Monday, 11 February 2008

Hats off and a moment of silence for Namdaemun Gate, or Sungnyemun

All around Seoul and the rest of Korea, there are markers and placards around historical sites saying "XXX place, Korean National Treasure # __" before the explanation.

Of them all, the top, the big numero uno, was Sungnyemun, also known as Namdaemun Gate. It was one of the gates to the old city, and it was originally built in 1396-8 or so.

Here's a picture.

Sungryemun, Korea's National Treasure #1
See more pictures here. Seriously, follow the link: it's a good photo essay on a really beautiful structure.

This morning, I got into school and everyone was buzzing. During my first class, I got two text messages: Namdaemun is Destroyed!

At first, I had no idea what that might mean.
(sorry. I did an image search of "Namdaemun Gate Destroyed" on google and that picture showed up.)

The truth was much less fanciful, and much more tragic.

They suspect it was arson: someone was seen climbing up inside the building, and a spark spotted shortly after.
I went down to see what it looked like.
Getting closer.

Close enough to see some details of the ruin now.
The crosswalks around the intersection were all shoulder to shoulder. Many were taking pictures, but many were just standing, aghast.

Hundreds of people were just standing there, silently. Like a wake.
Every Korean I've talked to about this is shocked and dismayed -- nobody knows what to say. I don't even know what to compare it to.
For Americans, imagine Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial being destroyed by an earthquake. For Canadians. . . I have to reach; most of our defining symbols are natural features. Imagine if the Hockey Hall of Fame burnt down, and Bobby Orr died trying to save Wayne Gretzky, and Sidney Crosby's knee got shattered by a piece of flying debris as the building collapsed, maybe. Or if a geothermic event wiped out Niagara Falls as we know it, and left it as the Niagara steep rapids instead. Or if the CN Tower were 600 years old when it burnt own.

People milling about in shock, dumbstruck, with haunted eyes.

They say it'll take two years to rebuild, and hopefully they'll protect it, and other important Korean heritage buildings, against fire more carefully: this is not the first time a Korean heritage site has been threatened by fire.

P.S.: This post got linked by GI Korea on his popular Korea blog ROK Drop. Props for your coverage, and thanks for the kudos!


Jilal said...

WOW! That's so sad. I can't believe some people (arsonists). Really, what are they acomplishing except letting the rest of us know they are complete idiots for ruining such precious history!

Susan said...

I feel like the reasons that culminated to the burning of this monument just emphasizes what kind of ugly toilet the Korean mentality is being flushed down.

The man was pissed that he got ripped off by a developer. But besides that the gate being open for tourism (which = monies) both added up to this. The two factors both have to do with Korea's ever increasing loss of morals and culture.

The irony in that they LITERALLY lost a physical piece of culture is pretty evident. Its a manifestation of the loss of all scrupples.

Thanks for the pictures btw.

Roboseyo said...

Well, susan, I don't know if the actions of one person and the mismanagement of a few other organizations can be taken as typifying all of Korean culture. Sure, there are things to be said about this guy's disregard for Seoul, etc., but I don't know if it's fair to extrapolate that into a general moral decay in Korea, any more than it'd be fair to call somebody an alcoholic after you bump into him on the one night a year he paints the town red. I'd need to see more evidence before drawing that kind of conclusion. Why not judge the culture by its high-water marks, instead of the low?

Susan said...

I’m Korean-American btw (Born and raised in the US). I have pride that I'm Korean. I’m fluent in the language and comfortable with the culture so that even native Koreans would ask me when I moved to the states. When I saw pictures and footage of the gate burning it made me really upset. But my familiarity with the language and culture (therefore my ability to blend seamlessly with international students) has introduced me to some really unpleasant things that I didn't want to know. But that I'm glad I do.

The rapid growth of Korea's economy has led to a lot of problems of morality. I suppose its unfair to say that it only applies to Korea. However, the fact of the matter is the most recent election had really nothing to do with reunification or resolving the half a century long problem of the division of Korea. I'm living overseas so I have skewed perception. But I just think that THAT should be a higher priority.

The main issue on everyone's mind for that election was (and is) ECONOMY.

I love the culture. Whenever I see my school's poongmol team perform I get a little welled up. It's really wonderful what a great culture Korea does have. But a lot of that is becoming muddled and lost. Chebuls aside... it sort of applies to the entire mentality of Korea (I think also maybe generational shock from the IMF?)

