The present is more important in Korea
Sometimes, I cannot help blaming our ancestors. Whenever I am impressed by great ancient relics like the Great Wall of China or the pyramids in Egypt, I become envious and say, “What were Korean ancestors doing?” On my business trip to Cambodia, once again, I felt envy over Angkor Wat. It was a gigantic work of art - a 204-acre temple city made of 10 million stone blocks - moved, constructed and carved by one million workers over 40 years. And it is the largest and most magnificent of the 190 temples in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat is more than a historic monument to the people of Cambodia. Tourism generates about 10 percent of the total national income, about $1 billion. Taking other related economic matters into account, Angkor Wat brings about 22 percent of the income. It is the goose laying golden eggs, the work site of many Cambodians and a symbol of old glory.
The ancestors in Cambodia dominated the Indochina Peninsula from the ninth century to the 14th century. Cambodia controlled Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. Angkor Wat is evidence that Cambodia can become prosperous again, just as their ancestors had accomplished. The Cambodian currency and national flags feature the temple, and the names of the state-run beer company and airliner include “Angkor.” A high-level Cambodian official said, “Angkor Wat is supporting Cambodians. I am grateful to our ancestors.”
A few days later, I made several visits to Sungnyemun, which was restored after a fire five years ago. It’s National Treasure No. 1, but compared to Angkor Wat, I felt that it was certainly not splendid enough to make Korea an international tourist destination. Then, Professor Heo Seong-do’s lecture came to mind. The Seoul National University professor’s lecture series “Rediscovering Korean History” was very popular several years ago. The script is still widely shared on Twitter and Facebook. His point was “never underestimate the Joseon Dynasty.” Joseon was the only dynasty that maintained power for 500 years in the world at the time. And it was no luck or coincidence. Joseon deserved to last so long.
When you see the pyramid or the Great Wall, you must have thought, “The Egyptians and the Chinese are so lucky. Thanks to their ancestors, they are making money from visitors from around the world.” I, too, had that thought. But we don’t have that kind of monument, and it is only natural and even fortunate. If any of the kings in Joseon said, “Let’s mobilize 300,000 workers for 20 years and build a pyramid,” the people would have said, “You should do it yourself.” That rationality supported Joseon for 500 years.
Every year, 400,000 Koreans visit Angkor Wat. But we don’t have to lament, “What did our ancestors do?” There is more than meets the eye. Cambodia may have monumental heritage left by ancestors, but it is one of the poorest nations in the world. Per-capita GDP is less than $1. As much as they reminisce about the glories of the past, the present feels more tragic. Sometimes, it is better to feel regret toward ancestors than benefit from what they left behind.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yi Jung-jae