Myeongdong, Seoul, Sunday 31 May. Most of the morning I’m faffing around with my bags, working out what I can leave at the hotel in Seoul so that I can travel slightly lighter on the bus down South. For the first time I’ve brought an SLR to Korea with me to get some slightly better shots of the rituals at Gangneung and Bongwonsa, and that takes up additional bulk in my bags. And I need to take a PhD degree certificate, posthumously issued to Sena, down to her parents in Sancheong, preferably without getting it crumpled. Eventually I figure something out and check out of the hotel, leaving my large bag with the bell desk for later that week.
Park Soo-keun and the DDP
I have a couple of hours before my friend will be picking me up to take me to Gangneung, time that can usefully be spent by visiting the Dongdaemun Design Plaza to see the Park Soo-keun exhibition, and maybe whatever the Gansong museum is exhibiting there. I’d also noticed from a friend’s Facebook page that there was a plague of pandas at the DDP.
The installation of 1,600 papier mache pandas, sponsored by Lotte, is a “public art project … by French artist Paulo Grangeon in collaboration with the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) … created to raise awareness about endangered animals and sustainable growth.” (Korea JoongAng Daily). The message seemed to be – the artwork is only here for a finite time, and if we’re not careful so will the real pandas. The installation appeared in City Hall Plaza for half a day, and by the time I got to DDP they had vanished.
Another minor disappointment is in store, as I discover that the next Gansong exhibition is currently being prepared and nothing is available to be seen, so I wander off in search of Park Soo-keun. Park used to live close by in Changsin-dong (in 1952-63), and in fact some of his most productive years were spent there.
If you ask a Korean who is their favourite artist, they are more than likely to say Park Soo-keun. An introductory text to the exhibition explains the nostalgia he conjures up:
Park Soo Keun expressed the dreams and will of the suffering people in a good-hearted and sincere way by developing his own style of painting in spite of the harsh environment for artists. His paintings in themselves are the portraits of Korea in the 50s and 60s and the most Korean works of art based on his unique themes and techniques. For this, he is recognized as Korea’s own artist that sympathized the most with the Korean people. We hope you find the meaning of happiness and beauty in this exhibition by looking back at the lives of the truthful, ordinary people who could be and can be seen in the up and down alleys of Changsin-dong and the markets and streets of Seoul.
This temporary exhibition, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Park’s death, is in a separate building in the north-east corner of the DDP square. Inside, it is pleasantly cool after the heat outside. Park’s approach to art is announced on the wall opposite the entrance to the gallery:
I have a very ordinary philosophy on art: that an artist should paint the goodness and truthfulness in people. So the people I paint are of humble origins rather than of diverse and complex. My favourite subjects are grandfathers, grandmothers, and young children – the ordinary people we find in our households.
His brushwork recalls the work of a buncheong potter: the colours never richly saturdated but instead dark and neutral; the outlines delineated as if incised into clay; some of the compositions look strangely articifial, static, while the paintings of traditional musicians playing drums or gongs have a primal energy that resonated from their jagged shapes. Interestingly, there were some watercolours on display – a medium for which Park is not well known.
The tomb of Sejong the Great
Back at the hotel, I sip at a beer while waiting for my friend to come and pick me up. Before long, we are on our way. I had come across Chris Ryu when she came to the UK as manager for some Korean stage performers in London and Edinburgh. Most recently I had seen her at the Edinburgh festival in 2014. In exchange for dinner, I had pressed her into service as an unofficial interpreter when I met a visiting Korean novelist, and at the end of an alcoholic evening we had made a solemn promise to meet in Korea during my next visit. In fact, Chris had promised even more (though after rather too many whiskies at 3차 I had forgotten the specifics): to help me find the location of the sanshinje associated with the Dano Festival in Gangneung. It was thus an amazing coincidence that, when I contacted Chris to see if she was free for a meetup in Seoul, I discovered that she wanted to travel to Gangneung the same day that I did. So I had the multiple benefit of a companion on the road, a companion for dinner, and not having to do battle with the bus timetable.
Even more than that, Chris was happy to take me on a few detours.
