2010 Travel Diary #1: Royal Ancestors and Lee Young-ae

The Jongmyo Rituals and Lee Young-ae

It is always an efficient process arriving at Incheon Airport compared with most destinations I can think of. Immigration and baggage reclaim takes no time at all. I am met at the exit from immigration by Morgan Park, released from her university programme in Advanced Interpretation and Translation at Joong Ang University. She is to be my constant companion and guide for the week, along with a driver. I am the privileged guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service, whose remit is to assist foreign journalists find out more about Korea – and where necessary to try gently to correct any misapprehensions: they are effectively the Government Press Office.

Every year they host visiting journalists, assisting in fixing interviews, providing translation and logistical support and showing off some of the many and varied tourist sites that Korea has to offer. Each programme is different: a French team recently did a feature on the decline in rice consumption in Korea and its impact on the farming community; a Polish team were interested in the economy and in relations with North Korea; a crew from India had a whale of a time wherever they went experiencing the tourist sites, clowning around wearing the pom-pom hats of the traditional farmers dancers (right) and bouncing on the see-saw in the Yongin Folk Village. All good for promoting Korea as a tourist destination. The Iranians had the best idea: given the popularity of a certain TV drama in Iran and the Middle East generally, they did a feature on Dae Jang Geum – and secured a coveted interview with A-list actress Lee Young-ae.

I wish I had thought of that.

My own purpose, on behalf of LKL, whose main remit is to try to present Korean culture to non-Koreans in a user-friendly way, was to understand more about how Korea preserves and presents its intangible heritage and how it reinvents it for modern audiences. And, while in town, to do something topical on Seoul as World Design City 2010.

The visit was timed to take in the maximum number of UNESCO World Heritage points in one go: the Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Rituals1, which are held at the Jongmyo shrine2. The rituals are held every year, the first Sunday in May. An ancient ceremony not performed anywhere else, lovingly preserved and performed for the public, a ceremony moreover which scholars from China attend in order to rediscover some of their own lost heritage: surely a suitable, indeed the most suitable, case study for my project on cultural preservation.

Every Korean I spoke to thought I was mad. “It’s so boring” they all said. A couple of Korean traditional musician friends in London confirmed the story: it’s boring. If even the specialists thought I was crazy, what hope did I have? I polled the blogosphere for more input. “I’m a Korean and it’s really really boring” said one, while a cultured and seasoned foreign Korea hand said: “It’s pretty repetitive. Lots of old guys walking slowly, chanting, and setting tables in hanbok.” Hardly a way to describe a solemn ceremony with more than 600 years of history, but I’m beginning to get the idea.

A Korean architecture specialist, always to be found at the various cultural events in London, pondered for a while and recommended that I appreciate the scale, majesty and beauty of the shrine itself. He was evasive about the actual ceremony, but I could read what he thought in his worried frown.

Finally, quite by chance, the night before the rituals this year I had dinner in Seoul at the apartment of some Korean friends from London. The hostess had attended to the traditional music high school which provides the dancers for the Jongmyo rituals. Three years running she had performed at the ceremony, and had trained the dancers for another couple of years after that.

Her verdict? You’ve guessed it: really boring.

So, I had come to Seoul in order to experience a day of excruciating dullness. And to think I could have been interviewing Lee Young-ae instead…

But having come to Korea in order to experience its intangible heritage item number 1 in the capital, on my trip to the less-visited southern part of the peninsula I stumbled over Korea’s most recent UNESCO heritage listing, the seventeenth century medical text-book compiled by Sancheong local hero Heo Jun. In a country known for its technology and internet speeds, a more ancient culture is never far away.

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  1. The rituals are listed as Korean intangible cultural heritage item 56, while the music is item 1, and the both were inscribed in UNESCO’s list of masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001 []
  2. The Jongmyo shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995 and Korea’s Historic Site number 125 []

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