The Colosseum, 1519
The Colosseum, 1519

An Italian's perspective on cultural preservation

by Daniele Pestilli

I'll never forget reading a passage from Michael Breen's The Koreans1. He recounts his experience talking about tourism one night in the bar of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, on the eighteenth floor of a building located in the center of the city:

' What do you see out there?' said a Korean friend, a tourism expert. He was pointing down to the grounds of the historic Doksu Palace. It was pitch black.
' Where?'
' Down there.' He pointed again.
' Well, it's the Doksu Palace, but you can't really make it out,' I said.
' Exactly,' he said.
' What?' I wasn't quite following this Socratic method.
' Can you imagine any other major capital city in the world which hides its most historic sites like this? All the other palaces are the same. You can't see them at night. They should be floodlit for everyone to see.'

He explains how this interesting approach to Korea's heritage is partially a result of a negative perception of its own history, and also a symptom of not knowing how to view its history. Despite its often brutal past of foreign invasion, I have great expectations for Korea's future. What I hope to accomplish through this brief essay is to verbalize a foreigner's perspective on the negative effects of historical obliteration and the benefits of its preservation. Furthermore, I wish that my Korean readers may take this not as an attack to the way their society is or was run, but as a heartfelt opinion of a tourist and profound admirer of the Korean culture.

Living near the Vatican Museum, having gone to a middle-school that faced the Colosseum and having spent most of my high-school days taking strolls through Renaissance alleys, along Baroque churches and among ancient Roman ruins, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that in Seoul, a historic part of town such as Kahoi-dong was being gradually torn down. I visited the district during the summer of 2009 with several Korean friends and decided that it was quite easily one of my favorite parts of Seoul. It appeared to have that same oriental mystique and antique aura that makes Sannei-zaka in Kyoto (which was designated a Cultural Monuments Preservation District in 1976) such a fascinating destination for tourists. There was also something very peaceful about it that separated it from the bustling and energetic capital that seems to embrace modernization – whatever that may be – so vehemently. That evening I thought deeply about why Japanese and Chinese cultural icons are much better known in Italy than their Korean counterparts; I've found that many people are aware of samurai but not of hwarang, that Zen has become a cliché term whereas Seon remains obscure; I asked myself why Kiyomizu-dera attracts more tourists than Bulguksa. After all, samurai and hwarang were both warriors of yore, Zen and Seon were both schools of Buddhism that originated from Chinese Chán, and Kiyomizu-dera and Bulguksa are both beautiful temples that are presently considered UNESCO world heritage sites. Wherein lies the difference?

Determining the starting-point for such a trend is certainly a complex matter. Korea's isolationism, or " exclusionism" as historians Kim Key-hiuk and Bruce Cumings have more positively referred to it, certainly has much to do with this. During the thirteenth century, Korea had been invaded by the Mongol empire and this inevitably engendered xenophobia. This was followed by the Imjin War in the late sixteenth century which strengthened the peninsula's exclusionism. However, it is only after the sixteenth-century, as Professor Cumings points out, that we can start talking about Korea being a Hermit Kingdom.2 As many Koreans argued and would still argue today, Korea was not a Hermit: cultural interactions with China and Japan – even following the Imjin War – were frequent. The peninsula was as open as it wanted to be and it was relatively prosperous within this Sinic universe. But to the West, it was not open enough.

This Western view was inflated during the nineteenth century, when travelers found the Korean dynasty " near its lowest point in four centuries."3 More specifically, it can be traced back to the isolationist policy of Yi Ha-eung (1821-1898), better known as the Daewongun. He undertook on the arduous task of strengthening the Joseon dynasty, which was weakening due to internal rebellion and foreign intrusions: ever since the early nineteenth century, Western emissaries had attempted to initiate trade and diplomatic relations with Korea, which remained recalcitrant until the opening of its ports in 1876. In 1832, English merchant ships had sailed to the Chungcheong province, followed by the French in 1832, the Russians in 1854, Americans in 1866 and in 1868 by Prussian adventurers. The Joseon government was well aware of the outcome of the disastrous Opium Wars in China, and thus Daewongun rebuffed Western attempts to establish diplomatic affiliation. He even conducted an anti-Catholic campaign in 1866 for the fear of the Western religion's spread, which resulted in nine French and about 8000 Korean martyrs.4

This isolationist attitude resulted in two major clashes: the French disturbance of 1866 and the American disturbance of 1871 – the latter being similar in character and goal to that of 1854 used against Tokugawa Japan. Having successfully brushed off the foreign barbarians, the Joseon government hardened its isolationist policy. Contrary to Daewongun's expectations however, China and Japan's opening to the West in the 1840s and 1850s rendered the two countries open to new ideas and thus to innovative practices that gave them several advantages over Korea. One of Japan's policies, which came as a result of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, prompted the archipelago to spread Japan's " imperial glory" 5 overseas: as David Kilburn brought to my attention, it was during this time that Japan decided it must convince Western powers that it was a highly sophisticated, culturally advanced society. This resulted in a hearty voicing to Western nations of Japan's artistic, architectural, literary, cultural and historic charm. To accomplish this, they dispatched many delegations abroad to convey some appreciation of Japan and in return, to learn as much as they could about Western technologies – one of the reasons why many Westerners are aware of Japanese cultural clichés.

