, the employees donned traditional clothing and stayed in character throughout the day. This village is an important site because of its role in preserving Korea’s long history and rich culture as well as attracting tourists from all over the world. Thanks to attractions like this, tourism in South Korea today is booming, which in turn is helping the nation establish itself as a global power.
Upon entering, the tour guide pointed out large totem poles that were erected to keep evil spirits away, something that was commonly done in the past. There were also charms placed above the doorways of people’s homes, which reminded me of the videos we watched in class of Korean Shaman rituals. The influence of Shamanism was quite profound and a huge part of the culture in Korea, just like that of Buddhism and Confucianism. Influences of Confucianism could be seen in the way the living quarters for men and women were kept separate even after marriage! We also had an opportunity to watch a traditional Korean wedding ceremony, which felt drastically different from the warm, bright wedding ceremonies we’re used to seeing today. The lack of a personal touch and limited interaction between the bride and groom made it feel rigid and more like a business transaction than the union of two people in love.
As we waited for the shows to start, the tour guide showed us various buildings and let us experience first-hand what it may have felt like to be alive during that era. While some people tested out the different punishment tools and got thrown in jail, the rest of the group got to feel like royalty as they took turns sitting in the governor’s seat, elevated high above everyone else. In the Joseon Dynasty, the hierarchical structure was strictly adhered to, and remnants of this structure can still be seen today in places like schools, the workplace and even Korean homes.
We were lucky enough to catch two shows before we left the village: a musical performance called “Farmer’s Music and Dance” and an equestrian show. The men who performed in the “Farmer’s Music and Dance” show played various types of traditional Korean drums and wore ribbons on their heads. It was amazing to see how athletic they were as they jumped and spun in the air while continuing to play their drums. One of the drummers put down his drum at one point and started to b-boy, which was a great representation of how the younger generation is beginning to shift away from old customs and is working toward finding its own way of doing things. Though many traditions will live on, it is clear that the youth in South Korea is open to experiencing new things and finding their own way.
The equestrian show was the most amazing thing I’ve seen in Korea thus far. The riders combined acrobatics with weapon handling skills to create a show that would keep anyone on the edge of the seat. They stood on the horses as they rode, shot arrows as they circled targets, and jumped on and off the horses as they ran. I can’t even imagine the training and strength it took for these men and women to be able to do what they did today. The modern twist on traditional horse riding made this attraction very appealing to the large number of tourists present. I was reminded of a discussion we had in class about whether South Korea should standardize or localize foods like kimchi when approaching foreign markets. We came to the conclusion that in order for anything to be accepted by people from other cultures, tradition is important; but sometimes catering to individual needs is the only way to reach a wider range of people because not everyone has the same preferences. By adjusting the equestrian show to fit the interests of the diverse crowd, the performers were able to get a much better reaction and made the show more enjoyable for everyone there.
Upon leaving the Minsok Village we headed over to Hwaseong Fortress, which was built at the end the the 18th century by King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty. The fortress was actually never used for its intended purpose as the new Joseon capital and was later nearly destroyed in the Korean War. The Fortress that now stands is largely the result of a reconstruction that took place in 1970. Interestingly, construction records kept from the Joseon Dynasty were invaluable in the accurate restoration of the fortress. This fact made it possible for Hwaseong Fortress to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, in spite of UNESCO’s normal requirement that the sites be mostly original.
During the visit to the fortress we partook in some traditional Korean archery. Historically the bow has been the linchpin of the the Korean dynastic military. Many legends style various Korean kings as masterful archers and, as far as historical records could confirm, the Koreans used the composite bow many times to repel forces from China and Japan. Compared to the Japanese and European bows, the Korean bow tends to be much smaller but can achieve similar ranges and superior stability due to their recurve design.
In the modern context the Korean history of archery can still be seen. Archery has been a popular recreational sport in Korea since the early 20th century, and the tradition has translated into South Korean archers being very successful in Olympic competitions.
For the rest of the time at the Fortress we explored along the perimeter wall. While the walls themselves were not extremely impressive in comparison to other walls that might come to mind, they had several wooden “guard houses” that were excellent for relaxation purposes. In my mind these structures are representative of the reconstructed fortress. The fortress currently is a well maintained and landscaped area which utilizes lotus ponds and air management to create many exceedingly pleasant places to enjoy the cool breezes and fresh air. Many older Korean people can be seen lounging around the fortress keeping cool whilst also enjoying the traditional surroundings.
The last stop of the day, the Samsung D’light exhibition area, obviously stands in contrast to the first two destinations. Samsung D’light is essentially a showroom and boutique wherein Samsung shows off its latest products and prospects for the future of consumer electronics. Apparently, the name “d’light” is a portmanteau of digital and light proclaiming Samsung as a guiding light in the digital world. Everything in the building was designed to be very sleek and modern, boasting a preponderance of machined aluminum, shiny black surfaces, and light colored hardwoods. The primary aim of the exhibition seemed to be to establish Samsung as the world leader and pioneer in the electrical engineering of tomorrow.
All the activities we participated in on this last tour helped us to get a more direct understanding of what it might have been like to live in an era when Confucianism had such a strong hold on the culture and people’s daily lives. By participating in demonstrations and watching interactive shows, it was clear that the group not only had fun, but also had an easier time putting into context what we had previously only heard about in lectures. Despite the heat and exhaustion, this was still one of the most exciting and memorable tours of the trip.