The courtyard of Borimsa Temple in Jangheung is marked by a tranquil stillness. Amid the brilliant sunlight of an early summer morning, the deep green of a dense growth of trees is complemented by the radiance of the courtyard’s white clay surface. A gentle breeze adds a sense of elegance to the graceful atmosphere by gently tinkling a wind chime.
Ancient Borimsa Temple
I take an immediate liking to the temple that lies nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. Although only briefly removed from the mundane world, the tranquility of the temple grounds quickly captures my heart. Since its founding in 860, during the Unified Silla period, Borimsa Temple has accumulated a history of well over 1,000 years. The Buddha statue housed within Daejeokgwangjeon Hall, along the southwest edge of the courtyard, and the stone lantern and pair of three-story stone pagodas facing the hall, attest to the resilience of this temple, which has been reconstructed after being destroyed by fire. The stone lantern and pagodas possess an enduring charm that can only be acquired through centuries of exposure to the elements.
Beyond the front gate and Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings, the courtyard appears. The broad courtyard, flanked by Daejeokgwangjeon Hall and Daeungbojeon Hall, includes a natural spring at its center, from which clear mineral water flows. The imposing roof lines of the halls are replicated in the tile roof of a small pagoda that covers the spring, which is encircled with beds of roses, azaleas, peonies, plantains, and crepe myrtles. The courtyard area is lined with a variety of mature trees, including silver magnolia, nutmeg, maple, gingko, pine, and fir. The long, narrow yard between Daeungbojeon Hall and the secondary halls for meditation and worship is a typical example of the natural garden area associated with Korean traditional buildings. It is a space with minimal human intervention, where trees and flowers grow naturally. While sitting on moss-covered stone steps, the peacefulness is interrupted by only the buzzing of bees.
Similar to other rural areas, a growing number of women from various Asian countries now call Jangheung their home, after marrying Korean men. To get an idea of a foreigner’s thoughts of Jangheung, I talked with a Japanese woman, Yamazaki Naoko, who has resided here for 13 years. She mentioned that in Jangheung, her second hometown, she most liked to visit Borimsa Temple, even though she is not an adherent of Buddhism. Still, she says there is a powerful presence at the ancient temple that can help to soothe one’s troubled soul.
Slow City Movement
The Jangheung area is dominated by mountainous terrain, which covers about two-thirds of its 618 square kilometers. A seemingly endless series of mountain peaks emanate from Yuchi-myeon, where Borimsa Temple is located, sweeping across the land and out toward the southern coast. Sparsely populated villages are scattered about, often at the base of steep cliffs adjoining narrow tracts of flat land. The densely forested mountains are home to eagle owls, while roe deer, elk, and boar roam the valleys.
Cittaslow International has recently recognized Yuchi-myeon as a “slow city.” The “slow city” movement, which began in Orvieto, Italy in 1999, is based on efforts to promote a practical lifestyle that strives to preserve the natural environment and longstanding tradition. However, in addition to Yuchi-myeon, the whole of Jangheung is aligned with this initiative. As such, local residents engage in basic farming, along with raising cattle, pigs, and bees, and gathering mushrooms from wooded valleys—a lifestyle that has changed little with the passage of time. The villages retain their rustic charm thanks to traditional-style homes with drooping eaves, along with low stone walls that form winding walkways.
In the 1970s, to facilitate Korea’s industrialization, farm lands were increasingly converted into factory sites, while hordes of residents from the countryside migrated into the cities. In fact, for Jangheung, its resident population plummeted to only 43,000 from a peak of about 140,000. For those who remained, they would say that Jangheung was now home to more cattle than people. Due to the remoteness of this mountainous area, it did not benefit much from the industrialization process; however, this lack of modernization has enabled the region to preserve its natural splendor.
Still, over time, the continued usage of chemical fertilizer and pesticide has come to threaten the area’s natural environment. In response to this concern, and to abide by the “slow city” principles, local farmers have come to actively promote organic farming and crop rotation. Moreover, concerted efforts are underway to revive various insect species, which have nearly disappeared in recent years, such as the rhinoceros beetle, stag beetle, and dung beetle. Residents are also seeking to cultivate earthworms, which play a vital role in enhancing the fertility of crop lands.
The northernmost of Jangheung-gun’s ten administrative districts is Yuchi-myeon, which is home to Borimsa Temple and Jangheung Dam. Built along the upper reaches of Tamjingang River and completed in June 2006, the dam project provides a reliable source of water for the residents and farmers of the southwestern region of Jeollanam-do Province, where Jangheung is situated.
A number of peaks protrude from the surface of this vast reservoir, which extends over some 10.3 square kilometers within a large valley, creating a picturesque view. The reservoir’s fresh water is essential to the region, but the dam’s development did not come about without considerable sacrifice. In fact, some 20 villages were situated within the reservoir area, necessitating the relocation of about 2,200 longtime residents.
History of Tragedy
In February 1894, the Donghak Peasant Revolution was started in Gobu, when the peasant class could no longer tolerate the abuses and corruption wrought by local government officials. The uprising was led by followers of Donghak, an indigenous religion that stressed the equality of all human beings. Local skirmishes quickly gained momentum due to the government’s inability to suppress the rebellious peasants. In a state of chaos, the government turned to Japanese troops for assistance. Facing rifles and artillery, the peasant army was no match for the Japanese and government forces.
Although defeat was inevitable, some 30,000 peasant rebels amassed to make a final stand at the open plains along Tamjingang River, to the south of Jangheung, which was a stronghold for Donghak followers. Armed with little more than pitchforks and crude weapons, the peasants fought fiercely but were methodically slaughtered, leaving their bodies strewn about and turning the Tamjingang River waters red with their blood. But it did not end here. Even after the battle was over, the government troops pursued the survivors of the peasant army and their followers, slaughtering them mercilessly. This ruthless brutality left a deep chasm between the defeated common peasants and the government officials, along with the aristocratic (yangban) class, which would not be closed easily.
