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Stone as a vital part of Jeju's cultureNGO looks to promote island’s ancient stone culture
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승인 2011.03.26  16:52:09
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▲ Stone walls that are relatively well preserved in Gujwa-eup, Hado-li. Photo by Kim Soo Yang

Jeju islanders live their lives with the wind. It’s next to impossible to escape. I feel it most vividly when it rains. Even if I bring an umbrella, I still get wet due to the strong wind. However, Jeju’s abundant wind tends to be taken for granted. So is Jeju’s stone. Both wind and stone are ubiquitous and have affected the lives of the Jeju people and their civilization in many ways. For this reason, it is important to understand Jeju’s stone heritage in order to have a better understanding of the island’s culture.

Expedition to the stone culture of Jeju

When we are a part of a tradition, we tend to ignore its bigger picture. To us, unless we pay extra attention, our culture remains the same.

Jeju Forum C, an NGO which helps people to become aware of traditional Jeju culture and looks to foster its growth, provides people with the opportunity to extend their understanding of Jeju civilization by visiting the island’s various sites. Each month the forum selects a location relating to that month’s theme. Its ninth tour, which was held on the second Saturday of March, was a journey into the stone culture of Jeju. More than 50 people with a desire to better understand Jeju participated in the tour. They understood well that their Jeju origins did not guarantee an in-depth knowledge of the island they call home.

Stone wall

Jeju island abounds in stone, and the stone walls scattered all over the island show that point best. Kim Young Don, a late Korean folklorist, employed the metaphor of a Black Dragon Great Wall to represent the landscape of endless black stone walls around Jeju.

In contrast, the term Yellow Dragon was used to describe the Great Wall of China, which is around 10,000 li (1 li is nearly equal to 400 meters) long. Interestingly enough, Ko Seong-bo, a professor at Jeju National University reported in his research paper that the combined length of all Jeju batdam (stone walls around agricultural fields) comes to nearly 22,108 kilometers, equal to 5,527-li in length. From this approach Kang Moon Kyu, the Halla Ilbo editorialist, reputed for his extended knowledge of Jeju culture and history, speculates that if the other kinds of stone walls on the island were measured and counted, they would together reach almost 10,000-li in length, nearly equivalent to the Great Wall.

Doldam (the Korean word for stone wall) varies in its construction, shapes, locations, and purposes. The most commonly found is batdam (or batdoldam), which serves as a boundary to settle disputes between neighbors over land. It also plays the important roles of keeping Jeju’s volcanic-ash soil from blowing away and protecting agricultural produce from the livestock put out to pasture. Because stone constitutes a considerable part of Jeju’s earth, picking out stones and using them to build walls serves a dual purpose.

Jeju is an island of stone. In the past, the perception of stone was very different from the current aesthetic perspective. Jeju’s barren soil has been greatly attributed to the stone in the ground, badly affecting its agricultural efficiency. On the other hand, Jeju islanders have traditionally used the stone to build various types of walls, sometimes as a means of protection from the elements or as tools of agriculture and fishery. Some of the stone walls were built to defend against Japanese invaders during the Joseon dynasty, and those in harbors served as a steps to Jeju Island.

All of these examples demonstrate the important relationship between stone and the lives of the Jeju people. I am just as greatly impressed with the stone's practical uses for survival as its beauty.

However, the stone on Jeju has been underestimated, and due to standardized development their future on the island could be in jeopardy. If you are just around the main Jeju City areas or newly built apartment blocks around the Sinjeju area, you would not be able to tell whether you are on Jeju or not. Stone has been a great part of the way of Jeju until our grandparents’ generation, and we need to take great care to preserve what has been passed down, including the stone wall.

▲ Five basalt stone statues 60 to 65 cm high with each face showing a distinctive expression in front of Hwacheon temple, located in Hoecheon-dong, Jeju City. There are diverse interpretations as to their original purpose. They could be one of many Buddha statues or a single deity out of a potential 18,000 Jeju Gods which are long believed to exist on Jeju Island. Photo by Kim Soo Yang
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