on…tangible cultural assets

Posted: 09/03/2012 in Uncategorized

At first glance Korean history can look confusing but before Korea became Korea it had a long history of warring states vying for control of the peninsula, Goguyeo, Shilla, and Baekje. Once you know about the big three states the whole thing becomes more interesting. I find history pretty boring when I cannot visualize it. If, like me, you are from England then the more interesting and memorable events of history are associated with the Normans because of the Bayeux Tapestry, I also like the Anglo Saxons because of the Sutton Hoo horde. I can imagine the battles of Medieval England and the trial of the Pendle Witches because I lived round the corner from Lancaster Castle. These are the visible or ‘tangible’ things which help me understand the past. I have transplanted this need to see the physical objects of yesteryear to Korea; I hope I can unravel Korean History in the same way I used to do at home. Once I have seen the  ‘tangible cultural assets’  and ‘National Treasures’ I am more satisfied and I have images to flash up and illustrate the dry facts and data. The Korean government has an almost obsessive compulsive attitude to cataloguing and displaying  the data from history. The laws and lists of assets and treasures were ironically drawn up by the Japanese in 1938. I wonder why the governer general made it policy to catalogue all the assets of a country which they were essentially deculturing? When I say deculturing I mean the active suppression of Korean history and language and the active enforcement of Japanese language and culture. During this period Koreans were expected to take Japanese names, the Korean national flag was outlawed, and they even drove on the left hand side of the road – barbaric! Anyway, this attention to detail was continued when South Korea became independent and a Cultural Protection Act was carried out. The reason I mention all this boring stuff is that it really helps when you arrive from another country and have little idea about history and culture. I have spent so many hours working my way down the list and I have rarely if ever been disappointed. In an attempt to sell itself for business and tourism, Korea has had a very assertive programme of reconstruction and reenactment. Most palaces or fortress walls you visit will have some demonstration going on, usually involving long spears and archery or ladies wearing silk hanbok costumes. The media is overflowing with period dramas depicting life in the Joseon dynasty and the battles between the three states mentioned earlier. One of my main motivations for learning Korean is to be able to understand the numerous TV shows, especially the one about King Sejong who is a hero of mine.

This approach to history is completely neglected when it comes to education. I’m no lover of liberal revisionism or ‘Dead Poet Society’ touchy feeliness. However, I do believe that there should be much more active engagement with the relics, ruins, and artifacts of yesteryear. When I was 14 I was faced with the daunting task of choosing my GCSE subjects, I use the word daunting with some irony, but my choice was personally difficult. History or geography? I was told towards the end of year 9 that the history lessons would be about the medieval period, so I chose history. After only one lesson in which I learnt that some people made factories for wool I was ready to switch to geography. The history class was of course the Industrial Revolution. I don’t deny the huge impact this period had on making the modern world, I feel some pride that I come from the part of the world ‘Lancashire’, which basically gave birth to the modern industrial way of life. The problem was that there is not enough mystery or romance. The history I like is being given some clues like ruined castles, buried treasure, coins, swords, helmets, and burial mounds, then having to piece things together. The complete lack of education in all things historical, from the age of 14 onwards, has left me with a childish enthusiasm for history. I don’t care for careful comparison of sources or the nuances of the past which have led to great changes in the present. I simply want lots of blood, battles, scandals and mysteries. I consider myself suprememly fortunate to have been born in a country with a uniqie and interesting history – Britain. I am also fortunate to have spent time in a place where history looks on modernity with a scathing eye remembering past glory – Italy. Now, I find myself in a country which has played a crucial role in Asian and World history – Korea. The links below should help you find some of the amazing things I have been lucky enough to see in Korea. There are countless things to see but I have listed the things which I have been most impressed by so far.

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