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Through a Photographer’s Lens, Pine Trees Speak Volumes

‘Pine Trees in Korea: Aesthetics and Symbolism’

By Suh Jae-sik, 160 pages, $69.50, Seoul: Hollym [2017]

“Pine Trees in Korea: Aesthetics and Symbolism,” by award-winning documentary photographer Suh Jae-sik, takes a loving look at a familiar sight in the Korean landscape. But pine trees hold much greater significance in the lives of Koreans than simply being part of the scenery. In this book, Suh offers two ways to gain a greater appreciation for Korea’s pine trees.

The reader may first take a leisurely stroll through a forest of stunning images, a collection of atmospheric, colorful, and at times awe-inspiring photographs of pine trees and their habitat. We see craggy pines silhouetted against the night sky; sunbeams slanting through mist in a twisting pine forest; pine trees bent, but not broken, under heavy blankets of snow; lone pine trees standing like sentinels on granite peaks and cliffs; and two pines huddled in a green oasis amid a sea of golden grain. While a few of these photographs have captions explaining the significance of a particular tree or location, the vast majority are left to speak for themselves.
There is a second way to read this book, though. The margins of many of the pages contain two or three small photographs, accompanied by brief explanations of a particular aspect of Korean culture and the role that pine trees play in it. Most obviously, the pine tree plays a major role in Korean architecture, providing building material for everything from the bones of houses and other structures down to the smallest furnishings or decorations.

Pine trees also feature in Korean food: favorite traditional foods such as songpyeon (pine-flavored rice cakes) and dasik (pine pollen cookies) come directly from the trees, while pine mushrooms, a delicacy in Korean cuisine, live in a symbiotic relationship with the root systems.
In addition to their practical uses, pine trees are also heavily laden with symbolism in Korean culture. They are one of the ten symbols of longevity and commonly appear as motifs in paintings, ceramics and other arts. Pine trees are carved into guardian poles (jangseung) and “goose poles” (sotdae), both of which stand at the entrances to villages and ensure the welfare of those who live there. A living pine tree itself is often regarded as a guardian spirit or serves as a shrine, and the belief in these trees’ protective powers can be seen in pine sprigs inserted in the “taboo rope” (geumjul) to keep outsiders away after a child is born, or in ropes tied around big pottery sauce jars to protect them.
Perhaps most intriguing of all are the ways that pine trees have been treated as almost human: One was awarded ministerial rank by a passing king, while another was named heir to a bachelor and pays property taxes to this day. There are even Buddhist rituals to pray for the spirits of deceased trees. At one point, Suh spends a few pages discussing how pine trees often resemble humans, but this could be understood in another way: Is not our readiness to see our own likeness in these trees a sign of how close we are to them?
This is, in the end, what this book is all about: Koreans’ love, admiration and respect for pine trees. By ending with a comment on the Buddhist rituals mentioned above, Suh reveals that his goal is not simply to show the reader how beautiful these trees are, but to inspire in us love and respect for them - and love and respect for the environment that we share.

Treasures from the Rich Storehouse of Korean Literature

‘Korean Contemporary Short Stories ― Selected from KOREANA Magazine’

Edited by Kim Hwa-young, 311 pages, $10.00, Seoul: Korea Foundation [2017]

“Korean Contemporary Short Stories” is a collection of 12 short stories published in English translation in Koreana from 1994 to 2016. As short stories naturally lend themselves better to the pages of a magazine than full-length novels or even novellas, such a collection seems only natural. However, as volume editor Kim Hwa-young points out, page space considerations aside, the short story has played an important role in Korean literature for the past century; it is distinguished from the short story in the West in that it continues to play a significant role in Korean literature today, increasing both in terms of length and complexity.
The term used to translate “novel” in Korean is soseol, which literally means “little story.” Unlike English, though, Korean does not distinguish between short stories, novellas and full-length novels with different terms but by modifying the term soseol. Using the perhaps more accurate word “fiction,” the three equivalent terms in the Korean language are, roughly, “short fiction,” “middle-length fiction” and “long fiction.” Even in the language, there is no prejudice against short stories in Korea.
The short stories selected for this volume are mostly from this century, although three of them were originally written in the 1980s. They represent 12 different authors, including some names that will be familiar to those with some knowledge of Korean literature in translation; other names may be less familiar but are well worth getting to know. Although the works vary in subject, tone and style, they all touch on issues and emotions that any reader is well acquainted with. They represent the best of Korean short fiction published in Koreana over the past two decades, offering readers more of the treasures to be found in the rich storehouse of Korean literature.

Gayageum Orchestra Presents Evocative Fusion Music

‘Nostalgia’

By Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra, MP3 Album $9.49, Seoul: LOEN Entertainment [2017]

“Nostalgia” is the ninth studio album of the Sookmyung Gayageum Orchestra, founded in 1999 as the world’s first gayageum orchestra. The orchestra performs over 100 concerts a year and aims to broaden the scope of gayageum music by combining Korean and Western tunes and bringing together traditional Korean instruments and instruments that international audiences might be more familiar with.
The gayageum is a well-known Korean instrument, so named because it is said to have been invented by a king of one of the states in the Gaya Confederacy, sometime in the sixth century, based on a Chinese instrument. Whatever its origins, the instrument that has remained a staple of the Korean music scene is a 12-stringed zither, set horizontally and plucked with the fingers. The gayageum that make up the main part of the orchestra are at times accompanied by other stringed and wind instruments, both Korean and Western. Representing fiddle-style stringed instruments are the haegeum, a long-necked, two-stringed instrument played with a horsehair bow, and the viola. Providing a wind element are the daegeum, a six-holed bamboo flute, and the oboe.

Befitting the title, the album contains a mix of beloved Korean and Western melodies. Two versions of “Scarborough Fair” (one with daegeum accompaniment and another with haegeum) are almost the textbook definition of nostalgia, so are the karaoke favorite “My Way” and “Going Home” from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” The longest track, “Sanjo,” in particular is an impressive and energetic reinterpretation of a traditional Korean tune for the modern stage.
Fusion music in the truest sense of the word, “Nostalgia” serves as both a showcase of the beauty of the gayageum and another path to appreciating traditional Korean music.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Ryu Tae-hyung Music Columnist

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