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  • Kim Yun-a

[CULTURE] Korean Art in Crisis: Intangible Cultural Heritage

No.166 / Oct 16, 2023

Korea celebrated Chuseok on September 29 by the solar calendar. Chuseok, Korea’s largest holiday along with Korean New Year’s Day, is on August 15 by the lunar calendar. Koreans gather with relatives or family members for the first time in a long time and visit family members’ grave or share delicious holiday foods especially associated with Chuseok. On Chuseok, an ancestral rite is held to pray to the ancestors for a good harvest, and people find and take care of their ancestors’ graves; this is called memorial services. The memorial service table also shows differences according to region and era. The appearance of memorial services has changed owing to smaller families, a wider variety of food, and the development of processed foods.

While the structure of memorial services has undergone changes, many of Korea’s traditional intangible cultural heritages have failed to adapt to the times. Consequently, several of these intangible cultural heritages are at risk of disappearing or have already disappered. National intangible cultural heritages refer to traditional arts and techniques that do not have a concrete form, such as songs, dances, and techniques, but have been handed down since ancient times. Pansori, talchum, royal cuisine, traditional Korean fans, and pot-making techniques are all national intangible cultural heritages. “Ganggangsullae,” considered a play for Chuseok, is also a national intangible cultural property with the meaning of praying for a bountiful harvest. In the past, every house used Onggi (earthenware extensively used as tableware and storage containers in Korea). However, with the technical development, few people currently use the Onggi, and the traditional techniques for making them are gradually disappearing. Thus, pottery art is designated as an important intangible cultural property so that the technology of making pottery can be continuously transmitted.

However, among intangible cultural heritages, there are 39 items for which there is only one artisan to transmit the technology, and inkstones (a stone used in calligraphy on which dry ink and water are mixed) have disappeared from national intangible cultural heritages as there are no more left. There are national intangible cultural heritages that are on the verge of losing their reputation owing to the disappearance of artisans, which places a heavy burden on individual craftsman. While most of Jeollanam-do’s national intangible cultural heritages are elderly artisans. The Jeollanam-do Cultural Foundation (JNCF) has produced video records of national intangible cultural heritages in the province through the “Jeollanam-do Intangible Cultural Heritage Video Recording Project.” Jeollanam-do’s national intangible cultural heritages are in danger of losing the transmission of their unique intangible heritages because many artisans are elderly and lack a bearer who wishes to receive the skills. This story is not only applicable to Jeollanam-do but also represents the reality of Korea’s current national intangible cultural heritages.

The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) is actively conducting accreditation surveys to expand the recruitment of skill holders and transmission educators, and is also continuously recruiting authorized transmission educators. The death of the holder of national intangible cultural heritage does not mean that the craft itself has been cut off, as the inkstone is currently handed down as a city or province’s national intangible cultural heritage. In addition, if a local government that holds an inkstone field as a provincial intangible cultural heritage applies and is recognized for its value in the future, it is possible to designate it as a national intangible cultural heritage. In addition, various support projects are being implemented for those who have completed national intangible cultural heritage projects. Those who have completed national intangible cultural heritage projects are not subject to direct transmission support payments, as they are not obligated to provide training as holders or transmission educators are. However, indirect support is provided annually through various activity projects. CHA has stated that it will do its best to support the livelihoods of transmitters in the future.

In addition, Jeollanam-do began producing records of events that were handed down or were highly likely to disappear from the island region in 2011. A total of 10 events have been recorded thus far. Related video data will be distributed to the Provincial Office of Education, public libraries, universities, and cultural centers for use as educational and transmission materials. It will also be released in the academic archives of the Cultural Heritage Research Institute on the foundation’s website, so that interested people can easily view the videos. Joo Soon-sun, CEO of the JNCF, said, “National intangible cultural heritage records are valuable data for promoting and preserving Jeollanam-do’s traditional culture, and for inheriting and transmitting its original form.” Therefore, Koreans should also watch and support these efforts with great interest to help protect our country’s precious culture.


By Kim Yun-a, AG Reporter

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