South Korea is one of the highest digitally connected and technologically advanced countries in the world, yet it has struck a profound balance between modernity and cultural heritage. From age-old traditions that continue to thrive to a pop phenomenon called Gangnam-style that is sweeping the world, South Korea is a wild and wonderful world of contrasts.
Words: Efi Hafizah Hamzah Images: Korea Tourism Organization
Gut – Rites And Rituals
One of the many rituals that remains strong today in South Korea is gut, a shamanistic rite performed for exorcism or, delivering the troubled spirit of a deceased person so they may rest in peace. It is a ritual where shamans invoke Pyolsang (similar to spirits of saints and angels in other religions), whom they channel for assistance.
The gut is an intricate ceremony with a variety of props required like altars, paper flowers, food offerings and costumes befitting the spirit that the shaman hopes to invoke or channel. There are three main gut performed throughout Korea, all of which require the shaman to sing and dance when calling on the Pyolsang – Naerim-gut, Dodang-gut and Sitgim-gut. The shaman assumes the role of the mediator between the spirit and the people who are asking for help, and delivers the message on how to alleviate their difficult situations.
Naerim-gut is a ritual performed to help someone who is possessed by a spirit, and suffers from ‘spirit sickness’, which includes loss of appetite, insomnia, and hallucinations. The Dodang-gut is an annual ritual performed in spring or autumn, seeking blessings and good fortune. Sitgim-gut is a spirit-cleansing ritual for the dead that prepares them for the afterlife.
Korean Cuisine – Sweet, Sour, Spicy & Good For You!
The globally recognised dish from South Korea is the nutritious and flavourful kimchi. This is a fermented cabbage / radish dish in a sourish, spicy base made with a mix of garlic, chilli, salt, vinegar and spices. Kimchi is not only eaten as an appetiser but also used to enhance the taste in other dishes such as soups, stir-fries and even as toppings. Kimchi gained world recognition as a super food when it was discovered that a healthy bacteria called lactobacilli was present in it, aiding digestion and preventing yeast infection. Kimchi is also loaded with Vitamins A, B and C.
Other famous dishes include bibimbap, a stir-fried beef dish served with rice, kimchi and a cabbage soup and bulgogi; the Korean version of a barbecue where the meat is coated in a soy, garlic, sugar and sesame oil marinade. The meat is then brought to the table where diners grill it on a hotplate.
K-Pop – The Korean Wave
Korean pop, or K-Pop, doesn’t have a long history; its contemporary origins only began in the 1990s. The popularity, however, is massive and just about every teenager in the world knows about the hottest male and female K-pop stars.
It started when top artistes began incorporating Western pop styles into their music from two-step beats to hip hop and techno. This garnered a huge following in their homeland. The group Seo Tai-ji & Boys made its debut with music infused with rap and techno flavours and became a soaring hit in 1992, taking K-pop to the world music stage. Then came hip hop duo Deux, who exploded in their local charts, paving the way for a musical movement now known as the ‘Korean Wave’ or Hallyu, as K-pop planted its roots in the international music scene.
In Asia, K-Pop has become so famous that there are TV channels dedicated to playing K-pop music videos daily, featuring hit girl and boy bands like Girl’s Generation, Big Bang, JYJ, PSY, SHINee, 2PM and the girl band miss A. But let’s not forget the South Korean super sensation, Rain, whose concert tours worldwide sold out within days. This singer, dancer, actor, model and designer took the world by storm and made headlines in Hollywood with acting stints in movies like Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin.
Taekwondo – Foot & Fist
The earliest record of martial arts practice in Korea dates back to around 50 BC. The earlier version was known as taek kyon, which focused on high kicks. It was a prerequisite for the rulers of the land to be masters in this martial art, which later evolved to include defence techniques and sporting abilities.
Tae means ‘foot’, kwon means ‘fist’, and do means ‘the way of’: The way of the foot and fist. The art itself is best known for its structured defence positions rather than for its offence stances. However, the name taekwondo was not used until 1955. In 2000, this martial art was officially recognised as a skilled sport, making its debut as an official Olympic sport.
