Elwood 5566

Buddha’s Birthday at Chang Su Temple

Posted in Art, Buddhism, Photo diary, video clips by 노강호 on June 17, 2012

On Buddha’s Birthday, May 28th, I traveled out of Daegu to the nearby town of Ok-Po. I was with a friend Jane, whose uncle is the senior monk in the Chang So temple (장수사) temple. As it transpired, almost every other person we met was one of her relatives.

With a monk in the temple forecourt. Note the curved roofs.

It was an interesting trip firstly because there were no mountains to climb (nothing spoils a trip more to a temple than an hour’s hike) and secondly, as the temple was small, it was quite calm and not teeming with visitors as a larger temple would be.

We looked around the temple complex, lit joss sticks in the main temple and poured water over a small statue of Buddha followed by the traditional temple bibimpap (mixed vegetables and rice) in the canteen. Then we sat sat in the monks rest room and drank coffee.

temple art is wonderfully exotic

a series of panels tell the story of the birth and life of Buddha

Temple buildings, traditionally built of wood and without nails, are always highly decorated and the narrative panels are exotic with their distinctive turquoise background. As there is a believe that evil travels in straight lines, the roofs of temples are curved to prevent evil entering them. Temple complexes house a main temple and then several smaller shrines dedicated to the various manifestations of  Buddha. Usually, there is always small shrine dedicated to the Mountain God (산신) who was revered in ‘Korea’ before Buddha was born but has since become a manifestation of Buddha.

The elongated ears signify enlightenment

One of the larger shrines, the largest after the main hall, was filled with small statues. It was an incredibly impressive hall where the mesmerizing effect of row upon row of miniature statues induced a sense of serenity.

a sense of serenity

and one statue naked

Children playing in the midst of Buddha

the small shrine to the Mountain God (산신)

the Mountain God (산신)

The beautiful and elaborate art work of the main hall

The main hall, a shrine to Ksitigarbha (지장 보살), the Bodhisattva. The hall contain depictions of heaven and hell and their associated judges. On the edges of the hall are small shrines to recently deceased people and hanging from the ceiling lanterns with attached wishes of devotees.

the wishes of devotees

the judges

part of the ornate ceiling of the main hall

Korean temples are wonderfully relaxing. Usually located in the mountains or countryside, they are a respite from the hussle and bussle of city life. All the elements of a temple, from the art and architecture to the hypnotic chanting of  a solitary monks, conspire to induce a sense of serenty and reflection.

I would liked to have added much more information about the temple and its features but I do not know enough about Korean temples and Buddhism. The subject is quite complex and intense.


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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

Lineage of the Voice – Pansori (판소리)

Posted in Art, customs, Entertainment by 노강호 on February 5, 2012

Having been a life long musician, both as a player and listener, I love Korean music. I don’t mean K-pop which though at times tuneful, is as much cultural chewing-gum as any western ‘fast-food’ pop music, but examples which are uniquely Korean such as pansori (판소리), pungmulnori (풍물노리) and even trot (트로트). I am not ashamed to admit owning the collected works of the Korean Daddy of trot, Nahuna which in a western context would be the equivalent of owning the works of Des O’Connor.

In the West, as well as in Korea with K-pop, tonality is usually diatonic, only a small number of chords are used and their sequence is always predictable, tunes seldom modulate and if they do it is most likely to the dominant, the time structure is nearly always 2 or 4 beats per bar and perhaps ocassionally, three. As for the lyrics, they best described as repetitive and vacuous.  However, I’m not a total snob, after all, I have Nahuna’s life works and I do listen to and enjoy ‘pop’ as much as I can enjoy eating a ‘Mcburger’ or chewing a stick of gum. If there is one quality that pop has, it’s the ability to represent, to surmise periods of time not in large spans like classical music, but in much smaller chunks such as the 6o’s or 80’s.  Pop can rekindle specific periods of your life, evoking emotions and memories with far greater intensity and emotional accuracy than grander music which is quite amazing given the paltry array of tools it utilizes. Naturally, there have been pop musicians with great insight and innovation, though they are often overlooked or marginalised.

The music of Captain Beefheart, (when he was with his Magic Band,’circa 1968) has examples of intricate rhythmic patterns and shifts in modality which would confuse less capable performers. And who remembers the 1976 ‘hit of the year,’  Music, by John Miles with the driving 4/4-3/4, (or is it 7/4?), time pattern. With most pop rigidly confined to the same old formula, such exotic innovation is rare. As a boy, Steeleye Span’s use of modes captivated me, an interest that hasn’t diminished as I now find myself mesmerized by medieval rock groups such as In Extremo and of course, Korean traditional music is modal.  And there are many other phenomenal popular song writers/performers who have shaped the sound of history, though our choices in this matter are personal: Abba, Queen, the Beatles, Meatloaf to name of few of my favourites.

