Vol.08, No.01 (May/June 2000)

[Fellow Essay]

"Better to See Something Once Than
Hear About It Hundred Times"

Juurai Bayanjargal (Department of Korean Studies, Mongolian National University;


Everywhere we went there were many things to see and memories to make,
such that the whole trip remains in my mind as a rich and rewarding cultural
experience. I marveled at how right is the saying: It is better to see
something once than hear about it hundred times.

 There is an old Korean saying: It is better to see something once than hear about it hundred times. While studying at Yonsei University'sKorean Language Institute under a Korea Foundation fellowship, I visited the Honam region in southwest Korea on a field trip May 18-20. I was truly excited that my first trip in Korea was to include a visit to Gwangju.

 Gwangju. It was a name I had heard so often in the course of my studies in Korean history and the Korean language, and as such it was a place I had always wanted to visit.

 We departed on May 18 at 8 o?lock in the morning. The bus zipped along at an average speed of 100km, and with short breaks at expressway rest stops on the way we arrived at Songgwang-sa Temple at around 1 p.m. I was so delighted as we looked around the temple.
I took it as a good omen that the first stop on our itinerary was a Buddhist temple. I guess this was because I am a Buddhist myself. Buddhist temples in Korea are in general similar to those in Mongolia, but there are some very clear differences. The first thing that struck me was the robes worn by the monks, which are very different to those worn by Buddhist monks in Mongolia. Another difference was location and scale: Korean temples are usually located in beautiful and secluded mountain areas and are built on a vast scale. At Songgwang-sa Temple, I used a traditional style Korean toilet for the first time.

 Our next stop was a traditional village in Nakanupsong. While there, I felt great calm, and a sense of elation seemed to wash over me. Having escaped the noise and bustle of Seoul, I felt mentally and physically relaxed, and the built-up stress of daily life just disappeared from me.
In this area we were able to see traces of Mahan, one of the three ancient Han states; P?ji Fortress, from the Paekche Kingdom; an old village in Nakankun, from the Koryo Dynasty; fortresses and administrative offices from the Choson Dynasty; guest houses; a monument to General Im Kyong-op; and old marketplaces and thatched roof houses. Much time has passed and much has changed, but these people have preserved their traditional lifestyle for others to see?omething truly to be envied.

 I tried to imagine what life was like for Koreans in the past. Before I knew it I was mumbling to myself: ?es, I can imagine Koreans of old living in these thatched roof houses, enjoying their lives to the fullest. Then I noticed a pretty little girl helping her parents in the front yard of one of the thatched roof houses. She seemed to be in about second grade of elementary school, but looked mature for her age, and for a moment she reminded me of my little sister at home. I took
a picture of her so I could remember her modest and industrious appearance.

 It was around 6:10 p.m. when we arrived in Gwangju, the home of democracy and the city of art, where we were to stay overnight. I had heard thatGKwangju was famous for its food and was a city redolent in the tradition of song and dance. It is also said that Gwangju is what it is because of the presence of nearby Mt. Mudeungsan. This is the site of the victory of the righteous army during the seven years of the Hideyoshi invasions in the late 16th century and the birthplace of such distinguished historical figures as Generals Gwon Yul, Kim Tong-nyong, and Go Gyong
-myong. Gwangju has a long history of being at the forefront of fighting for the salvation of the nation, be it the reform of the year Gabo (1894), the March First Movement, the Gwangju Student Movement, or the May 18 Gwangju Civil Uprising. I had learned in class that Gwangju, befitting its reputation as a city of culture and refinement since ancient times, is where the magnificent art of Gasa (lyric poetry) is kept alive.

 The next morning we rose at 6 a.m. and after breakfast headed for the treasure of Jeollanamdo
province, the village of Boseong. That day I saw a camellia for the first time and found it very beautiful. We listened to songs performed especially for us by pansori (traditional narrative song) singers, and then moved on to tea fields where we picked tea leaves. The tea fields were beautiful, spread out before us like a brilliant green carpet. We were able to watch the process of making green tea and taste it for ourselves. For lunch that day we ate a Boseong specialty
-green tea rice cake soup. During the meal we were treated to song and dance by a local woman with a soft and humble look, while the soup was so delicious that most of us had second helpings. Like the beautiful green tea fields, the people of Boseong were broad-minded and friendly.

 Though sad to leave, we went to our next destination, an onggi (traditional crockery) village.
I had seen many onggi while living in Seoul, and it was fascinating to watch the manufacturing process. Onggi, which embody the spirit and wisdom of long-ago Koreans, have survived and developed through a long period of history, with those who carry on the tradition today being worthy of much respect. Producing onggi is not as simple as I had imagined. Until I saw it for myself, I did not realize what hard work, expertise, and skill were needed in making them.

 When we returned to our lodgings, we were to see a special concert performed by the Jeollanamdo Provincial Classical Music Orchestra. The only song I recognized was Jindo Arirang, but I found myself humming along to the rest of the music anyway. The performance was wonderful, and we all rose for a standing ovation. It was interesting to see that among the instruments were some that were quite similar to those we have in Mongolia.

 On the final day of our trip we visited Mt. Jirisan National Park, where the scenery is as beautiful as a postcard. It was cold as we climbed to the top, but I felt that the chill wind had washed my body clean, and I felt astonishingly light and relaxed. When we came down from the mountain, we moved on to Namwon, ?he city of love, where the mayor himself came out to greet us. The friendliness of the people here reminded me of the friendliness of my own people back home. We were told the beautiful love story of Sung Chunhyang and Lee Mongryong, and there in the home of pansori we enjoyed a special performance of pansori and samulnori(percussion music). After listening to the beautiful sounds of pansori for two days in a row, I began to take a special interest in it, which is one of the things I have gained from this trip.

 For me, as a student of Korean culture and history, the trip was a great experience. Everywhere we went there were many things to see and memories to make, such that the whole trip remains in my mind as a rich and rewarding cultural experience. When learning about Korean culture, our teacher had explained about thatched roof houses, and to some degree I was able to imagine what they looked like. But when I saw one for myself, I marveled at how right is the saying: It is better to see something once than hear about it hundred times. Thank you to Lee Ji-eun and Jee Chang-sun, of the Korea Foundation, who accompanied us throughout the trip, to our guide and driver,
Lee Jun-tak, who made our journey safe and pleasant, and to everyone else who helped make this trip such a great success.