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‘Baekdu-daegan long overlooked’

American professor uncovers Korean culture intertwined with the mountain trail

David Mason couldn’t understand why Baekdu-daegan had remained overlooked for so long.

After his first visit to Korea in 1982, his “heart got stuck” to Korea, so four years later he decided to go back, and eventually became a fan, and an expert of Baekdu-daegan .

It is 25 years since Mason returned to Korea in 1986 to bring attention the often ignored mountain range. Recently he was appointed Public Relations Ambassador of the Baekdu-daeganambassador for the Korea Forest Service, which promotes Baekdu-daegan at home and abroad.

Now Mason wants to highlight the spiritual and cultural traditions of the mountains.

“Baekdu-daegan is such a huge topic related to so much of Korea’s history and traditional culture. It’s just amazing how many really important aspects of Korean Studies remain un-researched,” he told The Korea Herald.

Mason majored in Oriental philosophy at California State University, and acquired his master’s degree in Korean Studies at Yonsei University in 1997. On his first visit to Seoul from Detroit, Michigan, he was immediately fascinated by the temples situated in the mountains. After he returned to Korea, he studied its history and culture and, eventually, his study led to a career.

Known as the “spine of Korea,” Baekdu-daegan is an unbroken chain of ridges and peaks running from Mt. Baekdu on the northern border with China to Mt. Jiri near the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. It has 13 major ranges and numerous sub-ranges. They also channel many of the rivers of the peninsula, which flow out to the sea.

According to Mason, the mountain range is what defines the topography of the nation and determines the location and arrangement of many of its urban centers.
David Mason stands on top of 1572.9-meter Mount Hambaek, part of the Baekdu-daegan mountain system.
David Mason stands on top of 1572.9-meter Mount Hambaek, part of the Baekdu-daegan mountain system.

Influenced by the mountains, “Korea developed one of the strongest and richest traditions among all countries, and its tradition remains remarkably strong, even in such a modernized high-tech country,” he said.

Mason continues to be fascinated by the legends of “sanshin,” mountain spirits in Korean, and the paintings and statues symbolizing them. The tradition mixes iconic motifs of shamanism, Daoism, Buddhism, neo-Confucianism and folklore.

“The sanshin is a symbol of the relationship between human beings and the ecology of the mountains where they live,” said Mason.

But the long-time Korean resident is disappointed at the lack of attention to such aspects of Korea due to “only a handful of useful publications about the subject in English.”

So, he feels a sense of responsibility to make the Baekdu-daegan known to the wider world in “proper English and with accurate information and perspective.”

He says that the public’s knowledge of Baekdu-daegan was largely lost as Western geographical concepts replaced traditional ones in the 20th century.

“It (Baekdu-daegan) remains almost completely unknown by the international community,” he said.

The 54-year-old professor recently helped Roger Shepherd and Andrew Douch, who were the first non-Koreans to hike the entire stretch of Baekdu-daegan, in their writing of “Baekdu-daegan Trail: Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine.”

The book was published by Seoul Selection, a local publisher which specializes in English publications and blogs. Mason was able to help them publish the book as he was researching the same subject at the time.

“The wonderful proliferation of religious sites in the lovely gorges, ridges, waterfalls, forests and peaks ― and the diversity of types and schools of spirituality that can be discovered within them ― is unparalleled anywhere as far as I know.”

He says he will keep researching Korea’s sacred mountains, sanshin spirits, iconography and hiking opportunities in a bid to boost tourism to the trail.

As a professor of cultural tourism at Kyung Hee University, he emphasizes the importance of being knowledgeable about, and proud of, Korea’s cultural traditions and sites, particularly religious and spiritual ones, related to the Baekdu-daegan.

“There has been a sorry lack of these aspects in efforts to promote Korean tourism, and we in this profession have really got to do much better jobs of it, if we’re ever going to attract ... global travelers.”

He says that nowadays more than 40 percent of his students come from foreign countries, and he sees this as making the teaching of cultural tourism even more “challenging and interesting.”

But there are challenges. The most difficult problem in his research into the subject is the language barrier, he says.

“The archaic names and phrases written in Chinese characters that few people know how to translate and the grammatical difficulties of modern written and spoken Korean continue to confuse me,” he said.

“The widespread and inappropriate governmental and social disregard of expressions of Korea’s own indigenous shamanic culture also continues to hinder what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Mason is worried about indiscriminate destruction of the natural environment with short-term profits in mind. He is also concerned about a tendency to ignore and denigrate the ancient spiritual culture of the mountainous regions, which he sees as still flourishing.

“We need to develop a national strategy for a sustainable eco- and religious tourism, which will be best implemented jointly by all concerned government agencies,” he said.

“The crest of the Baekdu-daegan should be united as far as possible, with consistent and helpful information signs in Korean, English and Chinese.”

Mason claims that too many sections are now closed to the public as preserves, and that some of those ought to be reopened with appropriate environmental protection installations set up for hikers. And in the cases where sections of the trail must be closed for a few years, clearly-marked alternative detour trails must be provided.

Mason is not only promoting Baekdu-daegan as a professor and ambassador, but is also involved with the Korean Buddhism Promotional Foundation.

The foundation is funding a project to publish a book on the best and unique aspects of Korean Buddhism by the end of this year and sell it to the international community.

He set up his website just after publishing his book “Spirit of the Mountains: Korea’s Sanshin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship,” in 1999. Then, he branched it out, adding two new websites, and, which covers Korean folk-art. The zozayong website was designed to commemorate his earliest mentor, Dr. Jo Ja-yong, who taught him in the topic.

Mason added: “I look forward to the day when nobody could ever write or speak about the greatest sacred mountains or mountain-based spiritual traditions of the world without including the Korean ones.”

By Hwang Jurie (
Korea Herald daum