About a half century later, the South was invaded by North Korean troops in June 1950. Although this area was spared from the intense fighting and devastation of the Korean War, a post-war ideological clash, between partisans of the left and the right, exacted a heavy toll, in terms of senseless bloodshed and property damage. This kind of tragic past is all the more painful for a rural area like Jangheung, where a strong sense of community and interdependency is particularly essential among the residents.
From the north, the Tamjingang River flows into Jangheung, where its waters gather at Jangheung Dam, then leisurely continues southward to Jangheung-eup, the area’s most thriving district. The river is about 100 meters wide at this point, but shallow enough for an adult to stand upright and not be submerged. Yamazaki Naoko, the Japanese wife, told me that along with Borimsa Temple, she also liked to stop by this river to enjoy the waterside scenery.
I spent two nights in Jangheung, and each morning I arose early and made my way to the banks of the Tamjingang River. Yellow and orange carp, as large as a man’s thigh, thrashed about, vaulting above the water’s surface. Residents could be seen going about their daily routine as an early morning mist rose from the water. There was an abundance of snowy herons, which would wade along the water’s edge and poke around reed patches, seemingly lost in a state of contemplation. Then, they would suddenly take flight, gliding effortlessly in the skies above. This graceful environment was indeed intoxicating.
The Tamjingang River flows through the town of Jangheung-eup, turns southwest at Eokbulsan Mountain, and enters the neighboring county of Gangjin-gun. Its waters flow silently along a 51.5-kilometer journey to the South Sea. Yet for many residents of Jangheung they are little soothed by the river’s tranquility. Due to the heart-wrenching tragedy of the Donghak Peasant Revolution, the ideological conflict after the Korean War, and landlord’s mistreatment of peasants as well as the corruption of government officials, there are those who see the river as a symbol of the endless tears shed by local residents. As for the novelist Han Seung-won, whose father was a Donghak follower and as someone who has resided in Jangheung for 70 years, he has noted that his literature is deeply rooted in the region’s cruel and lamentable history.
Han Seung-won resides in the village of Yulsan, in Anyang-myeon, nearby the ocean. He built a separate writing room a short distance from the house where he lives with his wife, who makes tea from leaves that are gathered from plants behind their home, which she prepares and roasts herself. Adjacent to the writing room is a quaint building, which the Jangheung-gun authorities built for Han, so that he could meet with people who love literature to share their thoughts about literary works and to tell stories about personal experiences.
Jangheung-gun is the only county in Korea to be designated a “special literary tourism zone.” As such, “literature” has been selected as a specialty product of this region. In line with this unique designation, a number of projects are currently underway to preserve and restore the birthplaces of local writers. In addition, a “literature neighborhood” has been created, and a literature park complex, which includes a literature-theme museum, has been built at the base of Mt. Cheongwansan, the area’s most majestic mountain.
The literary roots of Jangheung can be attributed to Baek Gwang-hong, a 16th century poet, and Wi Baek-gyu, a prominent Practical Learning scholar of the 18th century, whose poetry dealt with the hardship and suffering of the area peasants. In spite of its rather nominal population, a large number of literary figures hail from Jangheung, which is home to some 80 active poets and novelists. The area’s most distinguished and currently active writers include Song Ki-sook, Lee Seung-woo, and Han Seung-won. Together with novelist Lee Chong-jun, who died in 2008, Jangheung-gun has named these four writers as the area’s representative authors, along with actively publicizing the fact that the Jangheung region is the home of Korean literature.
Song Ki-sook and Han Seung-won have written novels about the Donghak Peasant Revolution. The works of these two authors are similar in that they reveal an in-depth understanding of the social inequities which have burdened the lives of Korea’s commoners. Meanwhile, Lee Chung-jun has focused more on urban life, while subtly delving into the suppression of humanity and the reactions of individuals to this plight. As for Lee Seung-woo, who is some 20 years younger than the other three authors, he has been described as a writer who deals deftly with aspects of the human condition. Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, of France, has lauded his works, along with saying that Lee Seung-woo is a worthy candidate for a Nobel Prize.
At Cheongwansan Literature Park, large stone monuments, inscribed with passages from representative Korean works and information about the authors, have been installed along the winding walkways. It is designed so that visitors can be informally exposed to Korean literature as they leisurely wander about the park grounds. The literature museum, which introduces the works of well-known authors from Jangheung, includes a reading room, where you can enjoy a variety of books, and seminar rooms.
New Identity: Jeongnamjin
Even today, there is no train service to Jangheung, but access by bus or car is no problem. Although the region lies along the southern coast, the local boats only commute to and from nearby islands. The ocean water here, like that of the Tamjingang River, is noticeably peaceful, because the lengthy Goheung Peninsula serves as a natural breakwater. The calm waters do not necessarily yield a wealth of seafood, but pike eel and common octopus are relatively plentiful, while the broad tracts of tidal flats are a reliable source of clams.
If you head due south from the center of Seoul, you will eventually reach Jangheung. Accordingly, the Jangheung-gun Office has adopted a new name for its coastal area: Jeongnamjin, which literally means “due south ferry launch.” Based on the example of Gangwon-do Province, which has successfully promoted Jeongdongjin (“due east ferry launch”) as a tourist destination, Jangheung is likewise seeking to attract visitors to its southern coast. It would not surprise me to see this campaign pay off handsomely for Jangheung, where I found the coastal scenery to be truly enchanting and memorable.