[VIEWPOINT]Preserve our cultural treasuresThe ancient ruins of Troy sprawl on the Turkish coast of Asian Minor facing the Aegean Sea. You can picture the Trojan War depicted in Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad,” and the mighty gods and heroic characters in the story.
The Trojan antiquities displayed in the Istanbul Archeological Museum add to the realistic feeling of the ancient city, but we can never be sure whether the Trojan War really occurred, the Trojan Horse really existed, or the Iliad is a historical record or fiction. But tourists from every corner of the globe flock to Troy and remember Homer’s story and history largely because of the well-preserved historical site.
The Japanese city of Kyoto is beautiful year round, with its rich historical remains and natural scenery. A morning stroll around the Ryoanji Temple is refreshing, and the scenic Mount Yarashi is unforgettable. The fresh air in the Higashi Honganji Temple, where you can find the traces of the late Joseon Dynasty enlightened monk Venerable Lee Dong-in, and the turquoise sky of the Toji make Kyoto a city full of historical surprises that deserves its worldwide fame.
The Nara region, where the Horyuji Temple is located, is model of what a historic city is all about.
Japan’s Kamakura is another ancient city. Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice in Italy, medieval cities and fortresses along the banks of the Loire in France, York, Cambridge, Oxford, and London in England, Edinburgh in Scotland, Toledo in Spain, and Prague in the Czech Republic are some of the most famous ancient cities. Then, why does not Korea, with a proud history of 5,000 years, have one city on the long list of the world’s ancient jewels?
Like the above Western countries, Japan has made itself a country full of UNESCO-registered cultural remains thanks to the continued efforts of its citizens. Japan, too, had an error-prone start. As Japan entered its era of development in the 1960s, Japanese saw human greed and shortsightedness at work destroying the historical cultural environment. Japanese citizens began a cultural property preservation movement, and the Diet unanimously passed the “Ancient City Preservation Act” in 1966. For over three decades, the Japanese worked to preserve and restore their historic cities, publicizing Japan as an archetype of East Asian history and culture to the world.
In addition to legislation, Japanese citizens actively engaged in preservation efforts, establishing the Ancient City Preservation Foundation, a form of a national trust. The old concept of “site-oriented preservation” was replaced by “section-oriented preservation,” and in 1980, the Asukamura Village Preservation Act, which designated the entire seventh-century village in the Asuka region as a special historic zone, was put into law. Now, the cultural preservation is less about “freezing history” but more about “utilizing history.”
After fulfilling their political and financial needs, developed countries now focus on realizing cultural privileges and well-being of their citizens. Environmental preservation is no longer limited to preserving nature, but has been expanded to a more comprehensive concept that includes natural, historical, and cultural environments. Traveling around the world, we are impressed by the beautiful ancient cities in the West and Japan, but what is behind all the beauty is the wisdom and sweat of the local citizens who preserved the cities with necessary legislation.
Why cannot Koreans give it a try? Let democracy and market economics address the political and economic challenges, and citizens and civic groups should focus on preserving and enjoying historical and cultural remains.
Civic groups should not limit themselves to political causes. Citizens can save half the money wasted on drinking and makeup and start a national trust. Let’s scrap the questionable Cultural Properties Act, which was drafted based on obsolete Japanese law, and revamp our overall understanding of cultural properties and the legal means we need to protect them.
Good citizens should treasure what their ancestors left behind, not conveniently exploit it. I feel embarrassed, or even frustrated, when I compare ancient cities of the West with Korea’s ancient capitals of Gyeongju or Buyeo. Before it’s too late, we should pass a law that could guarantee the preservation of ancient cities and draw blueprints for renewing Gyeongju and Buyeo.
Instead of filling our wallets through greed, let’s look farther into the future and improve our quality of living.
* The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chong Jong-sup