Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

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Once you’ve seen one Joseon dynasty tomb, you’ve seen them all. That’s something I’ve never said, at least not without being sarcastic. For those who have been in Korea for an extended period I could understand that some historical monuments start to look very similar to each other. If you are in this phase of diminishing returns when it comes to visiting ‘old stuff’, then I sincerely recommend a visit to the royal tombs of Taereung Gangneung over on the north east side of Seoul.

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The two locations are a tomb complex in Nowon-gu. Taereung Royal Tomb (태릉) houses the burial mound of Queen Munjeong who was the second queen of King Jungjong, the 11th King of the Joseon Dynasty. Nearby Gangneung (강릉) is the final resting place of  Munjeoang’s son King Myeongjong, the 13th King of Joseon Dynasty, and his wife Queen Insunwanghu.  As mentioned earlier, once you are familiar with the burial sites of the Joseon Dynasty history can start slipping into carefully cultivated UNESCO heritage sites. The orderly layouts and well designed information placard can detract from the interesting and often extremely turbulent history which lies beneath.

Taereung Shrine Entrance

Beneath the grassy knoll of Taereung lies one of the more interesting figures of Korean dynastic history and a great candidate to be patron saint of pushy mums – Queen Munjeong. Her son Myeongjong was too young to rule by himself until 1565 so Queen Munjeong ated as a regent. Despite her many depictions as a power crazy Lady Macbeth type figure, there are also accounts of her being a more than competent administrator. She even gave out land to common people that had been formerly owned by the nobility. Although this practice is rarely for altruistic reasons; it is usually more related to stripping the yangban (upper classes) of land for political reasons. An ominous sign which appears in most dynasties the world over, was the fact that she continued to rule even after her son reached the age of majority. It was only after her death that her son took over power, which seems to me a black and white indication of their relationship.If, like me, you would like to know more about this narrative then you could watch the historical drama  Mandate of Heaven 2013. It’s on a list which I am working my way through – I’m about 1400 years behind at the moment! Another interesting fact about Munjeong was that she was one of the most influential supporters of Buddhism. During the early years of Joseon Neo Confucism replaced Buddhism as the de facto state ideology. The Queen lifted the official ban on Buddhist worship and instigated a resurgence of Buddhism.The next chapter of Korean history starts after Munjeong’s death. However, I have not visited the other tomb complex yet so I will reserve the research for my next visit.

The location of the tomb is in a wonderful location, owing to the practice of geomancy. Like most tombs and royal palaces in Korea the location is chosen with freshwater flowing near the front area and mountains to the rear. In the case of Taereung you can actually follow a small tributary from the Jungang Stream (itself a tributary of the Han). There is a great cycle path all the way up the Jungang Cheon and heading north you can take a right before Taerung Subway station and wind your way up the stream which follows the Bukbu Expressway. It’s a great bike ride in summer because it’s mostly in the shade. The advantage of going by bike is the fact that you miss nearly all the main traffic. I came off the stream when it splits and found myself next to the huge Military academy – the museum is opposite.

The museum is actually the main reason why I would recommend this place. It gives a very detailed description of how tombs are used and made. That sounds extraordinarily dull, but believe me, the graphics and displays kept me in the museum for much longer than I expected. I wish I had seen the museum a few years ago because it would have helped me understand exactly why the paths are laid out as they are and also the construction of the burial mound.

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The museum costs 1000 won for adults and is open Summer season 09:00-18:30 / Winter season 09:00-17:30

[Subway + Bus]
Seokgye station (Seoul Subway Line 1 and 6), Exit 6.
– Take bus 1155 , 1156 or 73
– Get off at Taereung Gangneung (10 min interval / 15 min ride).

Hwarangdae station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 1.
–  Take bus 202 , 1155, 1156, 73 or 82.
–  Get aff at Taereung Gangneung (5 min interval / 5 min ride).

Taereung station (Seoul Subway Line 6 and 7), Exit 7.
– Take bus 202, 1155 , 1156, 73 or 82.
– Get off at Taereung Gangneung (10 min interval / 10 min ride).

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I have researched more information about the Sosu Seowon than any other post I have written (or not written). My reasons are not really from any deep desire to uncover the mysteries of Confucianism, nor are they based on extra enthusiasm for this subject. The reason I have read so much is partly because I don’t understand it, but mostly because of a constantly nagging suspicion about Korea, if I was in any way scientific I would even call it a theory. I don’t want to use inverted commas for theory, so I will call it my idea.

