Text and Photography by Lauren W. Deutsch unless noted otherwise. All rights reserved.
Originally published in Kyoto Journal, vol. #36, 1999
New Afterward Special to this Article, January 1, 2010
The Roof of National Pride
“I can’t believe people still live like that!” exclaimed the Korean government cultural affairs official in his office in Los Angeles. Returning a few days before from Korea, I had just showed him a photograph of a beautifully smiling woman about 80 years old, dressed simply in shirt and pants who was sitting on the transom of the doorway to her home. The smile was directed at a business-suited man, half kneeling in front of her. Dr. Zo Zayong, the eminent authority on Korean folk art and indigenous spiritual traditions, was making a house call.
“Is that the good news or the bad news?” I responded to his continued disbelief about living conditions in the country he not only calls home but whose culture he is duly empowered to represent abroad. When you see her smile and understand the work of Dr. Zo, Korea’s champion of indigenous spiritual traditions, sort of a diplomat from the proud past, it can only be good news.
Korea’s cultural officials like to show off the country’s opulent courtly and literati customs with a smattering of folkloric farmer and monk dances, masked theatre and even the shamanic spectacle that are becoming a bit more acceptable as “real” art. I empathized with him over the work that still remained to be done in bringing material comfort to the most remote areas and even silently thought about occasion reports of rampant poverty north of the 38th parallel.
But, again, this woman was smiling. She clearly had a peaceful experience ... from what? Dr. Zo is the key. For the past 30 years, he has directed extensive but not unlimited personal financial resources, developed technical know-how, engaged in scholarly research and demonstrated exceptional artistry, and found time to do cultural “social work” all toward honoring this woman’s and their compatriots’ indigenous spiritual traditions. For men and women do not live by bread alone.
New Road to the Old Spirits
Having “lost at least one century” through genocidal occupation by the Japanese and then suffering debilitating wars from within and without, Korea’s Past President Park Chung Hee in the 1970s orchestrated the highly successful Saemaul (New Community Movement) which brought critical economic and material improvements to the truly impoverished countryside, particularly electricity and roads, as well as reforms in agriculture, reforestation, anti-pollution and cleanliness.
To his credit he noted in many speeches during that time, “Economic and construction and spiritual development are not separate concepts.” “Spiritual” here meant diligence, self-sufficiency, cooperation, honesty and frugality. Nowhere did it mention the spirit of the land itself, of the cycles of life which for centuries were tied to the interaction with manshin, (literally: “ten thousand” spirits; Korea’s word for shaman), especially those associated with procreation.
It could be stated that Korean people have lost many more centuries of individual and group continuity by being cut off from their deepest roots of spiritual tradition by pressures from within and without, particularly by the pressures of foreign proselytizing religions --Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, even Shinto and Christianity. Each brought to the land, where “peaceful” is the basis of most greetings, a sense that the “other” culture was more valuable than the domestic, more sophisticated and worldlier. Whether imposed by wartime occupation, subtly attached to desperately needed materials or simply offered in good faith, each plowed the indigenous spirit under the soil, and now under the concrete. Dr. Zo’s mission is to reinstall and celebrate that which is truly Korean ... not Chinese or Asian.
Consider what happened in 1996. A new road is finally coming to Chuk Chong Maul, a small village at the foot of Koobyongsan (literally ”Nine Panel Folding Screen”) Mountain. Is this good news or bad news?
Good news for moving rice and peppers and other cash crops from field to market. Bad news because the village’s two remaining Sanshin Dang (Mountain Spirit Shrines), looking nothing more than 4 foot high pile of stones, are right in the way of progress.
To the some 70 villagers -- renowned for living over 100 years -- these shrines are not folklore sites. They have been for centuries and remain portals to the mountain and its protective spirit. There is no record of anyone in this village having participated in a foreign religion. Whether the village will be known by its “cultural” name (literally, “Village of Bamboo Field”) or its modern name, Number 2 Section of Sangri Ya, a handy indicator to find it on a government map, will be determined by whether it becomes road-defined or remains shrine-defined. For the road works in both ways; it brings a high-tech world into the village in no time. Again, is it good or bad news for the 20 or so young village children? Will they leave for good with the crops for “better” life in the city?
