Jillions of pavilions, or so it would appear

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Jillions of pavilions, or so it would appear

The weather is getting cold and snow should soon be falling. On these clear, crisp days, Damyang, in South Jeolla province, is a perfect place to visit.

Damyang is well known for the fine bamboo crafts produced in the area. It's also the home of about 60 beautiful traditional pavilions.

Most of the pavilions in Damyang belonged to seonbi or the scholars of the Joseon Dynasty who settled in the area to take a break from the tiring politics of the day.

After retiring from the world, those scholars spent their time reading books and writing verses, and needed secluded places where they could do so - hence the private pavillions. During their retirement, these scholars produced many beautiful literary works, including gasa, or verses written in Korean.

One such writer of Korean verses was Jeong Cheol, the best-known writer of 16th century Joseon times. Many of his works are exhibited at the Gasa Literature Center in Damyang. The literature center, situated near Gwangju Lake on the outskirts of Mount Mudeung, also exhibits some personal belongings of the gasa writers, such as jade and silver cups that were given by various kings.

In the neighborhood of the literature center, within walking distance, are traditional Korean gardens and gazebos such as Soswaewon, Sikyeongjeong, Seohadang and Buyongdang. Especially, Soswaewon has been admired as one of the best artificial gardens in Korea, still frequented by visitors who want to have a taste of serenity.

Soswaewon was a private garden of Yang San-bo, a scholar of the early 16th century, who retired to Damyang when his teacher, Jo Gwang-jo, was exiled and killed for treason in 1519. The loyal disciple began to construct a beautiful garden in a large bamboo forest near a clean stream to spend the rest of his life in seclusion.

In Soswaewon, there used to be about 10 structures including Je- woldang, the residence for the owner, and Ogokmun, a gate, even though only a few of those are left now. The garden, however, still looks enchant- ing with thick green moss covering the walls and fallen leaves fluttering on the ground.

Sikyeongjeong is the pavilion where Jeong Cheol wrote one of his most well known Korean verses, "Seongsanbyeolgok," at the age of 25. The pavilion was thought to be so beautiful it could even make shadows stop to enjoy the scenic beauty. That is where the name Sikyeongjeong came from, meaning "a pavilion where shadows rest."

Before settling in the area near Mount Seongsan, he moved around the country, following his father who was in exile for six years, since Jeong Cheol was 10. Inspired by the beautiful scenery, he produced many superb works during his stay on the mountainside.

About a 10-minute drive from Sikyeongjeong, there is another pavilion where Jeong Cheol spent four years after retiring from his office due to false accusations from his enemies that he was involved in bribery. The pavilion, Songgangjeong, was named after Jeong Cheol's pseudonym, Songgang.

The pavilion offers great views of Mount Mudeung and Bongsan field across a stream called Jukrokcheon. Jeong Cheol enjoyed drinking and playing the geomungo, or Korean traditional 6-string zither, as well as writing verses at the gazebo.

There is a story that Jeong Cheol once received a cup as a special present from King Seonjo. To receive a gift from a king was considered to be an honor for his entire family at that time. Because Jeong Cheol was quite fond of drinking, though, the king gave him a small cup to help control the amount he drank. But Jeong Cheol enlarged the cup so that he could drink a more generous amount.

For more information, visit the Web site at www.damyang.jeonnam.kr (English available).

by Kim Sae-joon

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