[VIEWPOINT]The nation’s sacred mountainDespite its current significance, there are not many past records about Mount Paektu. Descriptions of Mount Paektu can be found in old historical records, including “Samguk Sagi,” or the Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms, but no grand significance was attached to the mountain, as is the case now.
Mount Paektu began to be recognized more often and recorded when King Sukjong established a landmark there in 1712 to fix the border with the Qing Dynasty. A representative account is the “Records on Conquering the North,” written by the interpreter Kim Ji-nam, who accompanied the negotiating party of the Joseon Dynasty and went to Cheonji lake on Mount Paektu with Qing Dynasty officials. This record was close to historical documents left as a result of public duty.
Passing through the primitive forest area to climb Mount Paektu just for sightseeing was a challenging job for ordinary people to dare to carry out. Inevitably, few people could dip their hands into the waters of Cheonji lake. But as always, an exceptional person is bound to exist. A scholar named Park Jong from Gyeongsung county traversed Mount Paektu from May to June of 1764 and left the “Records of Travel on Mount Paektu.” This is a fairly lengthy work, and let’s read his description of Cheonji lake even roughly.
“I climbed the mountaintop at noon. Towering cliffs all around and rows of peaks standing like a forest and unfolding like a folding screen were as if a big Chinese phoenix were soaring high. In the middle of the mountaintop was a big lake, which was caved in, a thousand fathoms downward, and looked like water contained in a jar. When I looked down, the pond was deep blue and unmeasurable, so it looked as if it led to a big hole in the ground far below. On the surface of the water was a thin layer of ice and a mere quarter of the ice was cracked. The color of the water was like blue glass and the patterns of stones were bright and translucent, and the thin ice reflecting the surrounding scenery was like a mirror. At times, the color turned blue and at other times darker. It seemed that such a color was produced as herds of passing clouds containing color were reflected in the water.”
Isn’t the depiction of Cheonji beautiful? Park Jong said he felt his mind clear and spirit focus when he saw Cheonji on top of Mount Paektu. What difference it would make to the people of the present time!
Later, a few literary figures climbed Mount Paektu and left writings about their travels. In their writings, however, we see that Mount Paektu did not affect them very deeply. It was along with the arrival of modern nationalism that Mount Paektu became a sacred mountain of the nation. It happened approximately in the early 20th century. A representative example can be found in the “Travel Essays on Mount Paektu” by Choi Nam-sun.
Choi Nam-sun saw Mount Paektu “as the most important essence of Oriental culture and the deepest origin of Oriental awareness.” Since then, people who discuss the fate of the nation, whether leftists or rightists, despite a small difference among themselves, have agreed that Mount Paektu is the birthplace of the nation.
It is also common knowledge that both North and South Korea have taught that Mount Paektu is the place where the nation originated and where the country was founded. Mount Paektu became literally the sacred mountain of the nation from the beginning of the 20th century, and since the national division, the catchphrase of “From Mount Paektu to Mount Halla” has become a huge symbol of national unity.
If we trace back to the process of Mount Paektu turning into a sacred place of the nation, we can dig up the history of Korean nationalism. As a result, we will be able to confirm that nationalism is nothing but a man-made idea. But let’s leave it as it is for now. We don’t need to take the trouble to say that Mount Paektu became the symbol of the nation only in modern times.
North Korea reportedly opened up Mount Paektu for tourism to South Koreans. Now the road to Mount Paektu seems to be the road to easing tension between the two Koreas and further to unification. It is indescribably welcome news. Herein lies the reason why we should remain silent about the origin of nationalism.
* The writer is a professor of classic Chinese literature at Pusan National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Myung-kwan