Page 1

The Korean Forest Culture of the Baekdu-daegan Table of Contents 1. Introduction to Korea’s Ancient Mountain-Forest Culture 2. Korea’s Backbone and River-Channeling Ranges: The Baekdu-daegan, and its Jeongmaek 3. Korea’s Ancient Culture of Nature-Spirituality 4. Enshrined Spirits of these Mountains that Protect their Forests: Sanshin and Dan-gun 5. Ecological Guardian-Shrines in Mountain Village Culture 6. Buddhist Temples, Sages and Nature-Veneration in These Mountains 7. Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks 8. Korea’s efforts to Rehabilitate its Degraded Forests. 9. Modern Korea’s Recreation and Green Well-being of their Mountain Forests. 10.Conclusion: 21st-Century Korea’s Harmonious Identity with Spiritual Forest Culture


1. Introduction to Korea’s Ancient Mountain-Forest Culture Thick forests composed of hundreds of temperate deciduous and coniferous species stand on the steep slopes surrounding all Korea‘s civilized centers. For thousands of years the residents have obtained most of what they have needed for their livelihoods and cultural expressions from these millions of trees, and this provision-service has been repaid with respectful reverence and conscious ecological protection. This volume is a trail through Korea‘s mountain-forests, which we can hike along as introduction to the ancient spiritual culture that has thrived in them – a unique and strong complex of attitudes and practices based on religiosity within and towards unspoiled nature. It introduces the host of Korea‘s best forests: the Baekdu-daegan Mountain-system with its Jeongmaek branch-ranges, the traditional topographical understanding of this peninsula‘s form, character and cultural-identity. We proceed with the indigenous Shamanism that venerates forests and particular trees, with the characteristic Korean deities Sanshin and Dan-gun who serve as the spirits of these mountains, and their shrines. We will consider the role of eco-guardian shrines in Korean village culture, and then explore how the nation‘s Buddhist sages and temples have conducted nature-veneration activities in these mountains for sixteen centuries. Our journey continues with explanations of how their Neo-Confucian successors further enhanced the society-wide reverence for trees, from royalty to folk-artisans. We will complete this exploration with a recounting of modern Korean‘s recreation in and concern for their forests, including the dramatically-successful government-led reforestation of the entire mountain-system, and close with appreciation for how Korea‘s harmonious identity with spiritual forest culture dynamically continues into the 21st Century.


2. Korea’s Backbone and River-Channeling Ranges: The Baekdu-daegan, and its Jeongmaek

The ―Baekdu-daegan Mountain-system‖ is one of the most important features for understanding Korea‘s geography, ecology and long history of traditional culture.

land for thousands of years, making use of the clear freshwater, and all of today's great cities are built along them.

It is based upon a single continuous line of mountains that runs through the entire Korean Peninsula, becoming the primary factor defining the topography of this distinctive appendage of Northeast Asia, dividing it into its characteristic regions and hosting its greatest ecological reserves of forests and their myriad inhabitants.

Subsequent centuries of generations of Koreans exploring, mapping and philosophizing about their nation created for it the name ―Baekdu-daegan‖, which literally means ―white-head great-line‖, with ―Baek-du‖ referring to its origin at Mt. Baekdu-san while ―dae-gan‖ really means a main-trunk mountain range, and is only used by the Koreans in this particular case. In English we formally call it the ―Baekdu-daegan Mountain-system‖ in accordance with modern geographical terminology. It runs around 1500-1700 km long, depending upon how much detail cartographers use to count the twists and turns along its crest.

To all Koreans, including a hundred generations of their ancestors, the Baekdu-daegan is deeply meaningful in both its geographical reality and its symbolic resonance. It is the source of the spiritual energy of this most dynamic country, the treasure-house of its diverse ecosystem, the repository of its rich cultural heritage, the provider of its clean life-giving waters, the inspiration for its arts and the symbol of the national reunification it yearns for. Seventy-five-percent of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous terrain, and the Baekdu-daegan is truly its backbone. Artists have long depicted the landmass as shaped like a crouching tiger, the favorite and emblematic national animal, and in those drawings this long range is its twisting spine. This rocky ―spine‖ therefore serves as an unbroken watershed-origin line, meaning that it serves as the starting-point of all of Korea's rivers – and then its branches channel them to the seas on the peninsula‘s seacoasts. These great rivers and all of the small streams that feed into them are the primary means by which humans have been able to live abundantly on this 4

It therefore divides some of Korea‘s major historic regions from each other, especially the Gyeongsang provinces (the gigantic watershed of the Nakdong-gang River) in the southeast from the Jeolla provinces in the southwest and the Chungcheong and Gangwon provinces to their north. This topographical division has resulted in striking cultural differences between the cultures of the inhabitants of these regions, in the styles of their cuisines, their political attitudes, and even the accent they speak their common language with. The original Three Korean Kingdoms formed their territories along these lines, and their descendants still attribute differing characters to those of their brethren that live on one side of the Baekdu-daegan or the other, and these used to make very big differences in social and governmental arrangements.

Ch2. Korea’s Backbone and River-Channeling Ranges: The Baekdu-daegan and its Jeongmaek

An image depicting the lines of interconnected mountains that form the Korean Peninsula from the Baekdu-daegan. In addition to the mainline, there is a complex system of mountain ranges, sub-ranges and ridgelines that branch off from the Baekdu-daegan all along its length, in all directions. They are named with a system of suffix-titles developed more than two centuries ago, according to their length and level of importance. The thirteen Jeongmaek ranges serve to channel all Korea‘s main rivers from the Baekdu-daegan to the west or south coasts. They run through provinces forming their alpine hearts, while dividing counties from each other. Therefore, every significant mountain in Korea (at least of more than 100 meters in height) is included and are all connected together by this system, forming an extremely complex web of ridgelines. If you would imagine all of these rangelines as conducting information or a kind of electricity (spiritual-energy according to the traditional concepts), then this web system is like the nervous system in a tiger or person.

Within the past forty years a long-distance hiking trail of about 735 km along the crest of its southern half has been explored, developed and designated by a combination of local governments, National Forest and Park authorities, and civilian mountain-hiking associations. This route is now linked together, apparently for the first time in Korean history, taking between five and ten weeks for trekkers to transverse. Uncountable kilometers of branch-trails lead to and from it, connecting hundreds of other peaks, ridgelines, valleys and gorges. This ―Baekdu-daegan Trail‖ is becoming comparable to the other internationally-known long-distance trekking routes, such as America‘s Appalachian Trail. However, there is something unique about the Baekdu-daegan compared to those others. Besides inspirational vistas and scenic gorges found along its stretches of unspoiled forests and crags, it features hundreds of fascinating religious, cultural and historic sites which add dimensions of cultural-tourism potential to its fundamental base of adventure-tourism value. Hikers will come across ancient stone fortresses where crucial battles were fought, pavilions with poetry-inspiring views over the landscape, a stunning variety of colorful temples, shrines and hermitages, and even places where kings and enlightened masA small stele on the Baekdu-daegan. ters walked.

This is the unique ancient and native system of Korean geography, which completely differs from the way that standard western-style geography divides and labels Korea's mountain-ranges. The western way was first employed by the Japanese colonialists in the early 20th Century, and has remained standard for Korean governments and universities ever since. Increasingly however, Koreans are returning to their own system of understanding the topographical makeup of their nation, based on the Baekdu-daegan and its branches.

There are more than a hundred sacred sites along this grand ridgeline, of Korea‘s ancient Shamanism, Spiritual-Nationalism, Daoism and Neo-Confucianism, and even Christianity. They include ten of the most famous and religiously-important Buddhist temples in the nation, and dozens of smaller temples or hermitages; some of these offer travelers the popular ―Temple5

Stay‖ tourism program, staying overnight at the temple while experiencing monastic life and viewing the local treasures.

culture, continuously devising and implementing wise policies for its preservation, restoration and proper public usage by current and future generations.

Many dozens of shrines are found on these mountains dedicated to veneration of their spirits, constantly reminding trekkers of the religious character of these mountains. Quite a few other nationally-significant historical sites are also along the way. This wide variety of different religious traditions available to view and experience along the way, and the density of the total religious sites, makes it unique among the ―pilgrimage trails‖ of the world.

From ancient times to today, the Baekdu-daegan remains the primary symbol of the Korean nation and its aspirations for peaceful reunification, and its features reflect the Korean people's identity and spirit.

There are now dozens of monuments (usually inscribed stone monoliths) along the way, mostly erected by local governments within the past decade, proclaiming the identity and significance of these sites and the most significant natural features such as peaks and passes. Many of these monuments are valuable sources of historical and cultural information, as well as being amplifications of the natural scenery for the benefit of travelers.

The origins of Korea‘s intensive spiritual culture devoted to and practiced within the deep forests of its many sacred mountains are lost in the mists of antiquity, developing long before the pre-civilized peoples of this peninsula had any system of writing. The general auspiciousness of the Baekdu-daegan Mountainsystem is a concept that developed over almost two millennia, and we have only fragmentary records of its earliest stages.

The Baekdu-daegan has been the formative context of all Korean history, and remains the axis of Korea's ecology, containing the best of its unspoiled forests and wildlife. Its preservation and proper development for sustainable tourism is the most important overriding issue of Korea's economic and environmental plans and aspirations; without its improving health, nothing else in this country could be expected to go very well. The Korea Forest Service is now serving as custodians of this iconic national treasure-house of ecology and

The aboriginal and immigrating residents of this peninsula established their settlements along the lower reaches of the dozen or so great rivers, which became the sources of their lives, providing the basic necessities for their sustenance. The Bronze Age tribal communities that developed there and spread out to farmlands in adjacent valleys were devoted to and organized around what we call ―Shamanism‖, a pre-religious spiritual tradition originating in far-northeast Asia and still flourishing in Korea today.


3.Korea’s Ancient Culture of Nature-Spirituality

A 397 year old Zelkova Serrata and cairn-shrine near the Baekdu-daegan.

Ch.3 Korea’s Ancient Culture of Nature Spirituality In the Shamanism of these villages, people believed that every distinct landform, plant, animal and human being were revitalized by spirits, effective but insubstantial vitalizing deities that should be understood as something in between a ―ghost‖ and a ―god‖ in the western senses. These spirits, singular or in combination, were and are believed to exercise influence on natural phenomena (weather, abundance or decline of food availability, etc) that directly determined good fortune or misfortune for individuals and their neighbors.

or special utility, and there was a core belief in mythical cosmic trees by which the shamans could climb to and from heaven in order to communicate with the powerful spirits there. Particular trees have long been considered holy due to their prominence, size and character. Simple shrines can still be found at the base of quite a few of them, out in the deep forests or nearby a rural village, and Koreans still leave offerings on the stone altars and say prayers in front of them. Some of the most famous sacred trees still have elaborate Daoist, Confucian and/or Shamanic rituals performed at them by the local residents on an annual or seasonal basis. Some of the oldest Korean artworks that we now have, contain images of mountains and trees, both realistic and stylized, clearly regarded as sacred natural forms. This is good evidence that the peaks and the forests below them were regarded religiously. The shamanrulers conducted both private and communal rituals in which they communicated in ritualistic ways with the spirits of Heaven, Earth and deceased persons. This was done in hopes of preventing, driving-away or at least reducing ―bad fortune‖ such as extreme weather, sicknesses, injuries, infertility and shortages of desired foods, and then attracting ―good fortune‖ such as health, abundance, fair weather, fertility and fecundity.

