Jangseung – Grotesquerie at Hahoe Village

My fellow travellers were too lazy for an early morning jaunt from Andong to Hahoe Village.  So I went alone, through a dewed shadow-soft landscape to the ancient village of Hahoe (pr. Hawhere).  When you mention this place to Koreans, you are talking about the roots of the culture.  Quite unimposing, even primitive, it is a small cluster of dwellings, some of them mud and grass.  The information board tells you that it was constructed according to intricate geomantic principles, pungsu, and is associated with ancient clans.  Legend has it that Hahoe Village is where the design of yin-yang originated in the 8th-century c.e.  This symbol has only been found in China since the 11th-century c.e.

The river at Hahoe Village. Note the Yin-Yang formation.

On a previous visit I saw a performance of masked dance by a Japanese troupe and wandering around the streets was a peep into another time.  But it was really the jangseung that brought me back.  With a passion.

A throng of jangseung

The jangseung are carved logs, grotesque faces meant to scare off evil spirits or demarcate boundaries.  The gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are tame by comparison, but, no doubt, coming from the same folk impulses.  Jangseung are a rough craft, overpowering and deeply loved, even with an irony, by modern Koreans.  Traditionally, they are found on the periphery of fields or at the entrances to villages.  At the International Mask Festival in Andong, I saw children in workshops carving their own jangseung.  With commitment and glee.  Chisels and hammers.  Chips flying.

At Hahoe village it seemed that the jangseung, a whole throng of them, had been dropped off in a small field along the road to the Village.  It was entirely un-touristy.  And I was the only person showing an interest.  One mother passing by with her little girl had to curb the child’s curiosity –  for a reason that will become clear.

Standing amongst them, surrounded by them, overpowered by them, I was transfixed.  A small forest of figures,  hypnotically gross and crude, the stuff of fairy tales, frightening and enchanting… it was a magical experience.

Amongst these preposterosities, there were the two iconic  figures, called Hahoetal that the Village is known for.  They are not grotesque;  they both radiate warmth and goodwill.  The male figure is called the yangban mask and the female, the bridal mask.

Then – and this is what the mother kept her daughter from – there were figures with immense penises, indicative of the tradition of phallicism in Korea.  I find it interesting that, in a country where the one-child policy has been applied with uncommon discipline, that there has been a tradition of phallic imagery geared to fertility.

Jangseung and rocks

The jangseung are not everybody’s cup of green tea.  For me they show the vitality of a culture, a spirituality and a wild creativity.

Will van der Walt ©

March, 2008


Image Sources: Photographs by Will


Phallicism is interpreted as a cultural meaning of reproductive principles and male, female sexual activities aiming at good fortune, praying for the birth of a male baby, productiveness, and well-being.  Phallicism handed down in Korea, venerates natural stones or geographical features shaped like female-male sexual organs as objects of praying for the birth of a male boy, the protection of villages, productiveness, and complementary measures against geomantic problems.  Artificial sculptures of sexual organs made of stone, wood and earthen ware were also used to worship and enshrine the guardians of the village.  – Information Board, Folk Culture Museum, Seoul.    [Careful scrutiny of the second image in this post will illustrate what is being said here.]


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