A long chain of high mountains traverses the land before plunging into the sea,
the splendor of nature indicating a heartbreaking contrast with the toilsome life of people in its midst
— this is probably the image of Gangwon Province in the minds of many Koreans.
The piquant fragrance of spicebush flowers, the fields of buckwheat blossoms dazzling
white under the moonlight, and the magnificent view of the sun rising over the East Sea are
all familiar images of the province, even to those who have never been there,
since they have been repeatedly portrayed in numerous works of literature and music.
On a simple stage under a dim light, a singer strums on his guitar and begins to sing; he croons “Five Hundred Miles” by Peter, Paul and Mary. The noisy room instantly quiets down. Some in the audience try to restrain their emotions and others are already dabbing their eyes.
It is a scene from a video clip on YouTube of a café in a small American town. A story becomes a song through abstraction and extension. In “Five Hundred Miles,” the vicissitudes of modern American history — the construction of railroads, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the mass discharge of workers — have been abstracted into the story of a wanderer missing his family and hometown, which is then extended to touch on the universal emotions of Americans.
Perhaps it’s not entirely impossible to think of songs that entice us, at least for a moment, to understand and empathize with people from other countries or cultures, if only we can let go of our preconceived notions. Since the topic of this article is Gangwon Province, the song “Hangyeryeong Pass,” composed by Ha Deok-kyu and sung by Yang Hee-eun, comes to mind.
A Passage to Mt. Kumgang
A Passage to Mt. Kumgang
In geographical terms, Gangwon Province is comparable to Switzerland. Just as most of Switzerland straddles the Alps, Gangwon Province stretches from Mt. Kumgang (aka Mt. Geumgang, meaning “Diamond Mountain”) down to Mt.
Taebaek, in the middle of the Baekdu Daegan, the mountain range that forms the spine of the Korean peninsula. Back in the old days, when agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, the province was not a hospitable place to live in. The “Ecological Guide to Korea” (Taengniji), an 18th-century book of human geography written during the Joseon Dynasty, describes the province as a place where “the soil is so barren and gravelly that one mal [old unit of volume equivalent to approximately 18 liters] of seeds would only yield about a dozen mal.” Even today, the circumstances are similar. Partly for this reason, the province’s remote mountain villages used to provide the perfect hiding place for the socially and politically oppressed.
It may be easier to understand the province’s unfavorable agricultural conditions by examining its situation in the distant past when the central government collected taxes in kind. Gangwon Province had only two warehouses to store grains collected as tax, which were far too small compared with those of other regions; the same was true for the size and number of boats carrying the grains to the capital. Furthermore, an exemption was made that allowed the grain taxes collected here to be used within the province. In the 17th century, this exemption became almost meaningless when the Uniform Land Tax Law (Daedongbeop) was enacted to levy taxes not on households but on the land according to its size, to be paid in rice instead of other grains. The tax burdens for poor peasant farmers were substantially decreased.
In the days when the ruling class was comprised of Confucian scholars, who regarded spending time in the mountains as a refined way to accomplish spiritual discipline, Gangwon Province was little more than a passage to Mt. Kumgang, now part of North Korea. It was such a famed mountain in the past that the Chinese poet Su Dongpo wrote, “I wish I’d been born in Goryeo [Korea’s name at the time] so I could see Mt. Kumgang.” However, the mountain was not easily accessible even to the people of Goryeo. To look around the mountain on a donkey or in a sedan chair, as was the custom among the nobility, one needed at least four attendants. Moreover, it was nearly a month-long trip from Seoul to the mountain’s foot. Certainly, it was not a venture to be attempted by anyone of mediocre wealth.
In Bongpyeong, the birthplace of novelist Yi Hyo-seok (1907–1942), there are vast stretches of buckwheat fields, just as in his stories. Every September, when the white flowers are in full bloom, the town holds a festival commemorating the novelist.
Even so, Mt. Kumgang remained a favorite destination among privileged travelers, and scholars, poets and artists, each with their respective reasons for wanting to clear their minds, continued to visit it. In the end, the mountain became a common subject of travel literature in pre-modern Korea, often with hackneyed descriptions of its landscape and geographical features, interspersed with some personal feelings. Perhaps for this reason, Kang Se-hwang, the eminent literati painter of the 18th century, denounced the trend, saying, “Visiting the mountains must be a great diversion for the noble-minded, but taking a tour around Mt. Kumgang is an extremely vulgar thing to do.”
Of course, not all accounts of the trip are conventional. “Song of Travel to the East” (Dongyuga), a travel verse by an unknown author from the late Joseon period, portrays in detail the lives of the lower class observed during the trip:
“Coming in this direction from Cheorwon, I looked at / the overlapping mountains, sparsely dotted with houses / people plowing hard, gravelly fields with rope-pulled double spades. / The inns, suffering from the lack of oil, burning pine twigs for lighting, / and rooms just barely heated by a clay furnace and chimney installed in one corner.”
Given that almost 85 percent of the French people lived in destitute poverty during the Napoleonic era, the dire living conditions of Gangwon Province in those days would not have been exceptional. Nonetheless, a Korean writer during the 20th-century Japanese colonial era found the poverty of his home folks quite extraordinary.
Novelist Kim Yu-jeong (1908-1937) was the youngest child of a wealthy family who had lived for generations in Sille Village in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. He grew up shuttling between Chuncheon and Seoul, where he received an elite education. At the age of 22, he returned permanently to his hometown with its 50 or so households. His circumstances greatly changed, for his parents had died early and his profligate elder brother had squandered the family fortune. Left with no money for tuition or living expenses, disappointed in love and afflicted with sudden illness, he had no choice but to go back home, with a faint hope of obtaining his share of the inheritance, even if it meant filing a lawsuit against his brother.
However, it was not the small amount of money that consoled his exhausted body and mind but the spicebush flowers (Lindera obtusiloba), blooming yellow on Mt. Geumbyeong in early spring, and the open and honest people of his hometown, especially the rural women, who were “crude and tough, just as nature made them,” free of any “exaggeration or pretension.”
“Sambuyeon Falls” (Falls with Three Puddles) from the “Album Transmitting the Spirit of the Sea and Mountains” (Haeak jeonsin cheop) by Jeong Seon, 1747. Ink and color on silk, 31.4 × 24.2 cm.
Although Joseon’s Confucian scholars often considered Gangwon Province a mere passage leading to Mt. Kumgang, sometimes they would slow down at places of great scenic beauty. Attracted by the Sambuyeon Falls in Cheorwon on his way to the celebrated mountain, the artist Jeong Seon (1676–1759) stopped to paint the spectacle.
Spicebush Flowers and Buckwheat Fields
As he recuperated amid the landscape and people of his hometown, he opened a night school for the village youth in a hut built on the hill behind his house. One day, a neighborhood woman told him about a liquor peddler (deulbyeongi, women who traveled around selling alcoholic beverages and flirting with their male customers), who had stayed at her house for a few days before she disappeared. Based on her story, Kim Yu-jeong wrote his first short story, “A Traveler to the Mountain Village.” He became a novelist and made it his mission to depict the hardships suffered by the people around him.
His protagonists are an array of pitiable men, of the type he met in the village: a man, frustrated by farming, which renders him poorer year after year, who plans to send his wife peddling liquor (“Wife”); another man who decides that “it is wiser to dig up the earth to find gold than break my back for a year in the fields to get just a few sacks of beans” (“Finding Gold in the Bean Fields”); and yet another who “roams from this mountain to that, his young wife trailing behind him, looking for a better place to live” (“A Rain Shower”). His candid and humorous portrayal of their wretched lives helped to enrich 20th-century Korean literature.
While Kim’s work was spurred by the awareness that the ever-worsening impoverishment of the countryside was rooted in the systematic colonial deprivation that had mass-produced tenant farmers, Lee Hyo-seok (1907-1942) sought to keep away from the heartless and treacherous reality and build his own artistic sanctuary. In his signature essay, “Burning the Fallen Leaves,” the novelist from Bongpyeong in Pyeongchang County smells the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans in the smoke of the burning leaves, planning in his head to erect a Christmas tree and learn to ski in the coming winter. This idyllic essay was written in the second year of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), when Korea was suffering under extreme colonial exploitation.
Notably, Lee’s view of literature as “possessing a magical power to reveal the beauty of humans, however vulgar and despicable they may be” was only marginally affected by the intense pressure of Japan’s cultural assimilation policy. In this context, it is still meaningful to review “The Buckwheat Season,” widely regarded as a masterpiece of Korean literature, and consider where it lies on Lee’s literary path from the half-hearted realism of his early days to the belletristic inclination of his later years.
“The road appeared suspended from the waist of a hill. It was past midnight, and in the stillness around him, Heo caught the sound of the moon breathing like a beast within arm’s reach, and bean stalks and ears of corn, drenched in moonlight, appeared bluer than usual. The waist of the hill was all planted in buckwheat, and the fresh flowers, as serene as salt sprinkled under the soft moonlight, were breathtaking. The red buckwheat stalks were as tenuous as a fragrance, and the donkey’s gait was refreshing.” (from “The Buckwheat Season,” translated by Peter H. Lee)
To celebrate these two novelists’ lives and literature, Gangwon Province opened the Kim Yu-jeong House of Literature in Sille Village and the Lee Hyo-seok Memorial Hall in Bongpyeong, where their birthplaces have been preserved.
Waterways, Snowy Roads and Highways
Many of the mountain roads in Gangwon Province run up and down at an altitude of around 1,000 meters. The streams originating in the high mountains mostly flow into the Han River. Until the 1930s, the river was used as a waterway to transport forest products since the roads were so rough. The timber cut from the northern counties of Inje and Yanggu was gathered on the Bukhan River (North Han River), and timber from the southern counties like Jeongseon, Pyeongchang and Yeongwol on the Namhan River (South Han River), to be tied together into timber rafts, drifting down the river until they reached Seoul. It took a day from Inje to Chuncheon, and then a week or two from Chuncheon to Seoul. To ease their weariness and boredom, the boatmen driving the timber rafts would sing “Raft Arirang,” a version of the folk song “Gangwon-do Arirang” with their own added lyrics. These rafts often carried high-quality white porcelain, medicinal herbs and firewood from the area around Yanggu and Bangsan, destined for Seoul.
The Bukhan River was an important waterway for boats plying between Seoul and Chuncheon. Boats carrying salt from Seoul or grain taxes from Gangwon Province used this waterway before it was blocked by dams for hydroelectric power built in the early 1940s. In place of the closed waterway, electricity reached the province. Naerin Stream, once filled with rows of timber rafts, now echoes with the cheers and shouts of young people enjoying river rafting.
While waterways connected the province with the outside world, its snowy roads isolated it, prohibiting exchange.
As all the roads traversing Gangwon Province end at the east coast, the East Sea is no ordinary sea for Koreans. Rather, it is an object of faith.
Plowing through knee-high snow in the mountains represents the harshness of life as solemn and desperate as eating tear-stained bread. Snow as a metaphor for the grueling road to spiritual growth or the homecoming of the wounded is often used in works of literature and other forms of arts. In Hwang Sok-yong’s short story “On the Road to Sampo,” the three protagonists, jettisoned by the current of industrialization, go wandering on the snowy roads looking for an unknown place called Sampo. “Snowy Road,” a film about the homecoming of girls who had been forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers during World War II, describes the girls trodding through snow in the birch tree forest in Inje, with the endless peaks of Daegwallyeong Pass in the background.
The Yeongdong Expressway, first opened in 1971 and continuously extended, now runs all the way from Incheon to Gangneung by way of Hoengseong and Pyeongchang. Since the expressway opened, the mountain passes of Gangwon Province have been transformed into walking trails for urban hikers. Meanwhile, some of the east coast beaches that had formerly been restricted military areas were opened to the public. In the 1970s, the song “Whale Hunting” by Song Chang-sik from the soundtrack of the hit film “The March of Fools” was a favorite with the young. They would play it on their guitars and sing it at the top of their lungs. The chorus goes, “Now, let’s get away, to the sea on the east coast!” At the time, it was a great luxury to get away to the eastern beaches carrying some simple camping equipment, whether on a slow train winding its way through the mountains, or by bus running on the straight expressway.
In 1975, when most sections of the expressway were completed, the Yongpyeong Ski Resort opened as a center of winter sports. Last summer, an event was held on top of the slopes to pray for the success of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The east coast of Gangwon Province has numerous scenic spots presenting beautiful views of the sun rising over the sea. To Koreans, the East Sea is not just a body of water, but a solemn place reminding them of the significance of history, and a relaxing place where they can feel free from the confines of everyday life.
Roads to the East Sea
In December 2016, at one of the candlelight rallies against the then president, which had drawn a total of two million people, the singer Han Young-ae, in her characteristic husky voice, sang “My Country, My People,” which begins: “See, the sun rising above the East Sea. / On whom does the sun shine its blazing rays? / On us, who have achieved noble purity / in the course of bloody struggles.”
The lyrics were written in the 1970s by Kim Min-ki, who had composed the legendary protest song “Morning Dew” as a college student. “Whale Hunting” was written by Choe In-ho, who was a celebrated young novelist. It is ironic that the popularity of these songs coincided with the construction of the Yeongdong Expressway running across the Korean peninsula, whether it be seen as a symbol of industrialization that accelerated economic development or the product of developmental dictatorship.
As all the roads traversing Gangwon Province end at the east coast, the East Sea is no ordinary sea for Koreans. Rather, it is an object of faith. Perhaps that’s why they so often cross the high passes of the Baekdu Daegan - such as Hangyeryeong, Misiryeong and Daegwallyeong - to feel free from the fetters of everyday life at the bracing sight of the sea, or drive through the night on the expressway and linger around the beaches to see the first sun of the year rise over the sea.
Now, the tuning is over. It’s time to listen to the music.
‘PyeongChang Music Festival & School’
Gives Cultural Panache to Gangwon Province
Ryu Tae-hyung Music Columnist
Now established as a prominent international music festival, the PyeongChang Music Festival & School (PMFS, formerly known as the Great Mountains Music Festival & School) was first held in 2004 at the Yongpyeong Ski Resort. Modeled after the Aspen Music Festival and School in the United States, it was planned as a summer fair offering classical music concerts and training programs.
Led by Conductor Zaurbek Gugkaev, the Marinsky Orchestra and Opera Company of St. Petersburg, Russia, perform Sergei Prokofiev’s opera “The Love for Three Oranges” at the Alpensia Music Tent. Based on the 18th-century drama of the same title by the Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, the opera premiered in Korea at the 2017 PyeongChang Music Festival.
Aspen, once a ghostly city of abandoned mines with a population of only about 6,000, has been revitalized as the host city of one of the top classical music festivals in the United States since it was founded in 1949.
Emulating the Aspen model, Professor Kang Hyo of the Juilliard School launched the PMFS in collaboration with the Sejong Soloists, a world-renowned string orchestra. In the beginning, the circumstances were less than ideal. The main stage at the Nunmaeul [Snow Village] Hall had to rely on microphones to deliver the music properly to the audience.
Moreover, other events were being held around the ski resort during the same period, which impeded concentrated appreciation of the music. For instance, a burst of spirited shouts from the nearby fencing contests once startled the audience in the middle of a concert.
In spite of the initial difficulties, the PMFS, held on the highlands at an altitude of around 700 meters, has attracted a growing number of music lovers, providing a shelter from the summer heat as well as diverse musical offerings. A careful arrangement of programs under a variety of annual themes has garnered attention among domestic and international music communities. The festival also promotes musical diversity by presenting world premieres, Asian premieres and Korean premieres of lesser-known masterpieces and experimental contemporary works, alongside famous classical works.
In 2010, the Alpensia Concert Hall opened, providing a proper venue for the performance of classical music, and that year’s concerts of the Distinguished Artists Series were all sold out. As renowned artists and professors are invited to the festival every year, there has also been a growing influx of talented music students from around the world.
In 2011, cellist Chung Myung-wha and violinist Chung Kyung-wha came on board as artistic directors, and their extensive international network has greatly contributed to increasing the festival’s scale. Consequently, the 8th edition of the festival that year, held under the theme “Illumination,” saw a record attendance of 35,000 people. Various programs to encourage audience participation, such as “Traveling Concerts,” are also part of the festival.
This year’s festival focused on Russian music under the theme “Great Russian Masters.” It featured an opera staged in the Music Tent, opened in 2012, a symbolic event indicating that the PMFS, once envisioned as a chamber music festival, has grown to accommodate operas. Pianist Son Yeol-eum, the festival’s associate artistic director, and other young musicians presented a beautiful ensemble as well.
For the Distinguished Artists Series of the 2017 PyeongChang Music Festival, cellists Chung Myung-wha, Luís Claret and Laurence Lesser (from left) play “Requiem” by David Popper, with pianist Kim Tae-hyung.
The PMFS offers a combination of concerts by prominent artists as well as tuition for music students. The students attend master classes of celebrated musicians and mingle with them in concert halls, restaurants, coffee shops, and on walking trails.
The festival has been successful in obtaining sponsorship from corporations and maintains close connections with them. This year, the Yamaha Corporation provided 40 pianos to increase the availability of practice rooms for performers and students. Airlines as well as local businesses, including Terarosa Coffee, also provided sponsorship. This year, the audience included a significant number of directors of national artistic organizations who came from abroad to benchmark the festival.
In February 2016, the PyeongChang Winter Music Festival was inaugurated. Presented by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and organized by the Gangwon Art and Culture Foundation, it was founded to promote the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Featuring recitals and chamber music concerts by winners of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, as well as jazz performances by Korean singer Youn Sun Nah and Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius, the first edition focused on expanding the festival’s range of genres and improving its accessibility.
Many of the visitors to the festival were tourists who had come to ski in the mountains and then learned about the concerts, triggering an unexpected increase of on-site ticket sales. The summer and winter music festivals held in the scenic mountains of Pyeongchang are expected to help raise the profile of Gangwon Province as a place of cultural excellence as well as a clean natural environment.