Shamans in casual attire practice rituals for the forest spirits near the Baekdu-daegan.

When they became known from Shamanic explorations as the sources of the life-giving rivers and sites of mystical energies, the key mountains of the Baekdudaegan and its branch-ranges became regarded as sacred, and have always remained so. Later visitors had visions or dreams of the mountain-spirits residing there, or other sorts of spiritual epiphanies, and the reputation of those peaks and slopes grew. Buddhist monks established their temples in their forests, attaining enlightenment and wisdom within the wilderness context. Increasing numbers of temples and shamanic shrines were built on these mountains, and they were given names with profound and auspicious religious meanings. Visitors intuited that their crags, trees and waterfalls are infused with strong ―earth-energy‖ that grants health, wisdom and good fortune for the residents.

The proto-Koreans believed that these spirits could be communicated with, appeased and negotiated with through veneration in ritualized ceremonies. They envisioned the spirits in hierarchies that reflected the natural and social world they knew, with the heavenly ones in highest status, mountain-spirits just below them, and then the major plant, animal and humanorigin spirits forming the base of the earthly ranks, and then ghosts, goblins, demons and all kinds of minor spirits on the lowest ranks. Spirits of particular mountains, trees and animals (such as tigers, bears, deer and fish) became favorites due to their perceived efficacy.

Even Confucian scholars came to study deep in the valleys, seeking and finding their own brand of illuminated wisdom about the principles of Heaven, Earth and Humanity under the inspiration of their natural beauty. Korean Christians even set up their prayer camps in the forests at their feet, finding it an ideal place to draw closer to God. By the modern era no one can remember a time when these mountains were not considered sacred in a wide multi-religious sense. Even their botanical products are accorded higher status and value when they are branded as having come from such holy mountains. The Baekdu-daegan system contains most of them, and became considered as sacred in its own right once it was recognized as a distinct entity just over 1000 years ago.

Koreans have always paid special veneration to treespirits, a natural outgrowth of their fundamental connection, love and respect for the mountain-forests and their fruitful residents. In traditional Shamanism, certain species of trees (such as pines, birch, yew and zelkova) are especially sacred due to their appearance

Many of Korea's secular national heroes were legendarily said to be born, educated or trained at great sacred mountains. It is a frequent motif in the tales that the great person in his younger days prays to the mountain-spirit in a cave or at a stone altar below one of these famous peaks, and is rewarded with a magical 7

sword or other powers that he uses to defeat Korea's enemies or establish a new royal dynasty. Having such a site or legend associated with it greatly enhances the reputation of a mountain as being sacred, and these places with their stories tying the national heroes in with holy mountains and their spirits can be found by hikers all along the Baekdu-daegan and its major branches. Right on through the 20th Century and into the 21st Korean spiritual-traditionalists of all sorts have believed in the idea that the Baekdu-daegan continuously feeds essential life-energy throughout the national landscape through its web of sub-ranges, and thus into all its woodlands, agricultural products and spring-waters, and thus into its people. This spiritual-energy is the source of their dynamic and essential bio-energy, and a symbol of national identity with cultural unity. Its unimpeded clear flow is considered a necessary key factor for the birth and nurturing of national heroes of both military valor and enlightened wisdom, as well as virtuous ordinary citizens, and thus for the health, strength and prosperity of the Korean nation as a whole. Those who conduct spiritual practices at specially-designated sites in the forests along the Baekdu-daegan are believed to have an advantage in attaining enlightenment and blessings, due to the strong ―energy‖ infusing them. Veneration of the powerful spirits of the sacred mountains and outstanding trees along the ―great line‖ is believed to increase the beneficial results of this flow. These geomantic ideas of spiritual-life-energy flowing along Korea's mountain ranges and through its woodlands are now transforming from an ancient pseudo-

scientific beliefs to modern conceptions of the theoretical unity of the peninsula and nation, and the transcendent importance of the ecology of their wildest remaining areas. The Baekdu-daegan becomes ever more important to both those who wish for a peaceful national reunification and those concerned with biological health and eco-restoration – these on top of its basic traditional importance for those concerned with personal spiritual development and community-based religious rituals. Legacies of these beliefs can still be found today throughout these mountains, in the villages that have always been designed and maintained for an ecological way of life. Charming examples of the eco-friendly usage of forest-products for all the basic needs of farmer‘s lifestyles such as the neowa-jip (houses roofed with wood-plank shingles instead of thatch) are now beloved tourist attractions, along with other features described in the subsequent sections of this work.

4. Enshrined Spirits of these Mountains that Protect their Forests: Sanshin and Dan-gun Korea‘s mountains host most of its forests, serving as their literal foundations, and Koreans have therefore always viewed the spirits of these mountains as the most powerful guardians of their precious woodlands. Their richly sylvan mountains have always inspired gratitude, fear, respect, admiration, awe and worship from the Koreans, as the foremost factor in the physical

A stunning temple painting of a Sanshin (mountain spirit) and guardian Tiger in a sacred Pine forest from Odae-san on the Baekdu-daegan 8

Ch.4 Enshrined Spirits of these Mountains that Protect their Forests: Sanshin and Dangun. context of the thousands of years of development of their culture – lofty, massive, beautiful and inspiring; obstructing, conducting, dangerous, useful, deadly and providing; rich sources, venerable depositories and sheltering retreats. Unique sorts of shrines and artworks are therefore found scattered throughout the vast timberlands of the Baekdu-daegan Mountain-system. For the thousands of years of Korean history, the residents of this mountainous peninsula have believed that the peaks and slopes are spiritually-alive, inhabited by a Sanshin [Mountain-spirit, or spirit of the mountains] that can be male or female, one or more per mountain, integral with it and being manifested by it. This has long been the main tutelary spirit of most villages and towns, and

Inside a larger Sanshin-gak with strong wooden outlay. the guardian of the Korean nation as a whole. Since ancient times Korean kings have funded great ceremonies at grand Sanshin-dan altars as symbols of their legitimacy, while the common folk prayed for good weather, bountiful crops, healthy children and protection from ill-fortune at their small village Sanshin-gak shrines. Those who hike through the forests of the Baekdudaegan or visit the many cultural sites in its vast wildernesses will find many manifestations of the Korean‘s ancient belief in the Sanshin, including many shrines to these important deities containing vibrant artworks. Korea's imported religious traditions acknowledge the Sanshin‘s importance, and despite their relentless modernization in the past century, Koreans still pay respect to their Sanshin in a wide variety of contexts. Ceremonies with ancient roots are still being held up on high ridges and deep in remote gorges nationwide, everywhere throughout the Baekdu-daegan woodlands. Most Korean Buddhist temples and Shamanic shrines found in the Baekdu-daegan forests have an altar set up with a painting of the Sanshin, fre-

quently also with a statue of the same deity in front of the painting. Most of the materials used by craftsmen to create these shrines and icons are reverently harvested from the surrounding local forests. Two candles, an incense-burner and an uncovered bowl of fresh clean water are on the altar in front of the icons, and possibly other offerings. The thousands of paintings are unique, no two ever quite the same, as their artists have been inspired to individualize them according to the characteristics of the mountain they are intended to represent; some of them are now valuable antiques over a hundred years old, and represent the best of Korea's folk-painting traditions. Sanshin is depicted as a seated man or woman, elderly but still healthy, strong and authoritative. His demeanor is benevolent and kind, but still stern and dignified like an ideal family-patriarch, and his clothing indicates royalty. Shamanist, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, nationalist and military-command symbols are used in myriad combinations in various parts of the thousands of different artworks. Various things symbolizing healthy longevity, scholastic or spiritual attainment are held in one or both hands, or are being offered to him by youthful angelic attendants; these items are often actual products of the surrounding woodlands. In most of these paintings, Sanshin is depicted as sitting on a flat rocky cliff-top or clearing, half-surrounded by healthy groves of trees, in the high mountains with a grand view. Actual such places are easily found while hiking among the crags of the Baekdu-daegan range, and are often referred to as Shinseon-dae [Terrace or Platform for Daoist Immortals]. In the Korean view, this is the sort of place upon which meditations and yogic practices are best performed, and where spiritual attainments or enlightenments take place. There is a tiger beside the ―Mountain-King‖, his petcompanion, taboo-enforcer and alter-ego. Tigers as the ―kings of the animals of the mountains‖ are the primary symbols of Korean culture, extremely common in traditional folk-paintings and still a favorite motif; the nation or its economy or citizens are often depicted as

Korean native pine trees depicting a perfect setting for a Sanshin on the Baekdu-daegan. 9

Ch4. Enshrined Spirits of these Mountains that Protect their Forests: Sanshin and Dangun.

Annual Heavenly worship ceremony at Taebaek-san on the Baekdu-daegan. tigers in cartoons or promotional materials, and a friendly baby tiger was chosen as the symbol of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games.

never breaks, so he adapts to political currents but never surrenders his principles nor succumbs to corruption.

There is always at least one gnarled pine tree beside or behind Sanshin, as an essential element of the icon. Just as tigers are seen as the apex of the ―animal kingdom‖, pine trees are considered as lords of all forestflora; inclusion as an essential element in these artworks demonstrates the Koreans‘ deep love and reverence for trees as some of the best natural beings. Especially the age-gnarled and wind twisted pines, commonly found at higher elevations growing out of the crags, symbolize longevity and adaptive survival despite adverse conditions. Korean hikers and Sanshinworshippers alike particularly love the pines often posing for photos with them. These alpine-enthusiasts view them as elder-ancestors who have survived such harsh circumstances with dignity and tenacity; they also symbolize loyalty and steadfastness by remaining green even in the depths of winter.

The landscape backgrounds range from simple and cartoonish to more elaborate works derived from the East Asian Daoist / Neo-Confucian tradition of grand landscape-paintings. They usually include sharp mountain peaks and cliffs, a waterfall or two, a grove of trees below swirling clouds and sometimes the sun.

