Monday, April 19, 1999


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Neglected charms of South Cholla Province; Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates achievements of scholar Wangin
KURIM, South Cholla Province ? Foreign residents of Seoul might find a journey to South Cholla Province a bit like traveling to a different country.

Excluded from South Korea's breakneck industrial development in the 1970s, the region features breathtaking views of mountains against the backdrop of the sea.

Dozens of North American and European tourists made this discovery last weekend as they walked through the tree-lined streets of Kurim, Yongam County, on their way to the annual Wangin Festival, an event commemorating a legendary 4th century scholar from the area. As blossoms fluttered overhead in an afternoon breeze, tour guide Moon Gwan-ho explained that the area's unspoiled beauty is one positive legacy of years of exclusion.

Once the seat of Korea's ancient Paekche Kingdom (38 B.C.-660), southwestern Korea's troubles began in the 15th century, after local Confucian scholars found themselves on the losing end of a regional power struggle. More recently, the Cholla provinces suffered discrimination at the hands of political leaders who hailed from the country's southeast.

The four-year-old Wangin Festival is part of an effort to call attention to the region's neglected attractions. Developed around an existing springtime event, the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, the event celebrates the achievements of Dr. Wangin, a scholar of the Paekche Kingdom who introduced the rudiments of Chinese culture to Japan in the 4th century.

Not many artifacts of the scholar survive in his homeland ? few, in fact, beyond the mountain cave he used as a study before entering Japanese lore as "Dr. Wani." But a good deal is known of his role as a royal emissary of the Paekche court who shared his learning with the nobles of Japan's ancient Asuka culture. Dr. Wangin took with him not only the complete works of Confucius and 1,000 Chinese characters, but also hundreds of Korean artisans skilled at producing paper, ceramics and textiles.

Sadly, this year's festival offered fewer attractions than in the past, thanks to a previous night of bad weather. Previous festivals have included performances of regional farmers' music, exhibitions of folk crafts and a 60-minute parade commemorating Dr. Wangin's arrival in Japan. Fortunately, the storm ushered in sunny weather last Saturday that drew thousands of attendants. While the omissions in this year's program were disappointing, visitors had a chance to enjoy a relaxed atmosphere while sampling some of the region's renowned cuisine.

The people of the region showed a polite curiosity in foreign guests from countries such as the United States, Germany, France and Sweden.
"It's the non-commercial element of this region that is appealing," said Jamie Conway, an officer with the 2nd Infantry Division in Uijongbu. "In the countryside, people take the time to show their culture in a personal way. You find a purity in the people and the culture here." Earlier in the day, the group gained insights into the region's character during a visit to Unju Temple, one of Korea's most unusual cultural sites. It has also been among the most neglected. Nestled at the base of Mt. Chontae in the province's Hwasun County, the site captured little attention until 1980, when a devout Buddhist led a one-woman preservation campaign.

Outraged to find that the site was overgrown and falling into ruin, Kim Ka-mae gathered donations for what turned out to be a 1 billion-won restoration project. Today, Unju Temple is popularly known as the "Valley of 1,000 Buddhas" because of the weathered stone images scattered throughout the site.

While the number is actually closer to 70, local legend has it that 1,000 were originally erected to protect Korea from external invasions in the 9th century.

As he led the group along rugged footpaths to the rim of the valley, tour guide Lee Jun-tak discussed another aspect of the temple's significance. "While most temples in Korea were state-sponsored, this one was seemingly built as an expression of faith by common people," he said. "You'll notice the craftsmanship is a bit crude, which suggests these statues and pagodas were built by people from local farming communities." It is one of many theories. Other accounts attribute the landmarks to a renegade official of the Shilla Kingdom (37 B.C.-935 ) or aristocrats of the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392 ). Lee's theory seems the most satisfying, however, since the site appears to be an expression of simple faith. The "Valley of 1,000 Buddhas" is dominated by whimsical pagodas, many built of cylindrical stone slabs and most deviating from the standard three-tier format. But nowhere is the curious blend of Buddhism and folk religion more evident than in the so-called "Supine Buddhas," statues carved of granite that rest on an adjoining hilltop. The pair includes a male and female Buddha, an oddity never fully explained.

Lee recounted a popular legend indicating that the builders believed that when the supine Buddhas stood erect, the capital of Korea would be moved to this spot and world peace would ensue. Efforts to assist the stone couple in this endeavor have failed repeatedly over the centuries. Like many of South Cholla Province's cultural sites, Unju Temple has been spared the commercialization seen in other parts of the country. So, don't anticipate the approach of vendors selling imitation traditional pipes or cheap reproductions of Hahoe masks. "Visiting this site was almost like being let in on a secret," said Ian McGillifrey, a Canadian animator working in Seoul. "I mean, it wasn't opened to the world until 1980. And the whole presentation was very genuine." For the remainder of the group's time in the province, its itinerary included a trip to scenic Mt. Mandduk, Borum Temple, one of Korea's oldest centers of Zen Buddhism, and the Kangjin County Koryo Celadon Kiln Site, where quality reproductions of classic porcelain pieces can be bought at reasonable prices. South Cholla Province's low profile in the local tourist industry has unexpected advantages. Not only are the region's often underrated sites worth the trip, but it's possible to have them nearly all to yourself ? at least for the time being.

By Tom Welsh Contributing writer / 1999.04.19