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  From an Alien Past _ Hyunok Jung 2008/08/25
From an Alien Past
Hyunok Jung

Material Evidence for Revising Historical Chronology  


 During the excavation of a  kiln site at Gurim village, Yeongam County in Chollanam-do, the team of archeologists  from Ewha Womans  University Museum  found scores of iron artifacts in the image of a dog, an event unprecedented in  the history of archeology in Korea.

  Similar dog figurines were also  found later in the back yard of a dilapidated pavilion in the same village. The  Gurim village had earlier been of interest to sociologists and art historians  as earthenware had been excavated from the area, but this recent excavation has  caused new found awareness and interest in the region. Due to many interested  scholars coming together to study Gurim village, it has become possible to  better understand the history of the Mahan people (ancient tribal confederation  in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula) whom folk historians have  long believed to have resided in the area and developed into a local power  during the third to fifth centuries. Up to now, historians have believed that  Mahan was conquered by Paekche in the year 369. However folk historians have  strongly rejected this interpretation and insisted that at least the Western  coastal areas, including Yeongam and Kangjin, were conquered by Paekche only in  the late fifth century. It was only at this time that the stone chamber tombs,  the tomb structure of burial custom unique to Paekche appears in this area,  which also corresponds with the date of the disappearance of jar-coffin  interment tombs. This claim by folk historians has gained grater credibility  with the excavation of the iron dog artifacts from Gurim which date from the  early Iron Age. Since there has been no earlier known material evidence of iron  dog figures anywhere, this excavation strongly supports the assumption that  there was indeed an independent community during the Iron Age in the Yeongam  region.

  These facts posed a puzzling  question to me. Does the significance of the iron dog artifact from an alien  and distant past simply end with partial revision to the chronology of history?  And why is it that I am not fully satisfied although the historians have been  provided with such credible evidence? It must be human nature to seek meaning  in everything and to locate and position things within an ordered system of  meanings. Such inclinations led me to set off to Gurim village to search where  the dog must have lived, some 1500 years ago, as I knock on the door of ancient  history.

  I went deep into the recesses of  Gurim village in search of the trails of a figure in the past, a man known as  Wang-In from Gurim village some 1500 ago, who is said to have crossed the seas  from Sangdaep'o port to Japan  and played an important role in the cultural exchange between the two nations.

  As I walk by the scattered  porcelain shards here and there along the village path I recalled a story I had  once heard that the Yeongsan River supposedly lay right at the doorsteps of the  village and I was later shocked to witness the dog figurines that were  excavated during the recent dig. These artifacts were found Completely intact,  with such remarkable realism in the craftsmanship that they looked like real  dogs that had been buried alive - they appeared awesome and solemn.


 


Material Evidence for Mapping the  Narrative


Now I embark on a journey, led by  the iron dog artifacts all covered with the extraordinary reddish soil of this  region, to visit an alien and distant past. And because the map of journey into  the past is incomplete with the guidance of official history alone, I received  help from the knowledge related the oral histories and folk tales that abound  in Gurim village. Significant events in life leave marked imprints in the  memory and it is natural that such narratives feed the imagination to develop  full lives. The traces of time that have  slipped away from grasp of  historians have nevertheless remained with us, as imprints in memory, to longer  in our midst and develop into archetypal narratives that are more powerful than  verifiable documentation.

  If we look closer into the surviving  folk tales of dogs in Korea  the stories about becoming rich with the help of a dog and a cat, or the ne  finds stories based on the "dog husband" or the "village  guardian dog." I decided to trace the origins of these prototype folk  tales and based my research on studies of the geopolitical and cultural mapping  of the ancient Yeongam region that wafaithful dog that saves the live of its  owner form the staple archetypes throughout the nation. But it is only in  Cholla-do that was the site of the traffic of ancient civilizations that  traveled along the Yeongsan   River.

  As I collected oral histories of  folk tales along the route of the Altaic language cultures, I discovered that  comparable tales from Mongolia,  China, and Japan are based  on the same foundations as the local "dog husband" narratives. This  implies that Gurim village which is located along the Yeongsan  River, was an important outpost for  exchanges between Mongolia, China, Korea,  and Japan.  And it also suggests that there was a unique regional culture that respected  dogs and expressed a great degree of imaginative interest regarding dogs amidst  the tribal states that ruled over the territories along the Yeongsan River.

  My gaze which had been trapped and  confined into a tunnel vision, now begins to take flight and reach beyond the  borders of mainland China,  across the Western shoreline and beyond the seas into Japan.  


