London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Royal Ancestors: Preface

Royal Ancestors cover - complete

About this travel account

These pages contain the record of nine days in Korea at the beginning of May 2010. The trip was at the generous invitation of the Korean Culture and Information Service, part of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The visit was part of their programme for meeting the needs of foreign journalists in reporting on Korea, and for these purposes they were flexible enough to stretch the definition of “journalist” to include a blogger who runs a website about Korea in his spare time. When I was invited to apply for a place on this programme, I thought I ought to have some serious-sounding objectives, and so my proposed theme was to understand more about the ways in which Korea preserves its traditional culture, and presents and reinvents it for modern audiences. My experiences and interviews would provide material for a series of articles on my website, London Korean Links. I was also hoping for an opportunity to supplement my more general knowledge of the country which has absorbed so much of my time over the past decade: to visit parts of Korea I had never seen before and to find out more about what Korea has to offer as a tourist destination. And travel always provides material for write-ups on my website. In the end, my write-ups grew out of control, and ended up as this book.

As will become apparent, a lot was crammed into the nine days, and I would like to express my sincere thanks to the Korean Culture and Information Service for their generosity in supporting this trip. Thanks are due also to Jennifer Barclay and Sena Lee for their helpful comments on this text, and to Morgan Park and Yoseph Moon for their companionship and help on the journey itself. There are also a few of their photos in this book as well.

A note on intangible cultural heritage

UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as:

“the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”1

In practical terms, this means things like folk music, dances and ceremonies, and traditional arts and crafts.

In respect of the preservation of such heritage, complex issues arise. By their nature, folk customs and art forms change over time. Preservation of an item of heritage involves taking a particular version of an item of culture as it exists at a particular point in time – which may be the present, or may be a reconstruction of the cultural item as it is thought to have existed at some time in the past – and freezing it, or at least circumscribing its natural development. As a further complication, there may be competing versions of a particular cultural tradition, for example different bards might each tell different versions of essentially the same epic poem, and a choice or synthesis has to be made between the versions. Then there are the choices as to what items of heritage are important enough to be preserved, and which will be allowed to die out or adapt.

Having identified a piece of intangible heritage worth preserving, in order to keep the tradition alive the art form needs to be taught to the next generation, and in the case of music, it needs to be performed, or it is nothing. In Korea, each item of national intangible heritage – there are 119 which have been selected so far – has a “holder”, in some cases more than one. This is the artist who is officially responsible for teaching the art form and is its living embodiment. He or she is variously known as an “intangible treasure”, “holder of the intangible cultural property”, an “intangible asset” and other similar appellations. Some cities and provinces have their own parallel system of preserving their important local customs and crafts, and appoint their own “holders” of these intangible cultural assets.

UNESCO maintains an international list of intangible cultural heritage, and includes items on the list based on submissions from its member countries and based on their cultural significance and uniqueness. South Korea currently has eleven items of intangible cultural heritage (including the Jongmyo Rituals – see chapter 8) which have been internationally recognised in this way. In addition, it has ten important cultural and natural sites (including the Jongmyo Shrine itself) in UNESCO’s World Heritage list2, and seven important documents (including the Donguibogam medical text book – see chapter 27) listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register3.

For a useful introduction to Korea’s system of preserving intangible heritage, Keith Howard’s Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity (Ashgate, 2006) is essential reading.

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  1. UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Article 2. (retrieved 16 August 2010). []
  2. What constitutes a site of cultural or natural heritage is perhaps more familiar, but the diligent may read the definition in section I of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage at []
  3. “Documentary heritage reflects the diversity of languages, peoples and cultures. It is the mirror of the world and its memory. But this memory is fragile. Every day, irreplaceable parts of this memory disappear for ever.” (UNESCO website,, retrieved 16 August 2010)  []

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