Outside these ivory walls – It’s been over a month since my wife and I went down to Gyeongju for a holiday weekend visit, but I did say I was going to write about it, and I have some pictures from the trip to post as well. This is a first for me—writing about something and posting pictures at the same time. It will allow me to link to some of the pictures in the entry itself, hopefully giving the story a little more depth.
I think it took us about eight hours to get down to Gyeongju. It’s not that far away (South Korea is not that big of a country—it’s only fourth-fifths the size of New York state, for example), but there are only so many roads, and there are way too many people on those roads (again, for example, New York state has about two-fifths of Korea’s population). And, as I mentioned above, it was a holiday weekend.
Anyway, we got to Gyeongju in the afternoon. One of the main reasons for our trip was to go to the World Culture Expo, but by the time we found a place to stay and got settled, we decided we would be better off going the next day. Instead, we decided to take a trip to Mt. Namsan. It is famous for having a lot of Buddhist relics, but the only thing we managed to stumble across were three Medicine Buddhas carved into the rocks. Maybe we were just in the wrong area—I don’t know. At any rate, it was a nice walk.
The next day we set out very early so we could see the sunrise from Seokguram Grotto, on Mt. Tohamsan. The path up to the grotto was closed, as it was still too early in the morning, so we crowded together at the entrance with the rest of the people who had come to see the sunrise. A thick layer of clouds hung on the horizon, and we were afraid that the sunrise would be obscured, but there was an opening in the clouds that the sun peeked through on its way up.
The path to the grotto was opened after the sun had fully risen, and we walked up the winding way to stand in line to see the grotto. To quote from the Cultural Properties Administration’s booklet, World Heritage in Korea (2002): “Seokguram is a portrayal of Korean Buddhism of the mid 8th century, when Buddhist art flowered into its full glory under Unified Silla. This sanctuary sums up the religious enthusiasm, architectural technology, and aesthetics of our ancestors.”
I would like to add that its current state sums up modern Korea’s almost fanatical devotion to preserving her national treasures. Not only is the grotto itself covered over with glass (thus making any attempts at photography futile), but a small building has been built in front of the grotto, presumably to protect it from the elements. In order to see the grotto you have to stand in a line that moves through the small building. It was an impressive sight, or at least it would have been had I actually been able to see it. I understand the desire to preserve national treasures, but when preservation takes precedence over the ability to actually appreciate the treasures, what’s the point? When the grotto was first built, the large, seated Buddha image was greeted by the rising sun each morning. By covering up the opening, not only has the government deprived its citizens of the opportunity to fully enjoy the grotto, they have hidden the light of the sun from the eyes of the Buddha.
After this disappointment we went down the mountain to Bulguksa Temple, which was far more rewarding. I had been there once before, but it was nice to visit again. It is one of the most famous temples in Korea, and it houses six national treasures. Treasures aside, though, I just enjoy walking around the temple grounds, appreciating the architecture of man and the architecture of nature in harmony.
After strolling around the temple for a while we went back down to the mountain and had breakfast before heading off to the Expo. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but overall it was somewhat disappointing. The highlight of the whole thing was most definitely a musical called “Emille - A Millennium Sound.” It tells the story of the Emille Bell—according to legend, a child was sacrificed and thrown into the molten bronze to sanctify the bell. The musical indicated that it was actually a plot to overthrow the current king—the nobles forced the king into sacrificing the child so that they would have a pretext for deposing him, but the child turned out to be an incarnation of the Buddha, and was resurrected after his sacrifice. That’s a very rough retelling, of course, but the real treat was the music—traditional Korean music punctuated by rousing percussion. Had the rest of the Expo been as good as this musical, it would have been fantastic.
There was an exhibition on world mythology that I was looking forward to seeing, but it turned out to be rather disappointing. Perhaps I expected too much from an exhibition designed for the average citizen. I know that probably sounds rather conceited, but the average citizen knows very little about mythology, and so I suppose it was a bit too much to expect the exhibition to be that deep.
