Friday, October 30, 2009


Today, I went to The World Cup Stadium to see FC Seoul play Busan I'Park. The 64,000 all seater stadium was purposely built for the World Cup and has been the home ground for FC Seoul for the past two years.

Joint hosts of the tournament along with Japan in 2002, South Korea exceeded all expectations, beating along the way teams such as Italy, Portugal and Spain before finally losing 1-0 to Germany in the semi-final.

The manager of South Korea, Gus Hiddink, had led South Korea to the most successful showing by an Asian team in the competition's 72 year history and he became a national hero, even getting honourary citizenship for the team's achievement.

Nicknamed 'The Red Devils', police estimated 22 million fans in total took to the streets in South Korea during the tournament.

The rectangular shape of the roof was built to resemble a traditional Korean kite and apparently the octagonal shape of the stadium represents the Korean people's desire for world peace and prosperity. It is also Asia's largest only football stadium and its stunning design makes it look as if a huge spaceship(or a rather large ashtray, depending on your point of view), has landed smack down in the centre of Seoul.

The K-League, as it is known, was originally formed in 1983. Thirteen teams compete in a two part season with championship playoffs at the end. There is no relegation or promotion and the winners gain entry to the Asian Champions League the following season.

The second to last game of the season and one with nothing to play for, FC Seoul are currently mid table, whilst Busan I'Park are languishing near the bottom. I was hopeful that this wouldn't discourage the teams from putting in an entertaining performance for those watching or the fans getting behind their teams. Fortunately, by the end of the day my hopes were proved right.

I bought my ticket and then went into the stadium where I sat down with the home fans behind the goal. In the sea of red, everyone was chanting and some of the crowd were standing on their seats with megaphones to help fire everyone up. Then before kick off the players came out and lined up in the centre of the pitch. The national anthem was played on the stadium speakers and everyone rose up off their seats.

Once the game began the chanting felt as if it had quadrupled in volume. Throughout the first half, FC Seoul had most of the possession and their strength in midfield and defence managed to quite easily break down the few attacks that Busan I'Park managed to put together.

FC Seoul were unlucky not to have scored during the first half and were unfortunate to have had a goal disallowed, which brought about a huge sigh from everyone when they realised that it wouldn't count.

The second half continued much like the first. FC Seoul using their home advantage to good affect and controlling the game. Eventually after constant pressure on the I'Park Busan goal they managed to score. Huge explosions went off around the stadium in celebration and smoke engulfed the crowd who reacted immediately with screams and cheers, the goal having whipped them up into a frenzy.

The atmosphere was electric, despite the relatively low crowd and it made me think how exciting it must have been to be here, when South Korea went World Cup crazy three years ago. If this is what it was like with just 15,00 people, what would it have been like with a stadium full of people watching the national side march onwards to glory?

Buoyed by their goal, FC Seoul managed to further dominate the match and sewed the game up in the dying moments with another goal. Jubilation once again rang out along the terraces. With victory sealed you could immediately sense the relief from the crowd. The win provided some consolation to the FC Seoul fans for a disappointing season that originally promised so much and they revelled in the moment a final home game victory, once the final whistle blew.

Everyone began to chant, they locked arms and started to dancing from side to side. Exuberant with joy everyone raised their scarves. The season had at least ended on a high note for the supporters by beating the stage one winners.

The players did a final lap of the pitch, applauding the crowd for their support throughout. Each player's name was called out by the crowd and they turned and waved to show their appreciation. Once they had gone back down the players tunnel, everyone finally left to make their journeys home.

You can see all the photos here.

Here's a short film I made of the day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Monday, October 26, 2009

Tomb of King Seongjong

On Saturday, I decided visit the Royal Tombs of Seoul, to find out more about the Joseon kings and queens who played such an important role in Korea's history and culture for over 500 years.

I firstly decided to visit the Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs, situated in southern Seoul. Not far from the Gangnam, the area provides a tranquil getaway from the surrounding city.

