Saturday 1 May 2010. Today is a tourism day. We head out to Yongin, just outside the famous city of Suwon where the UNESCO-registered Hwaseong Fortress is situated.
Yongin contains a folk village which opened in late 1974, at the height of the Saemaeul movement when modernisation in the countryside was bringing to an end a certain style of traditional architecture. Traditional buildings, including some threatened with flooding as a result of dam construction, were dismantled, transported and reconstructed on this site. It has been speculated that Yongin is the first example of a specially created “folk village” anywhere in the world1. This would suggest that Korea is a pioneer in preserving ancient culture – perhaps as a result of its traumatic history in the first half of the twentieth century.
It’s a place which is a popular attraction not only with tourists, but also with Koreans wanting to reconnect with some of their own culture. This is particularly true of Koreans returning home from abroad with children who have grown up in a foreign country.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the folk village: as a concept it sounded rather artificial. But it is well laid out, and with the dedicated help of our tour guide, Marina, we have an informative time. Marina is a typically feisty Korean. She injured her leg in a hiking accident a couple of weeks beforehand and had to spend some time in hospital. But she has hobbled to work on a crutch in order to welcome foreigners to this attraction.
As I was to discover almost everywhere, I was on a very tight schedule. We had to get to the performance area by 11am. We pay a quick visit to the little shrine to the local deity, just outside the village gates; we pass the totem poles designed to ward off evil spirits; there’s a special gateway to reward one local women for her extraordinary piety. Another old lady is demonstrating silk-weaving to a couple of young girls. Elsewhere, a toddler is trying her hand at the ironing bats and the bean-grinder.
Black | North | turtle | water
Red | South | phoenix | fire
Blue | East | dragon | wood
White | West | tiger | metal
Yellow | Centre | dragon | earth
Marina tells us why the gate into a rich person’s house has a raised roof (so that the palanquin can be carried in easily), about the rivalry between the kitchen spirit and the toilet spirit, about why a metal fish hangs in the eaves outside a scholar’s room (the fish never closes his eyes, and is therefore an inspiration to keep studying), about the ondol system and ventilation, about the separation between the sexes, about the symbolism behind the five colours of the streamers which hang from the trees. She’s a mine of information, but this is the first full day of my trip and I haven’t got into the swing of taking notes yet. I absorb what I can and ignore the rest, enjoying the different patterns of the stonework in the walls, the pleasant garden of totem poles and kimchi pots under the shade of the trees, and the newly ploughed field in the middle of the village.
If you choose to visit the Yongin folk village, which I recommend despite not initially being too enthusiastic, I suggest you choose to hire a guide if one is available. Not vital, because you can still have a pleasant time without it, but a little talk about folk customs always fills out the experience.
The folk village has a regular schedule of daily performances. We had to say farewell to Marina all too quickly so that we could get to the colourful farmers nongak dance, with swirling ribbons and rousing rhythms. The loudspeakers which support the music are cunningly disguised as beehives.
Next, the rope-walker (if you’ve seen King and the Clown, you’ll know the form). The art of jultagi (줄타기), tightrope-walking, was subsequently inscribed in UNESCO’s list of world intangible cultural heritage. I was planning to ask Morgan, my interpreter, to grab the acrobat afterwards and ask him how he avoided doing mortal damage to his manhood during the act. But it was not necessary. Like most Korean performers, there was much bantering and backchat with the audience during the proceedings, and he communicated that he removes his testicles before the performance and reattaches them later.
Next, some lively trick horsemanship, followed by a re-enactment of a Joseon dynasty upper class wedding. Very colourful and picturesque, not just the robes of the happy couple, but also the sparkle on the sun-visors of all the ajummas wandering round enjoying the spectacle.
There’s plenty to see, eat and browse at the Yongin folk village, and you could probably spend the best part of a day there, but my schedule awaits, and we head off after lunch.
- Keith Pratt raised this possibility in a talk on the traditional music scene and cultural revival in Korea in the 1970s, presented at the London Korean Cultural Centre on 28 April 2010: On First Hearing the Court Nightingale – Reflections on Music in Korea in the 1970s