Fascinating Physogs – A Tour of Some Korean Totem Poles
I am always fascinated by the designs of Korean totem poles, known as jangseung (장승) and have previously written about their character in relation to the nature of Korean wood (Village Sentinels Nov, 2010). I recently visited Dong Nae Traditional Folk Village in Cheollanamdo, near Suncheon Bay, where there is a large collection of old and new jangseung. Some were functional village guardians performing their traditional role of protecting the village while others were either decorative or provided directions.
Jangseung are incredibly emotional and part of their allure lies in the relationship between the form of the wood and the manner in which it has been carved. The carving below, actually the sign for the toilets, is a good example of this synthesis. The nature of the wood, twisted and buckled has been enhanced by the knotted and gnarled face that so clearly conveys ‘agony, discomfort and urgency.’ ‘Bursting for the bathroom’ is expressed both by the face and the ‘buckled’ wood and though you can’t see the knees, you know they’re probably ‘knock-kneed.’ So successful is this synthesis you can feel the discomfort. The symbiotic relationship between wood and carving is so entwined they seem inseparable and even if the face were to be carved away the remaining form would still convey ‘urgency’ and ‘discomfort.’ Of course, there are other emotional expressions to which this one piece of wood could be adapted.
This example, a newly erected jangseung, bore an inscription in hanja. Most jangseung are either inscribed in hangeul or hanja. The first four characters of this inscription are probably from the Thousand Character Classic (千字文) and basically means ‘good son, good father’ (휴자휴부) but the full meaning is more complex and is related to the concept of ‘filial piety’ (효도-효 -孝), one of the most fundamental principles of Confucian philosophy and still of importance in modern Korea. Among many other things, ‘piety’ involves taking care of one’s parents, being respectful to them and not being disobedient. The fifth character is that of village, so the inscription loosely means, ‘village of pious sons and fathers.’
Jangseung often appear in male and female pairs and are distinguished by their head apparel; the male hat is more elaborate. Quite often, the inscriptions refer to ‘generals,’ major generals’ or male and female generals. Korean folklore has a special place for the mischievous ‘ghost,’ known as the dokkaebi (독깨비) who haunt mountains and forests. This ‘ghost’ is quite dissimilar to the European ghost and is actually a transformation of an inanimate object rather than a dead person. Dokkaebi tease and punish bad people and reward good deeds by way of a strange club, or ‘wand’ which when struck ‘summons’ things. They also wear a spiky hat known as a ‘gamtu’ which can render them invisible. Below are the ‘Female Ghost General’ and the ‘Ghost Major General.’
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.