Korea: The Land of Morning Calm
Walter Fung visited South Korea briefly during October 1987, a time of great excitement as they were preparing for the Seoul Olympics the following year. Korea was for many years a tributary state of China and is very significantly influenced by Chinese culture; indeed the South Korean flag bears the yin-yang symbol and four hexagrams from the I Ching (Yi Jing). This article records the journey and also highlights the way in which Korean culture is linked to that of China. This article first appeared in Brushstrokes Magazine, Issue 28 in October 2004 and then in SACU's China Eye magazine Winter 2010.
We took off from Osaka in western Japan early in the morning and as we approached the Korean mainland, I could understand why it is called 'the land of morning calm'. Not far from the coastline were gentle hills with white clouds interspersed amongst them below a pale blue sky and golden streams of sunlight. I managed take a few photographs before the airhostess told me that taking photographs from the air was not allowed.
We were met by our guide at Pusan airport. She introduced herself as Miso and Miso she was called until just before we were leaving several days later, when we realised that she was 'Miss Oh'. We travelled by road and rail, which provided a good opportunity to see the countryside outside of the cities. Although it was late October, the rich autumn colours of the trees and a wonderfully blue sky contributed to make the trip memorable. The conditions on certain days were perfect for photography. Our itinerary took us on to Kyongju, Taegu and eventually to the capital, Seoul. We saw children on school outings as in Japan, but although as well behaved as Japanese children, they did not wear school uniform. Our guide told us that Koreans regarded the Japanese as lazy and the intention was to catch up and surpass the Japanese economic miracle.
Our hotel in Seoul was situated in a busy square in the commercial district. Mounted on a tall office building opposite, was an electronic noticeboard counting down the days to the start of the Olympic games. On the day of our arrival there were only 322 more days to go. The main stadium was purpose built and was ready over a year in advance-a contrast to other counties, especially Canada where the main stadium in Montreal was only completed at the very last minute. Ten new hotels were under construction in Seoul alone especially for the games and prospective staff was studying English in preparation.
There were still some historic buildings standing in Seoul, quite remarkable, considering that during the Korean War the city was besieged, taken and retaken four times altogether. Civil wars are always bitter conflicts because friends and even family members can sometimes be on opposite sides, and each time Seoul was taken or retaken, old scores were settled further escalating the conflict and bitterness.
Seoul was a thriving city with very wide roads filled with traffic and as in Japan, the road markings were very prominent. Most buildings were modern however, with high-rise towers built on wide boulevards with a minimum of four or more lanes of traffic each way. It was however, significantly less prosperous and clean compared to Tokyo and people were not nearly as well dressed. At that time, Korea was very much a developing country, significantly less advanced as Western Europe and Japan but the water was safe to drink in Seoul.
Buddhism had been introduced to Korea from China in the year 372 AD by a Chinese priest called Shun Tao and became established as a main religion of Korea. Scholars went to China and brought back to Korea further literature on Buddhism and also on Chinese culture. Many volumes were deposited at the Haeinsa Temple but these were burnt by invading Mongols. They were reprinted in the mid 13th Century using 80,000 wooden blocks, which were carved on both sides to produce the 160,000 pages of what is referred to as the Tripitaka Koreana. This work is regarded as the best of the only twenty Tripitakas still in existence.
We visited the historic Haeinsa Temple, near Taegu and saw the original wooden blocks which are still in perfect condition and which can still be used for printing. Our guide, Miso was a practising Buddhist and spent a few moments praying at some of the temples we visited.
Migrating Chinese brought Confucianism into Korea at such an early stage that a specific date cannot be quoted. Similar to China, Confucianism influences nearly every aspect of behaviour and life in Korea. Our guide pointed out that an image of a disciple of Confucius appears on a South Korean coin.
Christianity was first introduced into Korea in the late 16th Century but most of the rapid growth to about 50% of the population of South Korea (by the year 2000) has taken place after World War Two. As we drove along main roads, we saw villages, small clusters of dwellings amongst which we frequently saw a church spire-similar to the English countryside. Christmas Day is a national holiday in South Korea, as is Buddha's Birthday on the eight day of the fourth month of the Lunar Calendar.
We visited historic Kyongju, and saw the Chumsongdae astronomical observatory, which was built in the 7th Century and is one of the oldest in the world. Later we saw the remains of the ancient Silla kingdom. The Silla kingdom, one of three early Korean states, unified the peninsula under one government for the first time in 668 AD. It had received assistance from the Tang Emperor of China. China also came to the aid of Korea during the 16th Century against Japanese invaders. A legend relates how the Chinese god of war, Kwang Yu himself helped the Koreans. Kwang Yu (Guan Yu in Mandarin pin yin) was one of the heroes of the Chinese classic 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms', the events of which took place during the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history (220-280 AD).
Korea has had, since the middle of the 15th Century, its own phonetic writing system, but you see Chinese characters on some shops and neon signs and especially on historic buildings. Up to the 15th Century, Korean, which is not in the same family language group as Chinese, was written in Chinese characters, which were adapted to represent sounds rather than picture symbols as in the Chinese written script. This was not an ideal situation and Korean scholars devised a unique original form of writing called hangul to accommodate the spoken Korean language. The modern hangul Korean alphabet has 24 letters (originally 28) of which ten are vowels. Hangul is claimed to be one of the simplest and most concise writing systems in the world. The Koreans are very proud of their script because they invented it themselves and it symbolises their independent culture. In fact there is a public holiday, Hangul day, to commemorate script's development.
