[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]
A Portrait of Gangjeong Village
As seen through the eyes of a 90-year old resident
Jeju is a tale of two cities – one large, the other small – and more than 500 villages.
One such village is Gangjeong, on the southern coast of the island just west of Seogwipo City. While it bears a resemblance to other Jeju villages, it is distinct from them as well.
Most notably, Gangjeong is a place of fresh water.
Jeju, because its porous volcanic rock, has always lacked surface water. Deep aquifers provide remarkably clean mineral water with the advent of modern extraction techniques, but dry farming methods have historically been the norm.
A variety of grains were cultivated, notably the hardy buckwheat, but excluded was the prized rice of the mainland which requires standing water.
Gangjeong, home to both a stream and a system of springs, was a rare village which could grow rice. And because of this “rice culture,” as the locals call it, the village became more affluent than others.
Money came easily to them – and they didn’t need higher education as a result, according to scholar and local historian Cho Young Bae.
An old village saying reflected this: in Gangjeong “there’s no use in giving rice cake to a crying child” — a rare treat and therefore consoling to children elsewhere on the island — but too common in Gangjeong.
Gangjeong was ranked first among Jeju’s villages with fresh water. This background of rice and water served to strengthen the community bond of the village even more than that of others, according to Cho – including a general sense of superiority that came along with relative wealth.
Their pride resulted in an exaggerated self-sufficiency and segregation from other villages, Cho said, and because of the ease with which Gangjeong maintained its economy at the sacrifice of education, fewer of its residents gravitated to politics, academia, or other positions of leadership in Jeju society.
As is the nature of village – and indeed, island – life, Gangjeong also maintained a suspicion of outsiders.
Ownership and individuality are common Jeju traits, in opposition to the dominant culture of the peninsula, and evidenced perhaps even more in Gangjeong, Cho further described.
The rice harvest, like so many others on Jeju, was collectively performed to the rhythm of a labor song unique to the village. There is only one remaining Skills Holder (an official designation) of the Rice Harvest Song: 90-year-old Yoon Kyung Noh.
“I am not an educated man,” Yoon began his story. But he soon revealed the two books he published in the 1980s on Gangjeong history, displayed a variety of historic and genealogical documents, told of the class on local history that he formerly designed and delivered to area students, and ultimately shared his various awards.
“Gangjeong’s history goes back a thousand years,” he declared, adding that he only had knowledge of “the past 400.”
Another feature that has made Gangjeong unique is that of its location and topography. While other villages were situated either at the coast or inland, Gangjeong has an unusual L-shaped configuration which included areas in both.
This also made the shamanism in the village especially strong, according to Cho, as there were sacred sites – and deities – for both land and sea. Shamanic devotion began to erode a dozen or so years ago with the advent of Christianity as represented by a large church now centrally located in the village. The religion was adopted by Gangjeong residents with the same fervor they had originally applied to shamanic practice.
In the 1970s, the water of Gangjeong was dammed and re-routed to Seogwipo City, and the wealth of the village quickly declined.
Suddenly, Gangjeong found itself in difficulty. Not only had its residents not invested in education, accustomed as they were to easy wealth, but they had also not turned to tangerine farming when other villages did so.
The village then became one of the first to implement greenhouse agriculture. Ultimately, Gangjeong found a new economic balance that was more in keeping with that of its neighbors.
Yoon’s memory extends to a time without electricity or plumbing, when rice was harvested with the use of an ox and cart.
He recalled a life in which people bathed together in the village pond, rested under a tree for a cool breeze, stopped work to attend the three to five-day funeral of those who had passed, shared food together in a variety of village ceremonies, and never locked their doors.
Having been the village chief in 1952 at the age of 30, this 90-year old village elder recently became incensed when the judge in a court case disregarded him, he said without elaborating. As a result, he had a grandson compile a book which includes documents of his lifetime of accomplishment.
He recounted growing up in Gangjeong as one of seven siblings raised by his maternal grandmother and striving to survive. He moved to Japan for work at the age of 13, returning to his birthplace seven years later.
Referring to his numerous ancestors buried in the village and the care he takes to preserve his grandfather’s grave, Yoon relayed that historically, the survivors’ choice of burial site took precedent over land ownership.
“People buried their dead where they thought it best,” he said. He then mentioned his grandmother’s burial site which, along with others, was located in a coastal area which is now the construction site of a naval base.
“The central government was supposed to give compensation to the people whose ancestors were buried there,” he reported, “but in the end, because I’m not the eldest but the second son, I received nothing.”
“The present is more convenient,” he allowed, “but in the past, even with our hardship, people were nicer to and respected one another.”