Why 'Arirang' Isn't Listed Among Korea's Cultural Assets

      June 24, 2011 13:06

      The government has listed music performed during royal ancestral rites, pansori or traditional Korean narrative song, "Goseong Ogwangdae," a mask dance drama from Goseong, South Gyeongsang Province, and royal cuisine as important intangible cultural assets of Korea. But the country failed to list the folk song "Arirang," widely considered Korea's unofficial national anthem, and the world-famous side dish kimchi.

      The Cultural Heritage Administration this week announced it will now list the different styles of the folk song in Korea on the UNESCO World Heritage List next year, but the announcement only came after China listed "Arirang" as part of its own cultural heritage because it is sung by ethnic Koreans in Yanbian Province.

      To be registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a cultural asset must first be part of a country's inventory of valuable heritage. But why has "Arirang" been left off the list of Korea's important cultural assets?

      A raft crosses the Naerin Stream in Inje, Gangwon Province on Oct. 5, 2004, to the tune of "Ttenmok Arirang" during an reenactment of the folk performance Ttenmok Nori, literally "play on a raft." Such rafts were used to carry timbers from the mountains to build palaces in the Chosun period.

      ◆ Technical Obstacles

      The only version of "Arirang" that has been officially recognized is "Jeongseon Arirang," which was selected in 1971 as intangible cultural asset No. 1 of Gangwon Province. "The existing law protecting intangible cultural assets requires the designation of not only the item but also the individual or group that practices it, but this was not possible when it comes to 'Arirang,'" said Kim Sam-ki, the director of intangible cultural assets at the CHA. "'Arirang' is a folk song loved by all Koreans, so there is no particular individual who is the best at singing it."

      Kimchi, too, is a Korean cultural icon, but it cannot be listed as an important cultural asset because pretty much everyone makes it, rather for example a specific group of local artisans.

      Music performed during royal ancestral rites, folk songs of Gyeonggi Province, pansori and "Goseong Ogwangdae" were listed as important intangible cultural assets, because there are individuals who are masters of the craft or performance. Han Bok-ryeo (royal cuisine) and Chung Kil-ja (royal confectionery) have been officially recognized as masters of those skills.

      Students sing "Jeongseon Arirang" in Namseon Elementary School in Jeongseon, Gangwon Province, which runs a program to list a version of the traditional tune exclusive to the area.

      Ironically, the regulations have made it possible for quite parochial items to be designated while those shared by everyone have been excluded, which is like leaving the Pyramids off the list because the architect is unknown.

      Kim Yeon-kap, executive director of the Korean Arirang Association said, "There are problems when it comes to designating 'Arirang' as belonging to a particular individual, but one solution may be to select a group such as the Jindo Arirang Preservation Society and Miryang Arirang Preservation Society."

      Another problem is the narrow definition of cultural assets. The law on preserving cultural assets stipulates that they must be theatrical plays, music, dance, forms of entertainment or ritual, martial arts, craftsmanship, food or other intangible cultural products of major historic, artistic or academic value. Seven criteria have been set for selection. Lunar New Year's Day or Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) celebrations do not meet these selection criteria. China, by contrast, has listed hanbok or traditional Korean dress, traditional wedding ceremonies, and ssireum or Korean wrestling as part of its own cultural heritage since they are worn or practiced by ethnic Koreans there.

      Performers put on a "Cheongju Arirang" show that is exclusive to Korean Chinese in Jeongam Village in China.

      ◆ Revisions

      Some patriots fear that China's listing of "Arirang," and a Korean farmer's dance as part of its own intangible cultural assets is a precursor to registering them on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Korean laws need to be revised quickly.

      "We are pushing to revise existing laws so that items that cannot be linked to a particular group or individual can be registered," Kim said. "We also plan to compile a new list of intangible cultural assets by the end of this year that will include 'Arirang,' ssireum, folk tales and customs observed during traditional holidays in line with the UNESCO World Heritage List and widen the scope of our intangible cultural assets."

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