First of all, she took me over the bridge from which I could get a view of the Floating Islands, recently made famous by that dreadful Avengers movie.
Then, as we pulled in to a rest stop at Yeoju, she mentiond that nearby was the tomb of King Sejong the Great (ruled 1418-1450). This was an opportunity not to be missed, and so twenty minutes later we had driven past the luxury good factory outlets to the peaceful park which is the final resting place of Joseon’s most eminent monarch.
Unusually, the entrance to the tomb area was marked by a gate decorated with a hangul inscription (rather than one written in Chinese characters). In retrospect, I struggle to think of any calligraphy on a traditional-style building that is not in Chinese. But for the monarch who presided over the invention of hangul it seems entirely appropriate that the entrance to his tomb should be marked in this way.
Sejong was originally buried at a site just west of Heolleung, his father King Taejong’s tomb in modern-day Seocho-gu, but he was moved in 1469 to the current site so that he could be buried in the same mound as his Queen Soheon (1395-1446) – in fact this was the first time that a Joseon royal couple had been buried in separate chambers under the same mound. When they were together, they had eight sons and two daughters together, the largest number of children born to any Joseon queen.
The T-shaped shrine in front of the tomb uniquely features three stairways (the norm is just one): the one in the middle is for the use of the spirit of the deceased, while the others are for the celebrants (including the king). Another interesting difference from the tombs at Seooreung was that you could get a whole lot closer: a path let up the side of the approach to the mound, and then cut right across the front, so that you could walk between the twin statues of the scholar official and the military official that stand in front of the tomb.
A little distance from Sejong’s tomb is that of King Hyojong (r 1649 – 1659) and his wife Queen Inseon. Confusingly, both Sejong’s tomb and that of Hyojong and his Queen have been given the name Yeongneung (영릉), though sometimes Hyojong’s is spelled Nyeongneung (녕릉); road signs to the site are likely to point you to the Tomb of Sejong the Great (세종대왕릉).
Hyojong was a son of King Injo and had spent his early years in captivity, along with his elder brother the Crown Prince Sohyeon, as hostages in the Qing court. Sohyeon did not survive his return to Joseon for long: Injo disapproved of Sohyeon’s new-fangled ideas which included openness both to Western knowledge and to the Qing and, so the story goes, Sohyeon was clubbed to death by his own father with a Chinese ink slab. Sohyeon’s wife was also put to death, and their son was passed over for the throne in favour of Hyojong.
Hyojong continued his father’s anti-Qing, isolationist stance, but was forced to provide troops in support of the Qing’s fight against the invading Russians. It was also during Hyojong’s reign that the Sparrowhawk containing Hendrick Hamel and other adventurers from the Dutch East India Company was shipwrecked off Jeju Island (in 1653). The foreigners were kept under loose arrest. Among other things they were required to make muskets for the Korean army which were put to good use against the Russians. After his death, Hyojong was the cause of one of the bitterest disagreements between Confucian factions at court: the appropriate length of time that his stepmother, who survived him by nearly 30 years, should wear mourning. The controversy echoed throughout the reign of Hyojong’s son Hyeongjong.
Like Sejong, Hyojong was not originally buried in the Yeoju site. His first few years post mortem were spent close to the Yi dynasty founder King Taejo in what is now the Donggureung tomb complex. But in 1673 cracks started appearing in the tomb’s stone border and he was consequently moved to his current location. His wife, Queen Inseon, is buried in a mound close to him but at a slightly lower elevation on the hill.
For those who are deeply in to the layout of Joseon dynasty royal tombs, Hyojong’s is unique in that the stream which conventionally passes in front of the tomb outside the red spiked gate instead in this case runs under the spirit road inside the sacred space.
Close to the red spiked gate of Hyojong’s tomb is the tomb-keeper’s house. This building was also moved from its original location in 1673. It is an unusual survival: most other such structures were destroyed or severely damaged in the Imjin war, the colonial period or the Korean war. The building was used to prepare the food offerings for the king’s memorial rites, and to store the ritual vessels, as well as provide accommodation for the officiants. There is a particularly fine zelkova tree in the courtyard, which looks as if it has been there fore many centuries.
