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Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2001

Glimpse an older, more harmonious Korea amid the artifice of a 'living museum'


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Special to The Japan Times

Two centuries of ice, rain, summer heat and a civil war have reduced the ramparts of Suwon, a city just an hour's drive south of Seoul, to heaps of twisted rubble.

A South Korean man watches intently as a tightrope walker performs at the Korean Folk Village.

Originally designed as a new capital, a kind of Taj Mahal or Shalamar of gurgling water and aesthetically pleasing structures, the city was left to languish until the government rebuilt it in 1975 at a cost of over 3 billion won. Four-square, finely capped, with an air of spanking newness about them, the stones look well set for eternity. These sturdy remnants of the Yi dynasty are the perfect accompaniment to reconstructions of more fragile buildings to be found at the nearby Korean Folk Village.

Here is a slice of Korea's last kingdom brought down to human scale. The village is advertised as a "Living Museum," an expression that takes on fresh meaning when you stroll through the sprawling grounds, happening across blacksmiths, potters, weavers and herbalists, all giving the impression of being seriously engaged in their work. When I visited, the houses, rice stores and barns of the "village" had begun to weather nicely, acquiring a deceptive patina of age, and a real ginseng field had been laid out.

Over 200 separate buildings have been faithfully recreated. These include a Buddhist temple, Confucian school, teahouse and market.

An inevitable degree of telescoping has taken place -- for example, the recreation of farm houses representing each of the provinces of Korea -- but overall the layout succeeds at one stroke in informing and entertaining its visitors.

The real appeal of the Korean Folk Village lies not only in the apparent authenticity of its buildings, but in the vitality of its performers. Each day, a traditional costumed wedding procession is staged. A group of farmer musicians whirl like dervishes around the bride and bridegroom, who are carried through lanes on a palanquin.

Although skeptics may detect shades of Disneyland in this folk village, the earthen streets, natural building materials like bamboo and thatch, great ceramic pots and jars for storing kimchi and the weather-beaten "spirit post" guardians of the village create an ambience quite different from that of an attraction park, museum or the stilted European equivalent of such a place -- which would probably be the city waxworks. A certain "willing suspension of disbelief," to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is required, of course, if you are to enjoy places like the Korean Folk Village, but even the toughest cynics have been known to lighten up a little, lower their critical guard and concede that an afternoon in Suwon might be one well spent.

The village may provide an insight into why theme parks have become such big business in today's Asia. It is unquestionably an impressive and highly profitable showcase for Korean folk culture, but more importantly, it is a throwback to a more innocent age, a nostalgic time-voyage to a more harmonious and -- paradoxical as it may seem among such concentrated artifice -- authentic Korean past. The convivial and secure order of a Yi dynasty village offers Koreans and overseas visitors alike a chance to escape pressing realities, a reminder that this troubled peninsula once enjoyed a unity that even now, amid talk of detente, seems as elusive and remote as the age of Confucian scholars.

Stephen Mansfield is a Japan-based freelance photojournalist and the author, most recently, of "Lao Hill Tribes" (Oxford University Press). He last wrote for the Focus page on the complex relations between Laos and Thailand.


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