Seonjeongneung is comprised of the Seolleung tombs and the Jeongneung tomb, which house a total of two kings and one queen from the Joseon period.

Buried in Seolleung is the ninth king of the Joseon Dynasty, King Seongjong(1457-1494). His second wife Queen Jeonghyeonwabghu is also buried here.

He became king in 1469 and ruled until 1494, when he passed away. His first wife, Queen Gonghyewanghu, died when she was 18 and is buried in the north of Seoul.

The tomb itself is a mound situated on top of a hill. Surrounding the tomb are statues of animals including sheep and tigers, as well as those of military personnel. In front of the tomb are two stones called Mangjuseok, which are designed to guide the dead King to his tomb.

At the base of this hill is a shrine where memorial rites would have been performed. The T-shaped structure is common to many tombs of the Joseon era and on the eaves of the roof are carvings of different animals, which are believed to exorcise different spirits.

The Jeongneung Tomb houses the burial mound for King Jungjong(1506-1544). The second son of Seongjong, he is considered to be one of the best kings of the Joseon era for his policies and the economic growth that occurred during his rule. His reign is also notable for political reform and the correcting of mistakes of previous administrations. He was also responsible for the introduction of Hyangyak, a method of self administration that is still practiced by modern Korean government today.

The 11th king of the Joseon Dynasty, he ruled for a total of 38 years from 1506-1544. Originally buried at Goyang in the north of Seoul, he was later moved here by his third wife, Queen Mungjeong.

Tomb of Queen Munjeong

I then decided to go and see the Taenung Royal Tombs in north east Seoul, where Queen Munjeong(1501-1565) is buried.

Queen Munjeong was made queen in 1517, after Janggyeong, Jungjong's second queen, died in 1515 after complications during birth.

Following the death of King Jungjong in 1544, and driven by a desire for political power and control, she murdered her step son King Injong, eight months after he was enthroned.

This allowed her son, Myeongjong, to ascend to the thrown. Too young to govern, Queen Munjeong ruled through him for eight years, a remarkable achievement, considering the discrimination and attitudes towards women that existed in Korean society during this time.

Also a strong supporter of Buddhism, she did many things to help revive it whilst she had political sway.

Throughout the Joseon period, Buddhism was actively discouraged and suppressed by the government in favour of a neo-confucianist doctrine. During this time monks were treated as slaves and were not even allowed to enter the gates of the capital city.

She ordered Bogeunsa Temple to be rebuilt and in 1548 appointed the monk Bo-wu, to oversee its construction. Bo-wu was also installed as the head of the Seon school and under him the official training and selecting of monks in both the Seon and Gyo sects were revived, having previously been abolished in 1507.

In 1565, during the twentieth year of Myeongjong's rein, she died at Changdeokgung Palace. Although she originally wanted to be buried at Jeongneung along with her husband, she was buried here as the land around Jeongneung was low and prone to flooding.

On entering the grounds of the tomb, I passed through some trees and then came to a red gate with a yin-yang symbol on it. From this leading up to the shrine where memorial rites would have been performed, were two pathways. One slightly raised for the queen, whilst the lower one was for living people.

Behind the shrine was a hill with a mound on it containing her tomb. Surrounding the tomb at the top were sculptures of tigers, sheep, horses and military officers that act as guardians for the dead queen. Unfortunately it was impossible to walk to the top as it was fenced off to stop damage to the site, so I had to make so with taking photographs from the bottom of the burial mound.


Then it was onto a bus, for a trip to the Donggureung Royal Tombs. Just east of Seoul, it was the largest of the sites I visited throughout the day. There are total of six kings, nine queens and a posthumously declared king and queen buried here, although only nine of the mounds are visible.

Most famously of all, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty(1392-1910), King Taejo is buried here. His rise to power is an extremely interesting one and helped to shape the Korean nation for centuries to come.

