VILLAGE OF THE BLUE CRANE
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Legend has it that the venerable village of Chonghakdong, nestled in the Chirisan mountains in South Korea, was born from the grace of a blue crane that alighted from this spot and flew to heaven. The ascetic Kong Dae Song re-discovered this place during the Japanese occupation, and the village has been a living monument to Taoist, Buddhist, Catholic and Confucian precepts ever since. Devotees come here from all over the country to meditate, pray and go on a pilgrimage into the mountains. ERIC PASQUIER visited this living museum.
Rays of sunshine sparkle like silver on the fronds of the tall pine trees lining a deep valley. An old man sitting cross-legged in a white kimono is singing hymns. With his ‘kat’, a horsehair hat, firmly on his head, he recites the long liturgies of prophet Kong Dae Song. We are on the hillside of Mount Chirisan in southern Korea, near the village of Chonghakdong. A place in the mountains that, according to legend, ‘is impossible to find and where the blue crane once alighted’.
This is where the ascetic Kong Dae Song re-discovered the myth of a long-lost kingdom, during the Japanese occupation. He began studying ancient texts before writing his own that advocated Taoist and Buddhist values and the precepts of Confucius. His words spread like wildfire throughout Korea, producing a veritable army of disciples. Families soon came to set up home here on the hillsides of the Chirisan mountains. Today, the village counts 140 inhabitants.From around a river bend, like some living museum with its atmosphere of a past era, the village appears. The men and women work daily in the fields, growing rice, cabbage and medicinal plants. They also collect honey and breed animals. Chonghakdong is divided into two districts, one dominating the other by more than one hundred meters, and has its own ‘sodang’, the only Confucian school in the country.
There is talk of the sodang opening up to children from all over Korea as well as China. Once establishments for only upper-class children aiming at careers in government, ‘sodangs’ disappeared during the Japanese prohibition. But today, this sodang is very much in use.
Wearing traditional Korean dress known as ‘hanbok’, seven students are listening to the master Hee Chin Suk talk about calligraphy. He teaches Chinese, and only boys are allowed into his classroom. A tradition inherited from Confucius, who forbade mixed schools for children over the age of 7 – the children start their schooling at the age of 4 or 5. Girls older than 7 are taught at home.
Smooth-cheeked, wearing long black plaits that are wound into a chignon once they are married, the adolescents, like their elders, never cut their hair. A tradition that probably goes back to Manchu days. Long hair and the colour white of their clothes symbolize the peace of mankind. These children will follow the master’s classic teachings until they are 20 but will leave with no officially recognized diploma. Hee Chin Suk points out that traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia remains a discipline in which his students shine – and is also a source of revenue thanks to the plants sold in Hadong.
At the entrance to one of the two temples, the oldest man in the village, So Kye Ro, is carefully demonstrating how the ‘kat’, the traditionally tall hat worn for ceremonies and special occasions is worn. A chignon is held in place on the crown of the head with a pine resin lucky charm called ‘jumba’. A roll of cloth made from bamboo fibres is added, topped by a horsehair hat.
His face wreathed in smiles, So Kye Ro turns the pages of the book that retraces the myth of Chonghakdong’s founding, recalling as he does so his own arrival in the village. It was in 1945 and he was accompanied by his five brothers and their families.
Twice a month the whole village gathers by the wooden temple to pray to Kang Dae Song. These rites cannot be attended by anyone from outside the village, because they are impure.
But the famous Tae Djae celebration is open to all, attracting even more tourists than usual. Usually, around 300 tourists visit the village on weekdays, and 600 at the weekends, but this pilgrimage attracts even more. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the ceremony pays tribute to Kong Dae Song who died in 1954. The paths up the mountain are so complicated that no one without a guide would be able to make the journey alone – good insurance that unwanted visitors stay away.
As soon as dawn breaks, the pilgrimage sets off. The road is long, especially for the village elders – but they persevere. On reaching the top of the mountain, the pilgrims visit three places: the shrine or altar dedicated to Kang Dae Song; his house during his exile; and the monastery where he taught. Only an old ruin remains of this last building. Before worship, the villagers first purify themselves in the river. The pilgrims also offer up gifts: huge fish, octopuses, cuttlefish, kimchi (a drink made of fermented cabbage) small rice balls and all kinds of fruit. One or two boys get up and dance around on the hot earth, as the adults sit down on the grass for an old-fashioned picnic. They won’t return until nightfall.
Another bus full of tourists approaches, intruding upon the mystical atmosphere with the curiosity. But the faithful remain unperturbed by their presence, believing that no outsider will disturb the village’s inner spirit. These tourists too will come, stay and leave again – the rhythm of life here, by Mt. Chonghakdong, will remain.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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