Many Sanshin paintings also contain a small grove of bamboo growing in the background; this useful plant is commonly found in Korea‘s southern and coastal forests; many Korean deep-forest temples or hermitages have a thicket of bamboo forming a windbreak-wall on one side. Bamboo shoots can suggest male virility and regenerative youthfulness; thus bamboo is one of the Ten Symbols of Longevity. Mature bamboo is also a symbol of the righteousness of a Confucian scholar/ official: as the bamboo bends easily in the wind but 10

Sanshin icons are not only historical treasures. Visitors to temples will find many newly created and enshrined paintings and statues of the Mountain-spirits, tending to be more prominently displayed. These works are generally larger and more elaborate than the antiques, incorporating a higher number of symbolic elements that extend the range of religious associations, such as Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian symbols of enlightened authority, ecological wisdom and vibrant health. Many are intricate and complex paintings of high artistic value. Sanshin-je is the most common term for the ritualceremonies held to venerate the Mountain-spirit. These ceremonies are performed by the priests or members of Korea's various religious and spiritual traditions, by villagers supplicating their local tutelary Sanshin, and often by mountain-hiking clubs with no religious affiliations. These range from very simple affairs with a single candle, a bowl of water and a brief chanted prayer to elaborate multi-stage ceremonies

Ch.4 Enshrined Spirits of these Mountains that Protect their Forests: Sanshin and Dangun.

with orchestras and dozens of costumed officiates stationed before large altars piled high with extensive offerings of animal and vegetable foods. Many Koreans still practice these customs, and visitors to the Baekdudaegan regions are more than likely to come across one being performed, or at least the signs that one had recently been held. Across South Korea, larger-scale ―public‖ Sanshin-je with the explicit themes of national identity, protection, and re-unification have been held with steadilyincreasing frequency and prominence, usually in conjunction with traditional Lunar Calendar holidays or local festivals and held at that area's most famous shrine. Mayors and other high local officials are often seen as leading officiates of these ceremonies. This sort of open government approval of and support for Sanshin worship is truly revolutionary in modern Korea, where officialdom has typically been dominated by modernists opposed to public expression of indigenous culture. This seems to be giving way to nationalistic revaluation, appreciation and celebration of endemic local cultural assets. Another related deity whose icons might be found enshrine nearby Sanshin in the Baekdu-daegan forests is Korea‘s founding-king Dan-gun [Altar King], similarly at the heart of Korea‘s national-spiritual identity. He is the focus of the myth of national origin, which remains as an icon of Korea‘s early Bronze-Age history. The story of how this grandson of the Lord of Heaven came to be

the founder of the first identifiably-Korean kingdom thousands of years ago is the first chapter in the main collection of ancient national legends, written by a Buddhist master who was intending to bolster the sense of unified identity among the residents of this peninsula. All Koreans know and respect this tale as the beginning point of their national history, and it is commemorated every October 3rd as the national Gaecheon-jeol [Opening of Heaven Holiday]. Dan-gun‘s heavenly father first descended to establish his ―spiritual city‖ at a stone altar established for venerating a sacred tree on a holy peak, and then later the king was conceived and born at that same tree-altar. This is a very significant factor in the tale that gives extra resonance to all the stone altars placed at sacred trees found on mountains all over Korea, an ancient tradition derived from Siberian shamanic worship of birch trees as spiritual ladders to heaven. In his iconic paintings and statues, Dan-gun is depicted with jet-black hair and beard, white or red hempen robes, seated in a wooden chair with his hands clasped together inside his sleeves in the Confucian style. Over his shoulders is usually a mantle of tree-leaves, which may also cover his head and/or form a ―skirt‖ around his hips, indicating that the wearer is a civilization-founder in a ―primitive‖ ancient time. The use of forest-products such as wood, hemp and leaves in close-to-nature conditions symbolize the ―original‖ human harmony with the woodlands, retained as an ideal. 11

Ch.4 Enshrined Spirits of these Mountains that Protect their Forests: Sanshin and Dangun. In one of the newer paintings of him, he is depicted sitting in the context of a Korean alpine forest, bringing this deity more in conflation with Sanshin as a guardian -spirit of the sylvan regions.

The forest shrouded Dangun Seongjeon at Mt. Taebaek-san The story concludes in a highly significant way with the conquest of this ancient bronze-age proto-Korean kingdom by forces wielding iron-age culture, which forces King Dan-gun to retreat and hide himself at a holy mountain in the north, becoming a Sanshin there.

This tale is understood in a deeper meta-historical way as Korea‘s indigenous Shamanic culture retreating from official power in the valley-towns as Chinese-style civilization gains dominance, but being retained by the common people in the vast woodlands of the Baekdudaegan and its branches. Sanshin was and remains the leading remainder of the Shamanic civilization led by Dan-gun that once ruled all Korea and now holds sway only in its mountain-forests; together they are symbols of Korea‘s native culture that was overwhelmed by imported foreign ideas yet still retains some legitimacy in the minds of the citizenry. Dan-gun became centrally important to Korean culture in the early part of the present century, as part of the resurgence of nationalism which followed the Western cultural-invasion and the Japanese annexation. Many Koreans have come to regard him as the ancestor of all Koreans (making them all members of one family) rather than just the first king as the tale describes. The association and conflation of Dan-gun with Sanshin transforms the latter from distantly-awesome spirit-lord of local nature to a vague sort of national ancestral figure. Indeed, the Confucian village-level Sanshin-je ceremonies can be seen as serving as a kind of collective ancestral-worship, socially-binding to the villagers together above the ―clan‖ level, and this factor has also been used on the national level. Therefore these two key deities of Korean culture are closely related to one-another, including in their employment of trees and forest-products as key iconic elements, and are sometimes even conflated in artworks. King Dan-gun remains closely associated with the Baekdu-daegan Mountain-system, particularly its head-peak Baekdu-san in North Korea. He is venerated at shrines all along it, especially on its turningpoint Mt. Taebaek-san near the central eastern coast of South Korea. On its several peaks and slopes, Taebaek-san hosts multiple major shrines for Dan-gun alongside those for its Sanshin. Civic nationalistshamanic groups hold large-scale ceremonies and private rituals in them on the Gaecheon-jeol Holiday and otherwise throughout the year.

12 An example of a thicket of native pine grown to protect villages against extreme weather conditions near the Baekdu-daegan

5. Ecological GuardianShrines in Mountain Village Culture The villagers in the mountains of the Baekdu-daegan Mountain-system have always maintained a strong culture of appreciative relationship with the prominent individual trees and greater forests that surround, nourish and protect their villages. They have practiced certain customs of recognizing and preserving these sylvan friends, blended-in with the historic shamanism and evolving folk-culture emphasizing protective tutelary spirits over the many centuries. This has extended to the deliberate alteration of local landscapes by planting groves of selected species for soil-protection and other purposes. Korea‘s location on a narrow peninsula situated between the world‘s largest continent and its largest ocean brings it several typhoons and heavy monsoonrains during what is otherwise a temperate four-season climate. This climate combined with its steep and rocky topography means that the relatively-little farmlands are vulnerable to severe losses of soil and its nutrients that can be washed out to sea. Therefore, the Korean residents have developed clever indigenous practices to keep their precious nutrient-rich soils within their mountain-surrounded villages.

With the wisdom gained from observing how the forests on the angled slopes around them naturally managed to retain the soil around their roots despite the seasonal heavy rainfalls, Korean villagers developed traditions of planting and maintaining particular types of trees in special areas. These were often in the form of small groves fostered at the mouth of a small watershed, where the local stream would exit the village area through a relatively narrow gap in the hills. Such Arbors were also established as windbreaks to protect fields or houses, or as other kinds of defense. These native and spontaneous techniques of ―local enhancement‖ to correct weak points were later encoded in geomantic theories, but still remained practical landscape-architectural and management ways to control erosion and prevent nutrient losses from the life -giving farmlands and local woodlands. Within the last half-millennium it became standard for aristocratic clans to make such adjustments in the flora-topography soon after establishing a new village in a nearby valley in order to extend their family‘s range of holdings. If the area was fairly good but not quite right according to geomantic siting-concepts, they could in this way adjust and improve it by establishing a semi-artificial miniforest. They called these kind of eco-protective village groves ―bibosup‖, as the geomantic term bibo means a complement to or corrective of a shortcoming in order to establish or enhance auspiciousness of a landscape, and sup is a native term designating an arbor or human -managed small forest. Nature was manipulated in

A Seonang-dang shrine sits amongst a field of food protected in a grove of trees as a measure for good harvest.


Ch.5 Ecological Guardian-Shrines in Mountain Village Culture careful well planned ways over decades, in order to better live in harmony with nature. There are still very many examples of these bibosups protecting villages and their farmlands around Korea, and some that were destroyed in the rapid industrialization 40 years ago have recently been restored, as their value was re-recognized. After some of the typhoons that hit Korea in the past decade, Forest Service researchers confirmed that certain of the bibosups had in fact played a critical role in protecting their local villages from what would otherwise have been terribly destructive torrents, allowing them to survive in prosperous condition with relatively minor damage. They have also determined that the bibosups serve many other functions beside shelters from floods and winds that are beneficial to the sustainability of their communities, such as supplying moisture and oxygen to the local air through transpiration and photosynthesis, adding organic matter to farm-soils, enhancing the biodiversity of the landscape, and maintaining beautiful scenery and An old Ginko tree holds sacred ground in the center of a small village near the Baekdu-daegan peaceful atmospheres that enhance the quality of human lives. can still be found today by sharp-eyed travelers passing through these villages, some found in the middle of Besides these landscape-altering techniques of gaining farm-fields, some at the center of clusters of farmprotection in harmony with nature, a unique national houses, and still others found at the outlet of gorges spirituality oriented towards nature-spirits evolved in where the clean mountain water flows into the village local areas from the ancient Shamanic traditions for the resident‘s use. brought by the ancestral horse-riders down from Siberia. Every village developed its own sense of commuThese tutelary shrines are generally called Seonangnity tutelary spirits, sometimes singular but often multidang or Seonghwang-dang [Shrine for Protectionple, and these were symbolized and venerated in quite against-bad-fortune], or possibly other uniquely-local a few interesting ways. Many of these tutelary deities names. They are regarded by the villagers as sacred were spirits of the local mountains, many others were sites, to never be polluted or damaged in any way but spirits of old or prominent local trees, and various othalways treated with respect. Many of them are only ers were derived from the spirits of boulders or crags, utilized for annual or seasonal ritual activities, but some human ancestors, or significant local animals such as of them in the busy parts of their villages, especially tigers. Sometimes they are believed to be the ghosts those featuring huge shady trees, become places of a powerful king, great military general or virtuous where the residents hang-out talking to each other, local official that is supplicated for local protection. natural social-centers. Some are believed to be ancestral males, some matriarchal females, and others seem to be without gender The simplest and charmingly-unsophisticated styles of or specific personality. the Seonang-dang shrines are altars established at bawi, unusual prominent rocks sticking up or out from Shrines to them were established around the center of the landscape somewhere within or nearby the village, the village, or up on the slope behind it, or sometimes usually with an overhang forming a hollow too shallow by the entranceway; placement was iconoclastic, deto be a cave. Simple altars are built at the base of pending on the exact local features, as Koreans always these boulders, often in the hollow, generally with a few like to follow the flow of nature as it is found rather than white candles burning and perhaps a bowl of fresh imposing artificial rules upon it. Many of these shrines clean water; chanted prayers are offered there. 14

