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Festival visit: Jasmine Gwangju

Gwangju seems an event from the distant past, but in fact was only 31 years ago. This year, the archives which document the history of that brief uprising were listed by UNESCO in their Memory of the World register.

Photographs of some of those who died in the Gwangju struggle

With perfect timing, bearing in mind the democratic uprisings in the Arab world this year, the City of Gwangju has put together a serious-minded musical paying tribute to the spirit of democratic resistance. The resulting production, Jasmine Gwangju, seeks to highlight the ongoing relevance of Gwangju’s painful experience to the democracy movements of today. In one section, an ever-marching procession of black and white funeral portraits of Koreans protestors killed in the Gwangju uprising also included colour photographs of protestors killed in the various uprisings in the Arab world this year.

The work describes itself as a requiem for the souls of those who died during the 18 May uprising in Gwangju. It is based around the Ssik-gim gut (씻김굿), a traditional shamanistic cleansing ritual for the dead originating from Jindo, an island off the southwest coast of Jeollanam-do. The central character is the ghost of one of the Gwangju victims, roaming the earth and unable to find peace, carrying a suitcase full of his memories. He is attracted to the ceremony by the smell of incense and communes with other ghosts who are gathering there. One of them opens his suitcase which cues a montage of the violence and suffering experienced in the Gwangju uprising. The shamans perform the ritual which eases his suffering, enabling him to go to the beyond. The performance ends with celebratory dancing including a ganggangsullae.

Drumming with fire

In one of the more spectacular moments some drummers, dressed as demons, set fire to their sticks and for a while the drums themselves were covered in flame. The music was played on traditional instruments, with eight musicians and five singers seated at the back of the stage in addition to the cast, who included dancers, drummers (including the familiar pungmul ribbon dancers) and singers.

Shamans pass through the audience

Towards the end, as part of the rituals, the shamans left the stage and walked up the aisles stretching a long white cloth behind them: Koreans in the audience knew what to do next – cash offerings were put in the cloth to pay the shamans for their pains1.

The maypole

The music, traditional in style, was composed by Han Seung-seok and directed by Won Il, who has delighted audiences in London with his chamber group Baramgot. With Won in charge, a high quality musical experience was guaranteed. Overall though, the production would have been more moving if it had tried less hard to make Gwangju relevant today’s uprisings. Surtitles on the screen at the back of the stage kept reminding us of the modern connections and of human suffering, rather labouring the point. The music, singing and dance was eloquent enough.

Jasmine Gwangju continues at Venue 150 at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre until 19 August 2011. Event details on the Fringe website. All photos above are courtesy of the Jasmine Gwangju Facebook page.


  1. You can find a YouTube video of a Jin-do ssitgim gut (with the cloth being filled with banknotes) on this YouTube video []

One thought on “Festival visit: Jasmine Gwangju

  1. I find it interesting that this event remains part of South Korea’s modern historical memory. I remember the democratic uprising in South Korea, reported on TV news in England during the run-up to the Seoul Olympics (1988). Kwangju formed part of the backdrop to the 1987-8 unrest. The task of of full democratization of course remains unfinished, with respect to North Korea.

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