Preserving a history set in stone

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Preserving a history set in stone

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Swinging his arms about in joy, a man bellows out a lyric from his favorite folk tune. Two children in rags skip alongside him, beating on drums they are carrying.
The itinerant three don’t have to worry about going without food for the night ― their pockets flush with money and food as they return from doing a performance in a wealthy neighborhood over the hills.
It’s a famous scene from the Director Im Kwon-taek’s 1993 film, “Sopyonje.”
For five minutes and 40 seconds, the uncut camera movement dwells on the beauty of the outstretched walls of the country road. Called “Sopyonje street,” the dirt road in Dangni village in Wando county, South Jeolla province, is probably one of the best known (and most beautiful) country roads in Korea.
As the joyous pansori (a Korean operatic style) trio continues to sing and stomp around, yellow dirt rises from the ground. Far away, a fresh barley field comes into view. But the real star of the scene is the stout, umber-colored cobblestone wall that stretches along the road. The scene overwhelms viewers with its rich, evocative imagery from Korea’s older, more peaceful days.
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Recently, the government’s cultural heritage program, figuring that there must be more of these old walls running along country roads, went on a cross-country tour to find other “Sopyonje streets.”
As expected, many of the remaining cobblestone walls in the countryside were decrepit, if even standing at all. The group did, however, find 48 walls still in good shape, some of which were built back in the 19th century.
Last week, the government institution selected an initial 10 stone walls and their lanes, which run through small villages, to be listed as “cultural assets,” meaning the government would protect and develop them for the benefit of the public.
“The walls we selected have at leat 60 percent of their original structures still in place, and have no signs of having been recently remodeled or restored,” said Kim In-gyu, a researcher at the Cultural Heritage Administration. “It is also important that they blend in naturally with the old villages.”
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One of the walls selected was in Hakdong village, in Goseong, South Gyeongsang province. Piled up in layers of flat stones and yellow soil, the short wall stretched two kilometers (1.2 miles) into the town filled with bamboo trees.
“Of all the things I saw while I was touring across the country, these small lanes and the old cobblestone walls were the most impressive,” said Yoo Hong-jun, the head of the Cultural Heritage Aministration. “They were like warm reminders that wrap you up in nostalgia.”
Cobblestone walls used to be a common sight in provincial areas, along with traditional hanok homes and persimmon trees in front yards. They were never considered a special attraction, rather just a pile of rocks and mud that townspeople had been building to distinguish the borders between homes and towns.
Most walls were usually built to be slightly taller than a grown man. A person could peek over them by simply standing on their tip-toes. Nor were they particularly good at keeping out burglars (in historical television dramas, everyone seems to easily jump over them to avoid capture), who had an easy job until Koreans started using concrete and razor wire.
Nevertheless, these stubby structures have a natural aesthetic to them, the humble earthiness that defines Korean villages and an older, vanished way of life.
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But besides merely being nice to look at, some of the walls have interesting stories behind them.
Another cobblestone wall selected by the group was in Hanbam village in Gunwi county, South Gyeonsang province. The wall was constructed in the early 1930s, though more for reasons of natural necessity than for aesthetic or territorial value: A flood caused a rockslide on a nearby mountain, and the pile of stones was blocking the entrance to the town. People merely piled up the rocks into a long line, and what started out as an annoying task became the town’s proudest attraction. The wall created a new way into the quiet town, one so narrow no car can pass through it. It has, however, given the townspeople a place for a romantic stroll under the shade of the chestnut trees that hang over the wall.
A wall in Byeongyeong village in Gangjin, South Jeolloa province, ran up to 10 kilometers through the village; it was thought to be the longest village wall in the country. It was also unusually tall, standing two meters.
Why so high and so long? According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, the villagers wanted to prevent people traveling on horses from taking a peek over the wall.
Another interesting fact was that the middle part of the wall had been built with thinner slated rocks put in a zigzag shape between the thicker stones on the bottom and top. The townspeople called the construction style “Hamel style,” saying that the village was influenced by the first European man in the country, a Dutchman named Hendrick Hamel.
Hamel washed ashore in Korea in the 17th century and stayed in Byeongyeong for seven years (1656-1663) with his crew before returning to his country. While the Europeans stayed here, they taught the villagers about a variety of European things ― wall-building among them.
“As we toured around the country to study these walls, we realized that the stone walls the villagers built for themselves were a lot more meaningful than we thought,” said Mr. Yoo. “They represented the villages’ histories, folk art and identities.”


by Lee Min-a
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