Lee Kyong hee. Korean Culture: Legacies and Lore. Seoul:
The Korea Herald, 1993, revised 1995.
I first came to know Korea--its people and land and culture--
as a member of the U. S. Army stationed there during 1953-1954, the last
year of the war. I had been assigned to a unit which was part of the headquarters
of the Tenth Corps. We were not located in or near Seoul, and I saw that
city only on brief visits and knew it as a place devastated from being
rolled over again and again in the back-and-forth movement of the contending
armies and teeming with the victims of war. I have an unforgettable recollection
of the royal palace with its great gates rising out of the flattened city.
But the Korea I knew that year was across the peninsula and to the north
east of Seoul. enth Corps Headquarters was laid out on the banks of the
Soyang-gang, between the mountain passes of Yanggu and Inje.
We were in the war zone, not far south of the DMZ, and
we could see the artillery barrages flashing in the night sky like the
aurora borealis; but the fighting was for the most part in abeyance while
the two sides struggled to negotiate the terms of a cease-fire at Panmunjom.
(I was, as it happened, part of the honor guard for the historic signing
of the cease-fire documents just a week or so before my return to the U.S.)
Thus the Korea was able to witness and to get to know a little was not
so much the crowded cities as the rural countryside of that extraordinary
and remote area of the country:the rugged and precipitous passes of Inje
and Yanggu, through which as a military police officer I had to lead tank
conveys in the dead of night, the jade-colored snake of the Soyang gliding
smoothly between sandy banks in the summer but locked to them by ice in
the bitter cold of the winter.
Riding in my jeep on those army-built roads. I also got
to witness, albeit from a distance, something of the lives of the people
who lived and farmed their fields on the other, southern side of the Soyang.
The only civilians who were given a pass to live legitimately in the war
zone were the farmers and their families who had lived close to the land
for generations and now worked it for a meager existence in those hard
days. I came to know their thatched houses with cooking fires at one end
and at the other end the exhaust pipes for the smoke that had traveled
under the floor of the little dwelling, often only a couple of rooms. The
houses stood alone among the fields or gathered themselves together into
hamlets with one or two dimly lighted dirt streets. I made many good friends
among the officers and enlisted men in the ROK Army unit attached to my
own, and when Capt. Kim's wife moved up to a small house in wandae-ri,
the village on the other side of the river and over an easy earthen roll
from the small airstrip and our big, busy camp, I visited there several
times. Under the circumstances of war my contact with Korean life was circumscribed;
but it was, for me, real and profound, and left a lasting impression.
What I have been saying may seem a long-winded and meandering
way to comment on the book under review, but I came to Korean Culture with
the excited interest and curiosity that I have felt since those days on
the banks of the Soyang-gang. They gave me, as a twenty-one year old American
in a foreign country for the first time, an ongoing eagerness to make further
contact with Koreans and to learn more about their country and culture.
I have been back since that military stint, but only twice and only briefly
for academic conferences, most recently last summer for the symposium sponsored
by the Korea PEN Centre. What's more, those meetings have kept me almost
entirely in the cities: Seoul and Kwangju. During those return visits I
have been struck by the high-rise structures, all glass and glitter, that
have risen from the war ruins I remembered. At the same time, many parts
of Seoul have assumed the generic look of modern metropolises like Los
Angeles or Dallas, but my instinct, largely unrealized, has been to go
beyond the urban bustle to try to touch something older and more autochthonous,
something of the indigenous life and culture, closer to the soil and rooted
in its history.
That frustrated impulse is why I have found Lee Kyong-hee's
Korean Culture: Legacies and Lore so fascinating and illuminating. The
author is a free-lance writer, translator, and journalist, and in 1990
she began a series of articles for the Korea Herald under the title "Koreana."
Her purpose was to describe various arts and crafts which comprised traditional
Korean culture and to focus each article, wherever possible, on one of
the artisans who still practice those time-honored crafts. Korean Culture
brings together, then, almost fifty of those essays in a single, handsome
volume and organizes them into five sections: "Handicrafts Past and Present,"
"Masters of the Performing Arts," "Life Patterns and Rituals," "Guardians
of Tradition," and "Historic Sites and Legends." Lee Kyong-hee's commentary
is informed and readable, and the large and roomy format of the book is
enlivened by copious and excellent color photographs illustrating each
of the essays. Within the covers of a single, elegantly produced volume,
herefore, the reader can learn about the intricacies of traditional Korean
lore across a wide spectrum: drum-making, calligraphy, pottery and ceramics,
wearing, folk-dancing, flute-playing, rites of ancestor worship, kite-making,
tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, ancient temples and monuments, and
on and on.
Lee Kyong-hee's book is a genuine pleasure to read:brimming
with wonderful surprises and informed observation, all beautifully laid
out for the reader's delight. Moreover, her audience is not just tourists
and curious, sympathetic foreigners like myself. She has written this book
as much for the Koreans of the 1990s, whose engagement with and practice
of these aspects of traditional Korean culture have apparently dwindled
under the stress and shock of the rapidly developing economy and the rapidly
changing modes of living that accompanied postwar economic expansion. The
homogenizing effects of consumer capitalism, world-wide in its reach and
grasp, has resulted here, as elsewhere, in a crisis of cultural memory,
an alienation from the land and so from local history and culture, a loss
of arts and crafts that have been passed on from generation to generation
over the centuries. It is a sad but all too obvious fact that "modernization"
and "progress" can also result in the devastation of indigenous culture
with all its distinctive achievements and characteristics. Korean Culture
is, therefore, an important book at this perilous and transitional juncture
of Korean history, and because it is so readable and handsomely illustrated,
its presentation of the old ways is all the more effective. I recommend
it to all those-- Koreans at home and abroad as well as visitors and tourists--
who want to learn about and to preserve the vitality and even the very
future of the Korean legacy-- for Koreans themselves primarily, but also
for their friends around the world.
William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature
Stanford University, U. S. A.