Originally called Yi Song-gye, he served as a general under the Goryeo Dynasty Kings. During the 1370s and 1380s, he became highly respected for forcing out the remaining remnants of Mongol forces, who were present in Korea at the time and for repelling attacks from the Japanese.

In 1388, after disobeying orders to take his forces into Liaodong in China, he marched on the capital, Kaesong. In the bloody battle that ensued, he defeated the armies loyal to King U, led by General Choi Yong and took control of the government.

After some internal struggles, Yi Song-gye claimed the throne. He took the name of Taejo and founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, finally bringing an end to the 474-year-old Goryeo Dynasty.

He reigned for six years until 1398, before finally dying in 1408 aged 73. Following his death, the tomb was built by his fifth son King Taejong. Different to other tombs, the statues of the horses stand directly behind, rather than beside those of the civilian and military leaders.

You can see all the photos here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


After visiting the Memorial Park I went back into the city centre, where I got on a bus to Unjunsa, which is located 40 km to the south of Gwangju and is famous for the large number of Buddha statues there. Situated in a beautiful valley, miles away from anywhere, the area is shrouded in mystery and mythology, regarding how the statues came into being.

Legend has it that there were originally 1000 Buddhas and 1000 pagodas, all of them built in one night by stonemasons sent down from heaven. Now only 70 statues and 18 pagodas remain, more than any other place in South Korea. Reasons for their disappearance remains unknown, but this just helps to add to the intrigue.

After getting off the bus I walked about half a kilometre along a road before finally reaching the entrance of the temple grounds. Walking along the floor of the valley I firstly came across a nine-storey pagoda and just to the side of this were six Buddha statues leaning upright against the valley side. Different to those found in other places in South Korea, both the pagoda and the statues were simplistic in their design, yet still very beautiful to look at.

As I walked along the path, I passed more pagodas and Buddhist statues scattered about the valley floor, until I finally arrived at the temple complex itself. There were a number of buildings here including houses for the monks, a huge bell and small building with hundreds of statues of the Buddha inside, which were illuminated by the candles placed amongst them. The smell of incense wafted around the temple complex and as I peered into the temple, I could see a huge bronze Buddha and a woman praying in front of it.

Wandering around, I came across other relics of the past. Statues of the Buddha in a variety of positions, some sitting, some standing, whilst others were in the reclining position. At the top of one of the hills flanking the valley I came across two Buddhas carved into a huge rock lying on the ground, both laying on their backs.

Many of them, like the ones I saw when I first entered were not elaborate in their design, yet this simplicity gave them a certain uniqueness, quite different to other images of the Buddha that I've seen on my travels so far.

According to another legend, it is believed that the statues were created by the Buddhist priest, Doseon-guksa(827-898). He believed that the Korean peninsula was unbalanced because there were too many mountains on the eastern side of the peninsula and too few on the western side. Likening it to a boat that would capsize if not balanced properly, the Buddhas and pagodas were built in order to bring about stability to the country and therefore avert a natural disaster.

You can see all the photos here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Memorial Park(Gwangju)

Centre to some of the most tragic events to have occurred in South Korea's recent history, what happened here is now viewed as being crucially important in bringing about political change, in a country that was ruled by a dictatorship following the Korean War.

On May 17, 1980, the South Korean government led by General Chun Doo-hwan, declared martial law across the whole country and dissolved the National Assembly. This was in response to demonstrations and the growing unrest, following the assassination of the dictator, Park Chung-hee and the resulting coup that had brought General Chun Doo-hwan into power.

The next day in Gwangju, students protested outside the gates of Chonnam University, which resulted in violent clashes with soldiers. Over the course of the next few days there were further protests which culminated with the events of May 21, when 300,000 people took to the streets, indignant with rage for the violence which had already occurred and the broken promise of martial law troops being withdrawn.

These protests by the students and citizens of Gwangju, resulted in people being stripped naked and viciously beaten by the soldiers. Crowds were also indiscriminately fired upon, as further clashes occurred.