Who cares? The villagers do, but their voice wasn’t heard over the earth moving equipment. Here’s where Dr. Zo goes to work.
At the age of 74 years, Dr. Zo has been the champion of locating old and still used shaman shrines and revitalizing village festivals and researching cosmology and other living cultural traditions of Korea for several decades. Since 1966 he has dedicated his life to restoring the 5,000 year old puzzle which unites heaven and earth, in the tradition of Tangun, Korea’s first leader, for Hong ik in gan, the benefit of mankind world-wide.
It all began by his curiosity to identify and understand distinctly Korean imagery in Korea’s extensive folk art -- from tigers to dragon turtles and eagles, for example. Despite his high level of scholarship, he was constantly clashing with more popular standards of the so-called “fine” arts. His curiosity was drawn to “mysterious” holes in boulders and to the profiles of mountaintops when viewed from certain vantages. Eventually, his appreciation of shamanism’s role as the “ultimate spiritual base” to parallel folk art, as the ”physical base” of Korean culture was solidified.
Born in Hwanghae Province (now in North Korea), Zo Zayong was one of Korea’s first students to be educated in the West. He matriculated at Tennessee Wesleyan College (1948) and Vanderbilt University (1951) and finally earned his degree in Structural Engineering at Harvard in 1953. His distinguished engineering career includes the creation of several innovative structural systems utilized by architectural firms in the USA, Sweden and Korea, including his own. His buildings of note in Korea include the American Embassy Residence, several hospitals and organizations' headquarters. His career a stressful success, he retired in 1976 with his wife to the land he bought in the mountains to renew his health and pursue his cultural research.
By then he was also becoming well known for being one of the earliest people to value and collect Korean folk art. His enormous collection began with old architectural materials, most notably Shilla period roof tiles with the tokkaebi (evil chasing spirit) on the ends -- of which he had 10,000. In addition, he began to collect “art-of-the-people,” most notably paintings of the mythic but extant Diamond Mountain (in the north), longevity and tiger paintings. The tiger is so central to Korean folklore (not to mention its being the companion of Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit). With his assistance, a uniquely Korean “smiling” caricature of a tiger became the official mascot of the 1988 (Seoul) Olympics.
His collection was well known as the Emille Museum in Seoul and later, in 1983, he built for it a unique hexagonal shaped structure next to his home near Songni-san (Ch’ungch’ong Province, Po’un County). Dr. Zo traveled his collection from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. to major museums on the West Coast, and finally selling most of it, save key pieces of specifically shamanist (vs. household, record, memorial and Buddhist, Taoist and Confucionist works) to Samsung Corporation for continued conservation and exhibition. He, too, traveled to seek connections for the art and its evolution to Alaska, Japan and Vietnam, among other places.
By this time he had established the case for a serious reconsideration of the high standards of artistry evident in this artform through presentations of exhibitions and extensive catalog publishing (in Korean and English languages). He called for a renewal of greater respect for the anonymous artists who created them and for a deeper regard for the centrality of shamanism in which these symbols and the artworks themselves are key. Through years of collecting, Dr. Zo concluded that, “true Korean-ness in art is best expressed in terms of shamanism,” belief in sin (pronounced “shin”) spirits – in the lives of the people as evidenced by the work they created for ritual use. He expressed his “shock to discover the ultramodern art style that has long developed through unspoiled animism, fantasy and belief in the Mountain Spirit.
His catalog of Diamond Mountain paintings (1975) hinted at the next turn of his interests from art collector to spiritual journeyman ... “I do not believe that technical observation of Shaman ritual or village gatherings alone can properly develop a clear picture of the role of mountain worship in Korean culture. Instead, I have been feeling that study of the general religious behavior of the common people in everyday life would disclose a better picture,” he wrote. “Most of the historical literature covering the spiritual life of Korean people are in terms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, so we can hardly find written materials for a Shamanistic interpretation of our culture. However, we may be able to discover one other form ... visual art. It is here we find the interesting fact that traditional Korean art is always linked with the people’s spiritual life.” Those who loved nature created visual souvenirs, fine art, while those who worshipped nature created religious painting for use in ritual.
