Thursday 6 May 2010. Sancheong County in Gyeongsangnam-do occupies an area larger than Seoul1, but its population is only 35,000. It is a land of mystery and legend, with ideas and importance more in proportion to its land mass than its population size. People there are very proud of where and who they are. Our local guide is from a family which has been in the county for nineteen generations.
Sancheong was the first place in Korea where cotton was cultivated – the cotton plant is the official flower of the county. Sancheong rice is sent to the Blue House to feed the President. Sancheong dried persimmons are sent to the Queen of England (they have a thank-you letter to prove it). Their strawberries are the sweetest and most expensive in the land, and indeed the early-season fruits which seemed to be everywhere during my visit were among the finest I have tasted.
But what is more precious is the landscape itself. Sancheong means, broadly, mountain purity. The mountain part is easy: Sancheong lies at the foot of Jirisan, the highest peak on mainland South Korea. The purity comes from the fresh water in Sancheong’s rivers. More important than the obvious features of the landscape, though, is the hidden power, the ki of the earth. Jirisan lies at the southernmost end of the Baekdu-daegan (백두대간), the mountain backbone of the Korean peninsula which is thought to be a source of powerful geomantic energy. Sancheong boasts one of the strongest levels of energy in Korea.
Nestling on the slopes of Wangsan, one of the peaks in the Jirisan region, is a giant turtle-shaped rock weighing 127 tonnes. Its shell is carved with ornate designs. It rests flat against the mountainside, and is said to be one of the strongest sources of ki anywhere. Rest your hands on the rock for a minute, and you will benefit from that energy.
It is said that Lee Charm came here recently, laid his hands on the stone, and made a wish. Before long, he was head of the Korean Tourism Organisation, the first foreigner to hold the post. On a more mundane level, we were invited to test the rock’s mystic powers. “Make an ‘O’ shape with your thumb and index finger,” instructed Mr Min, our guide. “Try to keep that ‘O’ shape while I try to force your fingers apart with my hands. Remember how hard or easy it is for me to break the ‘O’.” We duly obeyed. “Now place your hands on the rock for two minutes and try it again.”
We were amazed. Was it that our bodies were reinforced with elemental ki energy? Was it that I knew what to expect and so was reinforcing my index finger with my middle finger? Was it that Mr Min wasn’t trying so hard the second time? Whatever, I could just about imagine that I managed to withstand Mr Min’s strength for slightly longer after that brief infusion of turtle-power. This little test, with the scientific name of the Bi-Digital O-Ring Test (or BDORT for short), is something that Lee Charm now tries out on guests when he is persuading them of the benefits of Korean food: for eating bibimbap also tops up your ki levels.
Further up the hill was another ornately carved stone, in a perfectly circular shape. The stone is known as The Mirror. And there is a magical tale about it. Originally, the rock was a plain grey. Then, one day, three years ago, the figure of a white phoenix miraculously appeared in the centre of the stone. It was a portent. And on the same day, 100 wild ginseng roots were found on the slopes of Wangsan, the ‘King’s Mountain’, in Sancheong County, a record harvest for a single day. It was the day that the new Presidential Seal had been completed, something that happens only once every 100 years.
Such is the power of the Earth in Sancheong. But the special energy in Sancheong is more: it is about the sky, the earth and mankind being in harmony with each other. The sky brings blessing, the earth brings opportunity, and people help things to happen. Sancheong is said to be the area in Korea with the strongest harmony between sky, earth and mankind: 하늘, 땅, 사람.
It is in this auspicious spot, right by the turtle-rock (symbolising the land) and under the watchful eye of the Phoenix mirror (symbolising the sky), that some traditional temple-style buildings are being constructed. The grounds, which have a commanding view over the valley below, are being landscaped and planted with ornamental pines whose boughs twist and turn, covered in cracked silver bark. In one of these buildings, three years ago, the current presidential seal was made, using ancient Korean craftsmanship techniques. The seal is imbued with all the special energy of this special part of Korea.
In 97 years time, the workshop will be pressed into service again to create the next seal. Until that time, the buildings will form part of the Sancheong infrastructure, helping to host an expanded mountain herb festival, and a festival devoted to Heo Jun, Korea’s national medical hero and author of Korea’s latest inclusion on the UNESCO world intangible heritage list, the Donguibogam textbook of traditional Korean herbal medicine.
- Sancheong (795 km2) is bigger than Seoul (605 km2). But 79% of Sancheong is taken up by mountains and the population is therefore quite low.