Survey documents rural life in Gongju’s farm villages

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Survey documents rural life in Gongju’s farm villages

There is a picture of old ladies playing a traditional board game, taken in Dangam 2-ri, Gongju City in South Chungcheong province. It’s a familiar picture for many Koreans, with a blanket with large flowers covering the floor.
The image contains Korea’s past and present. The wrinkled hands of the old ladies, who went through an eventful history from Japan’s colonial regime to the Korean War to the rapid industrialization of rural areas, stand as an icon of the nation’s modern history.
The township has a collective of senior citizens, which is funded by the government with partial maintenance fees and fuel for an average of 60,000 won ($64) a month. In winter, they get 600,000 won for heating.
In a neighboring district in Songdam 1-ri, a senior collective has been backing fees to support the farming of a local rice field. The members participate in the labor, cutting grass, planting rice, harvesting and applying chemicals.
There are a variety of groups in the village, including ones made up of housewives, young men and village leaders in smaller groups, in which each member gives money for events such as funerals and weddings.
The residents help each other during funerals. But as a growing number of people turn to funeral homes for their family’s deaths, these groups take a great part in many rural neighborhoods across Korea.
The residents in other groups pitch in money for other events. There is a group made up of housewives saving money to send their in-laws on vacation, a group that was formed to provide noodles and rice for major parties in the village, and parents who are preparing a dowry for their unmarried children.
Other trivia about rural life was recently released by the government. A survey began in September 2005 as a way to investigate the life of Korean farming villages was done to prepare a project for the Multifunctional Administrative City in Gongju to construct an index of the anthropology, ethnology and cultural heritage in the area. Nearly 1.5 billion won was invested in the project by the Korea Land Corporation with staff from The National Folk Museum as researchers.
Lee Yong-seok, the museum curator, explains, “The project is the biggest survey on ethnology since the country’s foundation. Think of it as a time capsule that shows the country’s farming village today.”
The scale of the survey was vast. It contains more than 5,000 pages, in a total of 11 volumes. The report covers 22 million pyeong (28 square miles) of land spread over five townships where up to 3,500 families (12,000 residents) live.
The biggest achievement of the report is a thorough investigation at the site. An average of two researchers were dispatched per village, staying more than 15 days at each. The survey was based on interviews, text documents and photographs of the scene, detailing the origin and history of the village, the living and economic activities of the families, their food, clothes and residences, religion, daily rituals and oral history from the past.
“In 12 villages including Nam-myeon, Yeongi County in Galun-ri, the researchers practically lived with the residents for five to eight months,” says Sin Gwang-seop, a director of the National Folk Museum.
Gongju and its neighboring areas will soon disappear.
Once the Multifunctional Administrative City is completed in 2030, the current shape of the neighborhood will become history. The survey is significant in that the government has reversed the idea of destroying tradition in exchange for urban redevelopment.
“Gongju and its neighboring areas show the country’s typical farming village made up of mountains, river and rice fields,” Mr. Lee says. “It set a model of a national scaled development project by putting emphasis on cultural lifestyle.”
The survey reflects the changing patterns of the society as well. Females participate in major rites, which were typically held in rural villages by elder males to chase away evil spirits, for example. For the convenience of the participants, the time of the rites was shifted to morning or afternoon instead of at midnight, when they were traditionally held.
“Aside from the survey, we are planning to set up a new style of museum that shows the ecological lifestyle of the Koreans,” says Cheon Jin-gi, a senior researcher at the museum.
The museum will also designate an area within the township to preserves the current lifestyle of the locals and show how they eat and sleep.


by Park Jeong-ho
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