Ch.5 Ecological Guardian-Shrines in Mountain Village Culture

The Guardian-Shrine of the tutelary (Seonghwang-lim) forest of Seongnam-ri village in Wonju city Seonang-dang shrines are often cairns – three or more of stones set up as a free-standing vertical tower, or piled up against an old sacred tree, or some hundreds of stones gathered into a gigantic pyramidal pile. These are generally called doltap [rock pagoda] and are found all over Korea – beside roads and trails, next to or within temples, within villages and up on peaks. Passers-by such as hikers or local farmers will often try to add one more stone onto the top of the tower or pile ―for good luck‖; the increasingly-few who know their old Sanshin traditions might additionally bow in respect for the spirit. Especially old, prominent or useful trees are very often employed as the Seonang-dang of villages. Any of the large-growing and long-living species might be employed in this way. Sometimes these are groves of these trees with cultivated gardens of grass and flowers between them (blending with the ancient idea of maintaining village-border groves as protection against floods or wind), and sometimes just one awesome grand tree whose spreading branches provide plenty of shade and shelter from the rain or snow. These are called Dang-namu [shrine-tree] and of course it is strictly forbidden for any villager or visitor to cut or otherwise damage the sacred trees, or to show them any kind of disrespect. Attractive boulders may be carried from other locations and set up next to these trees or within the groves, or doltap towers built there, or flat stone altars set up at

their base, to enhance their sacred character. In more sophisticated village a small wooden shrine-building is additionally directed next to the tree or within the grove, as a home for the annual or seasonal ceremonies that are performed for the tutelary deities. Those shrines contain a simple altar holding spirit-tablets and offerings, and sometimes an antique painting of the local protective spirit. Some of the older ones have signboards written in Chinese or Korean characters, designating the name of the spirit enshrined within. The outer walls of the buildings may have folk-paintings of pine-trees or tigers on them. There may also be inscribed stone monuments within these shrinecomplexes, explaining the tradition of that local tutelary deity. Crudely-woven hemp rope is often employed at all these kinds of Seonang-dang, an ancient symbolic marking of that object or area as sacred space. This rope may be tightly wrapped around the boulder, doltap or sacred tree, or be stretched around the perimeter of the grove or shrine area. Its very simplicity marks the twisted rope as an ancient Shamanic sacralizing device, and all Koreans respect it as a boundary. Sometimes multicolored strips of cloth are found tied to the rope, or to branches of the sacred tree – evocative leftovers from Shamanic folk-rituals. One of the most evocative of these shrines is now found in the well-preserved Seonghwang-lim [tutelary sacred forest] which has long been cultivated and pro15

Ch.5 Ecological Guardian-Shrines in Mountain Village Culture tected by the residents of Seongnam-ri Village (in Shillim-myeon or ―New-Forest District‖ of Wonju City). They believe that this grove and the shrine-building in its center contain the spirit of the mighty Chiak-san [Mt. Pheasant-Crags] rising just to its north, and is therefore imbued with mystical protective powers. They still hold ceremonies there twice every year, in the spring and fall on dates set by the traditional Lunar Calendar, in order to commune with the divine spirits of the sylvan mountain and enhance their social bonds. A further representation of local tutelary deities are the jangseung and seottae poles made from straight trunks of local trees. Jangseung are often called Korean totem-poles because they are thick logs carved with the faces of guardian spirits, often a male and female pair (heavenly grandfather and earthly grandmother) featuring frightening or ridiculous faces intended to scare off spirits of bad fortune. Seottae are very tall thin polls on top of which a crudely-carved wooden bird is perched, possibly intending to attract more birds to the village area as a wish for prosperity. Sometimes they are seen as an expression of the Shamanic belief that birds such as magpies and cranes can fly up to heaven, receive messages from the powerful spirits there, and returned to earth to communicate those messages to the humans who are spiritually-advanced enough to understand them. Jangseung and seottae poles are often set up at the entranceways to villages as symbolic defenders, occasionally with a low stone wall with a single front-gate surrounding them, are also frequently included in the village tutelary shrines. You might find just one of them, or there could be dozens. Some villages tear them down annually, carving and erecting new ones in elaborate folk-rituals as part of the general village festival, while others have the custom of doing this only once every 5, 10 or 20 years.


Jangseung poles in a 19th century Korea

With the recent wave of neo-traditionalism around South Korea, groups of new versions of these jangseung and seottae poles are frequently seen in front of country-cuisine restaurants, local government offices, museums and temples, or in a cluster marking the top of a pass along a highway. This is one of the ways that products of the ancient Korean forest-culture have come to be included within the modern urbanized social-environments.

Ch.5 Ecological Guardian-Shrines in Mountain Village Culture Similar shrines for ryeong-shin [pass-spirits] used to be very common either at the apex or base of the pathways leading between peaks over the Baekdu-daegan and its branch-ranges. They were usually located in particularly dense patches of forest on the passes, as these were assumed to be auspicious places of high a vital energy. These ryeong-shin are variations on the Sanshin, possibly represented by a tiger-painting but otherwise not personified, named after the pass they are on and supplicated at gnarled old trees, bawi or doltap in exchange for safety (from tigers, injuries, bandits, or sudden storms) for the travelers. Signs of their worship are hard to find these days, as Koreans drive far more often than hike over high passes, and dangers encountered are of an entirely different sort. In a very interesting mixture of these sorts of old village Shamanic traditions, specially-selected trees are employed during ritual-festivals as temporary shrines to contain mountain-spirits, ancestral ghosts or other tutelary spirits. Any species of tree may be used for this, varying according to local traditions. The tree may be selected in-advance for its prominence, size or excellent form, but in many cases it is chosen spontaneously during the ceremony by an entranced shaman invested with this task. The ritual-leader will attain the proper mentality through music, dance and chanting and then use his or her visionary powers to discern which tree the desired spirit has already chosen to inhabit, or which tree seems the most appropriate for this enshrinement. The ritual will then ―call‖ the spirit down into the tree, where it is considered to remain until sent

off again. Often, the tree is cut down at its base in a ritualized way, then decorated with ribbons or hemp ropes, and then paraded either around the village or to another location, and set up at a Seonang-dang shrine for further ceremonial activity. The best example of this kind of practice is conducted in veneration of the most prominent and sophisticated remaining ryeong-shin in Korea, the guardian spirit of the Dae-gwan-ryeong (or Taegwallyeong) [Great Gateway Pass] south of the Odae-san mountains along the Baekdu-daegan line above Gangneung City. The guardian of this pass is called the Guksa-seonang-shin [National-Master tutelary-spirit], and is depicted in his icon-painting differently from a normal Sanshin— younger, wearing military-officer hat and cloak, riding on a horse and accompanied by two tigers, like a historic nation-protecting military general. He seems to represent a nation-protecting military general famous in Korean history, but others say that he represents a great Buddhist monk of that area; the identity remains quite unclear even though his worship continues quite strongly. A large-scale formal Confucian/Shamanist ritualceremony is held for him every year at during the runup to the Dano-je Festival (fifth day of the fifth moon). At the end of a long series of rituals held in front of his shrine and the adjacent Sanshin-gak, a young tree is selected by an entranced Shaman as the one that his spirit is inhabiting. It is cut down, festooned with bright strips of cloth, and carried at the head of a parade 20

The guardian spirit shrine of Dae-gwan-ryeong on the Baekdu-daegan. 17

Buddhist dolls sit under the 1300- year old Jumok-namu (Yew tree) planted by Korean Buddhist Saint Jajang-yulsa at Jeongam-sa temple situated beneath the Baekdu-daegan. kilometers down to the city. It is brought to a special Sanshin-gak where a young woman is enshrined as Sanshin; their spirits are allowed to mate, bringing good fortune to the whole region. These events are organized by the city governments in conjunction with the local Korea Forest Service office. This is the only fully-personified pass-spirit that remains in the nation, and remains one of our most famous folklore-traditions. A common Korean saying remaining in the villages is that ―Every bibosup and every seonang-dang has its own stories‖, referring to all the natural and historical events it has witnessed and preserve the memory of within its unique eco-complex, and the benevolent role it has played in making their hometown a better place to live in, helping protect it from malevolent outside forces. Indeed we can fairly say that just as the Baekdu-daegan mountain-system has protected, nourished and sustained Korean society and culture on the largest scale, these bibosup village groves and the seonang-dang shrines have done the same for traditional communities on the local scale, in their respective physical and spiritual ways.

6.Buddhist Temples, Sages and Nature Veneration in These Mountains The spiritual character of the Baekdu-daegan Mountain -system has also been a major concern of the multitudes of Buddhist monks who have practiced their religion on its densely-forested slopes for sixteen centuries so far. 18

Korea's oldest written records contain more than a few stories of Buddhist masters who made crucial contributions to the early sacralization of Korean mountains and their forests, particularly those along the Baekdudaegan. Their first generations were bold adventurers in the Fifth through Eighth Centuries CE, who were willing to risk warfare between kingdoms and the tigers that dominated the alpine wilderness in order to establish the first generations of Korea's Buddhist temples on the mountains already declared holy by the indigenous shamans. One of the earliest was Ado Hwasang, who established 15 Buddhist temples while traveling throughout the southern regions as a missionary, especially Jikji-sa [Finger-Pointing Temple] that remains one of the greatest monasteries along the Baekdu-daegan. Another of these great early religious pioneers is a monk of mysterious foreign origin called Yeongi-josa, who is said to have come to the massive and highly-sacred Jiri-san at the southern end of the Baekdu-daegan in the early 500s, establishing several grand temples in what was then territory extending between the jurisdictions of the Three Kingdoms, in an effort to promote harmonious peace between those warring states. One of those he started was later expanded into what is now Hwaeomsa, one of contemporary Korea‘s most-important monasteries. Another is Beopgye-sa, one of the nation's highest-altitude hermitages just below Jiri-san‘s holy summit, which he is said to have built in order to counter any negative spiritual energies coming from Japan and defend Korea against its depredations. A century after Yeongi-josa, a great Shilla Kingdom master-monk known as Jajang-yulsa founded several other grand monasteries along the central reaches of the Baekdu-daegan range, the region now known as Gangwon Province. He played a very important role in the sacralization process of the range and the early

Ch.6 Buddhist Temples, Sages and Nature Veneration in these Mountains ―Koreanization‖ of Buddhism, planting relics of Sakyamuni the Buddha within them in order to consecrate their host mountains for Buddhism; these are called his Jeokmyeol-bogung shrine-temples. In the eventful generation that followed, Uisang-josa followed Yeongi‘s example in establishing his new monasteries or refurbishing older ones on sites that were on both sides of the Baekdu-daegan, in order to promote reconciliation between the regions that were formally warring kingdoms but we now at peace and seeking to become one nation. In several sites still found at the most famous mountains, trees said to have been planted by Buddhist sages such as Jajang and Uisang, or said to have mystically sprouted from master‘s walking-staffs that they left implanted in the ground, are still highly venerated by visiting worshipers. The first conception of the Baekdu-daegan as a continuous ―spine‖ that unites the nation and spreads a mystical kind of energy throughout it is credited to Buddhist monk Doseon-guksa (826-898). He is one of the most fascinating but yet underappreciated characters of the evolution of Korea‘s mountain-culture. He was a great genius enlightened in the two most important schools of Korean Buddhism, and also the one who formally imported Chinese Daoist Feng-shui [Geomancy] theories and adapted them to Korea's differing conditions and his own concerns for the welfare of the nation. In doing so he became the founder of what we call Pungsu-jiri-seol [Wind-water Wisdomtheory]. This systematic understanding of geography and auspicious topographic configurations has remained prominent in Korean thinking about the definition, characteristics and spiritual character of their nation for more than a thousand years, and is still widely

employed today with renewed interest. Legend says that a Jiri-san Sanshin imparted the key points of it to him, with a wider view of promoting prosperity through the principle "national harmony with nature". According to the Pungsu-jiri-seol national architectural designs he left as his legacy that were adopted by the subsequent Goryeo Dynasty (10th-14th C.), crucial forests were maintained and overcutting of trees around civilized areas was prevented. One of his directives was to plant pine trees thickly on the mountains around the Goryeo capital city in order to complement the natural geomantic harmony of the area by increasing the lushness of forests; he also advised that other mountains that might become ecologically degraded could be rehabilitated with plantings of fresh pine forests. It is recorded that an imperial Chinese envoy reported back to his government in 1123 that, starkly unlike the case of Chinese cities, the mountains surrounding all Goryeo‘s civilized areas were still densely forested with large trees and shady foliage, having been fairly-well protected from unsustainable exploitation by intentional government policies based on Doseon‘s theories. In the millennium that has followed Master Doseon, Korean Buddhist monks have continued to practice in their major temples dotted throughout these mountains, and maintained a close association with the ecology surrounding them. They preferred the atmosphere of the mountainside-forests to the cities, for study and meditation in harmony with beneficent nature. When there were prominent old trees on the site where a temple was to be constructed, the monastic's arranged their structures around it rather than chopping it

Hwaeom-sa Temple near the Baekdu-daegan.


