South Korea is a beautiful country and as an Asian I know it has to be rooted in the ancient tradition of Korea that might at times, come across as primitive. There are age-old grottos, temples and pagodas for the young generation to see and understand about its roots and origin. To understand all the physical manifestations of the culture, one would have to be able to comprehend it all. Here is an attempt to do so.
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Mystic Mythological Past
♦ Earlier, Koreans believed that the nation of Korea was formed when a God known as Hwanung came from heaven and transformed a bear into a woman and then married her. They had a son out of the marriage who was named Tangun and was the one who established the capital of Korea and called it Joseon or the "land of the morning calm". So this is how the Korean nation was established.
♦ The ancient culture of South Korea was the same as that of North Korea, but then after the two were divided, the contemporary cultures of the two differed. The Korean culture was not influenced by the western culture as the Silla mountain worked as a barrier. Therefore, Korea developed a distinct culture of its own, though there are elements of the Chinese and Japanese culture that made its place in Korea, due to frequent invasions by the two countries.
♦ Although Christianity and Buddhism have marked a major religious presence in South Korea, they are followed with diversity. "Shamanism" is very prominent in the South Korean culture. Worshiping the forces of nature is still a strong belief amongst the people.
♦ "Kut" is a shamanic ritual that is still followed religiously, which involves a Mudang - a local shaman, who calls upon the Gods through sacrifice and implores the spirits to hear the people's grievances and drive away the evil spirits. There are numerous interesting stories in the Korean mythology depicting the existences of people with nature and God. The sun and moon are a revered symbol of significance and prosperity.
Music, Dance and Painting
♦ Korean music reached its peak of excellence somewhere around the 15th century when the Yi kings of the Joseon dynasty ruled while the invasion from Japan totally washed away Korean music for somewhere around forty years. Korean music saw the light once again after 1945 but as was destined, it was split in 1951, which led to the split in cultures as well. South Korea took much of the western instruments and culture from the U.S. Troops who were stationed there. Traditionally, Korea had folk and classical music that was mostly played in courts. There were various genres of music like the Sanjo, Pansori and the Nongak.
♦ The court music of Korea was called the "jeongak" and was basically made for the sophisticated and literate upper class with an intellectual strain in them. It emanates slow music that consists of single beats, which are as long as three seconds. It is soft and calming to the mind as it uses instruments that do not use metal to produce sound. Most of the instruments are either made of bamboo or silk, so they create a muffled sound.
♦ Pansori performances include a singer and a drummer. "Pan" means a place where many people gather and "sori" means sound. Unlike court music, it is more about common people and their lives. "The Tale of Chunyang" is an ancient and literary pansori composition adored by the people and the recital covers a spectacular eight-hour performance. Pansori performers were inspired by popular love stories and satires. Pungmul, another popular genre which is Korea's folk music, is an expression of different emotions.
♦ Modern-day music is known as K-pop, a Korean blend of pop and rock, which is very popular amongst the people.
♦ Dance in South Korea is equally interesting as there are two types of dance as well; one for the court and the other for the common people to enjoy and participate. The traditional dance of Korea had its origin in the shamanistic rituals. In the case of music, the Japanese invasions led most of the dance forms to die a slow death. There are many dance forms that are lost.
♦ Paintings in South Korea are petroglyphic, those that are done on rocks. The themes of the paintings took a turn when Buddhism arrived in China. The techniques used in paintings have also changed, though originally, Korean techniques did exist.
Traditional Attires and Beliefs
♦Koreans believe in yin and yang that are the positive and negative forces, which have to be balanced to establish a harmonious living. South Koreans believe that a house should be built in such a position so that it can receive as much sunlight as possible. The traditional Korean home has an outer wing and an inner wing, the former was used by aristocrats to entertain guests and where poor people used it to keep cattle, whereas the latter was used by the family members and by all the social classes.
♦The traditional dress of Korea is known as the "hanbok", which is a shirt and a pant. The dress was incomplete without the "gwanmo" or the traditional hat. In Korea, dresses were visible markers of the social difference that prevailed. Common people of Korea wore clothes that were not dyed. Flanked by mountains, agriculture is a prime occupation for most of the people here.
♦"Ch'usok" is an important national holiday which observes the eighth full moon on the lunar calendar. On this day the traditional festivities are on a high and every place comes to life with people indulging in celebrations and ancestral rituals.
♦For Koreans, the staple food comprises rice, pickled fish and pickled vegetables. Fermented recipes are a popular part of their cuisine. They also savor noodles, which is a delicacy all over the world now.
♦South Korean food is rich in spices and is cooked in sesame oil called "doenjang", soy sauce and "gochujang" (red chili paste). Koreans swear by garlic and it is a must-have in all households; in fact, South Korea is the largest consumer of garlic.
♦Koreans also consume a lot of soup and probably that is the reason they come up with varieties of soup recipes.
♦"Pojangmacha" is common name for the street-food vendors. There is a lot of variation in the likes of street food. Deep-fried chicken feet, fried jasmine rice, silkworm larvae, etc., are amongst popular ones.
♦Drinking is more of a lifestyle for the Koreans. While beer is favored largely, the local brew is also very popular amongst the people. Soju, Makkoli and Dongdongju are widely consumed local brews that are made from fermenting rice and are very potent.
»Taekwondo is the national sport of South Korea.
»Tipping the waiter at a restaurant is not favored.
»Consuming alcohol in public is legal.
»Heated flooring is a common household feature.
»Koreans consider the number "4" to be a taboo and is a depiction of bad luck.
»Fruits are very overpriced in Korea and are alarmingly expensive.
»Riding bicycles for daily use is common amongst all age groups.
»South Korea is home to the world's second largest mobile phone manufacturing company - Samsung.
»The world's second largest metropolitan city is the capital, Seoul.
»The national anthem of South Korea is called "Aegukka".
»South Korea accounts for the world's 13th largest economy and Asia's third largest economy.
»South Korea has 63 newspapers in circulation.
South Korean people are friendly and welcome foreigners with a lot of excitement. They are open-minded and are ready to accept elements from other cultures, but at the same time, keep their culture intact and unaffected. South Korea in unison, reflects "Unity in diversity". South Korea is a fascinating blend of contemporary cultures, traditions and beliefs deeply rooted in the people.