 


First Story - Prayers for  Protection and Prosperity


The next question that I faced was  why the ancient people buried images of a dog. And I found the answer to this  question from the tale of Toson's geomancy told by a village patriarch. The  tale of Toson had been long forgotten but was rediscovered and documented with the  unearthing of the iron dog artifacts.

  Toson(827-898) was a monk well  versed in geomancy from the late Unified Shilla period who was born in Yeongam,  and when the koryo kingdom was newly founded he was appointed as the court  monk. The tale of Toson narrates that the portentous formations of the  landscape, and as he was about to give blessings to the ch'i of the land, he  heard that the land was already being protected by a dog, and so he left the  region. But the story goes that there was a disciple who had accompanied Toson  on his travels and had misunderstood Toson's words and in turn misinformed the  village folk. Thus Toson had coined the name Gurim (拘林 forest of dogs), for the village but it was relayed to the villate  as Girim (鳩林 : forest of doves). Upon closer  observation the terrain of Gurim forms a scenic spot that aligns the stretch of  mountain ranges from Paektu   Mountain with the coastal  line of the Western sea front, Yeongam villagers had created guardian figures  in the image of a dog and buried the figures, hundreds of years prior to Toson.  And it was with great wisdom that Toson was able to capture local cultural  history.

  As mentioned earlier, Yeongam  which is located upstream the Yeongsan   River that flows along  the western shoreline, is a passageway into the inland and serves as the  gateway for the all things that reach in and out of the interior of the  peninsula. Such a geopolitical position would have been the cause for much  local pride for the ancient villagers og Yeongam and surely the locals would  have found all kinds of means to fulfill the responsibility bestowed upon their  homeland. And especially as a dog under a tree signifies protection, It is  probable that a forest was also designed when the dog figurines were being  produced. And in the process the name Gurim (拘 林)랙 the region would have naturally come into being.

  Well then, how can it be that such  a significant ritual celebration of burying the iron dog artifacts 1500 years  ago, that harbored the prayers for protection and prosperity, has disappeared  altogether? To find answers to this question, I reviewed the history of Yeongam  once again with my thoughts rooted in local folk tales.


Second Story - Between History and  Folklore


Following the unification of  Shilla, the Yeongam region witness to difficult time as it was overpowered by  outside communities, followed by the evacuation and dislocation of its native  people, and demoted from administrative status in the kingdom. During such  times of trial, the ancient Yeongam people drifted along the Yeongsan River  to the western seashore and ventured into new territories as they embarked for China. And thus  the superior culture and administrative power that Yeongam had enjoyed during  prehistoric times and Mahan and Paekche dynasties was greatly damaged. In the  process, the local pride as the gatekeeper of the kingdom was also diminished,  and the dog burial ritual that symbolized their communal aspirations would also  have disappeared into distant folklore.

  The historical status of Yeongam  during the Unified Shilla dynasty was to take another turn by the end of the  dynasty and the beginnings of the koryo dynasty. With the advent of the Koryo  kingdom, the descendants of Yeongam who had lost their land for over 500 years  returned to their fatherland, and Yeongam was once again a booming outpost.  These descendants headed back along the Yeongsan  River, and from after along the Yellow Sea they would have gazed up at Wolch'ul Mountain  that glared under the crimson sunset. The mountains draped in crimson and the  ship embarking on the shore must have been a grand scene, just as it is told in  the tales. But during the lapse of over 500 years, the origins of Yeongam's  cultural roots had much faded, and its people were no longer very interested in  the tales of "dog burial" that lingered in the region, but were more  keen to establish friendly ties with Toson who was in a position of power with  the new Koryo dynasty. A celebrated figure from one's hometown was indeed the  pride of the community, and the interest in constructing a myth around the  famous person would have continued well after Toson's death.

  In the task of narrating the myths  of Toson, the story about his birth would have been of primary importance. A  tale has it that when Toson was abandoned because of his abnormal birth, doves  came to the rescue and protected the newborn. And to support this storyline,  there was material evidence that the name of the village had been changed to  Gurim (鳩林, forest of doves), from the previous  designation Gurim (拘林, forest of dogs). It is probable  that this time-frame was the point when the tale of Toson's geomancy, which had  provided me with the clue to the dog burial ritual, disappeared. The birth  legend of Toson therefore reflects the politically shrewd behavior by the  Yeongam people in times of political transition at the threshold of a new  dynasty. It is also indicative of the keen interest that the new king of Koryo,  T'aejo, had shown towards Cholla-do in general. The imagination of the  community did well to play up to the relationship between T'aejo and the  powerful member of the local gentry, Choi Chi-Mong of Koryo, and so the myths  played their part in creating political clout.

