Cultural Preservation: Folk Villages

[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]

Folk villages help maintain link to past

A look at Jeju’s efforts to memorialize its traditional culture

Seongeup Folk Village. [Photo by Anne Hilty.]

How to preserve tradition?

This is a conundrum faced by developing societies throughout the world. Modernization – and colonization and mass trauma – take their toll on a culture’s traditional practices and thus, identity.

Jeju, like all of Korea, has undergone an unprecedented rate of development over the past four decades. As a result, in conjunction with Korea’s mid-century war and the immediately preceding period of state-sanctioned violence on Jeju which followed a 36-year occupation by Japan, Jeju’s cultural identity has greatly suffered.

There is a universal tendency to realize the demise of tradition when it’s already or nearly gone, accompanied by a sudden, often sentimental effort to memorialize it.

The balance between modernization and cultural preservation is delicate and challenging, and a current focus of Jeju society.

Folk villages, museums, festivals, recreation “experiences,” cultural tours, educational programs, international presentations, academic studies, as well as the arts – visual, performance, and literary – are all methods of preserving heritage, though not without their critics.

Jeju has several folk villages, as well as smaller village models housed within museums.

Jeju Folk Village. [Photo by Anne Hilty.]

The largest of these is the Jeju Folk Village Museum, located in Pyoseon, Seogwipo City, just a few paces from the beach.

In the shadow of the Haevichi Hotel & Resort Jeju, the Jeju Folk Village Museum covers more than 157,000 meters square and is a popular site for the filming of television dramas. The mock village includes more than 100 homes relocated from various sites throughout Jeju and reflects life on the island in the late 19th century.

While the museum offers comprehensive detail regarding Jeju life 100 years ago, it has a disjointed feeling precisely in that the structures come from many areas of the island. The housing styles don’t differ dramatically, but the site doesn’t coalesce into an authentic village representation. Its educational merit, however, is unparalleled among the island’s folk villages.

Nearby Seongeup Folk Village, also located in Pyoseon District but in Seong-eup 1(il) Village, can be identified as a “living museum.” Originally established in nearby Goseong Village in 1410, it was moved in 1423 to its present site which had been the island’s capital during the earlier Goryeo period.

There are no audio tours, admission fees or brochures, and minimal signage or other educational opportunities. Craftspeople maintain several of Jeju’s handcraft traditions, and folk plays are offered; traditional foods are also available.

What makes this village unique, aside from a few souvenir shops, is its intact quality: many generations of families have lived in the village and in these very homes, modernized today in terms of plumbing, electricity, and windows but retaining their antiquated structure.

Designated as Korea Important Cultural Asset No. 188, this village helps to preserve Jeju’s traditional culture in its visual representation and authenticity.

Hallim Folk Village. [Photo by Anne Hilty.]

Jae-Am Folk Village, a notable model or reproduction, can be found in Hallim Park. It affords educational opportunities and is beautifully displayed, in an equally attractive botanical setting.

An even smaller model folk village can be found in the first gallery of the Haenyeo Museum of Hado Village, where both a typical fisher/diver house and a scale model village are on display.

To experience village life firsthand, or at least the traditional accommodation thereof, one can stay in the recently opened traditional village guesthouses of Jeju Stone Culture Park.

Do any of these sufficiently preserve Jeju’s traditional culture? They cannot. But they can help people to remember how their ancestors once lived, and can educate the rest of us in a way of life recently lost.

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