This show of opposition led to the troops being forced out of the city and Gwangju remained under the control of its citizens until May 27, when the military returned, finally crushing the resistance.

The final death toll is still unknown. A report by the civilian government in the 1990s put the official figure at 207, although other unofficial estimates have put it between 500 to 2000. After the massacre, bodies were piled up in hand and dust carts and taken to Mangwol-dong, where they were buried. Here they remained until 1997, whereupon they were exhumed and reburied at the May 18 National Cemetery.

The events that occurred sparked the flame for pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987, which led to major democratic reforms. In 1992, after more than 30 years of military rule, the first civilian government in South Korea came into being, with the election of Kim Young-sam.

A long time pro-democracy activist, he brought in further reforms and the successive governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun have since consolidated the democratization process.

Chun Doo-hwan along with his successor, Roh Tae-woo, whom he helped into power, were both arrested in 1996 and later convicted for corruption, mutiny and treason. Although not admitting to giving the orders for the massacre, they were both held accountable on the basis of being military and state leaders.

Chun received the death penalty, whilst Roh was given a term of life imprisonment. These sentences were later reduced to 17 years for Roh and life imprisonment for Chun. The following year they were both pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung, shortly after his inauguration in 1998.

The Memorial Park was opened in 2002 and I was very fortunate to have a Korean guide called Ji-young to show me around, who provided me with an excellent insight into Gwangju's history and people.

Upon entering the park you first pass through the Democracy Gate, which is built in a traditional Korean style. Standing opposite this is the huge Memorial Tower which symbolizes the resurrection of life. Beneath it were school children and other visitors, each paying their respects to those that died.

On either side of the tower are two statues and on raised stonework behind these are murals, depicting the events that occurred.

Ji-young told me that under Chun's leadership, people were led to believe that the uprising was the work of communist sympathisers and for many years, those that lost their lives were not recognized. It was only with the advent of democracy in South Korea, that what happened became properly acknowledged.

'With democracy, we finally had the truth', she told me.

Behind the Memorial Tower are the graves of those that lost their lives in the massacre. Here there are 325 people buried and each grave has a photo alongside it of the person who died.

Ji-young firstly took me to the grave of the youngest victim, a schoolgirl who was inadvertently caught up in the events. Sent out by her father for groceries, she never came back and her father, unable to live with himself, later took his own life. She then showed me the graves a married couple who both lost their lives and had been buried side by side.

As we walked around I could see that people of all ages were killed, from all walks of life. Old and young alike. The lives of families and entire communities irreversibly altered forever.

Next to the graves were memorials for those known to have died in the massacre, but whose bodies are still missing. One day, if they are ever found, they will be laid to rest alongside the others. It is also possible for those who took part in the demonstrations to be buried here once they have passed on.

As we went further on, Ji-young told me how she remembered as a child, a man running through her home covered in red paint, an event that she thought was very strange and a little amusing at the time. Only when she was older did she learn that the reason he did this, was so that he could lie down and pretend to be dead if confronted by soldiers.

She then went on to tell me that it took many years for South Korea to come to terms with what happened and that she felt glad that the Memorial Park has finally been built, so that future generations wouldn't forget what had happened.

We then went into the museum, which provides information on the history of the massacre, as well as pictures and a film. The images here show in dramatic detail the events as they unfurled. Much of it is in Korean, but words are not necessary. The graphic pictures of people being beaten and the mutilated bodies of those killed, fully convey the atrocities that occurred, without the need for description of what happened.

I found the whole day to be an extremely moving experience, learning about those who had lost their lives, fighting for what they believed in. It really helps to put in perspective how much South Korea has changed in such a relatively short space of time.

More than anything, visiting the Memorial Park helps to bring home the true horror of this turbulent period in SouthKorea's history and the events stand as testament to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and resilience of the Korean people.

