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Korean seasonal customs brought to lifeThe National Folk Museum of Korea produces an outstanding English-language resource
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승인 2010.10.31  09:35:39
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▲ Photo courtesy The National Folk Museum of Korea

Korea has four seasons.

If you’ve been in the country for any length of time, you will hear this over and over. Yet people who come from temperate climates often fail to see why Koreans make such an effort to emphasize this fact.
It took just a moment with the newly published “Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs” to figure this mystery out. The four seasons Koreans refer to today, whether they are aware of this history or not, are deeply embedded in their culture.

Living in an unforgiving climate and with very little readily accessible arable land, Koreans have come together and studied the weather and seasons to adequately prepare either for full store-rooms or empty bowls.

Seasonal customs were a way to adapt to, and cope with, the chaotic nature of climate.

Published by The National Folk Museum of Korea and edited by Chonnam National University professor Na Kyung Soo, this full-color, 336-page reference work has been lovingly edited, translated and designed with the “interested, general reader” in mind.

Over 700 photographs depict ceremonies step-by-step. The beauty of the villages and costumes of the participants are well served by a layout that stands head and shoulders above any previous publication on the topic.

“What I love about Korea is that the study of changes in tradition and folklore are valued,” said Timothy Tangherlini, a professor in the Dept. of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. “It becomes part of the present.” He, along with Chae Ria, was an English editor of the encyclopedia.

“The customs are a throwback but not a distant throwback,” he said via Skype in an interview with The Jeju Weekly. The encyclopedia is not just useful for non-Koreans, but also for Korean youth of today. Many of his students at UCLA with connections to Korea have never heard of these customs, Prof. Tangherlini said, due to the country’s rapid and recent changes from an agricultural to industrial economy.

He pointed out that many of these customs have declined, but only in the last 20 to 30 years.

The encyclopedia’s 230 English entries are a condensed version of the 6-volume, 2,267 entry Korean-language publication of the same name which was printed between 2004 and 2007. It had 603 contributing researchers and 278 editors in the original project, as well as a Web site in Korean and English and a Korean-version DVD.

The content is succinct and well organized. In fact, with a little study it could be put to very good use by expats who attend cultural events and festivals all over the country. The background information and rich detail could prove invaluable.

The book is divided into five chapters (the four seasons and a leap year) and then subdivided into a wide variety of seasonal topics, including rites, folk beliefs, clothing, food, games and performances. Each chapter has an introduction and stunning visuals to accompany easy to understand explanations of the perhaps esoteric subject matter.

Entries include terminology in Korean and Chinese characters (hanja) and for the most part are well balanced in technical detail and readability. There are three indexes; in Korean, English and hanja, though the first is by far the most complete and useful.

The publisher has also done an outstanding job with remarkably few glaring errors of translation or editing (there was a typo on page 175).

From a Jeju perspective, one small criticism is the inclusion of just one Jeju-specific entry listed in the indexes, that being Jeju Chilmeori Danggut, or “Chilmeoridang Exorcism of Jeju Island.”

To be fair there are hundreds of references to Jeju in the original Korean version. But for users of this abridgement, Jeju-related entries are nearly impossible to find via the index. A digital version would solve this problem.

“Korea has always been hard to expand into without the language,” Prof. Tangherlini said, characterizing the project as being part of the increase in interest and internationalization of Korean Studies. Many want to know more about Korea, he said, but lack the language skills to make that connection.

The “Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs” is volume 1 of a planned 7, part of a set titled “Encyclopedia of Korean Folklore and Traditional Culture,” which will include volumes on folk religion, folk literature, rituals, food, clothing, shelter and more.

It will, over time, prove to be an outstanding contribution to the internationalization of Korean culture.

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