My interest in traditional Korean music (국악) derives from my attraction to difference, and specifically to the different world of sound created by tonality, timbre, rhythm,  instrument as well as visual differences. l would like to include my interest in lyrics but unfortunately my Korean is not good enough to appreciate them without the aid of a translation. This situation is not much different faced with opera and as I write I am listening to Verdi’s, Rigoletto; having no idea what the plot is about the singers become instruments and I gleam a sense of an emotion without knowing the specifics. This is not an ideal situation but I don’t think too different to how we sometimes listen to a great deal of pop music where the lyrics aren’t really that important or are vacuous and aren’t really needed to convey a sense of meaning.

Korean pansori contains all the elements to engage my interest and whenever I hear performances I am compelled to stop and listen. What’s it about? I haven’t a clue and it’s even difficult to sense the emotional content! Nevertheless, it’s captivating and as alien to my ear and its cultural conditioning, as it could possibly get.

Pansori is basically a vocal line accompanied by a single drum and performances are epic in proportion, usually taking several hours or more, to perform. The texts are satires and love stories, known as madang (마당) which alternate between spoken dialogue and song.  Popular in the 18th century, only five of the original 12 now survive: Heungbuga, Shimcheongga, Chunhyangga, Jyeokbyeoga and Sugunga. The singer carries a fan which is used to emphasize emotions and when opened, to mark changes of scene.

I recently came across an excellent Korean documentary, with translation following the lives of two boy pansori singers as they trained for an important competition. The program unveils many of the mysteries of this strange form of Korean art and better, provides snippets of song with accompanying translation – this has subsequently deepened my interest in pansori. Like many things Korean, it has only been in the last few years that reliable information has appeared on the internet but I still have not been able to find examples of madang with English translations. The documentary is disturbing in places as one of the boys has a well-meaning, but drunken father who frequently beats the boy.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the series of 10 clips I originally linked to here have been removed from Youtube but different clips have been added and are provided below. These new clips provide a deeper insight into madang in translation than did the previous clips.

The DVD of the documentary is also available for purchase.

Lineage of the Voice

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Fascinating Physogs – A Tour of Some Korean Totem Poles

Posted in Art, customs, Photo diary by 노강호 on January 29, 2012

an assembly of jangseung

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.’

'village of filial piety'

'dreams come true'

another hanja inscription - 'the place where you can fulfil your desire'

a rather amusing uninscribed jangseung

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.’

A pair of 'ghost' guardians

an uninscribed jangseung with a large 'burr' for a nose

Weathered jangseung. Note the phallic incorporation of the flanking poles

a female general, (protector of the ground?)

A typical male design. This is the Major General protector, for Suncheon, the town closest to Dongnae Village.

Grandmother protectors

Leaving the village with a newly purchased teacher's stick (actually on my birthday)

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.


Village Sentinels – Totem Poles (Bathhouse Ballads November 2010)

Autumn Fruits on Winter Trees

Posted in Art, Nature, plants and trees, seasons by 노강호 on January 15, 2012

A persimmon tree in snow. (Geumsansa Temple, Gimje, Jeollabuk-do. Source – KTO)

I was recently out of the city, in Jeollanam-do, on a wintry coastline that was especially decorated with both persimmon and ginkgo trees. I’ve written numerous posts focusing on one aspect or another of persimmons and have intended over two years to write a post dedicated to the ginkgo. Seeing the ginkgo (은행) and persimmon (감) in a winter setting, when void of leaves yet still bearing their autumn fruit, evoked images of the Korean and possibly Japanese and Chinese, traditional paintings I’d seen over the years but never really appreciated. A persimmon in the depth of winter which still carries its bright orange flames of fruit, especially against a cold and bleak backdrop, is a beautiful sight. The ginkgo, though perhaps not as noticeable, nonetheless has the capacity to intrigue us with it busy array of nuts. The Ginkgo is an amazing tree which can grow to a considerable size and in autumn, with its bright yellow foliage, it is a wonderful sight.   Then there is the schizandra tree (오미자), the bright red berries of which are current feature in markets.

‘Persimmons’ by Nam Jun.

winter persimmons – unknown

a large ginkgo in summer

An autumn ginkgo

winter ginkgo

a schizandra tree in winter (오미자)

Korean traditional art

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Ch’eonan’s Stairway to Nowhere – Photos

Posted in Art, Photo diary by 노강호 on October 3, 2011

These photos were taken in the center of Ch’eonan in December 2010 and are from the photos I had originally thought lost.

reminds me of life

you're always trekking

and when you get to the end you simply fall off

wherever that might be

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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