‘Arirang’ makes Unesco list of cultural artifacts

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‘Arirang’ makes Unesco list of cultural artifacts

Korea’s traditional folk song “Arirang” was added to Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, a move welcomed by Koreans but also a reminder of the need to study and appreciate it more.

The United Nations body’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage decided to place the song on the heritage list during its seventh meeting Wednesday at Unesco headquarters in Paris.

“While dealing with diverse universal themes, the simple musical and literary composition invites improvisation, imitation and singing in unison,” Unesco said in a press release. “A great virtue is its respect for human creativity, freedom of expression and empathy. Everyone can create new lyrics, adding to the song’s regional, historical and genre variations, and cultural diversity.”

Although its origin is still elusive and the subject of study - as is the meaning of the word arirang - the song is so much more than just a song to Koreans. Some say it is another name for Koreans. Others say it is a “second national anthem.” Virtually all Koreans, even those living in North Korea and abroad, can sing at least part of it, most likely the refrain, “Arirang, arirang, arariyo.”

Royal families of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) enjoyed performances of “Arirang.” A woman conscripted as a sex slave in Japan during World War II reportedly couldn’t remember her name, her hometown or her parents due to trauma, but was able to sing “Arirang.” Foreign soldiers who fought in the Korean War (1950-53) hummed the melody.

The reason “Arirang” lasted so long and was able to evolve through time is because it is so versatile: It can be interpreted as a love song, labor march or campaign anthem. Korean farmers and fishermen sang it as they worked. Independence fighters and democracy activities sang it in protests. It was also the main cheer at the 2002 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Korea and Japan.

Experts say there are at least 60 versions of “Arirang” across the Korean Peninsula. The versions indigenous to Jeongseon (Gangwon), Jindo (Jeolla) and Miryang (Gyeongsang) are some of the most famous. In particular, the Jeongseon version, observers say, is the most lyrical. Regions like Jeongseon, Jindo and Miryang, which already hold festivals inspired by “Arirang,” welcomed Unesco’s decision.

But critics pointed out that South Korea only belatedly stepped up efforts to get “Arirang” on the Unesco list after China included it on its own national intangible cultural heritage list in May 2011, claiming that it is a folk song of an ethnic Korean group living in the northeastern part of the country.

The Cultural Heritage Administration said with the Unesco decision, it plans to adopt various measures to designate “Arirang” as Korea’s national intangible cultural heritage; give support to people and organizations working on its preservation; and create an “Arirang” archive that will gather some 337 related materials scattered all around.

“Korea wasn’t able to name ‘Arirang’ as a national intangible cultural heritage because the related law says there should be a person who possess the skills in the heritage,” Lee Ye-na of the administration’s international relations division said. “But a revision of the law has been proposed and with the revision, we believe ‘Arirang’ will soon be recognized as part of Korea’s heritage as well.”

The addition of “Arirang” to the Unesco list brought to 15 the number of South Korean items on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List. Others include the Royal Ancestral Rite and Ritual Music at the Jongmyo Shrine, and pansori, a traditional style of narrative song.

By Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
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