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Jeju shrines in crisis, says scholarMoon Mubyeong calls on government and public to become more active in preserving Jeju’s heritage
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승인 2015.06.30  15:42:04
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▲ 'People don't seem to care about Jeju shrines,' says Moon Mubyeong. Photo by The Jeju Weekly

Moon Mubyeong, a founder member of the Jeju Traditional Culture Institute and four-decade scholar of Jeju shamanism, believes Jeju shrines are facing a “cultural crisis” requiring urgent action.

“With no one visiting them, and only the shrines remaining, we are facing a cultural crisis,” he says to The Weekly in his downtown office, surrounded by books on his passion, Jeju’s religious traditions.

“Although some villages manage the shrines extremely well, most are barely looked after. It is those shrines that are faced with disappearance.”

Jeju is fabled as the land of 500 temples and shrines, yet Jeju province states only five are protected cultural properties, with a handful of associated rituals also protected, most notably UNESCO-designated Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut.

The level of shrine protection is shameful, says Moon, particularly as worshippers dwindle. A subject close to his heart, he says he has been “talking about it for a long time,” particularly while working for Jeju province’s Cultural Properties Committee.

▲ Moon hopes for a change in official attitudes to Jeju's heritage. Photo by The Jeju Weekly

“People don’t seem to care ... Politicians in Jeju do not think of the shrines as important cultural properties. Even people living in Jeju don’t care about it,” he says forlornly.

With modern lifestyles and few locals still resident in ancestral villages, Moon sees decline as inevitable.

“Like Jerusalem for Christians, shrines are sacred places where the gods guard the village. However, in modern society people are no longer tied to the earth and that way of thinking is fading away. Eventually, shrines will only be memories for the elders.”

Moon says drastic measures are needed, and he calls on the government to designate all of Jeju’s remaining shrines, including historical sites.

“Actually, if we say there are 500 shrines and temples, then the nation should preserve even damaged shrines, like Japan. Thousands of jinja (Shinto shrines) were designated as far back as 100 or 200 years ago.”

“We could set up a holy Mecca for the gods, and restore the remaining sacred places as they were in ancient times, such as in the form of a sacred tree. In this way we can preserve Jeju’s sacred culture,” he adds.

Moon then visibly saddens as he moves on to the subject of the vandalized Seolsaemitdang shrine in Jukseong village, Odeung-dong, Jeju City, which he reported to city officials. He explains it was once the most sacred on the mountain, the local name meaning a temple (“seol”) by a freshwater spring (“saemi”).

“It was once thought that a temple with holy water was an ausipicious site to be preserved. However, with people using taps we are losing the meaning of water.’

He expresses dismay that the vandals — even if a “religious cult driven by hatred” — were not deterred by the sanctity of the site. “They should never have chopped down the tree, but it happened,” he sighs.

Nevertheless, he feels that within the Jeju unconscious there is a deep respect for local heritage which needs urgent reactivation.

“This is why it is important to put more effort into discussing Jeju culture, the power of culture itself, and its spiritual energy.”

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