Hangul was totally unlike the Roman alphabet or any other writing we had seen and when we went into a restaurant we literally had to take potluck. We pointed to two dishes on the menu, which looked reasonably priced and hoped for the best. The restaurant proprietor was friendly and we were amazed when a banquet of about sixteen dishes appeared complete with lukewarm peppermint tea. In fact tea everywhere in Korea was lukewarm and I am not sure if that is the way it is traditionally served or by some coincidence that is the way we always seemed to have had it!
Our guidebook warned that Korean students would want to strike up conversations with English tourists to practise their English and we found this to be true. We had a short conversation with one young man who wrote his name in Chinese characters and put the English equivalent, Chey Sung Wook. The Mandarin pin yin of the Chinese characters he wrote was Cui Xing Xu meaning 'Rising Star'. He said that Chinese was taught as the second language in Korean schools and that he respected the Chinese-they are a 'steadfast' people. I am sure this is complimentary but I am not entirely sure what he meant.
There was much room for improvement in the grammar of notices in English that we saw. Remains of a famous tree (an example in England is the Greendale Oak in Sherwood Forest), was labelled the 'Died Ziekora Tree'. This tree, dead since 1945, was believed to have been planted by one of the ancient Korean kings over 1100 years ago. We had an amusing discussion with our guide when near the summit of a hill, the signposts said, 'road down' and 'road up'. We explained that in England 'road up' means the road is being dug up and is actually closed to traffic.
The Japanese were less well liked than the Chinese. History records that Japan had invaded Korea over 900 times in the last 2,000 years in total, and in fact after the 1910 conquest, Korea was annexed into Japan. The objective was to obliterate Korean culture altogether and fully integrate the country into Japan. In the 1936 Olympics, Koreans competed under the Japanese flag-their own country did not exist at that time.
Arrangements had been made for the Korean athlete, who had won a gold medal for Japan in 1936, to carry the Olympic Torch into the arena at the Seoul Olympics opening ceremony. This time however, he would be representing his own country, Korea. Holding the Olympics was a prestigious event for Koreans, showing that it had joined the ranks of the major counties of the world after the humiliating occupation by the Japanese. It also provided the opportunity to show the world the reconstruction after the devastating civil war. Incidentally the war is technically still on, only an armistice was signed.
Many Korean taxis had been converted to run on liquid propane gas (LPG). The cylinder unfortunately occupied a significant amount of boot space, which caused problems to two tourists both with large suitcases. However it showed the Korean concern for the environment even in 1987. One of our taxi drivers in Seoul had a 'Best Driver' certificate in his cab-he had been accident free for over ten years.
Seoul had city walls with some formidable looking ornate gates. One was called the 'Namdaemun' but I did not realise immediately that it was Chinese for 'Great South Gate' (nam da men in pin yin - but pronounced namdaimun in Cantonese). Some guidebooks refer to the Namdaemun as the number one treasure in Korea. It is the oldest wooden structure in Seoul and was originally built in 1398 but renovated in 1962. It was originally called the' Gate of Exalted Ceremonies. There were other names that corresponded to Chinese names such as Chunggang Sijang, the Central Market (Zhong gang shi chang in pin-yin). Second hand goods and antiques were on sale in this Central Market, which was also referred to as the 'Thieves Market'.
The main tourist sight in the capital must be the old Imperial Palace, the Kyongbok Palace. It is the equivalent of the Forbidden City in Beijing and some buildings, especially the central hall, the Kunjong-jon looked similar to some of those in the Forbidden City. One building housed the academy, which devised the Korean script in the mid 15th Century. Many of the buildings had of course, been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. The symbols and mythical guardian figures you see on Chinese buildings could be seen. The philosophical sounding names such as the 'Palace of Virtuous Long Life' and 'Pavilion of Far Reaching Fragrance' were certainly reminiscent of the Forbidden City.
Korean surnames can be written using Chinese characters and have their Chinese equivalents; for example Kim, the most common Korean surname, and actually the surname of the North Korean leader, is the same as Jin in Mandarin Chinese and means 'gold'. Ri or Rhee is Li in Mandarin. Similar to China, there are relatively few surnames; there are only about 200 common surnames in use in Korea. The most popular names such as Park, Lee, Lim, Choi, Koo account for most of the entire population. Similar to Chinese people, many Koreans have three names, a surname, a generation middle name and a given name. In addition, married women retain their own family name. Korean Festivals include the Lunar calendar New Year and the Moon Festival. Koreans also revere ancestors and have equivalents of Qing Ming and Chong Yang.
Some of the Korean numbers bear some resemblance to Cantonese, ee for two, sam for three, yuk for six, sip for ten, paek for 100 and man for 10,000. There other resemblances to Cantonese, the name Paek is written with the Chinese character Bai - meaning white, but in Cantonese it is Pak or Bak.
For much of history, Korea has been a quasi-protectorate of China and even today in the 21st Century it is within the sphere of influence of China and the world is looking to the Chinese to help resolve the problem of North Korea. The Chinese influence in Korea through the ages has been summarised by the view that it is a 'younger brother' of China, often ignored, never abandoned. Possibly this explains the attitude of China to North Korea?
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2010 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 28, 2010
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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