Elwood 5566

Village Sentinels – Totems (장승)

Posted in Photo diary by 노강호 on November 22, 2010

a totem (장승)  being carved

In more rural Korean areas totems, changseung (장승) often guard the passage to villages. Their design varies from simplistic to elaborate and encompass original and artistic designs as well as ones either explicitly ‘pornographic’ or with ‘pornographic’ elements. At other times they are humorous or simply bizarre. I am fascinated by the manner in which Korean wood is twisted and knotted by the landscape and weather and as I wrote previously, in (Penis Paradise), I see so much of the character of Korean people and their history embodied in wood.  In the mountains one often sees the most interesting examples of contorted wood wood that almost seems to have been tortured.

a rather obvious example of ‘releasing’ the qualities inherent in the ‘raw’ material.

A few months ago, when I visited Palgongsan Park in Daegu, I bought a small carving which cost 10000 Won (£10), the nature of the wood is interesting; a section of branch or small stem which on one side, a burr (burl – US English) has caused to ‘explode’ in a fascinating manner.  I’m indebted to a reader  for identifying this feature and also drawing my attention to the fact it is highly weathered. The wood has been used to carve a  totem-like face  while the burl, now forming the back of the head, forces one to seek meaning in the combination. From another angle, a second, half face can be imagined.

resembles the face of a totem (chang-seung)

the back reveals some former ‘explosion’ caused by  a burl

in profile

a further resemblance of a face

projects in the process

Several months ago, I was visiting Kayasan National Park when in the middle of nowhere, our minibus broke down. We pulled down a slip road next to a basic cheong-cha (정자), to await recovery.

a basic cheong-cha (정자), they harbor breezes and shelter you from the sun.

Stood in a row along the small road, warding away demons and evil, were  a number of totems (jang-seung 장승)  Totems guard the approaches to villages and scare away evil spirits and were, and in some cases still are worshiped  (tutelary deities). Different parts of Korea have different totems and they are closely associated with shamanism.

Broken Down but even stuck in the mountains our mini-bus is picked up and repaired within 2 hours

with a kimchi pot on the head


who’s your dentist?

I was the only one giving them any attention!

looking glum

another kimchi head

and every opportunity to carve a dick

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.


4 Responses

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  1. Unctuous Jones said, on November 22, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    The carving you bought has a burl or root wood on what is the back of the head. Burls are the result of disease. Root wood is of course wood from the center of the root ball. Both are desirable for woordworking, though often they are unusable. Yours appears to have been weathered for many years before the carver set to it.

    Some time ago I mentioned to you my surprise at seeing overtly sexual imagery on some old Korean pottery. I’d assumed that, aside from the bounty of wooden penises, this sort of thing had been shunted aside by the onset of Christianity. The pottery I mentioned graphically depicted sex acts, some which were inventive, and exaggerated the sexual organs in a pagan, maypole sort of way.

    • Nick said, on November 22, 2010 at 11:23 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to educate me on these points. I have subsequently altered my text and perused a number of photos of burr/burls in general. And of course, I now remember when I have seen such growths on trees back home. The weathered observation I had missed. Thanks!

      • Unctuous Jones said, on November 24, 2010 at 5:56 am

        But of course. However, I’m not Chris.

      • Nick said, on November 24, 2010 at 2:14 pm

        Well, I actually have no idea where I conjured that one from – obviously too much soju! Sorry…

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