Jeju Stone Park director Baek Woon-cheol spent 40 years creating and collecting stone sculptures. Photo courtesy Jeju Stone Park
In this age of mass tourism, authentic Jeju may seem elusive and challenging for the visitor to find, but there are many sites which seek to preserve the island’s cultural spirit. Jeju Stone Park, along road 119, in Gyorae-ri, Jocheon-eup, is one such place.
The intimate relationship between Jeju and its geology is clear enough for all visitors to the island, and has also inspired a mythology drawing comparisons with the classics myths of Greece and Rome. Inspired by this history of myth, stone and spirit, the Jeju Stone Park seeks to be a physical embodiment of the mythology of Jeju Island and its people.
A selection of traditional stone items used by Jeju villagers is now on display in Jeju Stone Park's galleries and outdoor spaces. Photo courtesy Jeju Stone Park
The myth of Seolmundae
In days of yore, a legendary goddess named Seolmundae, who was large enough to use Mt. Halla as her pillow, was making a cauldron of soup for her 500 sons. The mythological grandmother of Jeju must have grown quite drowsy, as she somehow toppled into the broth and perished. Returning home, her sons wondered where their mother was, but tucked into their dinner nonetheless, noting its unusually delicious taste.
The youngest son, who was always the last to eat, came to the pot and discovered his mother’s bones in the dregs at the bottom. Upon realizing what had happened he became distraught and angry with his brothers. Beside themselves with grief, the sons were petrified into stone. These stones, known as the 500 Generals, are the outcropping rocks at Yeongsil on Mt. Halla; while the youngest brother stands on Chagwi-do, forever following his elder brothers.
The spirit of this myth lives on in the very structure of the Jeju Stone Park, as its director Baek Woon-cheol explained: “Visiting the park is intended to be a journey through the mythology of the island, entering through the ear of Seolmundae, progressing through the body and exiting at the feet. It represents the journey of life and death,” He said.
An aerial view of the park reveals how Seolmundae lives on in the very structure of the park. The layout is suggestive of the goddess lying on her back looking to the sky, with entrances at the ears and exits at her hands and feet. The first monument to greet visitors as they enter is a gracious pool of shimmering water- the Sky Pond, the water of which cascades over its rim. This is the bowl of soup from which the Jeju Grandmother’s returning sons ate.
The park's 20,000 stone pieces have been created and collected over a 40 year period. They vary from artistic sculptures to practical tools, to raw geological specimens. Photo courtesy Jeju Stone Park
The spirit of stone
It is a beautiful scene and from here visitors enter to view the stone displays inside, where the stones are every bit as beautiful as sculptural masterpieces. Baek, whose commitment was pivotal in creating the park, sees it as an endeavor to safeguard Jeju’s culture and the beauty of the earth. He explained that “the major influences behind the park are identity, culture and art. The stones contain an essence of the Jeju spirit and people, which should always be preserved.”
Visitors can choose any or all of the three courses, totaling 2.3km, the first of which represents the omnipresent Seolmundae myth. The paths lead visitors to many stone representations of the myth and guide them to the Sky Pond. This leads to a waterfall which represents the four seasons, before the exhibition hall astounds with its wealth of geological formations.
The other walks are more studious; as they are in many ways a fascinating series of pint-sized museums, housed in traditional thatched buildings. There is the feeling of wandering through a lost Jeju village. Visitors become entwined in the relationship between stone and Jeju culture, as artifacts ranging from barbells and baduk boards, to stone toilets and children’s toys, are presented all around. Finally, the thatched houses showcase Jeju life of yesteryear, with working implements such as ploughs, millstones and pots carefully displayed.
The Sky Pond represents the cooking pot of Jeju's grandmother Seolmundae, who tragically fell in and died one day while cooking for her 500 sons. Photo courtesy Jeju Stone Park
A life’s work
Baek himself collected the 20,000 stones on display over a period of 40 years- more recently with the help of the Jeju Provincial Government. In this truly unique representation of Jeju’s dynamic history, he wished to connect the past, present and future of Jeju through the concept of stone. “On a visit to Paris I was impressed with how they went to great lengths to preserve their rich culture and I used this as inspiration to protect what was left of our culture on Jeju.” He explained.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that the Jeju Stone Park is somehow a museum of Jeju life, as Baek sees it as a living creation and of much deeper significance: “Humans cannot perceive stones moving and therefore presume they are dead, but they contain the essence of life itself, just like the earth. If we allow our culture to forget these stones we lose what keeps our culture alive. In many ways Jeju culture has already been orphaned, so our responsibility is to be its foster parents.”
This fragility of local cultures is something experienced all over the world and Baek feels that, as change is inevitable, adaption is the key to survival. “This is the true globalization of Jeju,” he suggested.
Park director, Baek Woon-cheol, intrends for Jeju Stone Park to lead visitors on a journey through Jeju's ancient myths and legends so that they might experience the island's culture more fully. Photo courtesy Jejusori
The stones of Jeju Stone Park safeguard the mythology of Seolmundae for millennia and in times of unprecedented change, one man’s painstaking work is going someway to ensure Jeju’s Grandmother will be with us far into the future.
Jeju Stone Park is open from 9a.m. daily, all year round. It closes at 5p.m. in the winter and 7p.m. during the summer. Admission is 2500W with a Jeju resident’s card and 5000W without. For further information, please visit: http://www.jejustonepark.com/eng/
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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