Arirang, Korea's unofficial anthem
Apr 05, 2012
A tragic song of separation and lost love, Arirang is a national symbol not only of Korea’s distant past, but also its turbulent modern history. It served as a symbol of Korea’s struggle for independence under Japan, and its relevance has remained throughout decades of division and fraternal hostilities. The Korean government intends to register the song, often considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea, on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
On June 23, 2011, then-Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choung Byoung-gug announced that the government is compiling a list of all variations of Arirang, including those from North Korea, for inclusion in its submission to UNESCO. Previously, in 2009, the government applied for the inclusion of Jeongseon Arirang, which failed to meet approval.
The song exists in countless variations across the country. Along with the Jeongseon Arirang of Jeongseon County, Gangwond-do (Gangwon Province), some of the best-known and best-preserved variations include Jindo Arirang from the island of Jindo in Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province), Miryang Arirang from Miryang in Gyeongsangnam-do (South Gyeongsang Province), and Bonjo Arirang, also called Gyeonggi Arirang or Shin Arirang (New Arirang), from Seoul. All have their own unique lyrics, refrains, melodies, and so on.
“Arirang represents all the joys and sorrows in the history and lives of Koreans,” says the National Folk Museum of Korea. “It is deeply rooted in Koreans’ emotion as the cultural DNA.”
The National Folk Museum unveiled a special exhibit dedicated to Arirang on Wednesday, April 4, on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace in downtown Seoul. The exhibit is intended not just to inform visitors about the song’s rich heritage, but also muse on the depth of its meaning to the everyday lives of the Korean people.
The exhibit, available free for the public until May 21, is divided into five sections. The first section consists of a narrow hallway with messages welcoming visitors to reflect on the meaning of Arirang, written in many languages on the walls. Visitors are asked why they think Koreans sing Arirang in both times of happiness and sorrow, and what Arirang Pass really is.
Once through the hallway, visitors enter a large room introducing the history of various regional versions of the song alongside modern interpretations.
“Someone says that it started the same time Korean history started while others argue that it started in the latter period of the Joseon Dynasty,” says a sign on the wall in this room. Bonjo Arirang was invented as recently as the 19th century, while Jeongseon Arirang is considered the oldest, dating back over 600 years, but the exact origins of Arirang are unknown. “The beginning of Arirang hasn’t been cleared in spite of its many hypotheses, but it doesn’t have much importance. The truth is that we are still singing the songs of old.”
There are listening consoles around the exhibit, as well as a multimedia station inviting visitors to sit and learn about the distinct variations of Arirang.
There is also an impressive collection of recordings, song sheets, and lyrics to the song, showing how widespread it is in Korean society. From lullabies sung by mothers to their babies, to hit songs on records by groups like the Kim Sisters, to military marching songs. An arrangement of the song, “New Arirang March,” was designated the official marching song of the U.S. Army 7th Infantry Division for its service in the Korean War.
The Korean folk song is well known around the world, adapted into a wide variety of genres from folk and orchestral, to rock and pop, to reggae and jazz. It has been performed by a diverse selection of groups including the Chinese-pop band Alilang Group composed of Korean-Chinese members, Japanese ska band Moody Rudy, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed the song on a visit to Pyongyang on February 26, 2008.
The museum exhibit even includes one section dedicated to Arirang in North Korea, reminding visitors of the song’s importance north of the 38th parallel and reflecting on the often tragic nature of the song speaking of the pain of separation. Every year, Pyongyang holds the Arirang Festival, or Mass Games, a large-scale collective performance featuring over 100,000 performers, recognized by Guinness World Records as the largest of its kind. Featuring dancing, acrobatics, and live music, the Arirang Festival is best known for the massive animated mosaic pictures created by over 30,000 schoolchildren holding large flip-book cards to represent the pixels in one gigantic image. The title song of the festival is the heritage of both Koreas, and the South Korean government hopes to collaborate with North Korea on a joint campaign to get Arirang recognized by UNESCO.
The museum also displays a diverse array of products connected to or branded with Arirang, which has lent its name to everything from stationery and toys to cigarettes and even an adult film, “Arirang.” There is also an extensive collection of literature inspired by and analyzing Arirang, available for reading at the exhibit. “Arirang is also the spring of creation which is a real inspiration to literature and art,” says the museum. “Korean literature often utilizes Arirang themes.”
Every Saturday at 1 p.m., the museum holds a live performance of Arirang. The song can be sung either with a large chorus or solo, so the size of the performance may vary from week to week.
UNESCO will announce the new additions to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November this year.
By Jon Dunbar
Department Global Communication and Contents Division