Ch.6 Buddhist Temples, Sages and Nature Veneration in these Mountains down, out of respect. They frequently planted pine trees in their courtyards, to enhance the sacred atmosphere by adding these natural spirits within the compounds. In gathering construction materials and firewood they were very careful to practice sustainable forestry, protecting the beautiful trees all around them on the vast mountain slopes. They established formal regulations for the monks and nearby villagers protecting the forests from excessive exploitation and unnatural fires. Forest-products were not only employed for building the temple halls, but also used for religious artworks such as statues, altars and signboards. Tens of thousands of wooden boards lacquered with tree-sap were turned into printing-blocks for producing copies of the holy Buddhist scriptures, printed on sheets of paper made from trees of the same forests surrounding the scholastic temples. In the 13th Century the famous Tripitaka Koreana collection of scriptures was made by this process, and it remains today as one of Korea‘s greatest treasures and is registered with UNESCO as a precious heritage of all humankind. Particular trees were planted at temples for practical reasons, such as being useful for crafting icons or instruments. A good example is found at Hwaeom-sa‘s Jijang Hermitage, a 400-year-old Ascendens Cherry tree named the Olbeot-namu on a little hilltop in front of the buildings, planted by a Master to symbolically strengthen the national defenses after Korea had suffered ravaging invasions, as its wood is excellent for making weapons. Monks later said that this tree's four major trunks symbolize the four major vows of a Bodhisattva: to enlighten all beings, dispel all worldly ago-

nies, learn all the teachings and eventually awaken as a Buddha. One of the strong factors in maintaining their ecological consciousness and a sense of gratitude towards their surroundings was to incorporate veneration of the mountain-spirits within their temples, holding regular daily rituals for them in order to keep the importance of respecting and living in harmony with nature closely inmind. Most temples came to enshrine Mountain-spirit icons in a small separate building with walls covered with Daoist-themed paintings, called a ―Sanshin-gak‖. These shrines were once typically a small building containing a simple painting of the spirit in the far back of the temple compound, built up on the mountain-slope surrounded by dense forest. Occasionally, unique architectural designs are used such as improved grottos, artificial caves or hexagonal shrines. In a few cases, the Sanshin shrine is built up against a sheer cliff or within a crevice of it, so that one interior wall is the naked granite of the cliff – integrating the shrine right into the mountain. Additionally, in the Main Hall of every Korean Buddhist temple there is a large and complex painting on a side-wall that contains a multitude of guardian-spirit figures that are supplicated for protection of the temple and its residents, including Sanshin and other nature-spirits. These days more and more temples are newlyconstructing ―Samseong-gak‖ [Three Sages Shrine] buildings, with at least two other folk-deities included, within the main Buddhist-worship area as an upgrading -of-status. These new buildings enshrine two other major folk-spirits alongside the Sanshin, to make a sym-

The UNESCO registered Tripitaka Koreana collection of Buddhist scriptures carved from Birch tree from the southern islands of Korea. 20

bolic Triad. They are usually the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper and the folk-Buddhist ―Lonely Saint‖, and sometimes with Sanshin in the center, granting it the highest status. Occasionally, the Yong-wang [DragonKing], Shamanic Lord of the entire dynamic hydrological cycle that sustains earthly life (oceans, springs, rivers, lakes and ponds, fish, clouds, rain and storms) may be replacing the Lonely Saint. Various arrangements of these deities form cosmic complementary trinities of Heaven, Earth, Humanity and/or Ocean, symbolizing the biosphere that surrounds and sustains us.

7.Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks The Korea people‘s close association with and pious care for their mountain-forests continued throughout the Joseon Dynasty (14th~19th Centuries), despite the radical change in dominant political and social ideology away from Buddhism to the Neo-Confucianism freshly imported from China. Along with the more practical and scientific orientation of the new religion and way of life, management of existing forests and creation of new groves dramatically increased along with innovative usages of the forest products. Meanwhile, traditional cultural and spiritual practices and attitudes were maintained even while being transformed into the fresh Confucian styles in the new era. Korea‘s craft-artisans, builders and farmers practicing folk-culture continued to make comprehensive use of

the products of the nation‘s forests, while the NeoConfucian leaders and scholars enhanced the previous reverence for sacred and significant trees and arbors found throughout the nation, from the courtyards of palaces to the guardian-shrines of mountain villages. They developed new sorts of usages for their trees by deliberately planting various kinds of them in exact places and maintaining certain forest areas for particular uses. This was accomplished by considerations that combining the traditional Pungsu-jiri geomantic thinking about topographical placement and practical considerations of what was needed to improve the people‘s lifestyle and productivity in specific areas. Some of these landscape-altering projects saw the planting of groves as dividers and boundary-markers of farm-fields and village areas, and others as windbreaks to protect the village with their locations determined by careful observation of the directional sources of strong winds in the various seasons. Still others were constructed as defensive-barriers along rivers, streams and roads in order to prevent soil-erosion and floods. Many of them were otherwise or coincidentally intended to provide certain kinds of fruits, nuts or useful woods for the village‘s sustenance or products that they produced. These innovative new bibo-sup groves were established and then cared for by the associations of village farmers or even the great clans of aristocratic families that dominated the local regions. These social groups established strict rules for not cutting-down or otherwise damaging these precious guardian trees, and even established customary rituals for appreciating them and passing on the values of their preservation to succeeding generations, such as particular songs or ceremonies performed at the annual village festivals

A forest ranger points out an early Joseon Dynasty inscription warning locals to care for the forest.


Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks towards that purpose. The planting of these miniforests may have originally been intended for these various practical purposes, but their subsequent beauty was also highly appreciated by the villagers and scholars, used as inspiration for philosophical musings, poetry, paintings and folk-songs. A good example of this is found at Dorip-ri Village of what is now the nearby city of Icheon, just southeast of Seoul. In 1519 six Neo -Confucian scholars survived a political purge but were exiled from the capital city, and they settled with their families at the foot of Mt. Wonjeok to start a new village. As they created their farm-fields they planted what has now become 10,000 Asian Cornelian Cherry trees as hedgerows and windbreaks between their farms. Later generations named the oldest tree, now about 450 years old, ―Spring Starter‖ in recognition of it

being the first to bloom every year. They established a custom of praying at their annual rituals that the love of this tree and its descendants would endure for all generations to come. The human descendants of those exiled scholars enjoyed the yellow flowers every spring, the cool shade and fragrance from the leaves in the steaming summers, the dark purple cherry-fruits every autumn and the ―snow-flower‖ designs that formed on the branches in the frozen winters. At the intersection of several lines of these trees they selected for preservation an interestingly-shaped pine tree that grew to a grand old age, becoming known as ―the Banryong-song‖ due to its several long branches winding along the ground that they have likened to a ―creeping dragon‖. The villagers created a corpus of songs, literati-poems, drawings and paintings celebrating the beauty of all these trees and the benefits they receive from them that still survives intact and venerated today. Forest products were involved in the manufacture of virtually every kind of practical crafts and cultural artifacts created and used during the Joseon Dynasty. The Neo-Confucian society was devoted to scholarship to an extreme degree, and all the writing and recopying of philosophical texts, works of literature and official historical records required endless amounts of good-quality paper in both sheets and scrolls. Korean traditional paper called hanji was made from the bark of mulberry trees, from groves of that species planted and maintained as an organized nationwide system under royal supervision. Zelkova trees were treasured because their wood was ideal for crafting musical instruments for the royal court ceremonies as well as village-level celebrations, and that species was also deliberately cultivated in order to ensure a steady supply. Pinewood was used to make the famous JoseonDynasty baekja white porcelain that Korea remains so proud of today, due to its characteristics of not sputteringout sparks while it burns (sparks would mar the pottery glaze) and the factor that it produces a relatively high amount of heat per unit of mass used, and so could fuel the very high temperatures needed to produce porcelain.

The 500-year old Tutelary pine of Seorak-san, part of the Baekdu-daegan. 22

Ships were made from timber harvested from the Korean forests, for the kingdom‘s communications, defense and trade. Royal palace buildings were built from the venerated Red Pines found in the deep mountains, and specific forests were marked off for preservation from culling by commoners and proper maintenance (including fire-prevention) by

Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks The Jeongipum-song tree at Songni-san.

provincial authorities in order to produce a steady supply of it for use in the palaces. The Joseon authorities established prohibition and imposition landmarks carved in stone to designate these off-limit areas of high-quality forests that were reserved for use by the royal household and its craftsmen. All of these usages required the sacrifice of large numbers of trees, and the Koreans appreciated these sacrifices made by the forests in order to produce crafts for the people‘s livelihood and the great cultural treasures that still give the nation pride, and offered them veneration in return.

for outstanding particular sacred trees, which was often semi-official based on reputation spread by word-ofmouth, but in exceptional cases grew into official designation and protection by the royal bureaucracy and provincial governments. The greatest trees were included in famous landscape paintings of particular areas, and their names were used in folk-songs and literati poems either out of simple love for the trees form of usages with symbolic meaning of such Neo-Confucian values and themes as loyalty to the regime, devotion to parents, diligent scholarship, sorrow at parting from a loved one, the decline of virtuous government, or other such themes. Some of these grand old trees became

The Joseon authorities also sponsored the creation of special forest maps to better understand and manage the particularly important forests around their kingdom, and also included significant forests and sacred groves as symbolicallyindicated important sectors in regional maps. The local village veneration of particular sacred trees grew into a general cultural reverence 23

Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks nationally famous, and remain so today, such as the ―Millennium Pine‖ at Jiri-san, the ―500-year Tutelary Pine‖ of Seorak-san and the ―Dragon-Gate Temple Ginko-tree‖ at Yongmun-san; tourist-trips include special stops to view them. This even extended to a folk-shamanic personification of particular trees, sometimes officially-designated, that made them extremely famous. The best-known example is the ―Jeongipum-song‖ pine-tree standing beside the road outside of Beobju-sa monastery in front of Mt. Songni-san. A story from the official dynastic annals tells that as king say that King Sejo (r. 145568) was carried towards the temple in his sedan-chair the lower branches of this spreading tree seemed to block his path. However, as they approached closely and the king announced his passage, they perceived that the branches lifted up enough for the sedan-chair to pass safely underneath. The king was mightily impressed at the tree‘s noble politeness, and so he granted it Ministerial rank (as Jeong-i-pum, a lower minister of the royal court), complete with enfeoffed land providing a budget for its maintenance and periodic veneration, which lasted until the end of the dynasty. It is still faithfully cared for by the provincial government today, although it has gotten very sick in its old age with many of its branches dropping off, and great efforts are being made to preserve its life and form as long as possible. It is widely used as the symbol of


