Inheritance, Identity and Korea



I stood watching the colourful Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Geongbokgung, Central Seoul, South Korea, the most important and extensive palace complex of the Joseon Dynasty (mid-medieval).  The deep, measured drumbeats, the “wry-nosed fife” (a kind of small trumpet) and punctuating cymbals in the swirl of yellow and blue costumes and flags all ushered me into a heightened frame of mind.  There was something ancient there, even primitive, elements which forge intense feeling in me.


A guard

Thirty-six years ago I sat in a Spanish pub, watching Spanish people eating their Spanish lunch and drinking Spanish wine.  And, without having to think about it, feeling Spanish.  I went away from that pub with a question that will probably never be fully answered:  Who am I? a question prompted by the complexity of my personal cultural history.

There is another question that has hidden in the wings: what is my inheritance?  I was born into a culture of facebrick and corrugated iron, one whose folk music never discovered the minor key.  Seldom, if ever, have I heard any white South African speaking with awe and respect about things cultural and historical as Koreans do.  Just mention Andong or in particular Hahoe Village (pr. Ha-where) near it, and the listener, young or old, quickens interest.  Mention the tragic conflagration of South Gate, Namdaemun, Seoul, in February 2008, South Korea’s National Treasure No. 1, and you see pain.

South Gate

Is there anything vaguely akin to that kind of historical-cultural involvement among white South Africans, and Afrikaners, in particular.  Some have told me that they felt a great deal as children exploring the Voortrekker Monument. Black people may feel emotion at Hector Petersen’s monument in Soweto.  But it’s political stuff.  Within a generation or two the passionate intensity will pass.

South Gate, gutted

The destruction by fire of South Gate, City Hall, Seoul, encapsulates an awareness of six hundred years, something far beyond the politics of a few decades.  This national icon is Joseon, part of the palatial complex, built in a time that itself drew on the remarkable achievements of the Three Kingdoms period, roughly 600 c.e. to 1000 c.e. It is even beyond the North-South split that has governed Korea since 1953.  Do I find that stature of mind and heart anywhere amongst my own people?  What is my inheritance?

What is clear is that the South Korean experience has changed me.

I open the container of bean paste, spoon a little onto each large warm ghimchi dumpling or mandu, so that it melts into the thin dough. I eat. The rich, slightly-burny savoury invasion of my tastebuds tells me that, whoever I am and whatever my inheritance, I’ll never be the same again.


M a n d u

 Will van der Walt ©

20 March 2008

 Image Source:  Photographs by Will  


One Response to Inheritance, Identity and Korea

  1. September is Cultural Month in Douth African. You challange our thoughts. Thanks Will

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