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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2010 Travel Diary #20: The House of Choi Champan

Wednesday 5 May 2010.

What is authenticity?

Probably, over the course of Korea’s long history, most of Korea’s precious buildings have burned down and been rebuilt. It’s a natural hazard of building from sustainable materials such as wood. Marauding invaders or revolting slaves can cause great destruction with just a single spark.

The reconstruction work might be done using original techniques, or might incorporate some technological improvements. Probably most of us would not regard one of Korea’s national treasures as “unauthentic” simply because it has been burned down at some stage. But when precisely does a reconstruction become unauthentic?

Part of the set village used in filming The Land
Part of the village used in filming The Land

Is moving an “authentic” old building from one place to another (as happened, for example, in the creation of the Yongin Folk Village) an act of preservation? Or is it the creation of a theme park? Is the construction of a completely new building using traditional methods committing some sort of fraud on the beholder, or is it evidence of showing a commendable respect for ancient tradition?

When a royal palace or collection of traditional buildings is taken over as a film set, does that somehow cheapen the structure? Probably not. When a collection of picturesque traditional-style buildings is built from scratch to serve as a film set, is the structure worthy of visiting in its own right? Or only if the film is really popular?

Fish Pond at the House of Choi Champan
Fish Pond at the House of Choi Champan

And what if you don’t know, when visiting the site, whether it’s “authentic” or not?

This last question was the one that was bugging me the most, as I was ferried to a beautiful spot up in the hills in Hadong County where a long-running TV series had been filmed. Everything was happening so fast that I didn’t know what I was seeing, and I didn’t have time to ask. Up in Daewonsa temple the following night, one of the monks would tell me to take things slowly and relax, but my schedule most of the time would not permit it.

So I had to go with the flow, and simply appreciate where I was on its own terms.

Tea ceremony
A tea ceremony is re-enacted at the House of Choi Champan

And that was fine. It was a very picturesque location. A yangban’s house, with a fishpond by the side of which young boys in noble hanbok were playing, had a pretty garden where the wind was gently stirring the trees. Inside the courtyard, a tea ceremony was being enacted as a 5 year-old girl humbly served tea to her mother, backing away five paces before turning to return to her station at the other side of the room. Tears were being shed by the onlookers at such filial piety and devotion.

Outside the courtyard, rustic farmers’ cottages fanned out along pathways and across the terraces. Tea bushes flanked the footpaths, and yellow rape flower added extra colour.

The Couple Pines are just visible in the fertile valley

The village commanded spectacular views across the valley plain below. And in the centre of the plain, surrounded by a faintly mauve carpet of alfalfa, were two solitary pine trees. The locals called them the “Couple Pines” or the “Husband and Wife Pines” (부부송). Their very presence seemed poignant and melancholy, and you could imagine the landmark having special significance in a weepy melodrama…

…Sung-min and Eun-sook are childhood sweethearts and always used to play under the cool shade of the Couple Pines, flying their kites on New Year’s day and sucking on sweet watermelons in the heat of the summer. One day, they have to part, but vow to return in ten years time to see if their love can survive. Meanwhile it is discovered that Sung-min has an incurable disease, and Eun-sook has been secretly betrothed to … fill in the rest of the details yourself, as the sobbing soundtrack tugs at the heartstrings.

A plaque on one of the walls of the village announces that the location was used as the set for a long-running and hugely popular TV drama called Toji (토지, The Land), with the storyline by Park Kyung-ni (박경리). The Yangban’s house was billed as the House of Choi Champan (최참판) – even on maps of the area. And maybe in the story there really was a couple of star-crossed lovers for whom the couple pines had a special meaning. I just didn’t get the chance to ask.

Park Kyung-ni
Park Kyung-ni

Since returning to London, I’ve had a chance to find out more about Park Kyung-ni and The Land. Had I been more diligent in reading my news clippings over the years, the novel and the author would have registered immediately. It is a very familiar problem that Korean literature is not very well known outside of Korea, and that therefore Korean authors, too, are very little known. But Park Kyung-ni is of such importance that she merited a feature in The Times when she died in May 2008.

Park’s novel contains entirely fictional characters, and one of the central families in the saga is the yangban Choi family – the Choi Champan (“Magistrate Choi”) of the village I had just visited. So my curiosity was finally laid to rest: the village seems to have been built purely as a TV set. But very pretty it is.

The Land has been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace for its panoramic view of the impact of history on the people of a country. Ask a Korean about it, and he will probably tell you about its special place in the canon. It is of such importance in Korean literature that it has been registered in UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works, which enabled funding for the first 10% of it to be translated into English. For those unfamiliar with The Land, a review, in the Korean Studies portal, of this translation by Agnita Tennant is a good introduction. The review finishes:

It is to be hoped that publication of this portion of Land is only the beginning, and that more of Park Kyung-ni’s panoramic novel will be translated in days to come.

Alas, the review was written in 1998, and we are still waiting.

A poster for the SBS TV series of Toji, The Land

Further reading:

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