Boeun County and North Chungcheong Province. Further, the 15th-Century local residents decided that such a grandly-respected ―ministertree‖ ought to have a wife, according to proper Confucian social ethics, and so they designated a huge sprawling pine with a V-shaped pair of central trunks (seen as a female fertility symbol) in the nearby village of Seowon-ri as the wife of the great tree, and they have been regarded as a ‗married couple‘ ever-since, with their wedding anniversaries celebrated in the annual village festivals. Neo-Confucianism emphasizes paying proper respect to all your predecessors both while they are alive and after they pass away, and funeral services with proper burial and rituals are especially emphasized. Differing greatly from the Chinese, the nature-loving Koreans developed a custom of burying their dead in earthen tombs up on ridges above the villages and below the peaks. These tombs are nestled within their beloved mountain-forests, ideally surrounded by tall noble pine trees, and a good location and surroundings were and are still believed to bring auspicious good fortune to the descendant family members. Creation and maintenance of those tombs often involved a fair amount of landscaping around them, planting and fostering the proper species of pine and clearing out undesired bushes and overhead foliage that would block sunlight to the clearing, letting grass grow over the tomb and its clearing in order to provide the ancestral body with a dignified ―return to nature‖,

A Ship-jangsaeng mural with strong emphasis on Korean native Red Pine.

Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks

The 1000-year old Sacred Pine Tree of Waun-ri village in Jiri-san on the Baekdu-daegan. and thus put its spirit to satisfied rest. The spirit of that mountain hosting the tomb was always invoked and venerated in order to secure its permission and blessing, and its protection of the deceased securely in its grave.

tomb and the health of the trees that surround it, they are deeply appreciative of the beauty of the autumn leaves beginning to appear throughout the mountain forests; these dan-pung colored leaves were richly celebrated in traditional poetry and songs.

Ceremonies to venerate the deceased ancestors are especially important to Neo-Confucians, and Korea developed several important annual holidays according to the solar and lunar calendars when the ceremonies were conducted. On two of them, family members visit the tombs up in the forests, cleaning them up and tending to the trees around them before they conduct the required rituals of respectful sorrow.

The Joseon Dynasty‘s ideal type of person were the seonbi, aristocratic scholars who became community and governmental leaders through their devotion to academic study and writing, public service and devel-

The holiday held in the springtime is called Hanshik, the 105th day after the winter solstice (usually April 5 th by the western calendar), when all the forest plants are starting to bud. Koreans called this the ―Cold Food Festival‖ because it was the custom to not light any fire on this day, and therefore offering and eating only uncooked or previously cooked foods. Korea usually experiences fairly dry springtimes, and this ―no fire‖ practice as they visited their ancestral tombs was a way that they avoided accidentally starting devastating forest fires as they carried out their filial duties. This theme of concern for the forests led this traditional Hanshik Day to later be transformed into the national Arbor Day for the purposes of reforestation, as we will discuss in the next section. In the autumn, the corresponding holiday is Chuseok, the Eighth Full Moon or Harvest Moon, usually falling in late September. As they tend to the neatness of the Korean forest culture displayed on their currency bank notes


Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks ing how ―remaining close to nature‖ was so important to these leaders.

oping noble hearts. These scholastic gentlemen usually performed their studies and teaching in Seodang local public schools and Seowon private academies, often located at the foot of mountains outside of towns nestled within unspoiled forests, and with huge ancient trees preserved in their courtyards. They learned and practiced a deep love of nature along with their Confucian philosophies, and whenever they finished a term of governmental service in the capital or provincial cities they were usually anxious to ―return back to nature‖ at the institutions in the forests. These noble seonbi scholars designed and built literati gardens outside their towns for study and recreation, and their notable characteristics are that they are extremely natural-looking. The remaining gardens such as the famous Seoswoe-won in South Jeolla Province are rich with cultivated trees and plants, carefully placed waterways and stones, and yet give visitors the impression of unintentional natural flow – demonstrat-


Korea‘s forests and great trees are mentioned in many of their most significant national myths and legends, including those of the origins of royal houses that formed the Korean kingdoms. It is widely known that one of the original kings of the Shilla Dynasty was found as a newborn baby in a golden box hanging from a tree in the sacred Gyerim Forest of Gyeongju (which became Shilla‘s capital city); the infant was therefore named ―Kim‖ which means ―gold‖, the color of the holy sun – and today, 21% of the Korean population holds that family name. Forests were so appreciated by the traditional Koreans that even when they constructed royal gardens in the palaces of their kings, they designed and maintained them as looking like natural woodlands, and visitors today might not even realize that it is in-fact artificiallymade. The best extant example of this is the famous Biwon or ―Secret Garden‖ that sprawls behind the Changdeok Palace in Central Seoul (a UNESCOdesignated World Heritage Site). Its layout and content are all arranged and cultivated by the human mind, with particular species planted and maintained in designated places over hundreds of years to enhance the views from the pavilions, and yet it still appears to all have just grown that way quite naturally. This devotion

Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks

A Joseon Dynasty Ilwol-Oak-do painting. to enjoying the appearance of ―nature as it is‖ forms a sharp contrast to both of Korea‘s neighbors China and Japan, both well-known for their highly-artificial and symbolically-designed garden traditions. Even after the kings passed away, selected auspicious trees continued to surround them. Carefully designed and cultivated forests served as the protectors of Joseon royal tombs (now also UNESCO World Heritage Sites), serving as the context for the regular ceremonies of veneration conducted there. This is a tradition that has endured since the elder days of the Shilla Kingdom, as can readily be seen at the Samneung Tombs on Gyeongju‘s South Mountain (World Heritage Site). Real and religious-symbolic trees appear frequently in all kinds of royal artworks, including clay-tile decorations on the walls of the palaces and embroidered on the silk royal and ministerial robes. There is a painting behind every wooden throne-chair of the Joseon Dynasty called an Ilwol-Oak-do that contains four essential elements depicting the summation of Korea‘s ecology that grants legitimacy to the king and nourishes his subjects: the sun and moon, five tutelary mountains, two waterfalls flowing from them and two tall mature Red Pine trees. The inclusion of the epitome of Korean trees as essential icons of royal authority (as is also true in the Sanshin paintings previously discussed) demonstrates their importance in the national cultural mind. These Ilwol-Oak-do paintings are still used as backdrops for photos of important meetings held by the Presidents of the Republic of Korea today. This tradition also extended into the folk-arts of both the aristocracy and commoners. Twisted pine trees symbolizing the unpredictable flow of nature and the values of loyal endurance despite hardship are one of

the most common motifs in all of Korea‘s formal and folkish paintings, including icons of spiritual beings. They are one of the members of the Ship-jangsaeng or ―Ten Symbols of Longevity‖ paintings and embroideries, considered one of the most culturally-characteristic motifs in Korean traditional art, another indication of their love of natural forms and still widely seen all over the urbanized society today. The five tutelary mountains included in those royal throne-backing paintings was a key theme of the legitimate authority of Korean kingdoms from their earliest development until the dawn of the modern age. Each of the three kingdoms and three dynasties of Korean history designated five actual mountains in the corresponding Daoist directions (north, south, east, west, and center) outlining the national territory. These sacred peaks had large shrines built at their feet and were enfeoffed by royal order with designated farmlands to support the holding of regular ceremonies that venerated their spirits; this was done in the Confucian style of a feudal Lord rewarding an aristocrat for a great service (as often happened at the founding of new dynasties). Until the 20th Century there were five of these elaborate ―royal‖ Sanshin shrines established by the Joseon kings throughout Korea, four in what is now South Korea and one in the North; today only three of them are extant, and local communities have resumed holding ceremonies at them. Joseon‘s Neo-Confucian leaders mildly suppressed Shamanism (together with Buddhism) in the cities and villages, in favor of purely Confucian rituals. Such beliefs as Sanshin and tree-spirits were labeled as ―folk superstitions‖ by those favoring the secular rationality of China over indigenous religion. Among the educated Sino-phillic elite, Pungsu-jiri theories of the energies running through the mountain ranges were consid27

Ch.7 Confucian Reverence for Trees: Joseon Royal and Folk Artworks

ered superior to ―primitive‖ and intuitive folk beliefs. Given the strong background outlined in our previous sections, the rationalistic Korean Neo-Confucians developed a varied and complex relationship with the Sanshin mountain-spirits, opposing the more superstitious aspects of their worship by villagers but also accepting them as a root part of traditional national culture. Explicitly Confucian iconographic motifs came to be used in most of the paintings of this deity, indicating


Modern Korean reforestation in Jiri-san, part of the Baekdu-daegan. his status as a patriarchal lord fitting within Confucian ideals, and that helped to lessen the opposition. The ancient tradition of royal support for formal Sanshin worship, supplicating protection of and blessings to their localities, the ruling dynasty and the nation as a whole, continued as noted above and could not be ignored or suppressed by Neo-Confucianists despite some protests by purists.

In the face of the villagers‘ continuing faith in their tutelary deities and the nationalistic appeal of indigenous spirituality, the scholars found that compromise was necessary – and so Neo-Confucian-style customs of ceremonial veneration of the spirits of great mountains and prominent trees developed nationwide, in conjunction with the hoary village guardian-spirit festivals. They came to be regarded as important for maintaining the social cohesion of the villages and townships, and regarded as a sort of Confucian ancestral rituals performed by the entire citizenry in recognition and celebration of their unity beyond family lines. These local ceremonies for spirits of mountains and trees were ―Confucianized‖ with senior males taking over as their officiates instead of female shamans, or in some cases the ceremonies were divided and each of them conducted different sections, the slow and dignified Confucian style making a complimentary contrast to the older, more colorful and active Shamanic style. As those spirits came to be regarded as collective local -ancestral deities, their national-ancestral association with legendary founding-king Dan-gun became an additional factor in the acceptance and transformative fostering of these ceremonies by the NeoConfucianists.

of the ―gwageo roads‖, on which Neo-Confucian aspirants traveled from their hometowns to the capitol city to take the highest-level state examinations (Gwageo); and if they were successful and therefore eligible to become high ranking officials or even royal Ministers, they proudly paraded back to their native villages along these same pathways. Korea is still a meritocracy based on education, and therefore the citizenry loves these old roads and the landscapes surrounding them.