Entrance to the Shrine

My idea is that despite Korea’s futuristic aesthetics, fast internet connections, huge shiny skyscrapers and an entire generation plugged into their smart phones, I believe that you can find something timeless underneath. The neon flashing modernity that lights up the huge construction projects of modern Korea easily distracts you from several truths. These truths, rules of behaviour, and manifestations of culture reach back deep into history, a history which goes back way beyond most nation states of the early 21st Century. It’s true, many civilizations stretch back even further than Korea, many have never been conquered, colonized or generally abused by the other cultures jostling around it. However, I believe that Korea has managed to preserve many of its “intangible cultural assets” through persistence, resistance and centuries of isolation. The longer I stay in Korea the more echoes of neolithic life I find, perhaps neolithic is an exaggeration but there are many historical precedents to be found which account for the modern behaviour we see today. One aspect in which I have found a constant thread is the dedication to study.

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One of the most notable features of Korea is the dedication to studying and the breadth of the various spheres of education. Korea has the highest tertiary gross enrollment ratio of any country in the world (UNESCO 2010). There is a strong deference to teachers or leader figures whether it be the hastily prepared power point presentation for the boss, or the middle school students hunched over their books in after school academies. The word Seonsaengnim is used for people of higher status but roughly translates as Master. You might argue that the deference is not being subject to the person of higher status but rather the undeniable truth that education is the most powerful tool to get ahead in this most competitive of countries. This deeply entrenched philosophy of working hard and studying harder is not some modern concept, it’s not playing catch up with the West because of the hard times in the first half of the last Century. The philosophy, or even religion, of hard work and diligent studying is something you can see throughout the history of Korea, especially during the last dynasty – the Joseon Dynasty.

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Buddhism found a natural home in Korea, especially during the Shilla Dynasty. The various tribes and clans of the peninsula always found a neat way to co-opt their local shamanistic beliefs into their branch of Buddhism. I have even seen discrete shrines to mountain gods tucked behind some temples. Despite the Buddhist influence, by the time the Joseon dynasty kicked off they were getting tired of the old ways. Buddhism was associated with the debauchery and excess of the elite, the elite who were often propped up by the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in China. In many cases the Kings had Mongol wives and many of the rulers were part Mongol or at least put in place by the Mongols. The Joseon Dynasty started to shed the centuries of superstition and metaphysics of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Taoism. What came in its place was a Korean version of Neo-Confucianism. One of the great advantages of the previous Goryeo Dynasty was the access officials had to Chinese culture and in particular literature. These ideas filtered into Korea through the various scholars (still venerated to this day) and became the corner-stone of the new Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism and the temples of Buddhism were increasingly marginalised – which is why if you visit Korea you will find many temples way out of the cities and perched halfway up high mountains. Many of the original temples were converted into use as private educational institutions – seowons.

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When I first read about seowons (서원) they reminded me of the endless Hagwons you see in modern Korea. These days most of the school students study maths, science, and of course English in these private academies. In the past they would have studied the Chinese classics which were essential to pass the state exams to enter government service. The modern equivalent is perhaps the dreaded entrance exam which permits entry into the exclusive Universities – once you have a degree from the better Universities you are more or less guaranteed a position in one of Korea’s top firms. The name of a top University is seen as being more important than experience, potential or personality. There are many more parallels between modern Korea and the original use of seowons, but the underlying theme is that to get on in a Neo-Confucian society you need to study. Social mobility came and went with various monarchs but rich or poor you would have to study to get anywhere near the top. The seowons served this purpose, and the Sosu Seowon was the first.

The Scholars

This private Neo-Confucian academy was founded by the magistrate of Punggi County Ju Sebung (주세붕/周世鵬 1495–1554), during the reignof King Jungjong. It’s located near Suksusa Temple, in Sunheung-myeon, about 30 minutes from Yeongju. Aside from being the first of its kind, it is also unique for many other reasons. It was the only seowon that survived from the Seowon Abolishment  Act in 1871. Ju Se-bung was criticized for founding a school because of other more pressing matters of the time – especially famine and drought.  Being a scholar himself he was able to use reason and wisdom to defend his actions

“Education is the cardinal virtue of man, and ought to be promoted above all else.”

