Fifty years after the enactment of the Cultural Properties Protection Act, Korea is now preparing to further upgrade the institutions and policy measures for safeguarding the nation’s intangible cultural heritage and assuring its transmission to future generations.
A system of transmission from masters to apprentices, graduates, and scholarship students is unique to Korea. But this highly exclusive and hierarchical structure of technology transfer and title inheritance has come under scrutiny.
When I began my work as a rookie reporter for the Hankook Ilbo in the summer of 1975, the senior reporters told me about “the legend.” This was the story about editorial writer Ye Yong-hae, who wrote a series of 50 articles under the title “Living Human Treasures,” which the newspaper published from July 1960 to November 1962. He traveled around the country to interview masters of traditional culture and arts so that they could be introduced to the newspaper’s readership.
The stories gained widespread popularity. As a reflection of the changing times, people’s attitudes toward these artisans, long treated with a lack of respect by mainstream society, had noticeably changed. Many people took an interest in the solitary guardians of intangible culture and arts and began to recognize the true value of the mysterious exuberance of their dance or the intricate craftsmanship of their masterful works.
The government agencies dealing with cultural promotion also took notice. Go Sang-nyeol, who was responsible for the management of intangible cultural assets for the Cultural Properties Preservation Bureau (now the Cultural Heritage Administration) from 1961 to 1968, recalls: “The Cultural Properties Protection Act was introduced in 1962, but in the aftermath of the war’s devastation, we had so few reference materials. We sought out folklorists, but their research efforts had not yet produced any helpful results. So, for awhile, I relied on Ye Yong-hae’s articles on living human treasures. I carried the clippings around in my bag and read them carefully, and also visited Ye for advice.”
This being the situation, the first cultural heritage items to receive state designation in the 1960s were largely selected on the basis of Ye Yong-hae’s “Living Human Treasures” series, and from winners of the annual National Folk Arts Contest, which was launched in 1958 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea. The research of scholars and recommendations by city mayors and provincial governors were also taken into consideration.
Recognition of ‘Holders’
Under the Saemaul (New Community) Movement in the 1970s, the old zelkova trees that had long served as guardian figures at village entrances were chopped down in the name of stamping out superstition. This prompted a sense of crisis that led to an urgent designation of “important intangible cultural properties.” On Jeju Island, in August 1971, the local women divers’ songs were designated Provincial Intangible Cultural Property No. 1, thereby triggering a nationwide campaign to designate intangible cultural assets at the national and regional levels.
At the heart of Korea’s system for protecting intangible cultural heritage is the official recognition of “holders,” or “bearers,” who have mastered the requisite skills of a specific genre of arts and crafts in their traditional form. Under the existing system, intangible cultural assets are appointed as “holders” who are sanctioned to train others to carry on the heritage so that the cultural traditions can be perpetuated. This institutionalized system of transmission from masters to apprentices, graduates, and scholarship students is unique to Korea. Individual and group “holders” receive assistance from the government in the form of instructional expenses, support for performances, and provision of educational facilities. Qualified apprentices and scholarship students also receive allowances from the government.
The intangible cultural heritage of Korea has thus been protected institutionally for a half century now. And a number of “living human treasures” have enjoyed considerable fame, including varying degrees of material affluence. Korea’s cultural heritage system is comprised of tangible cultural properties, which are designated as national treasures and treasures, along with other categories such as natural monuments and historic/scenic sites; however, intangible cultural heritage is receiving increasingly greater attention these days. As the value of culture that people can see, hear, and enjoy in their daily has gained widespread recognition, appreciation of the original forms of intangible cultural assets has increased as well.
We now live in an era that calls for not only the preservation of cultural heritage but also its utilization in a variety of ways. The value of human arts and crafts should be well appreciated, and it is indeed fortunate that government policy measures have achieved much success in this regard. But there is also worry that Korea’s current system for protecting intangible cultural heritage has certain limitations that need to be addressed.
Above all, there is a belief that the system’s emphasis on holders should be altered in order to allow the designation of a broader scope of intangible cultural heritage. Concern has been expressed about unseemly power struggles due to excessive competition over appointments as living human treasures. The highly exclusive and hierarchical structure of technology transfer and title inheritance has come under scrutiny, along with questions being raised about the objectivity of various surveys and evaluations conducted for the selection of holders.