This challenged him to research Korea’s oldest historical records seeking to restore the full story of Korean shamanist cosmology. His central point is the Tri-God theory of Hanamin, the supreme ruler, who is represented through the trinity Samshin, three spirits -- depicted as tiger, dragon/turtle and phoenix/eagle and represented by both male and female images. His findings challenge the very symbol of Korea’s contemporary nationhood, the blue and red yin/yang image that, he has concluded, is Chinese, and lacks its sibling color, yellow.
He traced shamanism through its incorporation into Buddhist iconography and explored temple sites, for the Buddhists established centers of worship where the people were already gathering, on the sites of ancient shrines. To this day, one can usually find a sub-temple honoring Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, tucked behind other larger buildings in a complex. These temple sites, particularly those in the mountains, were key to locating “lost” ancient shamanist shrine areas.
Further, the Korean shamanic Hananim tri-god emerged in the form of three Buddhas in paintings and other images followed in similar fashion. Conversely, Kwan Yin, (Avalokiteshvara) the Bodhisattva of Compassion has found a place on many shamanist altars.
Despite the temples’ propensity to burn or bury or create new paintings over their old works, more survived than icons used by individual shamans. The latter are usually destroyed upon his or her death. Dr. Zo is still countering short-sighted Buddhist attributions given to truly older shamanist connections.
His findings published in now out of print catalogs*, including Guardians of Happiness: Shamanist Tradition in Korean Folk Painting (1982) and Korean Tiger: An Exhibition of Korean Folk Painting (1984), include some of the most detailed explanations of Korean shamanism cosmology and symbolism available in English. His more extensive works, originally handwritten in Korean, comprising three volumes are out of general circulation.
Walking His Talk
So we have Dr. Zo, cutting edge art collector and author / scholar. But he is not content to live in an ivory tower. Rather, he lives in relatively the same type of house as the woman in the photograph, deep within the mountains of Songnisan National Park. When he closed the Emille Museum to the public, he concurrently opened up in 1971 on the property the Samshin Hoegwan (literally “meeting place”), the Samshin Folk Academy. The facility has served him as a “retreat” center capable of housing up to 60 men, women and, often families with children, for weekend encampments to experience the old traditions, especially younger people, much like his teenage experience in a Christian youth leadership program in Ohio.
He wanted to educate new Korean civil servants, government officials and cultural leaders to join him in safeguarding Korea’s indigenous culture for generations to come. He would have to create an extensive education program and attract financial support from corporations and individuals as well, but most of the funds came from him personally.
Getting the city people back to the land – especially young families -- is critical to sustaining fragile traditions, particularly in a country whose rapidly erected huge, anonymous apartment buildings line the paths of super highways like collections of encyclopedias in a library. Where there is no roof beam, one is not likely to find the house’s ruling spirit in residence.
From 1990 through 1996, over 15,000 people of all ages, in family, social, business, cultural and government groups attended his residential programs. He encouraged participation by everyone, no “sightseers”, and was very successful, according to his copious photographic and written documentation of the encampments.
In 1996, I was privileged to join one of the last few large groups on the site. There was constant celebration at every turn, from hand making buckwheat noodles and traditional dogg, glutinous rice cake, with traditional equipment, to sumptuous feasting on fresh sanchae, vegetarian mountain cuisine, and mokkoli, rice wine, to dancing and singing around the fire to the tune of gongs and drums until dawn. We reminisced on the days when people lived in harmony with and celebrated nature. We pranced around wearing hand-made papier maché masks of tokkaebi, the always smiling, evil-chasing demon. It was totally joyous.
Of particular importance on site, are two spirit houses, including a new one for which Dr. Zo had waited 15 years for permits to build. This exquisite yet simple tile roofed building, about 24 feet x 18 feet, nestled at the base of the mountain, was finally dedicated this past June to Samshin Halmani, the tripartite grandmother goddess. She is depicted as three magnificent murals drawn by Dr. Zo. They will be permanently affixed to the walls following an exhibition in Seoul in January 1998.
