Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Triumph Of Folk Culture In Korea

I've been wanting to track down some of Gregory Henderson's books (like Politics Of The Vortex) and found the essay 'Grappling with the Korean Persona: A Cultural Profile' online the other day. The essay covers several aspects of Korean society, but I thought his evaluation of the relationship between artistocratic and folk culture to be quite interesting:

What has happened, quite evidently, is that the old aristocratic tradition has thinned to a vague abstraction, except in advertising or in the classroom. Behavior and aspirations associated with the Korean under classes have spread and come to the fore. The image now projected before us is the vibrant, adaptable, aggressive, ambitious, devil-take-the-hindmost Korea of the great majority long held under aristocratic control. Traditional aristocratic ideals conflict with this behaviour and confuse Western observers. To make matters worse almost all study and scholarship on Korea's traditional background has been devoted to the aristocratic tradition. Most written sources are devoted to it, while almost no attention has been directed to Korean folk culture. Our study of Korea is on collision course with the Korea before our eyes.

The aristocrats, with their essays, histories, poetry and calligraphy, produced an enormous body of work mostly unread today. This work floats on a great cultural lake of music, dance, ceramics, furniture, folk and court painting done by poor or preliterate Koreans, almost all of it commonly seen, much a part of Korean life today. I believe that in no sophisticated culture is the folk component so high as in Korea.

Now, this essay is almost 20 years old, but much of it still rings true. For cinematic representations of the folk culture he describes, Im Kwon-taek's Chiwaseon (2002) or Chunhyang (2000) (which is accompanied by a pansori performance), or Kim Ki-young's Yangsando (1955)(recently released on dvd) are good examples. Im's Sopyonje may well deserve credit for making Pansori popular again in the 1990s.

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