You can see all the photos here.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Andong Mask Dance Festival

Last weekend, I visited the city of Andong, which is the largest city in the North Gyeonsang Province. With a population of 185,000 it is surrounded by some beautiful countryside and acts as the market centre for agriculture in the area.

During the Joseon Dynasty, the city of Andong became famous for being the centre of confucianism in Korea and was home to many famous confucian scholars such as Toe-gye Yi Hwang (1501-70). The city also contained the highest number of private and confucian schools during this time and many members of the noble classes, who had great influence within Korean political circles, also lived here.

Probably the most famous confucian academy here is Dosan Seowon, which was founded in 1574 in honour of Toe-gye Yi Hwang. One of the foremost scholars of the period, he was a prolific writer who emphasized personal experience and moral self-cultivation, as the essence of learning.

My main reason for going to Andong was to visit the mask festival which takes place here annually at the beginning of October. Held on two main sites, one in the city centre itself and one in the countryside at the Hahoe Village, it not only provides a showcase for traditional Korean mask dancing, but is also an international event with mask dances from all over the world.

The Hahoe Village is a place that has been preserved from the Joseon era, with all its buildings still intact and it is not just a tourist destination, but a fully functioning village with a community of people who reside there as well. 176 families currently live in the village and even though many people here have the benefits of a modern lifestyle such as electricity, telephones, running water and internet access, the village and many of its traditions have been preserved from centuries past.

Its history dates back to the Goryeo period(918-1392) and is distinctly different from other villages of the time, as both commoners and the upper-classes lived here and it really helps to give you a taste of what traditional life would have been like in Korea's past.

Next to it are pine trees, where the Hahoe Mask Dance is staged and just beyond this is the Nakdong River with its huge cliffs towering over the opposite bank. It's extremely picturesque and provides the perfect setting to some of the most enjoyable theatrical performances I've yet seen in travels throughout Asia.

The custom of masks and mask dancing is one that dates back to prehistoric times and they were traditionally used in shamanistic worship to cleanse the audience, to please local deities and to ward off evil spirits from the village. During the Joseon Dynasty they they also became a form of social satire, which gave commoners the opportunity to mock those in authority such as the ruling classes, or wayward Buddhist monks.

Traditionally performed by men who were farmers, the masks are made of wood with highly exagerated features and are brightly coloured to represent different people. This was because the dance was usually done at night and would therefore help to compensate for the low light. Black would be used for and elderly person, red for a young man and white for a young woman.

It is believed that mask dance drama in Hahoe dates back to the 12th century and it is most famous for the Byeolsingut Talnori, which is believed to be the oldest known mask dance in Korea.

It opens with traditional Korean farmers' percussion music being played. Known as Nog-ak, it is Korea's oldest and most popular dance music and was used in important rural events, such as rice planting or village sacrificial rites. I've encountered it at a number of festivals that I've visited and the hypnotic beats of the drums and gongs combined really help to add to the flavour of the festivities.

Throughout the various acts we meet a variety of characters, each one representing a different class.

We are firstly introduced to the bride clown, a representation of Songwhang-shin, the village guardian spirit. She performs a dance around the stage and then the chief priest wearing a red scarf and straw hat enters.

Characters which mock the ruling elite then come on. The Yangban, an arrogant aristocrat with his curled upper lip and Sonbi, a pedantic scholar. Corrupt Buddhist priests are critiscized through the character of Chung, a depraved monk who drunkenly stumbles around the stage.

It then shifts to the humourous side and Imae, a foolish servant bounces around the stage like a demented kangaroo, poking fun at the various characters and Paekchong, a butcher with a coarse tongue and fondness for crude stories, both join the proceedings.

At the end of the performance all of the actors remove their masks and take a bow to great applause, then the audience is invited up onto the stage. Children run about in their hanbok, in and out of everyone as both the audience and performers dance to the accompanying music, as it finally reaches a crescendo.

You can see all of the photos here.

Here are a few highlights of the festival.