The creation of new shamanic icons -- of stone and wood and on paper, is another of Dr. Zo’s many and much sought-after talents. Each exciting image is true to historic detail and tradition while reflecting appropriately the unique artistry and sensibility of its creator.
In honor of the 1996 visit of Hi-ah Park, Manshin, the first Korean American to be initiated a shaman and with whom Dr. Zo has been associated for over 20 years, we also experienced a special kut, shamanic ritual, to dedicate three huge stone carvings depicting Samshin Halmani and especially honoring some 13 children who had been born in the past 8 years or so to parents who, having no other recourse, placed their fate on Dr. Zo’s recommendation, in the hands of Chilseong, the Seven Stars deity, long held to be effective in procreation.
The Samshin Folk Academy has only six true members, with 10 more on their way in the New Year. To qualify for membership, an individual must find and document 10 shamanic stone altars in the countryside. It’s not an easy task, as Dr. Zo is exacting in his critique of the findings. The group includes people of all walks of life, even mountain climbers.
Adopt – A – Village
Another key element Dr. Zo realized was to help villages establish continuity with their traditions by reestablishing their shrines and festivals. Each year the Samshin Hoegwan “adopts” a village -- usually in remote areas -- to work with the residents and provide resources -- always including musical instruments and financial support and technical consultation for staging self-supporting, if not revenue-producing festivals. Chukchong Maul is one such village. Dr. Zo explains that sometimes people from the cities will come to a festival, eat and drink on the villagers’ tab and leave without reciprocating with appropriate financial offerings.
The first day we arrived, Dr. Zo whisked us off to join the festivities adjacent to an emerald green and gold rice field for the dedication of the Bang Jangung, (five Warrior Spirit Guardians flags) at the new Mountain God shrine. Dr. Zo had created a multi-colored painting of the bearded spirit with his trusty tiger companion carved into a stone about three feet high. He had designed and had carved additionally two spirit posts that identify and guard the new site next to the remaining old shrine (basically a pile of small rocks), now effectively “dead.” He explained the villagers were so happy to have this new site, as they had to otherwise carry their offerings, including a full pig, deep within the mountains.
Villagers had taken time from their busy schedule in the rice fields to provide loud percussive shamanist music, and the children paraded in simple costumes up from their school for the occasion. After offerings of fruits, meat, rice wine and money, we all joined the women and together ate a sumptuous meal. This was followed by dancing and impromptu singing.
They all know of Dr. Zo’s work and its significance to scholars and others worldwide. Yet because of centuries of downplaying -- more accurately denying and discrediting -- the very foundation of Korean culture, his work remains unheralded at the highest level.
What is so curious at this point, again, is the reaction of the government official, and it is not an isolated response. Last year and again this year, upon visiting a major Korean cultural foundation, I heard the story of how a few years ago at Paris’ Musée d’Homme, a Korean folk art exhibition was cancelled because of protests against the curator’s intention to erect a thatched roof building. Koreans in France objected strongly to being portrayed by thatch; why not tile? And as for the outstanding shamanic material, they would have no part of it.
Likewise, in an academic conference at UCLA, a Korea-born dance ethnologist, completing her Master’s thesis on the growing number of shamans in Los Angeles and having performed a dance piece choreographed from shamanist material, couldn’t explain comfortably, not to mention with academic coolness or pride, the practical connection of Korean people and their indigenous spiritual practices.
Afterward: There Are No Spectators 2001
I kept up my correspondence with Dr. Zo until the end of 1999. He shared newspaper clippings of his art exhibitions of the icons in the Samshin Halmani Shrine (which were eventually permanently installed) and new sculptures in wood and stone of tokkaebi. He also sent to me a sample of his organization’s annual report, including articles in Korean and an accounting of who donated funds to keep it going. Not having heard from him for a while, I did some research online to see if I could find something about his activities, I found David Mason’s obituary. I then contacted David for details about our mentor’s demise and learned about the gut, shaman ritual that would be held for Dr. Zo on the 100th day of his passing. I made arrangements immediately to attend the rite officiated by Naramansin (national shaman) Kim Keumhwa, one of Horae’s dear friends, and her group, the Association of Preserving West Sea Baeyonshin-Gut and Daedong-Gut.
