Town lauds famous son, whether real or not
He was a maltreated concubine’s son who grew up to become the “Robin Hood” of Korea’s suffering peasants. Hong Gil-dong, a handsome martial arts fighter against the evil yangban (lords), is Korea’s favorite fictional hero.
But for one town on the southern peninsula, the mighty man is not a fictional character, but a true figure who gives identity to the place. The town is so proud of the hero that it holds an annual festival to celebrate his birth.
According to town lore, Hong was born there in 1443, when the village was called by the same name as today ― Achisil of Jangseong county. Town residents say that aside from their domestic documents, records of Hong Gil-dong have also been found throughout Japan and China.
“His name appears in historical records from the 15th century,” said Kim Cheol-yeong, a researcher and guide at the Hong Gil-dong Cultural Center, where visual and audio displays of the hero are kept.
One of the records is the family tree of Lord Jangjeon, known as the brother of Hong’s wife. Hong’s name is included in the pedigree, which is currently stored at the Yaeyama museum in Ashigaki, Okinawa.
“See, here, you can see clearly in old Korean calligraphy,” Mr. Kim said, pointing at a piece of plastic-covered brown paper. “Hong Gil-dong during the Joseon kingdom’s King Sejong regime,” he read. “King Sejong ruled in the mid-15th century, during the time when Hong lived.”
But didn’t we grow up learning that Hong Gil-dong is merely a character from the first Korean-language novel, “Hong Gil-dong-jeon” by Heo Gyun, an 18th century scholar?
Leading this confused reporter from the display room, Mr. Kim led the way to a room of archives, where more than 2,000 documents on Hong, from comic books to encyclopedias, are kept.
He selected a treatise and books written in the 1960s that apparently proved Hong was an actual person and that the scholar Heo must have heard of his exploits. Heo lived in Gangneung, Gangwon province, a long way from where Hong lived ― that is, of course, if he ever existed.
“This study has been ongoing for a long time, proving the town did not suddenly create a ‘true figure’ story to start up another regional festival,” said Lee Uk, an organizer of this year’s Hong Gil-dong Festival at the Jangseong county office.
Since 1997, the country has run a Hong Gil-dong Festival the first weekend of every May. Construction is underway for a theme park near Hong’s purported birthplace, planned to open in 2010.
Meanwhile, Gangneung holds a Heo Gyun Cultural Festival every year to celebrate the author of the novel. The city bought the birthplace of the scholar and land around it to build facilities for the festival.
Jangseong claims an associated famous “birthplace” as well ― the house of Hong Sang-jik, Gil-dong’s father. With help from the Chonnam National University Museum, the county restored the traditional hanok house and a grassy yard of 3,035 square meters (32,665 square feet). Beside the main building, a shabby hut was built as a replica of where Hong Gil-dong’s mother supposedly lived and gave birth to him.
“She was lower than an average concubine, just a female servant,” said Mr. Kim. He added that explained why Gil-dong’s name does not appear in the “Namyang Hong” pedigree, a record of the male Hongs. Sons of concubines were often omitted from such records.
According to the novel, Hong was angry about such mistreatment and left home. He fought and stole from the rich to help the poor. He then went off to near what is now Okinawa in search of an equitable, classless society ― a reason why data on Hong, or a similar figure, appears in Okinawa.
Maybe there really was such a person centuries ago.
Hong is described as a man who could perform swashbuckling martial arts moves and even disappear from sight when he was in danger. But isn’t that typical of most super heroes found in other countries?
“Well, Hong Gil-dong was a beloved character throughout history and people wrote stories about him in many different versions,” Mr. Kim said. “During the Japanese colonial period, there were stories about ‘Kim Gil-dong’ who went around punishing the Japanese occupiers more cruelly than a normal Hong Gil-dong would.”
Geumgok Yeonghwa Maeul
The town has appeared as a backdrop in several Korean films, including Im Kwon-taek’s 1994 “Taebaeksanmaek,” or “Taebaek Mountains,” and Lee Young-jae’s 1998 “The Harmonium in My Memory.”
The town, now known as “Film Village,” was founded in 1698 by the Hahn family. Only 23 families currently reside there.
Trip Highlights: Baegyang Temple
The temple lies on the slopes of Mt. Naejang National Park, a verdant area known for its blooming flowers in spring, lush green colors in summer, abundant crimson and gold-tinted leaves in autumn and snowy white landscape during winter.
Built in AD 632, Baegyangsa, literally meaning White Sheep’s temple, is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The name refers to a legend from the Goryeo kingdom period of a white sheep that came down from the mountain to listen to a sermon.
This forest is famous with hikers for a beautiful trail between the trees. Because of the densely-packed trees, the forest stays cool even during the humid month of August.
The mountain was little-known until recently and not even on maps because it is owned by a private company who started planting the trees to decorate the mountain. The county began promoting it and is seeking to make it into a tourist attraction.
by Lee Min-a
The Hong Gil-dong Festival runs from today and throughout the weekend in Jangseong. Events include a marathon, traditional percussion concert, drawing contest and a male pageant. For more information, visit: www.jangseong.jeonnam.kr.