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An invitation to Korea’s intangible cultural heritage: Gangneung Danoje, Hansan Mosi

Among the many significant legacies passed on from generation to generation are economic prosperity, a healthy environment, world peace, and cultural heritage. In recent years, the preservation of ‘non-physical’ heritage -- local traditions, cultural expressions, and their practitioners -- has also emerged as one of the urgent priorities in light of the diminishing of valuable cultural heritage in modern times.

At the center of this movement resides UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), for which the Korean government provided an intriguing perspective with its safeguarding system for ICH entitled ”Living Human Treasures,” and its initial proposal to launch such a project with a worldwide scope in 1993.

“The Republic of Korea provided a conceptual impetus and marked a milestone in the history of UNESCO’s ICH program,” says Noriko Aikawa-Faure, the former Director of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit. “The Living Human Treasures” project contributed to focusing the attention of member states on the significant role that practitioners, actors, and creators play in enacting and transmitting a particular heritage.”

While assisting countries like Cambodia and Fiji to establish the Living Human Treasures system with funds-in-trust that are endowed within UNESCO, Korea has continuously strived to ensure the viability of such heritage within the practitioners’ communities back home. Through organizing annual cultural festivals, such as Gangneung Danoje and the Hansan Mosi Cultural Festival, the nation seeks to remind us of the importance of the transmission of invaluable heritage.

Hansan Mosi: Preserving the past, promoting the future of Korean aesthetics

Every early June, the grounds of Seocheon County turn into a venue for the Hansan Mosi Cultural Festival, providing general audiences the opportunity to enjoy the delicate and sophisticated beauty of the Hanbok, Korea’s national costume made of mosi (fine ramie), alongside various hands-on activities. This year’s event, held from June 8 to 10, was particularly meaningful as it marked the first edition to take place since the recent addition of the technique of mosi-weaving in the Hansan region into UNESCO’s ICH List last November.

Acclaimed Hanbok designer Lee Young Hee sent her ramie dresses down the runway, dazzling the audience amid the presence of dozens of foreign diplomatic envoys and ambassadors to Korea. Visitors also had an opportunity to try out the weaving process with the guidance of a practitioner alongside a number of other hands-on activities.

 A foreign tourist participates in a hands-on ramie fabric-weaving activity offered at the Hansan Mosi Cultural Festival (photo courtesy of Seocheon County). A foreign tourist participates in a hands-on ramie fabric-weaving activity offered at the Hansan Mosi Cultural Festival (photo courtesy of Seocheon County).

“Mosi is as finely weaved as the wings of a dragonfly. The more you wear it, the stronger it gets. And to whomever wears it, the material gives a sense of elegance,” says Bang Yeon-ok, a mosi-weaving master.

The eco-friendly fiber whose legacy dates back to the Baekje Kingdom is known for its thin and fine texture, as pure and refined as white porcelain. Its extremely light weight made the fabric favored for summer clothing. Along with the recent recognition by UNESCO, the history and excellence of the natural fabric, which accentuates the artistic character of the wearer, has received renewed attention and wide acclaim.

The tradition is reputed for involving a series of months-long processes, from harvesting, boiling, and bleaching ramie plants to yarn-spinning and final weaving on a traditional loom, which requires endurance and devotion.

 Models exhibit collections made of mosi fabrics by Lee Young Hee at her haute couture fashion show in Paris in July 2010, boasting a fine exhibition of her exquisite works. Lee also put on a fashion show for this year’s festival in Seocheon (photo courtesy of the Maison de Lee Young Hee). Models exhibit collections made of mosi fabrics by Lee Young Hee at her haute couture fashion show in Paris in July 2010, boasting a fine exhibition of her exquisite works. Lee also put on a fashion show for this year’s festival in Seocheon (photo courtesy of the Maison de Lee Young Hee).

Mosi-weaving is a traditional cultural practice handed down from generation to generation by middle-aged women in the Hansan region of South Chungcheong Province. The weaving technique is characterized by its method of inheritance through female family members, in which the mothers transmit the traditions to their daughters or daughters-in-law.

Mosi-weaving allegedly went on to be inscribed by UNESCO for its engagement in binding the community and its potential to enhance the global recognition of the diversity of hand-woven textiles. As of today, there are approximately 500 people in the region who still practice the technique.

“I wish more and more young generation would learn the weaving of mosi, a technique which has become a heritage for humanity,” says the 66-year-old Bang. “It is my vision and duty to set groundwork for the mosi-weaving technique to remain in existence from generation to generation.”

Gangneung Danoje Festival: centuries-old traditions revived

Efforts to assure and revitalize the transmission of traditional cultural practices are also found in the region of Gangneung City. Throughout June, Gangneung celebrates its thousand-year-old traditions of Dano, a Korean traditional holiday falling on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

Derived from the ancient village festival serving shamanic rituals and festivities dedicated to agricultural cycles, Danoje ceremonies were passed on to pray for a rich harvest and an abundant catch alongside peace in the village and the health of all the residents.

 Along with Seollal and Chuseok, Dano is considered one of the most important traditional Korean holidays. The festival was proclaimed to be added in the UNESCO representative list in 2005, joining other heritage which humanity should preserve and pass down to future generations (photo courtesy of the Gangneung Danoje Festival Committee).Along with Seollal and Chuseok, Dano is considered one of the most important traditional Korean holidays. The festival was proclaimed to be added in the UNESCO representative list in 2005, joining other heritage which humanity should preserve and pass down to future generations (photo courtesy of the Gangneung Danoje Festival Committee).

Gangneung Danoje Festival is well known for its wide variety of folk play performances, also inviting participants to experience traditional customs and folk games from riding old-style swings to washing one’s hair with a changpo (sweet flag) mix.

The Gwanno Mask Dance pantomime stands out among the diverse traditional performances, even impressing Sung Kim, the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, who paid a visit to Gangneung on June 8.

“I came to the city to experience the cultural richness of the home of Gangneung Danoje, the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” remarked Sung Kim while complimenting the Gwanno Mask Dance, which delivers a clear message to the audience through pantomime.

 Ambassador Sung Kim (left) joins a mask dance troupe during a visit to Seongyojang -- a well-preserved traditional aristocratic house -- in the city of Gangnueng (photo courtesy of Gangneung City). Ambassador Sung Kim (left) joins a mask dance troupe during a visit to Seongyojang -- a well-preserved traditional aristocratic house -- in the city of Gangnueng (photo courtesy of Gangneung City).

In light of the ever-growing attention on ICH preservation, the Gangneung-based Inter-City Intangible Cultural Cooperation Network (ICCN) officially became an accredited NGO for providing advisory services to the intangible cultural heritage committee of UNESCO on June 7 -- at the fourth session of the General Assembly of the States Parties to the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Founded in 2008 in conformity with the spirit of the convention, the ICCN is committed to the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage with the participation of local authorities from 29 cities of 21 nations. Upon the recent accreditation, the international organization has gained new momentum and is expected to spur its activities in the field of care of local intangible cultural heritage and community relations, to preserve heritage that is on the verge of extinction. As part of its promotion of intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development, the ICCN will host the 2012 ICCN World Intangible Culture Festival in Gangneung this October.

Ever since UNESCO gave shape to a concrete plan to protect intangible heritage in 2001, which was superseded in 2008 by the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, Korea has turned out 14 items, including Jongmyo jerye (royal ancestral rite and ritual music) and pansori (traditional Korean opera) along with the Gangneung Danoje Festival and the weaving of mosi in the Hansan region. For more information on UNESCO Treasures in Korea, please visit here.

By Hwang Dana
Korea.net Staff Writer

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