But Korean cultural icons remained largely unfamiliar in the West even after World War II, the country's division in 1953 and during its years of internal strife in the 1960s during the Rhee administration. Korea started gaining international attention during the mid-1980s due to its sudden economic boom brought about by its top conglomerates such as Samsung, Lucky-Goldstar, Daewoo and Hyundai. In fact, it appears as if Korea's cultural icons became those very conglomerates, or chaebol, which even today are symbolic of the avant-garde nation. Interestingly, Donald Kirk's book entitled Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung evinces the fact that Korea's scarce international recognition prior to the flourishing of its conglomerates actually hampered it from an even more tremendous growth. The volume is an account of the life of Hyundai's founder and the history of his incredibly lucrative conglomerate. Kirk explains that during its early days, when Hyundai Motor started shipping models to the North American market, one of its biggest setbacks was that buyers did not really know what to make of a Korean company. " We concluded Korea did not have an image problem. Korea's problem was it had no image." 6 In other words, one of the possible reason why samurai are more renowned than hwarang, or why Zen has wrongly become a ubiquitous term to describe almost anything (the Zen of cooking, the Zen of website design, the Zen of making love) is because historically, Korea didn't think it needed to voice its beauty: it shielded itself from displaying its magnificence to the world through past isolationism. The West turned its attention to Korea's icons when for example, in the ' 80s, Fortune magazine published the names of Samsung and Hyundai among the fifty largest businesses in the world, or when the Summer Olympics held in Seoul brought a slew of athletes, journalists and investors into the peninsula.

Similar to the marketing problem that Hyundai faced when exporting its first products to North America, I believe that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Korea's cultural heritage: rather, Korea's self-castigating approach to its cultural heritage impaired tourists' opinions and perceptions of the country. But Chung Ju Yung steadfastly worked to promote his product abroad: if he didn't believe he could make it happen, who would in his place? Comparably, if Korea doesn't believe in its cultural heritage, who will? The demolition of hanok in Kahoi-dong seems myopic for two reasons: it deprives the Korean people of historical grounding and, although it may prove to be lucrative in the short term, it cannot possibly attract the same amount of tourism that it would if it were to preserve its original character.

Why is it important to be historically grounded? Answers to this question are subjective: some would agree that it is fundamental, others would say that history bears no meaning in our daily lives. I believe in the validity of the former response, as it is also the more optimistic of the two. Being aware of historical continuity tells us our origins, and origins are about acknowledgements. It is that feeling of pride when an Italian reads Dante, or an Englishman, Shakespeare. It's that sense of belonging when a Korean reads the poems of Yeo Ok or Kim Soweol; when he or she learns of the deeds of King Sejong, the feats of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and the patriotic ardor of Cheon Pong-jun; when he or she visits the Haeinsa temple and finds the entire Buddhist Scriptures carved on tens of thousands of wooden blocks. The acknowledgement of our past is fundamental because a society deprived of its sense of history is like an individual afflicted by amnesia. More importantly, I believe that seeing evidence of historical continuity in our day-to-day lives is part of what makes life beautiful. Is there not a sense of vastness when one looks at the Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory and ruminates the fact that almost 1500 years ago, our forefathers were gazing at the stars? The Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani, who spent most of his life in East and Southeast Asia, wrote: " It is for this reason that art, true art, the one that comes from the soul, is so important in our lives. Art consoles us, it lifts us and directs us. Art cures us. We are not only that which we eat and the air that we breathe. We are also the stories we have heard, the tales we fell asleep listening to when we were children, the books we have read, the music we heard and the emotions that a painting, a statue, or a poem have given us." 7 This is how I felt upon visiting the picturesque hanok of Kahoi-dong. Although I am not Korean, I felt awe for what my fellow men have accomplished and glad to be part of its entirety. Forget about Gross Domestic Product or Per Capita Income! The cultural richness that heritage brings is priceless.

Italy is home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to date 8 (42 cultural, 3 natural) and proportionally has more art and architecture than any country in Europe. The amount of jobs that this industry creates are considerable: art and architecture professors, restoration teachers and skilled restorers, museum and gallery staff, tour-guides, souvenir shops and publishing industries (to name a few) all thrive off Italy's cultural heritage. It's a money-making machine by virtue of its existence. The obliteration thereof would thus be nonsensical. Tearing down hanok and replacing them with modern structures is not a farsighted move in terms of economic profit. Furthermore, it tears down a sense of national identity.

In 1915, Pak Eun-sik published his famous work "The Agonizing History of Korea" (Hanguk tongsa) in which he " intended to create a record of the recent past that would engender a popular memory of the nation – preserve the 'soul,' in Pak's words – while enlisting others to participate in this resistance through conservation."9 The hanok of Kahoi-dong are a part of Korea's recent past, and as such,should be conserved and understood as being part of the quintessence of the nation. " Alas!" Pak lamented, " The body of Korea has already died, but will its soul survive?" 10

Drawing of the Colosseum by Jan (Mabuse) Gossaert, about 1519


  1. Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. p. 24. Print.
  2. Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: a Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. p. 89. Print.
  3. Cumings. 2005. p. 92.
  4. Eckert, Carter J., Ki-baik Lee, Yong-ik Yu, Michael Edson. Robinson, and Edward W. Wagner. "Ch. 12. Dynastic Disarray and National Peril." Korea Old and New: a History. Seoul: Ilchokak for Korea Institute, Harvard University, 1990. Print.
  5. Eckert, Lee, Yu, Edson, Wagner. 1990. p. 198.
  6. Kirk, Donald. Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung. Hong Kong: Asia 2000, 1994. p. 143. Print.
  7. Terzani, Tiziano. Un Altro Giro Di Giostra. Milano: TEA, 2004. p. 138. Print.
  8. World Heritage Centre - World Heritage List. UNESCO World Heritage Centre - Official Site. Web. 23 Oct. 2010.
  9. Schmid, Andre. Korea between Empires, 1895-1919. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. p. 141. Print.
  10. ibid

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