8. Korea’s efforts to Rehabilitate its Degraded Forests

The Joseon Dynasty also made great efforts to keep the capital and other major cities auspicious by maintaining thick forests on their surrounding mountains through legally-mandated policies, with local officials being held responsible by the central government for sustainable usage of regional woodlands. The extensive official Joseon Annals record how dedicated royal offices directly managed forests in the capital area, especially around the areas of royal tombs. They employed their centralized administrative power to encourage local landscaping based on proven traditional geomantic theories, in particular establishing bibosup village groves in local communities that did not yet have them, and a policy of planting particularly useful species of trees at regular intervals along the national roads that connected major population centers through the mountains. Some of these ―old pathways‖ by which Koreans traveled between areas are now major highways, but others have been preserved as walking-paths with rich forests on both sides. The most famous of these runs over the Mungyeong-Saejae Pass, through three impressive fortress-gates (now a Provincial Park and administered by the Korea Forest Service). This was one

A fire warning stele near the Baekdu-daegan . During the last century of the Joseon Dynasty, however, the protective policies and traditions described in the previous sections of this volume suffered a tragic failure. Many of the forests nearby cities and towns suffered from over-harvesting due to the growing national population and ever-increasing production of the many cultural-lifestyle artifacts made from wood and other forest materials. Despite the many practices of traditional reverence for sustainable use of the land and its flora, there was simply too great of a demand for the useful and beautiful forest products. The vast forests of the Baekdu-daegan regions remained mostly -unharmed due to the relative remoteness of those mountains, but many of the lower-altitude ones close-at -hand suffered unsustainable levels of cutting and clearing, with only the sacred village groves remaining. Especially when the main Joseon palace called Gyeongbok-gung was magnificently reconstructed in 29

Ch.8 Korea’s efforts to Rehabilitate its Degraded Forests the 1860s, excessive amounts of the largest ancient highly-venerated Red Pine trees were cut down in order to build the dozens of grand royal halls and hundreds of lesser structures. This problem greatly accelerated as Korea launched its industrialization in the early 20th Century under the compulsion of Japanese colonial authorities, whose policies devastated Korea‘s forests for the purpose of rapid development without any consideration for their long-term sustainability. Agricultural soils, rivers and water-sources were also overexploited and polluted in a heedless way. After liberation, however, this ecological crisis actually became much worse during the 1950-53 Korean War, when bombings and artillery-shellings caused great forest-fires that left entire mountainous areas in ashes all over the nation. Only a few of the remotest areas along the Baekdu-daegan and its Jeongmaek branchranges were spared, and these form the core of the only remaining old-growth forest left in Korea today. When the ceasefire agreement was finally concluded, the citizenry found the hills around them virtually denuded and mostly blackened, with very little of their traditional forest-cover remaining anywhere close to villages or urban areas. This was immediately recognized as a vital and existential national emergency, threatening the overall ecological health of the entire peninsula and most aspects of the people‘s lifestyles. Wood products were particularly difficult to obtain for reconstruction of all the war-damaged buildings, and therefore there was an overly-rapid transition to modern brick and cement architecture, with the beautiful traditional style of buildings tragically beginning a steep decline.


Postwar poverty prevented much being done about this beyond local efforts through the rest of the 1950s. However, in recognition of this national crisis and the importance of Korea‘s trees to every aspect of its lifestyle quality and economic prosperity, President Park Chung Hee launched a grand effort to reforest the nation in the 1960s. This was repeatedly proclaimed as one of the top-priority national goals and projects, and having the highest importance for both the economy and the national cultural-spirit. The Park government created an Arbor Day holiday to provide a springtime planting-season focus for this effort, and spur it forward. The world‘s first ―Arbor Day‖ was started in Nebraska of the United States of America in April of 1872, to encourage individuals and com-

Ch.8 Korea’s efforts to Rehabilitate its Degraded Forests munity groups to care for their local trees and plant new ones, and was immediately deemed very successful. Many other developed nations adopted this holiday -practice during the 20th Century. At the president‘s personal directive, the Republic of Korea followed these examples inaugurating Sikmok-jeol (literally meaning ―tree-planting holiday‖) as an annual public holiday set on April 5th. As mentioned in the previous chapter, this date was deliberately set to coincide with the traditional NeoConfucian holiday Hansik, when Koreans would clean and care for their forefather‘s tombs and the forests surrounding them, while performing appropriate ancestral ceremonies, eating cold foods and avoiding all fires. For these Arbor Days starting almost half a century ago, the government organized massive tree-planting efforts in every upland corner of the nation, with initial priority given to the most important forest areas nearby civilized areas and then later deeper into the mountains. Great care was taken to choose the appropriate native species for each particular area, and then prepare the necessary seeds or saplings; most of Korea‘s forestry officials and biological researchers were employed to properly accomplish these efforts, inspect the results and then ensure proper maintenance of the new young forests. This was partially operated in conjunction with the well-known Saemaeul-undong or ―New Village Movement‖ that dramatically succeeded in transforming Korea‘s rural villages from impoverished backwaters to comfortable modern farming communities in just a few decades, but its scope reached far beyond the farmers to also include the urban residents.

Almost all of South Korea‘s citizens participated in these crucial efforts, with thousands trooping out on steep trails to the targeted areas at dawn on the special day. Supplied with shovels and the appropriate seeds or saplings, high-school students sweated in the arduous labor alongside aged farmers and Buddhist monks; housewives worked along with professors, government officials, soldiers and office-workers. Nobody was exempt from being called to this service, as the president himself and provincial governors showed up to lead various local efforts, alongside national assembly politicians, entertainment stars and top business leaders. Even foreign residents such as Christian missionaries and American soldiers showed up to lend their hands beside the common people. National radio and then television broadcast the scenes of these mass-popular efforts, always reemphasizing their importance for everyone. Areas that had been replanted in previous years were revisited by Forest Service offi-

A boardwalk through a native pine forest in Korea can also act as a refreshing Forest Bath.


Ch.8 Korea’s efforts to Rehabilitate its Degraded Forests cials for maintenance and the ecological fostering of the young trees. Simple but celebratory meals were held at the end of the long hard days, with plenty of rice-wine and songs flowing around as everyone appreciated each other for joining in the successful collective efforts. Therefore these Arbor Day projects were not only important for restoring the national tree-cover but also for fostering a sense of national unity and egalitarian brotherhood, greatly increasing the social cohesion that had been frayed by colonialism and war. In addition, working so hard to restore the national forests after they had been tragically lost gave all the Koreans a fresh appreciation for their great importance to every aspect of their wellbeing. They gained a renewed but yet modernized veneration for their forests, a sense of their spiritual significance rising far beyond their mere physical utility. Having participated in planting and nurturing tens of thousands of trees, they felt in their hearts that these forests were truly ―theirs‖. By the turn of the millennium this grand national reforestation effort had proven to be tremendously successful, and it became very difficult to find any new areas to replant because healthy forests now covered every non -civilized slope. South Korea became globally recognized as is the only nation which totally reforested itself


after World War II. This is all the more remarkable because it was accomplished in conjunction with its gigantic and dynamic modern-industrialization drive, with the two seen as equally-necessary factors of national redevelopment as an ―Asian tiger economy‖, the socalled ―Korean Miracle‖, not as contradictory rivals. The Republic of Korea remains with the second-most percentage of total forest-cover in the OECD club of developed nations, behind only Switzerland. Arbor Day therefore ceased being a public holiday in 2005, converted to being a commemorative day. It is still celebrated by the Korean Forest Service and other governmental and local organizations, however, and still retains its place in the people‘s hearts.

9. Modern Korea’s Recreation and Green Well-being of their Mountain Forests. The Korean‘s reawakened appreciation for the importance and beauty of their forests has been maintained into the new millennium. As the nation began to prosper under the industrial push by the 1970s, mountainhiking became the most popular hobby of national citizens, and it remains so today. It is seen as a low-cost and health-giving leisure activity that also brings peace of mind and a joyful heart through the contact with unspoiled nature. It is further seen as taking justified

pride in the nation‘s beauty and its successful reforestation – Koreans feel united with their tree-covered mountains deep in their souls, proud to be members of this country and caretakers of its natural heritage. Sales of mountain-hiking magazines and maps, boots, trekking-poles and other types of mountaineering clothing have remained extremely strong for decades, creating a very strong domestic market for these things along with more than a few national brands of such equipment that now enjoy high reputations and strong sales overseas. Korea‘s mountain-hiking hobby has been one of the leading factors in its becoming one of the world‘s top sports equipment makers and retailers. The widespread public appreciation of and visiting of the mountain ecologies goes deeper into popular concepts of ―well-being‖ gaining or restoring health, which are based upon a close connection with nature. Most Koreans believe that simply walking through a well forested area envelops the person in extra doses of oxygen and other beneficial elements, and they call this activity taking a ―forest-bath‖. Entire families are frequently seen indulging in this health-recreation practice in any of Korea‘s many parks, strolling along pleasant wooden or cobblestone walkways with tall trees on either side, or climbing up steeper trails in order to get sweeping views from craggy outcroppings of the surrounding peaks. 33

Ch.9 Modern Korea’s Recreation and green Well-being of their Mountain Forests. The Korean Forest Service has created many such pathways specifically for this purpose, often with little educational signs placed all along the way describing the species of plants and animals that the walkers are likely to encounter. It has also constructed an entire system of forest-camp cabins that individuals, groups or families may reserve in advance online and then rent for one or more nights, to have pleasurable experiences of the sylvan slopes and painlessly become educated about their natural residents and preservation.

all social classes can enjoy and benefit from, which are also fully sustainable in the way that they avoid damaging the natural environments that they pass through and simultaneously grant gentle benefits to local economies for village-based service-providers. Everyone including the many foreign residents have been making good use of these new facilities.

Greater public knowledge of Korea‘s flora and fauna has led to noticeably heightened concern for preserving them against the potential ravages of a modern industrial economy. This has led to a broad based ―Green Korea‖ civilian ecological movement that has counterbalanced the sometimes overambitious plans of the economic development officials and construction corporations. Several of the governmental agencies concerned with the natural environment, such as the Korean Forest Service, more often find themselves in alliance with the civic eco-activists than in rivalry with them, as they share the same basic love for the mountain-forests.

The idea of hiking along the crest of the Baekdudaegan within South Korea is gaining in popularity; several books and websites are now devoted to this, and more people attempt it each year, usually from its southern terminus northwards. Few Koreans are able to spend the 6 to 9 weeks necessary to do this in one marathon trek, and so many hiking associations (sanak -hoi, ubiquitous within corporations, government offices, universities, neighborhoods, religious institutions and so on) are now dedicated to accomplishing the feat one weekend at a time, with holidays and perhaps an annual week of vacation, over perhaps two or three years. This is a goal realistically-easy for most healthy people to accomplish, and international residents could also employ it as a strategy for learning deeply about Korea and better enjoying their residence here.

In this way the public‘s knowledge of their country‘s natural-resource treasures has been painlessly enhanced while minds are relaxed, muscles stretched and cardio-pulmonary systems are strengthened. This has further developed into a general government-led effort of ―Green Tourism‖ that includes establishing fresh walking pathways, bicycle routes and hiking trails for easily-accessible public use. This is a conscious effort to create low-cost eco-tourism opportunities that

The trail passes through 32 cities and counties in six provinces, and through seven national parks, two provincial parks, and many local parks and protected national forests. Hundreds of species of plants and animals are at home on the ridgeline and its slopes, including some rare ones. There are almost 80 drivable roadways crossing the crest, around two thirds of them paved, which provide plenty of access-points to reach or leave the trails.