Other seowons enjoyed a fruitful period but Sosu Seowon was the first thus it became one of the richest. Sosu Seowon also enjoyed more attention because it enshrined An Hyang (1243 -1306). An Hyang is a name you see many times in the history books; he was a Confucian scholar who brought Neo-Confucianism to Korea from China in the 13th century.The academy gained even more prestige when Toegye  (another big name in the list or Confucian greats) became magistrate of the county. He asked King Myeongjong to grant the academy a royal charter and the King responded with a hand signed “Sosu Seowon”, and a supply of books. Many seowons and temples before them had a mixed relationship with the Monarchy, similar to some of the more powerful monastic orders in Europe. In this case the annals of the king specify that the local magistrate cannot interfere in the affairs of the academy, nor disturb the Confucian scholars. Sosu Seowon as an institution and as a physical place, was free from interference from the monarchy. Its location, even in our times, underlines this fact.

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The institute is spread over the hills and the various complexes would have accommodated about 4,000 scholars. There is also a shrine for  An Hyang, An Bo, An Chuk and Ju Se-bung, where a memorial services take place on the first day of the third and ninth months of the lunar calendar every year. The study facilities have been placed in the east and the shrine placed in the west. Outside the entrance to  Sosu Seowon is the Okgyesu stream of the Nakdong River. This stream comes down from the impressive Mt. Sobaek. Although I made my quest to reach this place I would definitely recommend stopping by on the end of a Sobaek hike.

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I took a very local bus from Yeongju but the easiest and quickest way to get there is by taking a train to Punggi and then taking the bus I mentioned up the valley. At the time of writing the road was being widened so I expect it will be a much easier journey in the future. The train i from Cheongyangni  (Seoul’s eastern terminus) is exceptional. You can pass through some mountain scenery and the pleasant town of Danyang on the way. If you plan on sticking around there is an Azalea festival and some other Temples scattered around Mt. Sobaek.

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Korail Timetable

Punggi Korail Timetable

You can take bus number 27 from Punggi Station – check it’s not going to Yeongju. For the bus times coming back check in the tourist office at the Sosu Carpark (their timetable is different from the one at the bus stop.

Extra links:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264147

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SH/SH_EN_7_2.jsp?cid=1820847

Palsaik Samgyupsal

Palsaik Samgyeopsal serves pork belly meat (samgyupsal)

They are seasoned or perhaps marinated with eight (pal) special sauces.

All the sauces have different colours (saik)

 eight + colour + porkbelly = Palsaik Samgyupsal

 

Palsaik Signage

 

 

The flavours are amazing and the novelty fun is the constant bickering over which is the best flavour: ginger, wine, ginseng, pine leaves, herbs, curry, soybean paste, and chilli pepper paste or gochujang (as it’s known in Korea). My personal favourite is the pine leaves, but I enjoyed all the other flavours too. Each sauce has its own nutritional benefits, however, I’m not sure of eating one of the fattier parts of a pig counts as well-being food. I read some research not long ago about pork fat producing some kind of chemicals in the brain to make you feel good – like pineapple and chilli. Every time I eat samgyupsal I feel great, mentally. I would recommend this place as a great introduction to samgyupsal, my only reservation is that it is perhaps too good. This may lead to the typical street corner BBQ places being pretty run of the mill. If you are a seasoned veteran when it comes to samgyupsal, I still think this place would provide something of a welcome surprise. As you can see from the map there hare various branches in other global locations. This is one of the flagfliers for the wave of Korean food which is set to sweep across the early 21st century – along with Bibigo’s bibimbap and Kimchi. If you have a chance to visit I strongly recommend you take the opportunity. It does smell of clever marketing and contrived advertising copy, but the flavours are real and the atmosphere is authentic.

 

 

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There are various options available, but if it’s your first visit then you should definitely get the whole lot. The aesthetics alone make this the best option because they come in their own small bowls on a long wooden serving tray. The rest is as you would expect from any BBQ place, just throw it on and cut it up with the scissors once it’s done. Due to the often messy nature of fat spitting and sauces dripping you have the option of wearing an apron. This is a feature of many dalkgalbi restaurants in Korea, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a samgyupsal place.

 

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There are a few branches around Seoul (and the World) but I visited the branch off the main shopping area in Sincheon. Come out of Exit three and walk up the street to Paris Baguette, turn right immediately before Paris Baguette then follow the road which bears left for about 75m. It’s on your left as you walk up the street. If you get lost type this into a naver map: 팔색삼겹살

Sinchon Branch Map