A few days ago I visited the Korean Folk Village near Suwŏn. You can learn all about the village from the English version of its propaganda video, complete with the standard blonde white foreigner and his beautiful Korean guide.
The folk village was much larger than I expected it to be and does a wonderful job of providing entertainment for visitors of all ages. The various artistic performances, pottery village, and other craft displays are all very impressive, and considerably less cheesy than the kind of cultural showcases I have seen elsewhere. To take one recent example of what I mean by cheesiness, I knew things would get bad when I was greeted at by ninja-clad parking attendants during a trip to Ueno city in Mie prefecture, Japan in 2004. That turned out to be only the beginning. By contrast, the folk village at Suwŏn has a wonderful feel about it, and it was smart enough to separate out the restaurants, souvenir shops, and amusement park from the central area and placed them all on each of the edges of the village.
The folk village at Suwŏn was put together a few decades ago and features a large collection of reproductions of buildings from all over Korea. It includes the houses of farmers as well as those of yangban, magistrates, and more prominent nobles. Depending on which description of the folk village you are reading, these houses are either described as “a late Chosŏn village” or “traditional” houses, or as displaying the “architectural wisdom of the Korean ancients.”
I am not qualified to evaluate much of what is on display, and since my knowledge of pre-modern Korean history is quite limited, I have little more than the average tourist’s intuitions to offer. But offer them I will, because there are a number of curious things about the folk village that I think it would be interesting to bring up for discussion here.
Whatever limited claims are made in the literature of the folk village visitors are undoubtedly left with the impression that what they are seeing is essentially a part of Korea’s past – a static past, a largely unchanging and fixed authentic Korean traditional past. The village does an excellent job of showing considerable regional variation in the display of houses. Each house has a sign which shows its size, a floor plan of the buildings, the region that the house comes from and the century that it comes from. There are houses from northern and southern Korea as well as from Cheju island. Visitors will also find houses of different classes, including “relatively poor farmer,” rich farmers, the yangban class, a shaman’s house, a sŏwŏn academy, the rich “noble,” and “magistrate’s office.” One might note that the simplified division between farmers and yangban, the house they chose to represent the latter does little to show how impoverished some members of this class might have been in the 19th century. However, overall, the effort to make visitors aware of some of the differences in house construction and cultural life across regions and classes is something that any visitor can appreciate.
However, although there is diversity of region and class, the part of the explanatory signs showing the century is unecessary, if somewhat deceptive, since its inclusion implies that there is variation in the period as well as the square footage, region, and class. As far as I could tell, each and every house has “Style of 19th century” (19세기경 양식) written on it. This is really no big deal, but like so many cultural displays which portray the “traditional” nation, the visitor is left with little understanding of how life and customs might change over time. In large museums, however, which do show changes across time, there is often a different problem: The differing artifacts of past empires and cultures are all seen as merely different stages of one continuous nation. Here in the folk village the problem is that the impression left with the visitor is that there is a binary traditional/modern Korea without recognition of the fact that the 19th century Chosŏn is only one snapshot in a changing cultural and economic world.
One more aspect of the village which I want to offer up for discussion is the level of wealth put on display in the village. Although many pictures I have seen of the Chosŏn period and the early colonial period in Korea do show houses of the sizes found in the folk village, and I would certainly not accuse them lying when they say that they have accurately recreated the houses they found, I can’t help thinking that even for the 19th century, the “poor farmer” houses on display still look like wonderful places to live in comparison to the shacks I have seen in pictures and descriptions of impoverished farmers living both in Korea and throughout the world in the same period.
Let us assume though that the size of the houses and the area of land their living quarters occupy is accurate. There are other things on display in these poor farmer’s houses which surely do not accurately reflect the wealth of the average or poorer farmers, even in the 19th century. The pictures below show the interiors of some of the rooms of the “farmer’s” houses, and none of them come from the “rich farmer’s” house.
Was it normal for farmers to have this kind of beautifully crafted furniture in their homes? Were their walls adorned with calligraphy? Did their women dress in colorful hanbok dresses as they worked? There wasn’t much in the way of colorful attire in the pictures of farmers that I have seen from that period, which usually had women dressed completely in less than pristine white colors.
This is surely not a problem unique to the folk village. I could easily write a similar article about the folk village I have visited in Olso, Norway and in various places in Japan. The problem I think comes from the conflicting goals of wanting to celebrate the rich culture of the past (a matter of national pride) and preserve accurate or “authentic” representations of that culture. Presentation and message is all important, no less for the folk village than for museums such as Sŏdaemun prison. What to include or exclude; what to emphasize and what to present without comment – these questions as important to the design of these museums and cultural displays as they are for the writing of any historical work.
Reading your reflections on the Folk Village reminded me of my own trip there some years ago. I think that you’re right to note the conflict between wanting the celebrate national heritage and wanting to preserve historical accuracy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it would seem that, in its unwillingness to probe the extent of class disparities, the Folk Village has opted for a display of ethnonational unity over an exploration of conflict within the minjok.
A friend who recently came back from a trip to Germany told me about a visit to the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which is apparently very much about presenting historical diversity and contingency, instead of a transhistorical vision of the timeless German people. I just looked at the homepage for the first time, and was interested to see that there’s a poster exhibition running there about “Class Ideals and Class Enemies.” English version courtesy of Google:
In Seoul, I found the vision of Korean national history at the Lotte World Folk Museum interesting enough to merit more than one visit. If you liked the Magic Vision show at the Sodaemun prison, then you might be interested to see there’s another one at Lotte World, depicting scenes from the Imjin Waeran.
Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I’ve wondered many of the same things when touring the folk village in Seoul and taking the various palace tours. Namely, that there doesn’t seem to be much information to put the “late Choson” period into context. And, I really wish there were more sites with information about the Three Kingdoms period. But maybe there are and I just have not found them yet.
You also make a good point about the unrealistic wealth depicted in the “poor farmer’s” house. But, as you say, this is true of almost all historical replica tourist attractions. Few depict the realistic living conditions, which is why so many people have an over-idealized conception of what the past was like.