I'm sorry I ranted a bit. You just made it seem like I was completely flaming Koreans. I'm not Actually I'm offended that you seemed to be assuming that I was just some random person spouting things they didn't know or understand. I spent that last three years of my college life pouring myself over dozens of books and articles even creating readers for extra-curricular study groups formed to discuss one thing: Korea (north and south). However, it doesn't mean I'm not ashamed of a lot of things Korea is. But perhaps my expectations have been too high. The truth is though... Korea is losing a lot of its "high water mark" culture.

And therein lies the irony. This just seemed like a literal manifestation of that continuing loss... of CULTURE(which apparently didn't seem to be valued much). But Koreans are going to be too busy trying to find someone to blame to consider why or how this could have really happened (crazy man aside, why is something deemed a national treasure opened up to attract tourism... like a commodity more than a national treasure).

Sorry for being so long-winded. I could probably hold a symposium with all the issues that I dumped into this comment. -_____- I'm not a crazy, and I would advise you from assuming everyone on the internet is a flaming moron. Because they're not.

Roboseyo said...

hi again susan. sorry if my response to yours came across as flip or arrogant. . . fitting all my thoughts into a few words sometimes means the tact gets edited out. Reading your reply to mine, you fleshed out all the points that I kinda smeared as unsupported by evidence, and left me feeling a bit sheepish.

In my defense, I've been dismayed at the amount of negativity about Korea that comes up on the comment boards on a lot of the expat in Korea blogs, though it certainly wasn't fair for me to paint you with that brush.

I totally agree with you, right down the line about the emphasis on economy and growth at the expense of everything else -- in the Park Chunghee days, that was excusable, because the country had a lot of growing to do, but these days the focus on numbers, benchmarks, and quantifiable results can lead to uncomfortable compromises. I also share your concern (with dismay) that rather than taking a good look in the mirror, and really considering the relationship between Korea's present and its past, too much energy is being spent looking for a scapegoat in this situation.

The "judge by the high-water mark/low-water mark" idea is an axe i've been grinding/pebble I've had kicking around in my shoe lately, and it WAS a little trite to tack it onto my reply. I may expand it in a later post, but for now: My bad. Sorry if I cast you as a flaming moron; it wasn't my intention, and next time I'll save "replying to comments" time for sometime I can choose my words more carefully.

Like you (though for different reasons) I've also spent years trying to understand everything I can about Korea; I'm glad I have. Poke around the site if you'd like to see some of the things I've discovered.

Anyway, thanks for visiting, and thanks for caring enough to reply, and re-reply; the more I hear, the more I can learn.

Have a great day!

Susan said...

Yeah sorry if my response to your response seemed a little rude. Because frankly it was -_-. I'm just glad you were good natured enough to respond rationally haha.

Thanks for all the pictures (and the post about snow at the place were some nice candid photos). I haven't really been able to afford to go to Korea for nearing a decade now. My family isn't as well off as most Korean-American families.But I suppose I get to live vicariously through candid photos that my friends (or strangers on the internet haha) took.

BTW I saw your post about geumgangsan. I remember going there too. It is definitely a place mostly for show. Hopefully I get accepted for the program here in the US where they let a few Korean-Americans REALLY (but obviously that is controlled too) visit the DPRK every year. I guess one of the many things that separates me from my international Korean student counterparts: I can actually visit north korea... although none of them probably would want to even if they could. I'm crossing my fingers so hard they're about to snap off.

But anyway, right on man. Keep posting.

Anonymous said...

I understand that it is sad, and a national tragedy, but aren't people overstating it just a little? Yes, the monument is over 600 years old, but it had been burned down several times previously, the last time during the Korean war. The actual wood that was burnt was less than sixty years old. I think the comparisons to tragedies in other countries might have been a bit overstated.

Roboseyo said...

I suppose that depends on which tragedy, in which other country you've heard it compared to. (This guy has something valuable to say about that.

Breathless media coverage goes overboard during the first week after unexpected events like this in any country, and personally, I find the tributes (for example, the shrine in front of the burnt ruins) kind of touching. I don't speak Korean, so I don't know what kind of rhetoric is going around on the Korean news channels, but it seems like it's on its way to blowing over.

Hopefully, before it blows over, there'll be infrastructure or plans in place to better protect Korea's other heritage sites.