An aerial view of the imperial era
Nearly 50,000 people surged toward Yeouido on Dec. 10, 1922, to witness the triumphant homecoming flight to Korea by An Chang-nam. He graduated from Japan’s Okuri Aviation School in Tokyo and became the first Korean aviator. Some schools in Seoul and neighboring areas stopped teaching and let their students join the crowd, and the railway authority ran a specially arranged “flight train” at a discounted price. Seoul Electric Company also cooperated in mobilizing more people by increasing the number of operating tramcars. While the band was playing music, An’s plane, Geumgangho, took off from Seoul’s Yeouido Airport and landed safely after circling above Seoul and Incheon.
An Chang-nam contributed an article about how he felt during the flight under the title of “Seoul and Incheon seen from the air” to the magazine Gaebyeok. He wrote, “When I flew more than 1,100 meters [3,600 feet] above the airport, I enjoyed looking at the whole landscape of Seoul. The first thing that caught my attention was Namdaemun [the Great South Gate]. When I flew above the Independence Gate, people in the Seodaemun Prison might have also seen me flying above their heads. However, I am not confident how many people trapped inside the prison found what was in my own true heart.”
The governance of the colony by imperial Japan can also be seen as ordinary national discrimination. Koreans under Japanese rule had difficulty maintaining their national self-respect, regardless of social status. As An restored their damaged hearts with his incredible life, he immediately became a hero of their time. He felt a special sense of brotherhood with people trapped in Seodaemun Prison because in a sense all Koreans were trapped by Japan’s control.
An’s flight opened people up and gave strangers something to talk about with each other. These days, Korea’s most loved sports stars, such as Kim Yu-na, Park Tae-hwan and Park Ji-sung, can be thought of as the descendants of An Chang-nam, because they also create an opportunity to help Koreans to communicate with each other under the name of national pride.
What An’s flight gave to Koreans was not only his “pride” but confidence. He wrote in his leaflet scattered from the air, “The invention of airplanes and the development of aircraft are dramatically changing people’s lives.” Koreans gained a new point of view that allowed them to see things from the air through his contribution and eventually secured a three-dimensional perspective. If we stand face-to-face on a level space, it is a “confrontation.” However, seeing things from the air can allow people to have a “bird’s-eye view” of the whole society.
It is sad that there are so many people who know nothing but confrontation in a two-dimensional space even today, when airplanes have become commonplace.
The writer is a research professor at the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong