Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Korean Garden Cultures—Longing for the Immortal

Professor Sim Woo-kyung affirms that "it is essential to maintain and celebrate cultural diversity in a landscape to acknowledge the contributions to garden art being made by ethnic groups world over. Historically, gardens have attempted to recreate paradise, becoming ever more elaborate versions of the rational mind's vision of heaven. Garden makers in history have been intent on creating earthly paradises. All the people have wishes to live in the paradise, but the concept of the paradise has been differently imagined by the Eastern and the Western cultures, especially according to their religions. The Western cultures have been deeply influenced by the Judeo-Christian and the Islam which believe in the only God [monotheism], but the Easterner has been influenced by their beliefs in many gods [polytheism], that is, by Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Animism, Totemism and Shamanism.

In the Western world which has developed from the desert, a prototype of garden was where human beings were protected by high wall from hot sandy wind and fearful animals, and where cool water and fruit trees were well supplied to live safely [sic]. On the contrary, in the Eastern world which has developed from beautiful natural environment, the prototype was where people could realize the longevity in the immortal world through living harmoniously with nature.

Korean traditional garden culture has developed uniquely under the beautiful natural environment and various religious influences. Thus the final goal of Korean garden cultures has been the immortal world."

Evidence of the Immortal World in Korea Gardens

Garden cultures have been developed in natural environment and influenced by religious fervor; thus, it can be said that the purpose of the garden cultures is to recreate an Earthly Paradise according to the dreaming ideal world of each country. Even the English word "garden" is influenced by monotheistic religious beliefs because "garden" stems from gar [protect] + eden [pleasure], namely a place of pleasure to protect or that protects.

Korea has been known as the Immortal Country in Chinese literature and this is evidenced by"examples" of the Immortal worlds in Korean garden cultures as shown through drawings, historic records and remains. Even during the Joseon Dynasty where stern Confucianism was a state religion, many scholars longed for the Immortal worlds in their gardens.

The mountains and sea islands described in the thoughts of the immortal worlds were not only landscapes as objets for meditation and appreciation but ideal landscapes, in other words, Oriental Utopia, which human beings try to achieve.

Background of Korean Garden Culture:

Korean Natural Environments

  • clearly different in each of the 4 seasons (금순강산 - the four seasons meaning "scenic areas")
  • mountainous country (65%)
  • peninsular country
  • approximately 7,500 genera of flora
  • 104 species of indigenous fauna

Envisioning the immortal as depicted in the Goguryeo tomb murals.
For more specifics look up pictures of paintings found inGoguryeo tombs dating back to the 4th C in Jiban, China
Korea Religions—peaceful coexistence of diverse religions

  • since 5,000 years ago - present: indigenous faiths such as manaism, animism, totemism, shamanism, mountain spirits
  • since 1,700 years ago - present: Buddhism, Confucianism 
  • since 1,300 years ago - present: Daoism 
  • since 600 years ago - present: Neo-confucianism
  • since 300 years ago - present: Catholicism
  • since 120 years ago - present: Christianity
  • since 100 years ago - present: Cheondogyo, Wonbulgyo, Jeungsando, Islam, etc
  • [source: David Mason (2000) Mountain Spirits]

11 immortal figures are carved on the golden incense burner, which supports the connection with mortals and their projected thoughts to the immortal world, a world of longevity (or as Christians would say, eternal life). By incorporating the symbols of the 싶장생 (the 10 eternal symbols), Koreans showed their longing and search for the immortal world.

Even in the Joseon Dynasty, the longing for an immortal world and for long-life, health and happiness are reflected in the dynasty's garden architecture. Particularly iconic examples of this longing for immortality is also apparent in many buildings especially palaces, gates, art, etc that still are in existence today. And an important note, garden architecture is intimately tied with mountain reflections and the qi (energy) within.

Between Gyeongsan County (2014) and Lee Hyok-jong (2009), there are 120 documented sites of remains which reflect the immortal worlds.
Even Goh boards have been carved on the rocks of several mountains. The game of Goh was known as the game of the gods, basically as a game played by the immortals, and therefore was a game to embrace with great thought.
Pictured is a modern-day goh board; the game of goh is intensely popular with older men, in fact, so interesting that aging men gather in specific areas of parks to compete; they also pay for memberships at goh rooms. Even TV stations broadcast the players playing the thoughtful (and very slow) game of goh, and the programs are widely popular ... seems to be considered a male game as I've never seen a woman enjoying goh in public.  The four names listed under the goh board are mountains where a goh board was carved long ago high on its rocks.
Similarly, rock holes are carved near peaks of certain mountains. The sites were chosen for the natural energies erupting form those rocks or mountains and so inside of these holes, magical elixirs were brewed. It is very likely that hot burning charcoal chunks were dropped into the elixir in the holes and brewed that way.

There are 101 Nine Valleys (Gosan Gugok), 1577AD,  in Korea, while in China there are only 12. The Nine Valleys are a bit hard to explain but seem to be nine precious areas which contain 101 (in the case of Korea) treasures of longevity (?). This is very unclear to me, the blogger, so this needs more personal research. Each of these nine valleys, however, are associated with a Great Confucian Scholar.

Confucian scholars who followed stern disciplines tended to disregard the Immortal world, but they wished to be immortal through many gardens and writings. Making the Immortal world in the garden means a kind of auspicious activity for having the same thought connected with same results.

Thoughts on the Immortal have been deeply rooted in Korean minds and their history began from the Korean founder Dangun Wanggeom (born 2333BC) via Hwarangdo in the Silla Dynasty and Kim Ga-gi's "soaring to the sky" (February 25, 859) and then Choi Chi-won's (857-?) Punryu treatment. Punryu is a unique philosophic religion, and "soaring to the sky" comes from 신선, which derives from spirit + flying into the sky. To be immortal, it is for one's spirit to go to the mountains.

There are two ways to be immortal. One is to take a magical elixir, which is in fact dangerous as Chinese history tells us: many emperors died through this method. The other is to practice qi exercises, particularly in propitious places.

Thus, traditional gardens are not just built to be in an aesthetic setting but built to be practical, functional, educational, symbolic and even ecological.

Professor Sim Woo-kyung will continue giving information on the immortal considerations of the traditional Korean garden and its attempt to embrace immortality. He will be leading tours May 20-29 of his beloved Rose Garden which he designed as an architectural engineer. The Rose Garden is located in his hometown in Gokseonggun County, Seonnam.


Dr. Sim Woo-kyung 五峯 沈愚京, Emeritus Professor of Landscape Planting and Garden History (Korea University, Seoul), President, Research Institute for Spiritual Environments [R.I.S.E.], Director, OBONG Academy for Research Institute for Spiritual Environments, and Chair for the Promotion Committee for Founding University of Global Environment Conservation, presented on Korea's garden culture and its ephemeral representation of an immortal and perhaps celestial world.

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