Ch.9 Modern Korea’s Recreation and green Well-being of their Mountain Forests. There is a clear, signposted and well-made trail over only some sections of the Baekdudaegan crest so far, developed by the Korea Forest Service in conjunction with local authorities. Some parts of the trail within national parks are closed for nature preservation purposes, without any clear detour-routes being designated. Other sections of the crest-trail are still quite wild, still being created by the hikers themselves. Information is still much more difficult to find than it ought to be. However, all these factors are improving every single month, as development is carried out by the concerned agencies and increasing attention to the ecological health of the remaining natural regions is also being paid by all of those concerned and involved with Korea‘s ―green‖ movements.

opportunities to learn about and experience some of Korea's long and diverse history, civil and international conflicts, rural lifestyles, religious and spiritual traditions, great historical personalities, delicious foods and drinks, architectural styles both ancient and modern, health-enhancing practices and even its mysteries. Whether staying up on the crest, or descending into one of the many beautiful gorges off its sides, or stopping off in remote villages for recuperation, hikers will meet many of Korea's friendliest, wisest and most hospitable people, both avid hikers and countryside residents – who themselves just might be the mountain-system‘s greatest treasures.

The trail within South Korea is generally said to be from eastern Jiri-san to a pass just north of the Seorak-san National Park, which is the route taken by the 10-week ―2007 Baekdudaegan Expedition‖ accomplished by two hikers from New Zealand. That private expedition, resulting in a published Guidebook, was a Forest education being conducted by the demonstration of what is involved in hiking the Korea Forest Service entire trail while taking the time to stop at its maIn order to halt further ecojor cultural and religious attractions, with a sense of logical damage and restore what can still be preserved, fascination with Korea‘s traditional mountain-forest culthe government granted the Baekdu-daegan official ture that only increases with such long treks. recognition for the first time in 2003, when it mandated the preservation and proper management of "the backHiking on the Baekdu-daegan offers visitors not only bone of the Korean peninsula and the treasure-house sweeping views of stupendous natural beauty, but also

A Baekdu-daegan tablet sits under a village Guardian Tree and Stone Altar in Nochi-maeul village on the Baekdu-daegan


Ch.9 Modern Korea’s Recreation and green Well-being of their Mountain Forests.

of its ecosystem" as a nation-spanning Saengtaegongwon or ―Nature-preservation Park‖, the only one of its kind so far. The Korea Forest Service was granted jurisdiction over it, and has launched many projects to strengthen protection of remaining wildlife, revitalize damaged areas, and promote "nationwide love of the Baekdu-daegan". The civic environmental-activist NGO ―Green Korea United‖ has pledged to devote its own efforts towards the same goals. It is especially the mountains of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), that narrow but peninsula-wide strip in between the opposing forces, that remain pristine in the public mind. Everyone knows that they are the last untouched sectors of absolute wilderness remaining on the Korean Peninsula, hosting many species of wild animals, birds and plants that can no longer be found elsewhere. The entire citizenry is in agreement that this precious zone must remain protected in its natural state no matter what happens politically and the reunification of the nation, being preserved as a great national natural park to the farthest extent possible. The K.F.S. is expected to take the lead in transforming this area into protected parklands and forest reserves once the ideal of peaceful reconciliation is achieved. This is just one aspect of the relatively-new national imperatives in development-strategy of ―green growth‖ and concern for mitigating the causes of climatechange. The K.F.S. continues to promote the preservation and expansion of existing forests for carbon sequestration, in order to meet these worldwide goals. As said above, the Saemaeul-undong or ―New Village Movement‖ invented and operated by the national gov36

ernment since the 1960s was dramatically successful in modernizing Korea‘s villages. However, it must be pointed out that it also disrupted traditional patterns of forest usage and preservation, and prompted the destruction of the previously-described seonang-dang village guardian-shrines which had symbolized and propagated the protection of the forests for many centuries. In the rush to modernization, many aspects of traditional spiritual culture were labeled as ―old superstitions‖ and suppressed, with the canceling of ceremonies, preventing villagers from making certain foods and drinks used in them, tearing-down of the shrines, and even actual cutting down of sacred trees or groves. This was a tragic loss of Korea‘s traditional culture relating to its mountain-forests, and some of the things that were lost could never be recovered. However, some activists worked against this trend, preserving many of the old artifacts and icon-paintings and re-educating the villagers about the value of their old spiritual traditions, partially reinterpreted in ways that make sense for the modern era of society. Westerneducated architect Dr. Zo Za-yong was so worried about the loss of authentic national cultural thinking and practices that he became the primary collector of antique folk-art, often rescued directly from the debris of destroyed shrines. By the 1980s he then launched his ―Old Village Movement‖ to counteract the excessive denigration of tradition involved in the government-led modernization, persuading villagers to rebuild shrines and resume the most sensible and beneficial of their ancient practices, especially those that express the devotion to nature and improve the community psychology of realizing the importance of their natural surroundings and increasing the priority of protecting

them, only using them in sustainable ways. His favorite symbol of this became the Sanshin Mountain-spirit, as it embodied these values of protecting nature and in return receiving protection from nature; he loved to lead residents in reviving and adapting tradition to create new Sanshin ceremonies for their villages suitable for people with modern educations, that consciously raised the sense of social cohesion and reverent stewardship of the forests around them.

10. Conclusion: 21st-Century Korea’s Harmonious Identity with Spiritual Forest Culture At the turn of the millennium the Republic of Korea had already emerged as one of the most dynamic economic and cultural hubs of the contemporary world. Although now most famous for their high-technology exports and highly-advanced usage of the internet, Koreans have managed to maintain or revive the best aspects of their traditional culture that represent and promote their ancient love of their forests and the mountains lying beneath them. They have forged a new harmonious identity with forest-culture at its heart, combining ancient spirituality and modern recreation in ways that provide the entire citizenry with physical health, psychological well-being, and ecological preservation.

Following the losses in these factors that resulted from several decades of overly-rapid modernization, there has been a strong concern from both governmental and civic organs to define, revive, protect, upgrade and promote this nation‘s indigenous culture and all the arts and practices still associated with it. As a key part of this, Koreans have rediscovered and upgraded the values discussed in this booklet: native love for their mountain-forests, devoted craftsmanship in the usage of the products harvested from them, and the religious traditions of expressing veneration of them. Many communities in the deep forests of the Baekdudaegan and its branch-ranges have been successful in reviving their traditional spiritual practices that invoke the protection of the ecology around them and supplicate from it corresponding protection for themselves. People realize that unpolluted intact forests surrounding their village provide excellent air and water that allows families to be fostered strong and healthy. Throughout the mountainous regions, villagers are once again maintaining their Seonang-dang village guardian-shrines, symbolizing and propagating protection both of the forests from unsustainable exploitation by the community, and protection of the community from misfortunes by the forests. They are once again holding seasonal rituals at those shrines, in conscious attempts to improve social cohesion in these local areas, taking pride that ―this is our own local culture‖ in each particular area. Sanshin-gak shrines are once again being reconstructed, maintained and worshipped at, with a renewed sense of relevance granted to the ideas of spiritual protection of


Ch.10 Conclusion: 21st Century Korea’s Harmonious Identity with Spiritual Forest Culture. natural forests and obtaining personal protection from being surrounded by healthy ecology. In this way, the various ancient traditions of Mountain-spirits as symbols of the indigenous respect for and sustainable care of the mountain-forests are still very much alive in South Korea, not only surviving but flourishing out on the edges of very modern lifestyles; they are even evolving new roles within twenty-first century cultural and political realities. The sheer strength of this may be unique to Korea among all technologically-sophisticated industrialized nations. Many contemporary Koreans can be seen to regard the Baekdu-daegan as a symbol of national unity, and hiking along it to be a personal gesture of basic patriotism and wishing for reunification. The fact that it is a single system of mountains that spans the politically divided North and South gives it a unique position as symbolizing the national desires for peace and unity. Photos of the peaks and crater-lake of Mt. Baekdu, the rootbeginning of the mountain-system, are nearly ubiquitous in contemporary governmental and business offices, schools and other such institutions as an expression of this ideal, one that everyone seems to intuitively understand.


The fact that its crest trail is now hike-able allows everyone to experience its magnificence, exploring the natural and cultural treasures of its myriad soaring peaks and steep valleys. As more people explore its ridges and gorges, they are taking the opportunity to gain greatly-enhanced appreciation of this nation‘s remaining natural forest assets, and the importance of protecting them with an attitude of spiritual reverence. Anyone who travels around the country and hikes up on the trails of the Baekdu-daegan and other ranges will find plenty of both old and newly-evolving signs of its ancient traditions of respect for the Sanshin mountainspirits, up on high ridges buried deep within the carefully restored forests. If you look at them with empathy you will feel deep in your heart just how important the mountains and their forests have been and still remain to the dynamic Korean nation and its residents.

A giant Yew tree on Mt. Hambaek-san on the Baekdu-daegan.


The Korean Forest Culture of the Baekdu-daegan Published by the Forest Recreation and Culture Division of the Korea Forest Service for the 2011 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification PUBLICATION PROFILES David A. Mason is a Professor of Korean Cultural Tourism at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, and researcher on the religious character of Korea's mountains. Prior to his assuming this post, he worked for the National Ministry of Culture and Tourism for 5 years, and served 14 years as Professor of English out in the Korean countryside. He was appointed ―Honorary Promotional Ambassador of the Baekdu-daegan Range‖ in January 2011. A citizen of the United States, he has been living in South Korea for 27 years now. He earned a Masters' Degree in the History of Korean Religions from Yonsei University in 1997. He has authored or edited nine eight books and many articles on Korean culture and tourism. More information on him can be found at or at Roger Shepherd is the founder of HIKE KOREA a company that specializes in promoting the identity of Korean Mountain Culture through photography and literature. A native New Zealander he has worked as an African Wildlife Ranger, and a member of the New Zealand Police. His interest in Korea began in 2006 with a reconnaissance exploration of the Baekdu-daegan mountain system with a completed team expedition of it in 2007. He led the first English guide book publication on the Baekdu-daegan and has subsequently spent thousands of kilometers on long distance hikes exploring Korea‘s numerous mountains. More information on him can be found at or at

Written by David A. Mason Photography by Roger Shepherd of HIKE KOREA Layout Design by Roger Shepherd of HIKE KOREA Photo Credits: Images on bottom p.16, and both on p.30 courtesy of Korea Forest Service Reference Materials Chun, Young Woo 2010 Forests and Korean Culture. (published in Korean 1999, English translation by Yi, Cheong-Ho in 2010. Seoul: Soomun Publishers and Korea Foundation. Iryeon (13th Cent.) Samguk Yusa: Myths & Legends of the Three Kingdoms. English translation by Ha, Tae-hung 1972. Seoul: Yonsei University Press. Mason, David A. 1999 Spirit of the Mountains: Korea's Sanshin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship. Seoul: Hollym Publishers. Shepherd & Douch 2010 Baekdu-daegan Trail Guidebook: Hiking Korea‘s Mountain Spine. Seoul: Seoul Selections Books. The Society for Forests and Culture 2008 100 Enchanting Forests in Korea. Seoul: The Society for Forests and Culture.

Cover Design by Max Charnley at 40

The Ancient Forest Culture of the Baekdu Daegan  

A 40 page colour essay on the ancient forest culture of Korea's Baekdu Daegan mountain spine.