[Eye] ‘Arirang’ travels the world

By Yoon Min-sik

“Arirang” researcher Jin Yong-sun tracks down Arirang Road alongside history of Korean diaspora

  • Published : May 5, 2017 - 14:41
  • Updated : May 5, 2017 - 14:41
After the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, Koreans were free to travel to formerly forbidden countries such as China.

The following year, 29-year-old Jin Yong-sun traveled to China looking for traces of “Arirang” in the foreign land.

There it was. Deep within the vast continent were remnants of the Korean folk song carried by Koreans relocated there throughout history. Joyful and beautiful, yet there is a hint of longing and tragedy in the unofficial national anthem of Korea.

“Tracking down the history (of ‘Arirang’), I came to say that ‘Arirang’ is like flower seeds on your shirt. When you move somewhere else, the flower seeds go with you and blossom there,” Jin told The Korea Herald. “It’s the same way with ‘Arirang.’ Koreans sing our own songs in foreign lands, and it spreads there.” 

Jin Yong-sun, director of Arirang Museum and an “Arirang” researcher, speaks during an interview in Jeongseon-gun, Gangwon Province. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The exact origin of the song is unclear, but the oldest record of the song appears during Joseon era, 1392-1910. It was widely adopted by the public around the 19th century when it was sung mostly by laborers working on the repair of the palace Gyeongbokgung.

In 1991, Jin established a center dedicated to the study of the Jeongseon “Arirang” -- a version of “Arirang” that originated from Jeongseon, Gangwon Province -- in his hometown. He interviewed local residents and traditional singers in a bid to research and preserve the song.

The fruit of his decadeslong research is stored in the Arirang Museum in Jeongseon, of which he is the director.

But young Jin sought out the “Arirang” that has been passed through generations in other countries, which was prompted by his personal interest in the history of Korean people’s migration.

“They say the Korean Peninsula is a land that has been invaded over 900 times. Since diaspora is rooted in Koreans’ migration. I’ve tried to follow their footsteps across the world, but it is just too broad,” he said.

In his pursuit, Jin has visited China over 40 times along with other countries in central Asia, Russia and Japan to where Koreans were forced to relocate. There, he found that “Arirang” has blossomed into even more diverse strains.

“At first, the songs retained characteristics of the region that each originated from. For example ‘Arirang’ sung by Koreans in China’s Amur River region were very like the songs in the Gyeongsang provinces,” he said.

But over time, he explained that the different variations mixed with each other and popular versions of the song began to stand out.

“Jeongseon ‘Arirang,’ Miryang ‘Arirang’ (from South Gyeongsang Province) were passed down as they were. Then the songs begin to change during the time of second-generation migrants, feeling different from traditional Korean ones,” he said.

“As a result, ‘Arirang’ in other countries befit the characteristics of the local music ... Qingdao ‘Arirang,’ Yanbian ‘Arirang’ and Simyang ‘Arirang’ are among the new ‘Arirang’ that co-exist with traditional ones.”

The characteristics of “Arirang” outside Korea vary depending on the conditions of their migration. Many people of Korean descent in the central Asian countries were forcibly moved due to political motives of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Much of the Korean culture died out, with Korean language being banned.

“People in this region associate ‘Arirang’ with words like ‘mom,’ ‘sadness,’ ‘home,’ which indicate their pain. To them, ‘Arirang’ is a sad song,” he said.

This, however, differs from other regions like China, where Koreans were allowed to retain much of their culture.

“We tend to associate migrations just with sadness. They left home so they must be sad; that’s a Korean way of thinking. But the people who left home had the will, the will to find happiness,” Jin said.

But even in countries like China, much of Korean culture is being assimilated into that of locals.

“As long as there are Koreans, ‘Arirang’ will never die out. Yanbian and other ‘Arirang’ will be passed on, but in Chinese,” Jin said.

“We can’t stop cultural assimilation. But even after they (Korean-Chinese) have become part of China, it is our duty to ensure that they remember where they are from. That they are part of our nation. For this we need consistent research.

Jin voiced concern that without proper efforts by the government, the song’s Korean roots may fade with time. It was reported that China in 2012 had registered the song as its national intangible asset, even before it was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity program by UNESCO later in the year.

It was only in 2015 that the Cultural Heritage Administration designated “Arirang” an Intangible Cultural Property of Korea.

“We need to procure documentary evidence that the song had originated from Korean Peninsula. Anyone can say the song is beautiful, but we need to prepare now in order to say that ‘Arirang’ is definitely ours,” Jin said.

Neglecting history may prove costly in the future, he added.

“History is not only confined to the past, but it affects what will happen in the future. We need to know, record and never forget what has happened,” he said.

The scholar lamented that much of the ongoing “Arirang” study is done on a personal level. While the government has made efforts to conduct research, much of it is short-term and lacks professionals who devote years to the cause.

“I’ve done this (study of ‘Arirang’) all my life, and it’s still overwhelming. Scholars need to realize that it’s not just the song, but the history behind it. We need to study the mind and spirit behind ‘Arirang.’”

Jin’s next plan is to finalize what he calls “Arirang Road,” tracking the route through which “Arirang” has spread across the world, along with the history of Korean migration that coincides with it. It was inspired by the Silk Road that allowed cultural interaction across Asia, Europe and Africa.

“When you look at how ‘Arirang’ has spread, you can see the history of Korean people’s migration. Arirang Road would be about how far Korean people and ‘Arirang’ went in the world,” he said.

In cooperation with a local broadcaster, Jin has been investigating the path Arirang has traveled and where it is rooted in local culture. He plans to hold an “Arirang” exhibition at Arirang Museum in September, where videos, audio files and all other data related to Arirang Road will be demonstrated.

“If you ask me where the path of Korean people ends, I’ll say: It’s where ‘Arirang’ does,” he said.

By Yoon Min-sik