I sit in quiet contemplation on top of the hill which overlooks the Andong Hahoe Mask Village, peering at its horseshoe shape on the bend of the Nakdong River in Pungcheon-myeon, imagining a bygone era of Confucian scholars and politicians mingling with farmers and shopkeepers.
The village has been home to the Pungsan Ryu clan since the Goryo period. In 1592, politician Ryu Seong ryong played a key role in protecting Korea during the Japanese invasion and his brother Ryu Un ryong was a prominent Confucian scholar and government official. It is Andong’s main attraction and – as most of the locals are quick to point out – was the place chosen by Queen Elizabeth in 1999, when she wanted to visit the most Korean place in South Korea.
Korea’s constant threat from neighbouring Japan and China fashioned a strongly patriotic nation. It is this historical background that seems to be driving the Gyeongsangbuk-do province (of which Andong is a part of) to be fanatical about preserving anything historical. Old buildings have a “National Treasure Number” and intangible things such as dances, plays and traditional games with an “Important Intangible Cultural Property Number”. Every single building, book or monument is tagged and catalogued creating an atmosphere of a living museum.
I peep curiously over high stone walls into mysterious courtyards to catch a glimpse of village life and to admire the traditional Korean houses built from weathered beams. In ancient Confucian society, the styles and roof slant all marked the social standing of the owner of the house.
While such separatism is no longer practiced, the urge to enjoy these ancient symbols of rank has not disappeared. Some of the 180 families that live in the village have embraced the tourist onslaught by setting up quaint home-stays and souvenir stalls. But most are elderly and have lived in these homes for several decades; bemused by the fuss they are silent characters that hide behind the scenes of the daily play on this living stage.
Home of nobility
The larger Andong area holds the historical position as the home of the noble class and the hub of Confucianism. Its main historical leaders helped Emperor Wanggeon to establish the Goryeo Dynasty (918 – 1392).
Later, during the Joseon Dynasty (AD1392 – 1910), scholars from all over the country gathered here to exchange ideas. With a current population of around 180,000 in an area of 1,519 sq km, the Andong area is Korea’s widest city surrounded by areas of lush green mountains, lakes and bridges.
Since the 12th century, each October, the whole area comes alive with the Andong Mask Dance Festival. Folk from different clans in the village, led by the colourful clown bride and chief priest, perform the mask dance at various outdoor sites all over Andong.
Intermingled among the ancient treasures of the Andong Hahoe Village, a few new houses are in the process of being built according to their heritage building code. There is a lively real-estate market where land changes hands and brand new homes are built by Koreans that are keen on owning property in a location of such historical significance. Many Ryu family descendents, however, still live in the original homes refusing to sell up, preferring to hold on to their own personal piece of history.
Another main sight is the Dosan Confucian Academy which was a place where the educated rubbed shoulders with each other and peasants longed to be part of the noble set; where Lee Hwang, Korea’s most well known Confucian scholar, taught and practiced Korean Confucianism.
Jirye Artists Colony
As my car winds its way uphill along the bumpy mountain road towards the Jirye Artists’ Colony tucked away in the Yong-ji Mountain overlooking the Yesu River – now a reservoir, images of barefoot hippies and backpacking tourists flash to mind. When we finally arrive, there are no hippies in sight. Instead, I am somewhat astonished to find a late-model top-of-the-range Mercedes parked under a tree next to a gleaming new look-alike Ssangyong.
Jirye Artists’ Colony stands out as an unusual mountain hideaway where visitors can experience the charm of the old ways within an authentic environment. That is, as authentic as you can get without sacrificing some essential modern comforts such as a hot solar-heated shower and internet access.
At dawn, fresh with a good night’s sleep on a comfortable double mat, warmed by the centrally heated floor, I rouse to a set of footsteps pattering quietly across the courtyard. The double doors of my 350-year-old Korean Hanok-style house groan in protest as I push them open and plunge into the fresh mountain air. The atmosphere is surreal – a traditional rural village straight out of an old Korean movie. Solid timber beams reverberate with silent tales of scholarly and political intrigue. Heavy dark tiles draw a pleasing roof line above clay washed walls.
Through the door arches in the outer courtyard, I catch a glimmer of water sparkling in the distance and a pathway that meanders through the forest. As I wander along the path, glimpses of the reflection of the mountains in the water peek out through the pine forest canopy. A lone angler sits on the opposite bank waiting patiently for fish to take hook.
Back from my morning exploration, I join colony director and poet Kim Won Gil crossed-legged at the low breakfast table set up on my veranda. As we dine on the traditional fare of soup, rice, fish, vegetables and the obligatory kimchi (pickled cabbage that Koreans must have with every meal) this poet who has already published four books tells his tale with passion in his eyes.
In 1990, when the construction of a reservoir threatened to submerge Kim’s village which was then located by the banks for the Yesu River, 200 meters below its current location, Kim resigned from his Professorial role at Andong University and undertook the five-year struggle to move the entire village.
The traditional 17th-century wooden houses were dismantled, moved and rebuilt – without using nails or screws – to their current position, nestled in the mountain high above the water line.
For Kim, it has been worth the struggle as Jirye is now recognized as one of the few places where people can escape from the onslaught of rapid development and totally envelop themselves in the trappings of traditional Korean culture.
“The people that come back treat this as their home, rather than a hotel,” says Kim proudly. It started as a place for artists and poets to enjoy the fresh mountain air but these days his family village plays host to successful business people from South Korea’s busiest cities, as well as foreign scholars and dignitaries including a visit from Korea’s French Ambassador.
The colony receives most of its international visitors from Japan and surprisingly, a large number of visitors from Bangladesh and the Middle East. Many are keen to witness the Confucian ancestor worshipping ceremonies conducted by Kim’s family during certain times of the year.
After breakfast, we walk through the forest to his favourite spot, high up above the village to admire the view that has inspired much of his prose.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Korean National Tourism Organisation
For more information see http://visitkorea.org.au/