Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Masked Balls

The southeast corner of South Korea is home to many cultural and historical relics, perhaps partly because it wasn't so severely damaged by the Korean war which left much of the rest of the country devastated (many historical sites are reconstructions, albeit faithful ones, of their former selves). Of the three "must-see" sights in South Korea (Seoul being another, and more on the third in a later post) is Gyeongju, which is often called the "Museum without walls" due to the many historical remains scattered around the city dating back to the time when it was the capital of the Silla kingdom that ruled over the region for almost a thousand years. Most of the remains are grassy tumuli that represent tombs of nobles and royalty and are dotted around all over the place, but there are also old Buddhist temples, grottoes, statues and rock carvings that bear witness to what was once one of the largest cities in the world.

A 1000 year old pagoda on Namsan mountain in Gyeongju.

Slightly less grandiose, but definitely worth seeing, are some of the small villages in the area that have managed to retain, at least to a certain degree, their traditional flavour. One of these is Hahoe, set in the bend of a river surrounded by concentric circles of paddy fields, now golden and ready for harvest, and emerald mountains. Houses are uniform in their colour schemes of sandy plaster, warm wood and thatch that fits in with the fields. Narrow lanes jinking between courtyard walls, ginkgo and persimmon trees laden with ripening fruit all give the place a timeless air, though not of some musty, lifeless museum, but a community that is still active. Fields are tended, fruit is left out to dry, kimchi is still prepareed in large pots outside. This is still Korea though and so modernity is there, but it blends into the village aesthetic so that you barely notice the satellite dishes, paved roads and drink vending machines.

The traditional houses in the rustic folk village of Hahue still have thatched roofs and neat, well-tended vegetable patches.

Since I have little power in deciding the exact dates that I will be in a certain place in advance I often just miss various festivals or special events (like Nadaam), but here in South Korea I was lucky to be able to catch the Andong International Maskdance Festival (thanks to my hosts in Andong who not only told me about it, but invited me back to catch the first couple of days). Mask dances have a long and important tradition in rural Korea, as, in the highly hierarchical Confucian society that reigned on the peninsula since 1400, such mask dances were the only way the common people could air grievances and criticise their feudal lords. So the masks don't look as fancy as their Japanese or Chinese counterparts, with lopsided faces and colour-schemes designed by 4-year olds suffering from Daltonism. Their charm lies in their coarseness, brutal simplicity and unsubtle sense of humour. Of course I wasn't able to understand everything that was going on during the performances, but here are a the story lines of couple of the more "out there" pieces.

Butcher ambles on stage; chats to the audience; bull appears, occasionally "peeing" on the audience with a handily placed water bottle; farmer kills bull; cuts off bull's bollocks; offers them to various audience members before wandering off stage again.

Old monk comes on stage; harangues audience; pretty young girl comes on stage; needs to take a pee; randy peeping monk scares her off; inspects her urinal deposit by sniffing it, before scooping up the drenched earth and pocketing it.

Randy monk spies the young lady taking a number one.

Obviously you need to be Korean to get it. Nevertheless it was a lot of fun and the locals were loving it. Though it is far from the only thing that has baffled me in this country. The most extreme example of complete cultural incompatibility has to be Fan Death. Fan Death is the belief that having fan switched on continuously, especially whilst sleeping, can kill you. All fans are sold with sleep timers to prevent asphyxiation by slight breeze and even respected doctors and the government talk about Fan Death in all earnestness. As bizarre and ridiculous as this may sound it is a belief held by the majority of Koreans as fervently as others may believe in astrology, fairies or even God. Logic, rationality and basic science go out the window when it comes to Koreans' bizarre fear of moving air. Korea seems to have a knack of lulling you into complacency, thinking that it's very much like Europe or North America, and then, when you expect it the least, blindsides you with some oddity that is at right angles to everything you understand.

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