Elwood 5566

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.

'bursting'

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.

FURTHER REFERENCES

Village Sentinels – Totem Poles (Bathhouse Ballads November 2010)

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

angry

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

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.