  By illustrating the processes  through which the two different tales of Toson had replaced each other, I was  able to map the course of events that led to the disappearance of the rich  imaginative presence of the dog in Gurim. This study also gives us glimpses  into the lives of ancestors who were capable of exploiting the power of  story-telling, emerge and bring back memories of a vagus distant past when  reality and fiction co-mingled with natural ease, and this is striking to our  intellect as we live in an age when imaginative narratives no longer have any  real place in life.


Third Story - misunderstandings


The story of the Tangsin goddess  is another example of a dog narratives. The Tangsin goddess story goes  something like the following : A man from the village who one day returning  home rather late reached a small house by the Tangsan tree and thought he might  rest a while at the house. But he happened to see the young woman of the house  sleeping together with a dog, and shocked, ran away. The next day the men of  the village came to the conclusion after much discussion that the young woman  was none other than the Tangsin goddess, and they built a pavilion behind the  Tangsin tree to suppress the spirits of the goddess. And henceforth the village  killed every dog of the village began calling the young woman "old  grandma" to deprive the woman of her sexual prowess. This also led the  village men to restrict their womenfolk from going out of the house for fear  that dogs would lure women away, and whenever the men had to leave the women  behind they would lock doors from outside.

  This Tangsin goddess story derives  from the staple "dog husband" narratives that are found in Cholla-do,  and prior to the development of this story into folk tale proper, it would have  had the same level of the dog was later rejected as a preposterously scandalous  affair as times changed and paradigms shifted, whereby the female goddess  figures, and dogs, fell from grace. The distortion of the relationship between  the goddess and the dog was the subject of communal attack and anger from the  village men which was vented against the women, and legitimized the subjugation  of the Gurim womenfolk. Hence the iron dog figures are testament to the history  of the dispossessed.

  At the time in history when the  dog cult first emerged in this land, the dog burial custom was a festive  celebration that symbolized universal order and harmony, and was also  expressive of the great pride of the people for their native land; it was a  project symbolizing protection and prosperity. But as times changed, values  differed, and the codes and symbolisms of an earlier age caused  misunderstandings which only increased in their extent to become nearly  irreparable. The dog iron artifacts awake from timeless deep slumber and tells  us to probe the cause of the misunderstandings that occurred so many centuries  ago.


Drawing a New Map of  Significations


Objects containing layered  dimensions of time are fascinating. And the forms that they assume art  beautiful since they exceed the limits of my present bound artistic  sensibilities, and they art mystical since they embody depths of the unknown.  And kind of scientific and objective measuring devices to calibrate the depths  of time, coupled with the imagination, are always valid means of tracing man in  the past.

  Fantasizing is strictly a human  behavior. It is through fantasy that man is able to gauge the mysteries of the  origin of life, or predict man's fate. Thus as we recreate the events from the  past in the present, we are able to extend the scope of human experiences and  equip ourselves to project into the future. And it is important that we know  how to exercise this as we observe the iron dog figurines. This task will place  us, insecure creatures bound by the present times potential that we are, within  the context of a grand epic. It will also give some solace to those  disillusioned by a dismal past that seems devoid of nay magic, or those  desperate souls who have lived the present with blind faith in a better future.

  In the past history of Gurim  village that has been unveiled by means of the village lay beyond the dating  systems adopted by historians. And so I adopted oral histories as my central  data in order to obtain a fuller grasp of the picture.

  The masters of this land in the  distant past played a kind of game of constructing meaning from the common dog  in everyday life. The tale of geomancy of Toson, the birth tale of Toson, or  the story of the Tangsin goddess formed the stuff of meaning amongst the  everyday lives of the villagers. As we exhumed what had been interred, we found  there were interesting anecdotes as well as unfounded misunderstandings that  were built up during the passage of time.

  The excavated material from the  recent archeological project are of historical importance since they also  reflect on the formation of the Mahan tribal states, and the dating of  Paekche's struggle for supremacy over the region. Maybe it would be most  logical to halt the historical significance of the finds to these factors. But  I was presumptuous enough to study the history of Gurim village with folk tales  in my mind. And from this visit I came across abounding evidence of the human  imagination and desire in anyone, and glimpsed at the conditions with which men  have lived through the ages.

  These artifacts may tell a  different story to others. And to anyone listening, I would like to ask the  question : What kind of meaning are you mapping for yourself?


*The contents of this text is  partly fictional. Historical documentation has been appropriated for a more  convincing story-telling.


     


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15   Cho Duck–Hyun _ Ann Landi  
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