Turning back clock of timeYONGIN, Gyeonggi
June is a glorious month in Korea: It’s neither too hot, nor too humid or rainy ―the perfect time to soak up the sun’s warmth and revel in nature’s fresh green bounty. Early June also coincides with Koreans’ celebration of Dano, the fifth day in the Lunar calendar’s fifth month, a harbinger of summer.
According to the Lunar calendar, the greatest yang or positive energy of the year falls on Dano. Like other odd-numbered days in the Lunar calendar, such as January 1, March 3 or July 7, Dano is a propitious day.
Alongside New Year’s Day and Chuseok, Koreans’ thanksgiving, Dano rounded out the Joseon era’s three major holidays. While it is no longer a public holiday, Koreans still enjoy it with rituals and merriment.
It’s a time when women bathe their hair in scented leaves, and float through the air on swings, and men display their gallantry by competing in ssireum and ttaekkyeon, traditional forms of wrestling and taekwondo, respectively. Hordes take to the hillsides, picking artemisia for rice cakes, as rice planting begins in the paddies.
The Korean Folk Village marked Dano on Wednesday by reenacting old-time customs and staging performances to celebrate the impending summer season. In front of an open circular arena, more than 100 visitors watched a band perform Nongak, Korea’s folksy instrumental music from its farming villages.
It’s a lively scene, and a diverse audience of foreigners and Koreans, teenyboppers and septuagenarians, clap along to the infectious rhythm.
In the middle of the arena, about 15 performers strike gongs and tabors with sticks, perform a lively jig and even attempt some acrobatic moves.
Even the 30-odd elderly folks from the senior center in Hwaseong ― all sporting identical uniforms of red jackets and yellow hats ― get into the groove.
“It’s never boring spending an entire day here to take in the entertainment and also visit the Dano marketplace,” says 73-year old Han Myeong-su, who comes with his elderly mates to the Folk Village every year at this time.
With a bit of imagination, one can crank back the clock of time here. The busy restaurants and outdoor food stalls hark back to an agrarian era when most people tilled the soil and the marketplace bustled with shoppers, peddlers and the occasional tippler. Today, that mixture has been replaced by mothers with their brood, grandparents holding grandchildren, foreigners fussing with cameras and students toting knapsacks.
Beside the Nongak performance, a female acrobatics troupe, outfitted in an awkward combination of shortened hanbok and white sneakers, jump on seesaws as they swing hula hoops hoops, bang on hand-held drums and fans fluttered.
After placing a round straw mat in the middle of a wooden plank, two women consecutively launch each other about three meters (10 feet) above the ground before they segue into a sequence of tumbling tricks.
Immediately afterward, an 11-year old boy gripping a fan wows the crowd with his tightrope theatrics about three meters above the dirt ground. The lad shuffles forward and back across the rope, bounces, even talks to the audience as he walks. “This is just fantastic,” says John Hopwood, an Australian visiting Seoul on business. “The skill and rhythm and color is most impressive. I am so glad my work brought me here at this time of festivities.”
In days of yore, Dano’s arrival invited women to wash their hair in water boiled with leaves of cheongpo, which resembles an iris.
There were two reasons for this customary bathing: the belief that cheongpo helped women’s hair grow smooth and copiously and the belief that its scent, which impressed men. The thick grassy plant’s scent also was thought to ward off evil spirits.
In a courtyard surrounding a nobleman’s house, kindergarteners, young women and a few tourists are washing their hair in shallow metal washbasins filled with warm cheongpo water.
The attendants assure the small children that the water is comfortable, neither scalding hot nor icy cold, as they egg on the adults to dunk their head in bowls of water.
“The scent feels so refreshing,” says Wanda Hash, a tourist from the American state of Indiana, as she pats her hair dry with a towel given to her by village attendants. On weekends, the Folk Village’s hair-washing ceremony will occur on the banks of a stream located in the Folk Village.
Not far from the bathing action, a small crowd has gathered to watch Folk Village staff beat on massive rice chunks spiced with artemisia,an aromatic herb. A man thumps on an enormous green lump of boiled glutinous rice, helped on by some aides. After the beating, another woman adds bean powder while a third cuts them in small pieces before handing them out.
Some romantic themes are linked to the festival, for it is the time when the virtuous Joseon-era maiden Chunhyang met her beau, the nobleman Lee Mong-ryong, in the Korean version of Romeo and Juliet (albeit with a happy ending.) At the swing sets, women and men vie to swing the highest for the glorious prize of towels and paper fans.
By now, the seesaw acrobats have returned, displaying their prowess. Pairs squeeze onto swings made of woven straw, and soar as high as the middle branches of trees.
Like Chunhyang, one can only wonder whether they are scratching the skies to catch the eye of a potential suitor or merely enjoying something akin to the feeling of flight. Either way, their exuberance sums up the aura of vitality to the Folk Village’s festivities, so timely in this season of newly sprouted plants.
The Dano performances at the Korean Folk Village run through Sunday For more information, call (031) 286-2111 or visit www.koreanfolk.co.kr. Visitors can catch a free shuttle to the village from Suwon’s bus terminal.
by Choi Jie-ho