The home of Samsung, LG and Daewoo, South Korea is a 21st-century technology powerhouse. It’s a country with cutting-edge telecommunications and one of the best broadband networks in the world.
When I visited South Korea 10 years ago, its industrial and technological strength was as plain as the nose on my face. Back then, South Korea already had 33.9 million internet users, the highest number of broadband connections per capita in the world, and was a leader in 3G mobile technology. Its ports were home to the three largest shipbuilding companies in the world (Daewoo, Samsung and Hyundai). And evidence of a manufacturing boom were everywhere in the form of factories and warehouses.
So, it was a real surprise to stumble upon the Cheonghakdong Village, which is a remote village at the southern base of Mount Jirisan’s Samsanbong Peak. Now, there are plenty of remote villages in South Korea, but, this one got my brain ticking over.
About life. And the universe.
It certainly got me wondering about the afterlife.
I had been told that the village was a step back into the past and the villagers were traditionalists, who dressed in traditional Korean clothing, spent their life studying, meditating and planted their own crops.
Electricity came into the village only 20 years ago. Over 200 residents of this community maintain the custom of wearing their hair in a knot, wearing Korean traditional clothing, and subsisting through growing their own crops.
At the village, we knocked on a few doors and finally found Kim Deuk Jun, a 78-year-old elder sitting on a stool in front of a mud hut. Dressed in a traditional white caftan-like hanbok, his long hair was twisted into a bun and covered by a tall black hat.
Traditional South Korea
We learnt from Kim that the community’s aim was to remain true to traditional South Korean values.
Men wore their hair long, youths wore pigtails and everyone dressed in the plain white or grey hanbok clothing, which these days are usually found in museums.
Kim told us the community ascribed to a one-of-a-kind philosophy, a blend of Confucian, Buddhist, Christian and Tonghak. The latter is a 19th-century religion formed by the Korean peasant liberation movement.
The belief system, Yubulson Kaengjangyudogyo, is a mouthful to pronounce and even more difficult to understand.
Kim showed us a set of astronomical charts with detailed markings mapping the earth’s relationship to the universe. He pointed at various grids, using them as prompts to interpret the future. His insights ranged from views on the state of war in the Middle East to predictions about the rise of China.
He spoke enigmatically about following the path to a higher plain, of their belief that Jesus Christ will be resurrected somewhere within the mountains of Jirisan in South Korea and of an earth that was about to head into a period of great suffering.
Coming of the New Age
“We are preparing ourselves for the coming of the New Age, but first we have to ride through the storm,” he said.
The community was preparing for a world about to be plunged into decades of war, famine, flood, disease and drought.
“In the end, we believe that the earth will become a paradise and our way of life will preserve us for when this day happens,” he said.
The charts he used were handed down through the generations, by his ancestors, and teach a philosophy based on something called a circle of development, a cycle that predicts world changes in seasonal blocks of 1080 years.
“There is light before the end of the tunnel. Although there is a long wait for paradise on earth, the wheel is about to turn to bring some short term prosperity to many countries in Asia Pacific,” he said.
The community dates back to the 16th century, when the spiritual force of Mount Jirisan drew people to the mountains to hide from the Japanese.
In the 1950’s, the war between North and South Korea broke out and the mountains became a hiding place for communists.
It’s a lifestyle that requires its believers to maintain a harmonious relationship with nature by forsaking materialistic comforts. Villagers grow their own crops and tend to livestock.
They sell herbs, which they cultivate themselves, and keep bees to produce honey. Teaching is an acceptable means of income and in recent years the village school has become a popular summer camp for children from all over South Korea.
Village teacher Seo Jae Ok Hoon Jang says the ills of modern society stem from the lack of basic education. His syllabus includes Chinese calligraphy, manners, cultivating good human relations and respecting elders.
“Children need to be taught to respect society and develop compassion for fellow beings,” he said.
While such a curriculum may not sound like an appealing choice for a young person’s summer vacation, South Korean parents appear to be sold on the idea. Places at Seo’s summer school are booked out well in advance. Local elementary school groups also support the village by booking organised field excursions for students as part of the standard national school system. And overseas Koreans are sending their westernised children to the school to be educated in the old ways of their culture.
With the swirl of progress seeping into their daily lives, the people of Cheonghakdong are as passionate as ever about clinging to their traditional values because they emphatically believe that it is the only way to paradise.
But even though, they cling to their old belief system, they have not completely abandoned technological progress. Cars, television, internet and gas heating are used cautiously.
“The secret is we use only what’s needed to live and refrain from indulging in excess,” said Kim.
The village is still there and the villagers still practice ancient customs.
Perhaps for them, paradise on earth is already there in a simple way of life surrounded by the lush natural beauty of the Jirisan Mountains.
What else to do
Hike Mount Jirisan
In a country that is surrounded by mountains, hiking is one of Korea’s favourite pastimes. Mount Jirisan is a revered mountains that is sacred to many Koreans. Jirisan National Park was South Korea’s first National Park and the largest mountain park in the country, stretching 440,485 sqkm straddling three southern provinces: Jeollabuk-do, Jeollanam-do and Gyeongsangnam-do. The highest peak, Chonwangbang, is 1915 m above sea level and is known as the pillar of heaven.
Visit Hwaemsa Temple
The monks of Hwaemsa Temple have a saying that the mind is more more beautiful than flowers. All around Korea, the Cho-ge Zen Buddhist sect has opened their temple doors for visitors to experience this essential part of Korean culture. Monks from this sect challenge themselves to stretch the endurance of the human body by surviving with no sleep for three months, sitting upright in the lotus position staring at the wall for eight days and 15 days no food, only water.
Visit Samseong-gung monastery
The monastery is the holy ground to worship Hwanin, Hwanwung and Dangun. There are about 1,500 various types of stone towers and is the place where ceremonies to praise the gods were held during the Three Kingdoms Era.
How to get there
1. Take an intercity bus from Seoul Nambu Terminal (Subway Line 3) to Hadong (bus schedule: 07:30 – 19:30 at two-hour intervals). Estimated travel time is five hours. From Hadong Bus Terminal (+82-55-883-2663), take the city bus to Cheonghakdong Village (7:20, 8:20, 13:00, 15:00, 19:00 / 1 hour ride).
2. Take a bus from Seoul Express Bus Terminal (Express Bus Terminal station, Subway Line 3,7) to Jinju (bus schedule: 06:00 – 00 :10 (following day), 15-70 intervals / Estimated travel time: 3hrs 50min). From Jinju-si, take an intercity bus to Cheonghakdong Village (7:15, 9:50, 15:50).