Taekwondo is an art unto itself that requires discipline, agility and focus. Inherently, taekwondo and karate share similarities. However, taekwondo emphasises on perfected kicks as its main weapon, more so than the hands. www.wtf.org
Fashion Trends – Super Gangnam Style
The worldwide Korean hit song, Gangnam Style by South Korean rapper PSY, gives insight into the current social trends in South Korea, covering both the fashion style and attitudes of its younger generation. You can catch a glimpse of these fashion styles by visiting Sinsa-dong in Gangnam-gu, South Korea’s chic central business district. Garuso-gil (in Sinsa-dong) which is packed with trendy shops, cafes and galleries is the spot where the youth of this generation socialise, eat and shop.
The fashion of Korea is heavily steeped in Kawaii culture where young girls dress up like dolls and young boys look pretty. It’s all about the make-up, hair and outfits of asymmetrical candy-coloured pieces and layering techniques. Do be specific when visiting Sinsa-dong in Gangnam-gu, as there are three places in Seoul called Sinsadong, and only one of them offers the bewildering sights of South Korea’s flashy fashion trends.
Bojagi – Silken Stitch
Bojagi is a patchwork or quilting technique that is unique to Korea, where the seams are triple-stitched in a way that results in a reversible work of art, be it for framing or wear. This stitch is often used in fine silk, linens, ramies and hemp materials.
Originally, bojagi was considered a simple Korean housewife handicraft, but has become an important part of authentic Korean culture that is recognised worldwide, known as ‘art fabric’. A well-stitched bojagi in high quality silk can mimic the look of stained glass, where the sheer, gleaming fabric reflects light much like window art would. Today, bojagi is a highly-prized skill that has resulted in various prestigious art institutes like the Rhode Island School of Design offering bojagi classes in its curriculum.
Hanbok & Jeogori – Tailored For Tradition
The hanbok is a traditional Korean dress worn by women. It comprises a form-fi tting wrap-around blouse of silk or cotton called jeogori that is covered from the upper chest-line with a big, billowy skirt of satins or silks, all the way down to the ankles with layers and layers of underskirts called sokchima.
In the past, only women from higher echelons of society wore brightly coloured hanbok with jeogori made of ramie (a lightweight, high grade cotton), while commoners wore white except on special occasions like weddings. The earliest reference to the hanbok was found on wall paintings in tombs that date back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC – 668 AD). Today, wearing the traditional hanbok is a simpler task, with the dress readily sewn in one piece. The outfit is generally ornamented with beads and embroidery. Jewellery and hair adornments are a must for special occasions.
Men wear jeogori, which is originally the upper part of the hanbok garment, with a loose pair of pants called paji. The difference in women’s jeogori is that the cuff of the sleeves may be sewn with a different coloured material, while men’s cuffs are usually sewn with the same material. However, fashion trends have evolved and this no longer applies as different takes and versions of men’s jeogori have been created since.
Pansori – A Lyrical Lilt
Pansori is a traditional Korean lyrical opera that is quiet, yet epic in proportions when presented by trained and enigmatic performers. A sole singer narrates a long descriptive story with animated sounds (sori), expressive gestures (ballim), while singing the story (aniri), backed by one drummer (gosu). Dramatic, feverish but rhythmic as well, the singer presents a pansori through controlled escalation of her singing pitch that lilts back and forth from slow beats to an urgent pace, with the rolling and shaking of the head.
The story in a pansori varies from themes of love, history and even something as simple as the changing of the seasons. Some of the pansori greats in South Korea include Park Hwasun, whose students from Hwa Sun Gukak Academy are now pansori greats themselves – Lim Myeongja, Lim Haengnim, Park Haenghui, Choi Hyejeong and Park Jeongji.
Joseon Baekja – Pure Perfection
Pottery in Korea began during the Neolithic age, but Korea has since developed its unique ceramic culture through the creation of the Bisaek celadon – the widely coveted, clear and highly transparent jade-green porcelain considered to be the fi nest in the world, and the simple but stunning, white porcelain.
Baekja specifically refers to the white porcelain of Korea, characterised by the beauty of its simple lines and unpretentious forms, reflecting the ideals of Korean Confucian belief. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Korean elites and members of the royal court preferred undecorated white ware for ceremonial dinners as it reflected class and simplicity.
GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Seoul daily from Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia Japan flies to Seoul from Narita Airport, Tokyo and will commence flights to Busan on Nov 28, 2012. Go to www.airasia.com for details.