Arrival in Gangneung
Our detour over, we continue into Gangwondo. Our journey is much quicker than it would have been a dozen years ago. In 2002-3 a tunnel was dug through the mountains which significantly reduced the travel time, though the road that takes you up to Daegwallyeong Pass is still there.
Daegawllyeong pass is a geographical feature that shelters Gangneung from the rest of Korea, and the rest of Korea from the East Sea. It gives Gangneung its own microclimate. It is said that since the new road tunnel was dug, the climate in Gangneung has changed; whether this is a coincidence, a genuine unintended impact of human intervention, or indeed a supernatural impact of the gods of Daegawllyeong being disturbed is uncertain, though a special gut was performed when the new climate trends were identified in order to pacify the gods. There might need to be some more expensive rituals in the future: in connection with the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, in which the downhill events will be up in the mountains around Pyeongchang, while the skating events will be in the plains of Gangneung, even more tunnels will be built, further opening up the area to the rest of Korea.
We descend into Gangneung, and Chris drives us to Gangneung-Wonju National University, where she will be giving a talk the next day, and where we are to meet her former professor, who will be joining us for dinner. The campus is quiet and peaceful. In the yard a couple of students are playing Chukku, a game popular in the army which is a cross between football and volleyball, but otherwise nothing disturbs the quiet reflections in the pond at the centre of the campus.
Professor Park is delighted to welcome a foreign guest, and decides that on the way to dinner we should have a mini-tour of the attractions of Gangneung, though sadly as we are now well past 6pm all the attractions are closed. We drive to the house of Shin Saimdang (1504~1551), who graces the KRW50,000 banknote. The house, called the Ojukheon (오죽헌, map), gets its name from the many black bamboo trees that surround it. Scholar Yulgok Yi Yi was born there in 1536 – and both the scholar and the house appear on the KRW5,000 banknote. Just down the road from the Ojukheon is another spacious and elegant villa called the Seongyojang (선교장, map) that was built in 1703 for a descendant of King Sejong’s elder brother Grand Prince Hyoryeong, and that family has occupied the house ever since. It is one of the best-preserved examples of domestic architecture in Korea, and is the maximum size you were allowed to own (99 kan) if you were not royal. Tourists can now book hanok stays there.
The house used to be situated on the edge of Gyeongpo Lake, but the lake has shrunk over the years and now the area in front of the house is marshland. It must have been an impressive location in its day.
As we drive towards the seashore, one strange feature of the landscape emerges: the beach is lined with pine trees, forming a boundary between the sand on one side and the agricultural land in the lea. I was later told that most of the east coast of Korea, down to as far as Busan, was fringed with pines.
Gangwondo, being generally a mountainous province, is not known for its rice crop – relying instead for its carbohydrates on potatoes and buckwheat – but Gangneung nestles on a plain between mountains and sea and thus can grow a little rice. And as we drove along the seashore on one side there were pine trees and the beach, and on the other there were potato plants and rice paddies. And then the rice paddies and potatoes disappeared, to be replaced by coffee shops. Lots of them. Literally every establishment that was not a hotel seemed to be a coffee shop. This was the more modern part of Gangneung’s beachfront, Gyeongpo beach, and as we got nearer the slightly older part, Songjeong beach near the ferry to Ulleungdo, one or two restaurants cropped up among the plethora of coffee outlets.
Some splendid sashimi and maeuntang was the reward at the end of our journey, and plenty of pleasant conversation. After dinner we feel forced to sample the delights of Gangneung’s coffee culture, and hit lucky with Santorini, just about the last coffee shop on the sea front before you get to the ferry terminal. Behind the counter is its owner who judges the coffee competition at Gangneung’s annual Coffee festival. It is said that around 70% of all coffee consumed in Korea is roasted in Gangneung, and any self-respecting coffee shop roasts its own. Certainly Santorini does, and its hand-drip coffee is something of a ceremonial affair.
Chris drives me back into the town centre to my hotel: The Donga, known apparently for its sauna, which is currently undergoing some renovation. The hotel is quiet and comfortable, the air conditioning works without too much unnecessary noise, and there are plenty of decent sized towels. With boxes ticked for a satisfactory stay, I settle down for the night.