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Tracing stories of Seoul’s nooks and crannies

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Published : 2013-11-06 19:05
Updated : 2013-11-06 19:05

Early Tuesday morning, about 27 people gathered in front of Sajik Park gate at the foot of Mt. Inwangsan in central Seoul, to embark on an autumn English walking lecture organized by YEOL Korean Heritage Preservation Society.

David Mason, a Namseoul University professor who specializes in studies of the great mountains of the Korean Peninsula and Korean shamanism, provided fresh insight into Korean culture and society throughout the tour.

The group started from Sajikdan, an altar where the kings of Joseon (1392-1910) prayed to the gods of earth and harvest and listened to Mason’s explanation of how Koreans were attached to the spirits of the past. 

Participants of YEOL Korean Heritage Preservation Society’s English walking lecture on Tuesday look at Mount Inwangsan from Seoul Fortress Wall in Seoul. (Bae Ji-sook/The Korea Herald)
“Koreans believed spirits influenced their lives and vice versa. Through rituals, they thought they could change the spirit,” Mason said, explaining that there are 35 spots on Mount Inwangsan associated with shamanism or a combination of Buddhism and shamanism.

The professor also offered some unique perspectives on Korean culture. Such as interpreting Koreans’ great admiration for Yulgok Yi Yi (1536-1584) in the 1970s as an authoritarian government’s zeal to strengthen the country’s defense capability. Yulgok, unlike other Confucian philosophers of his time, served as a defense minister and called for strengthening the military.

He also called the selection of Yulgok’s mother Sinsaimdang on the 50,000 won bank note strange.

“The greatest legacy of the woman was being his mother,” he claimed.

The lecture, which accompanied a rather steep climb, was filled with little anecdotes about Seoul and Korean history. From the origin of the name Seoul ― originally meaning capital city ― to rocks of the mountain with interesting shapes of a sitting man and a crouching tiger with a magpie on its back, the walk was full of interesting tidbits.

He criticized the government’s mismanagement of trees planted around an observation platform in the middle of the pathway ― “Why create a platform when the trees are blinding the view?” ― and expressed regret over the destruction of a shamanic gazebo at the foot of the mountain by fire. Mason referred to it as one of the most beautiful places in the city.

A former YEOL member and regular attendee of the lectures said that she was impressed with the difference the lecture made on the hike.

The German-native, who has lived in Korea for more than 10 years, said she has visited the mountain numerous times but Mason’s stories made the place feel special.

“He has in-depth knowledge about Korea and this trail. His fresh insight makes me want to know more about the city,” she said, adding that she has even invited a friend from Sweden to join the lecture.

“The walking lecture series is intended to let Koreans feel and learn about our culture by actually visiting the places and learning about it,” said Kim Young M’Young, YEOL chairwoman.

“Our English lecture offers more than just helping foreigners learn about Korea. We are hoping that Koreans who listen to the English lectures will be able to introduce Korean culture in English with more confidence because they know what and how to talk about it now,” she added.

YEOL English walking lectures are held six times a year. For more information, visit http://yeol.org.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)

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