Now, a month after the visit, very little remains in my mind about the Expo, even though we spent quite a few hours there. The one thing that does stick in my mind is a fifteen-minute animation, “A Heroic Mythology of Hwarang.” It was based loosely on the Korean poem Changiparangga, and it tells the story of Giparang, a Silla warrior, and Seonhwa, his love. The gods granted them a magical flute that, when played, would give Giparang and his warriors victory over the enemy. As long as Seonhwa played the flute during battle, victory was assured. But the bad guy (a demon of some sort) transformed himself into a bird and stole the flute from Seonhwa because she was busy writing a love letter to Giparang (or something to that effect). So, with defeat imminent, Giparang and Seonhwa ride the winged horse into the heavens to get help.
Giparang is sent into the bad guy’s lair (he lives in a volcano) to retrieve the flute, and when his winged horse is killed from beneath him Seonhwa (who remained behind in the heavens to keep watch) throws herself from a cliff and is transformed into a winged horse. She then gallops to Giparang’s rescue, and they retrieve the flute and eventually defeat the bad guy. It is only after returning to the heavens that Giparang realizes the winged horse is Seonhwa, and he too throws himself from the cliff so he can be with her as a winged horse.
The animation was pretty good, but there were a couple of disappointments. For one, the animators could have saved themselves some trouble and just lifted the battle scenes straight from the prelude to Fellowship of the Ring—it was virtually identical, right down to the big bad guy swinging a mace and killing dozens at a time. I was really amazed that they would so blatantly plagiarize such a well-known scene.
My second problem is related to the first, and concerns the (for lack of a better term) Disneyfication of the story. So many elements from so many different sources were pulled together that the story was barely recognizable as a Korean legend. Perhaps it is because I am a student of Korean folklore, but the animation left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
As I watched the animation I was reminded of a meeting of the Society for Korean Oral Literature I attended. In an attempt at cross-disciplinary unity, people from outside the academic community were invited to participate in the meeting. We had a cultural festival group and an animators group, if I remember correctly. I listened as the animators gave their presentation, painfully aware of the gap between academia and the public sector in the understanding of “oral literature.” When they finished their presentation, the panel of professors offered their comments. Most of the professors tried to be open and helpful, in an attempt to bridge the gap that was so obvious during the presentation.
The last professor to speak, though, had obviously been simmering for quite some time, and he practically exploded when it was his turn. He was indignant, and he let the animators know what he thought in no uncertain terms. He ended his declamation with this: “Oral Literature Studies has better things to do than provide themes for your animations.” He spit the words out as if they were hot coals.
I was appalled, to say the least. Here we were, trying to bridge the gap between us and the “outside world,” and this professor was burning bridges as fast as he could put the torch to the wood. I shook my head, thinking that this was definitely not the way to improve relations, but deep down inside there was a part of me that agreed with him. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if perhaps he had not been the most truthful of all.
As I watched the story of Giparang mangled and Disneyfied there on the screen, I couldn’t help thinking of that professor and what he had said. Sure it was a fun little animation to watch, but was it true oral literature? Was it true to our academic standards? The answer was definitely “no.”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that there was another question that had never been asked, yet it was tugging at the back of my mind: “What exactly are those better things that Oral Literature Studies has to do?” It’s all well and good to lock ourselves away in our ivory towers and huddle over our texts, pontificating until Judgment Day on this theory and that, but when it comes down to the real world, is the study of oral literature really any good for anything other than cartoons?
This is something I have been struggling with since I entered the doctoral program in oral literature at my school. I will undoubtedly get a teaching position sometime after I graduate, and most likely continue to do research in the field, but I refuse to believe that oral literature has no other use outside of the walls of the academy than to provide the basis for the latest animation. If that’s all there is to it, why are we all so passionate about it? Is it merely academic zeal, or is there something more?
Obviously, I think there is something more—if I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing this. We may study the stories and tales of people throughout the ages, but what we are really studying is the people themselves—their hopes, fears, beliefs, doubts. We study what it is that makes the human soul alive, the very essence of humanity, if you will. There is no doubt in my mind that what I study is important. The question is how do we apply this knowledge in the real world. I’m not sure I have a solid answer for that yet, but I think it would behoove any organization that needs to understand people to have a folklorist on their staff.
How this translates into practical, real-world terms, I do not yet know. I do know, however, that there is more to it than just animations and culture expos, however nice those things may be. I will keep these questions at my side as I continue to study, and I hope that I will someday be able to answer them.