Over a three-year period since 2009, the Cultural Heritage Administration developed a system to help assure a fairer and more objective evaluation of intangible cultural heritage. On the basis of research contributed by three academic societies — the Korean Folklore Society, Society for the History of Korean Dance, and Korean Musicological Society — a team of private experts and evaluation consultants developed a comprehensive set of evaluation criteria, which is expected to improve the designation process in the days ahead.
National Intangible Heritage Center
In 2004, one year after UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Korea hosted the first-ever general conference in Asia of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), under the theme of “Museums and Intangible Cultural Heritage.” The conference marked a turning point in the recognition of Korea’s intangible cultural heritage system, centered on living human treasures. The 2003 UNESCO convention introduced the new term “intangible cultural heritage,” which was meant to be broader than “intangible cultural property,” in terms of concept, definition, and scope of what was eligible for protection.
Kim Sam-gi, who had worked on intangible cultural properties at the National Folk Museum of Korea since the 1980s, and then at the Cultural Heritage Administration in the 2000s, noted: “The Living Human Treasure system led to the inclusion of 14 items, such as the royal ritual music of Jongmyo and pansori form of narrative song, on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, since 2001. However, after the Dano Festival of Gangneung was placed on the list in 2005, China identified a total of 1,218 intangible cultural heritage elements that were then designated as national treasures, from 2006 to 2011. This included 16 items from the culture of ethnic Koreans residing in China, such as the 60th birthday celebration, traditional wedding ceremony, Arirang folk song, and traditional games of seesawing and swinging. We thus realized a need to expand our concept of intangible cultural heritage in line with the UNESCO convention, and decided to draft a new law.”
Korea also focused its attention on international exchange with the establishment of the International Information and Networking Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region (ICHCAP), under the auspices of UNESCO, and the launch of the “International Journal of Intangible Heritage” (www.ijih.org). Choe Jeong-pil, chairman of the Korean branch of ICOM, which publishes the English-language journal in coordination with the National Folk Museum, attributes great significance to this annual publication.
“This journal, after its founding in 2006, was registered in 2010 on the Arts & Humanities Citations Index, a list of leading academic journals from around the world. In 2012, the number of articles submitted by international scholars was four times greater than the number we were able to accept,” Choe said.
On May 3 this year, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announced comprehensive plans to invest a total of 445.9 billion won (about $391 million) over the next five years in order to bolster Korea’s intangible cultural heritage in 22 areas. This includes founding of the National Intangible Heritage Center and the Center for the Promotion of Cultural Heritage.
Hwang Gwon-sun, head of the CHA Intangible Cultural Heritage Division, explains: “China has already designated such areas as ginseng gatherers of Mt. Paektu, acupuncture, moxibustion, and ox bezoar medicine as intangible heritage at the province level. Likewise, we must also open the way for designation of elements without individual title holders. Kimchi, Hangeul, the Arirang folk song, health treatment based on the four bodily constitutions, Goryeo ginseng, bamboo fish traps, and even local dialects like that of Jeju Island should be promoted as Korea’s intangible cultural heritage. The education and transmission of heritage, currently centered on living human treasures, will need to be expanded to encompass relevant university departments as well. Copyrights for intangible cultural heritage are now protected under the Framework Act on Intellectual Property.”
Meanwhile, the National Intangible Heritage Center is now being built on a site of 59,930 square meters in Jeonju, the hub of Korean traditional culture, at a cost of 75.3 billion won (about $66 million). Comprising seven five-story buildings, the center, which is scheduled to open in March 2013, will comprise workshops and exhibition halls for living human treasures, as well as educational and performance facilities. It will also house the ICHCAP and archives of video recordings of intangible cultural heritage that have been accumulated over the past half century.
Thus far, the government has designated a total of 128 “important intangible cultural properties” along with 570 holders of these properties. Today, with 390 individuals retired due to death or incapacitation, there are 180 active living human treasures. The term “living human treasure” (ingan munhwajae), first used by Ye Yong-hae in his landmark series of articles, has been used for the holders of nationally-designated important intangible cultural heritage. It will become a legal term later this year upon enactment of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Act.