To witness such a ritual presented on behalf of someone who deeply believed in its efficacy and by someone who knew it fully was a most amazing experience. On the day of the event, I arrived with Dr. Mason and joined the crowd of about 200 people. It was nice to see them interested, but deeply sad to see how few people understood Horae’s deepest concern: that they would come for the spectacle and leave without contributing to the cost of the ritual, not to mention to the sustainability of the culture itself.
The Hoegwan was at that time fairly well kept. There was evidence that Dr. Zo had been hard at work up to the moment of his death; the massive tokkaebi carvings were displayed, the images of Samshin Halmani were permanently enshrined, and several other structures had been moved about. I felt that Dr. Zo’s spirit was in fact surprised to see everyone celebrating his funeral, as there was abundant life still in the place. Even when the shamans tossed out of the gate his shoes and clothes, one can imagine his spirit soaring over the wall into the center of the courtyard to get back to work.
Not Abandoned But ... 2004
During my trip to Korea in 2004, I again contacted Dr. Mason and suggested that we go to Samshin Hoegwan to see what state it was in. Back in 1997, Dr. Zo told me that he didn’t really care whether the place survived after his death. Had Dr. Zo kept to his word, that he only cared that the place would be intact during his life? Having tried and failed to connect with some of the people whose contact information I had from my visits in 1996 and 1997, I feared for the worse about the state of the facility and its material contents – perhaps an unpublished manuscript and hundreds of photographs that Dr. Zo had taken to document his many events. These photographs were proof-positive that Koreans and non-Koreans alike could enjoy and learn about traditional village culture through his educational activities.
Kim Keumhwa kindly joined our mission and off we went to Songni-san. She had contacted showed someone at the Hoegwan who met us and let us into the compound. Dr. Zo’s stone carver, who had been living there during his patron’s lifetime, seemed to be default “caretaker-in-residence” of the place. We walked through the gate and were met by tall weeds, dilapidated buildings, water-soaked boxes of photographs, cabins still full of the bedding and musical instruments that Dr. Zo had provided to visitors. It was left as if a group from the city had just enjoyed one of the high-spirited festivals, yet its vulnerability to the elements ... and perhaps abandoned spirits.
The Samshin Halmoni shrine building, however, was intact with no water damage to the artwork. Mansin Kim prepared simple offerings and made prayers in the shrine. We then went off to Horae’s gravesite, on a nearby plot of land that also had several of his stone carvings of his beloved Samshin Halmani. The rest, is of course, history.
Who is bold enough to pick up the mantle where Dr. Zo Zayong left off, especially in this day when a few more Koreans are beginning to learn, appreciate and hunger for traditional roots? He wouldn’t have felt there was much merit to the effort unless people from the city would join with countryside residents to continue to celebrate and sustain vital indigenous spiritual legacy.
Programs for school children at every grade need to be exposed to images and values, the music and celebrations of traditional life, if for no other reason than that they are world-class! It is very important that those in key positions know of Dr. Zo’s legacy.
“There are no spectators!” as Horae would say. And he’s still so very right!
Changes in Zo Zayong’s Art 1997 – 2004
With the help of skilled wood and .stone carvers, painters and other crafts specialists, Dr. Zo created many iconic works of art representing Korea’s indigenous spiritual tradition. Originally sited at the Samshin Hoegwan, they had been moved over time to the site of his tomb and often “refreshed”. These three sets of images, the left being the original locations and renderings, the right the newer ones, show this contrast. The bottom row contains a carved stone that he said was of very ancient image. In the new location, a monument / shrine, likely to a mountain spirit, was constructed of loose stones.
At this writing, it is unknown if any still exist.
* Update Note: For more information on Dr. Zo Zayong, including copies of some of his publications, memorial gatherings and other aspects of his legacy, we are indebted to Professor David A. Mason for many fine entries in his websites, www.san-shin.org and http://www.zozayong.com. David has a few remaining copies of some of Dr. Zo’s publications in print as well. Please contact him directly for further information: email@example.com
Apollogies for the funky layout. Blogspot is notorious for complicating life.