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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Sotdae - a symbol worth saving

Sept 06,2002
In 1997 the Korean government polled the citizenry in order to come up with a list of items considered most representative of Korea and its culture. Some of the items that made the top 20 are obvious choices: traditional clothing, kimchi and ginseng, for example.

Others, such as seasonal customs and rites of passage, are not simple objects. They are catchall categories of activities and are therefore difficult or even impossible to depict visually in any simple way. They seemed out of place in a list of symbols for use in promoting Korea in printed material, on Web sites, and the like -- although admittedly they may be suitable for video presentations.

The most disappointing thing about this list is that it contains not one single symbol related to Korean folk religious belief, with the possible exception of the tiger, which appears in shamanistic paintings of Korea's mountain spirits.

Absent from the list are the jangseung (those pairs of poles with funny carved faces and inscriptions in Chinese) and the spirit trees festooned with hemp rope and strips of white cloth. The item I personally miss the most is the sotdae.

A sotdae is a tall pole with a sculpted bird or birds perched atop it. Sotdae are usually made of wood, but in the Honam region (the southwestern part of the country) it is not uncommon to find sotdae made of stone, and in some areas there are even metal ones.

The birds may be wild geese, crows or crested ibis, but most commonly they are ducks.

Traditionally sotdae were set up near the entrance of a village where they were believed to provide protection for the villagers and contribute to their prosperity. As in many cultures, the heavens were identified with the spiritual realm in old Korea.

Therefore, high places -- mountains, tall trees and high poles -- were seen as places where communication and travel between the lower, physical world and the higher realm of the spirits could be carried out more effectively. You may recall that in Korea's founding myth, Dan-gun's father descended from heaven to a tree on top of a mountain.

Birds were regarded as messengers between the two realms because they were equally at home in the sky or on the earth, so representations of birds on top of the sotdae were thought to enhance the efficacy of these magical "antennas," carrying the supplications of the people to the gods and the wishes of the gods to the people.

Ducks were probably the most popular choice for sotdae because they could travel not only on land and in the air but also on water.

Ceremonial rites were conducted at the village sotdae either the day before or the day after rites held for the village's main tutelary spirit, the seonangsin, whose shrine consisted of a venerated tree or a large stone cairn or a combination of both.

Sotdae gradually acquired other functions in addition to their basic tutelary ones.

During the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) sotdae came to be set up at places that were thought to need a geomantic boost because they were lacking in auspicious topographical features.

The land-owning yangban of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), who regarded much of folk religion as mere superstition, took to using sotdae as a congratulatory or commemorative symbol. For instance, when a son in the family passed the difficult civil-service examinations, a country gentleman would set up a sotdae in his yard, tall enough to be seen from all over the village.

It would be oriented with the birds pointing toward the capital city.

Although sotdae may no longer have any religious meaning to modern urban Koreans, why can't we be like the country gentry of the Joseon Dynasty era and adapt the symbol to our own purposes?

They are easy to draw and are readily recognizable even in silhouette form, making them ideal for use in print media. And because they are easy to construct and they can be spotted from a considerable distance, they could also be used as landmarks at big outdoor events or to mark meeting places in neighborhoods and parks.

Rather than just allowing such symbols to disappear, we should make use of them to enrich our modern environment, which is all too often completely devoid of any elements that would lend it a bit of Korean character.


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The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector




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