2011 Travel Diary day 7: Baek Un-cheol and Seolmundae Halmang: a lifetime’s obsession with stones and their stories

Jeju Stone Park in the mist
Jeju Stone Park in the mist

Jeju Stone Park, Friday 6 May 2011. “I fell in love with Seolmundae Halmang, and now I can’t love any other woman” says Baek Un-cheol, honorary director of Jeju Stone Park. Maybe it explains why he is single. No earthly woman can compete in his affections with the legendary earth mother and creator of Jejudo.

Mr Baek Un-cheol, honorary director of Jeju Stone Park
Mr Baek Un-cheol, honorary director of Jeju Stone Park

Many tales are told of Grandmother Seolmundae (설문대 할망), depicting her as endearingly nurturing but also whimsical and arrogant: a grumpy, loving, earthy giant with many sides to her character. It’s easy to see how someone could become so fascinated with her that he devotes his life to telling her stories to a modern audience.

Anne Hilty has deconstructed some of the legends pertaining to Seolmundae in a two-part article in the Jeju Weekly, and suggests that some of the raunchier tales are of Joseon dynasty or even 20th century creation, invented with a neo-Confucian patriarchal eye to discrediting a female deity on the one hand or a government official’s eye to generating tourist interest on the other. Her article contains many of the legends, while others can be found on the Jeju Stone Park website and on Pantheon.org.

But whatever the source of the stories, they have many variations. She was so tall – 49 km from head to toe – that she used Halla-san as a pillow and her legs reached Gwantal Island (관탈섬), an uninhabited island found about 25km north of Jeju. She was so big that it was difficult to find decent clothing for herself. She promised to build a bridge from Jeju to Jindo if the islanders made her some new underwear. The islanders only managed to gather 99 of the 100 containers of silk that were needed for her knickers and so the deal was off. The remains of the bridge she started building can be found in the sea off Jocheon, just to the east of Jeju City. There are some other tales that are not-safe-for-work that can be found on Pantheon.org.

Two conflicting legends concern Seolmundae’s death – or at least her disappearance into a netherworld possibly one day to return.

One story has her boasting about her gigantic stature, and jumping into water only to find it coming up to her knees. She misjudged the depth of the bottomless Muljangeori crater (now a wetland) and disappeared without trace.

The other story is that she boiled to death in a giant cooking pot. Seolmundae had five hundred hungry grandsons – sometimes known as the 500 generals. One day she was cooking a stew in a vast cauldron and managed to lose her balance and fell into the pot. In one version of the story she actually jumped into the pot of her own accord in order to provide extra protein for her starving offspring. The grandsons came home and found the stew unusually tasty. Only the youngest grandson knew something was amiss when he saw her bones in the stew. Re ran off wailing and chiding his elder brothers for their carelessness. He was turned into a stone on the island of Chagwido just off the west coast of Jeju-do, while the remaining 499 were turned to stone at Yeongsil (영실) on the slopes of Hallasan.

Fortune Maitreyas - Dongjabok and Seojabok.
Fortune Maitreyas – Dongjabok and Seojabok. Jeju Province Folk Material #1. These two statues were placed outside Jeju Fortress on the East and West sides, and date back to the late Goryeo / early Joseon dynasty

Mr Baek’s fascination with the legend of Seolmundae and her 500 grandchildren began at an early age. Walking ceaselessly on the slopes of Mt Hallasan, he noticed faces in the rocks on the Yeongsil trail – as if Seolmundae’s offspring were captured in stone, or as if the rocks themselves had taken on human form as indicated by the legend. In one obsessive project, he photographed these oddly-shaped rocks, and his collection of images is now stored in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris.

But Mr Baek is not just a photographer. To say he is an obsessive collector would be an understatement. “Everyone says I’m a crazy man” he confesses. And looking at some of the statistics you have to agree. He personally has collected all of the stones and fossilised tree roots in the Stone Park over the course of his lifelong obsession with Jeju Island and its rocky landscape and legends. He started collecting the tortured tree roots in his late 20s. The initial passion gripped him for six years during which time he collected 1,000 pieces, but he continued on and off for 30 years. The whole collection comprises some 4,000 natural stones, another 4,000 man-made stone objects such as millstones and mortars, and 2,000 ceramic jars. Taken with the tree roots and other objects in total there are around 20,000 pieces including twenty Provincial Treasures.

In its early days the collection was housed in Tamla Mokseokwon, Mr Baek’s private sculpture park which first opened to visitors in 1971. LKL visited there in 2001. The collection grew over the decades, until there was no longer room for it all at Mokseokwon. He needed an action plan to preserve the collection and make it more accessible. His grand scheme was Jeju Stone Park, and in 1999 he signed a deal with the North Jeju Mayor to set things in motion. The overall scheme, if it is fully realised, will have an estimated cost of almost 200 billion won and will spread over 330 hectares. The first phase opened in 2006.

What has been built so far is a huge museum complex including a theatre, a gallery containing a permanent exhibition of lava tree moulds and what Mr Baek calls “volcanic bombs” – grotesque and comic rocky shapes formed naturally out of lava; a large space (the Obaekjanggun gallery) for temporary exhibitions; a basement-level space containing a permanent exhibition on the geological history of the island; and the usual museum services such as gift shop and café. The complex is built virtually underground. On its roof, the huge circular Sky Pond serving as a backdrop for performances and events symbolizes the legends of Seolmundae’s death: the cauldron into which she threw herself to save her starving children and Muljangeori crater in which she drowned boasting of her height.

Five village Maitreyas
Five village Maitreyas which were incorporated into Hwacheonsa Temple, Hoechon-dong.

Outside the museum main building is the parkland itself, of which around 30% is given over to a recreation forest formed of Jeju’s Gotjawal trees which seem to grow out of the living rock, relying on contorted mangrove-like roots for support.

Of course, the most important thing in the park is the stones themselves which are part of Jeju’s rocky heritage. Countless of jeju’s famous dolharubang (돌하르방 – comic stone grandfathers), stone tomb guardians, triangular stone buddhas like the Easter Island statues,. These are outside in the park itself, artfully laid out along three trails of different lengths. Some are arranged in pairs like husband and wife; others are solitary; yet more are in massed ranks like soldiers.

The outside area is more than a sculpture park. It is about presenting the living history of Jeju Island – about how Jeju Islanders have lived and died from the Stone Age through to the Joseon Dynasty. So an important part of the park is the Thatched Roof Village which shows some of the island’s unique folk culture. And there is also an area of the park devoted to Jeju tomb culture. Here, the domed pimple shapes of the tombs echo the contours of the oreum (the parasite volcanoes which dot the island, said to have been formed by sand dropping through the holes of Seolmundae’s apron when she was building Jeju at the beginning of time), which also seem to influence the curved roofs of the thatched cottages.

What is there is only part of the project. Still to be built is the Seolmundae Halmang complex which will focus on the legends of Jeju’s earth mother. But even without the crowning glory, Jeju Stone Park is a fascinating and intriguing place to visit which provides a rich source of visual and historical inspiration grounded in Jeju’s mythology, anthropology and geology.

An evening of friendship and Jeju Minyo

We drive to Jeju City from the Stone Park for a stroll in the hills before dinner. There is a favourite walking spot to see the sunset, a path which winds up the hills to a lookout at the top. At the side of the trail are exercise frames for people to work out on their morning jog.

I’m cursing that the batteries on my camera have given out. The only memories of the view are imprinted on my human memory, not on a memory chip. But it was a very pleasant stroll in the cool of the evening, the fog and drizzle of the morning left far behind.

We continue to our evening rendez-vous and a couple of friends of Kyung-sook’s including a local art critic, writer, journalist and photographer Kim Yu-jeong. Dinner consists of a wonderful samgyeopsal of Jeju black pig, with a salty anchovy dipping sauce and plenty of soju to help it down. Conversation, or what I could gather of it, ranged from John Ruskin to Yanagi Muneoshi via Bernard Leach. My other memory of the evening was that the kitsch Peter Rabbit wastebin beside the washbasin.

Dinner is over, but not yet the evening. “I don’t like Americans,” announced Mr Kim out of the blue, as we prowled around a supermarket looking for makgeolli for our 2차. “Why is that?” I asked.
“Because of Sa Sam” he responded.

Fortunately, I’d just been reading Mandogi’s Ghost by Kim Seok-pom, so knew that he was referring to the Jeju massacre of which the most significant events took place on 3 April 1948. I pondered a little as to why the wounds of over 60 years ago were still sore, but over the years I have come to realise that injustices take a long time to heal over, and with the construction of the Naval Base in Gangjeong the wound is once again causing pain.

We retire to Mr Kim’s office to see to the makgeolli. I have no clue what the conversation was about, but during the course of the late evening we listened to some recordings of Jeju folk songs, to which my friends sang along.

Many of the songs were those sung by the female divers, with a rhythm like a boat rocking on the waves. Most of them had a mournful atmosphere, probably reflecting the hardships of life or the fact that the people of Jeju have always been distant from and neglected by the capital.

A lot of Jeju’s songs, according to the Jeju Stone Park website, reference Jeju’s abundance of stones which provide for innumerable metaphors and similes. A stone as a symbol of an unchanging, steadfast heart. A stone as a symbol of stupidity, or of a heavy burden or grief. A stone as a symbol for something annoying, something you stumble over. Something that can cause you pain, give you an aching heart if it hits you in the chest. “It’s really annoying if there’s a piece of grit in your mouthful of food,” goes the song of one lonely woman. “But I’d really like to have a man even though he’s as annoying as a stone in your rice.” Another song compares life to the precarious prospect of crossing a rough stone bridge while wearing wooden clogs. Stones are everywhere on Jeju, and it is only natural that they should loom large in Jeju’s songs, and I felt inadequate for not being able to reciprocate by sharing any English folk songs. Nevertheless, we parted the best of friends. I return to the cottage in the Stone Park, and Mr Baek takes my camera with him to charge the battery overnight.


The Legend of Seolmundae Halmang – a proposal

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