[KS] Eulogy for Zo Zayong

David A. Mason mntnwolf at well.com
Tue Mar 21 07:52:33 EST 2000

Dear Korean-studiers,

Below is the text of an essay I wrote which was published on the
editorial page of the Korea Times yesterday (Monday 3/20/00).  I'm
posting it here for those on this list who might not have read that
edition of the Times, but might be interested in Dr. Zo Zayong.

There has been no comment yet on this list about his death or legacy.
I have been quite surprised at the paucity of attention paid to him, 
upon his passing away this winter.  To my mind, he is one of the
towering Korean cultural figures of this century.  I guess his anti-
establishment views cost him this in the end.   Foreign scholars may
have overlooked his published ideas, seeing him as more of a cultural
evangelist than an acedemic scholar (which is fair).   But I think he
deserves a prominent place in the history of the study of Korea (that
study conducted in foreign languages, especially).

Could we say that Zo Zayong was the FIRST *Korean* person to teach 
and write about Korean folk culture *in English* -- thus beginning
the "globalization" of it?   Was there another before him?
Well, at last he was "one of the first", and surely the most important.

Eulogy for the Passing of a Great Korean
by David A. Mason

Today is the forty-ninth day since the death of the great teacher Zo 
Zayong, and according to Korean tradition this is a proper day to 
honor his memory and cherish his accomplishments.

We his students and followers call him Horae seon-saeng-nim.  Horae is 
an affectionate term for a tiger, referring to his physical resemblance 
to Korea's national animal, his fierce devotion to preserving traditional 
culture, and his harsh but loving temper.  In the 1970s he first became 
famous for his promotion of unique Korean folk-paintings of tigers, and 
now his body lies entombed beneath a huge rock-outcropping [bawi] which 
resembles a tiger's face.  Seon-saeng-nim is a highly honorific title of 
a teacher, and our Horae was one of the best -- educating the spirits of 
all, regardless of nationality or social standing.  

Besides this, he was a pioneering researcher and curator dedicated to 
excellence, a hard drinker, a self-sacrificing preserver and propagator 
of culture, a wild dancer and drummer, and a widely-enlightened warm-
hearted human being of the first rank. 

Dr. Zo Zayong [he always used this spelling, although Jo Ja-yong would 
be more correct], grew up at the end of the Japanese-colonial period 
in Korea, suffering first-hand the attempted cultural suppression of 
those years.  A brilliant student, he took advantage of a rare chance 
to study architecture and engineering at Harvard University during 
the 1950's.  After being awarded his PhD he established himself as a 
successful architect, by designing several major buildings in Los 
Angeles and Seoul, including the U.S. ambassador's beautiful Korean-
style residence behind Toksu Palace and the YMCA building on Seoul's 
main avenue. 

However, in the 1960's he became horrified by the destruction and 
loss of South Korea's folk art, customs and culture under the twin 
onslaught of Christian missionaries and President Park's "New Village 
Movement", both of which actively sought to replace Korean traditions 
with a "western" modernism.  He gave up his lucrative career in order 
to become a rescuer, preserver and advocate of folk culture 

For many years it was a lonely struggle.  He pulled century-old 
paintings and other artifacts out of garbage-piles and demolished 
shrines, or bought them cheaply from antique dealers.  In those days 
Korea's folk-art was considered low-class, superstitious, trashy and 
shameful by the ruling elite.  The government defined "Korean art" as 
only the aristocratic art that followed Chinese conventions.  Dr. Zo 
was sternly opposed and even threatened when he tried to exhibit his 
growing collection to foreigners or publish bilingual books about it.

He opened his Emille Museum (named after the legendary Shilla-dynasty 
bronze bell, a masterwork of Korean artisanship), in Seoul in 1968, 
but was oppressed by successive military regimes.  A breakthrough came 
in the late 1970's when he was allowed to hold a major exhibition of 
folk-tiger paintings which then toured the USA and Europe.  By then he 
owned the world's largest collection of Korean traditional folk 
paintings [minhwa], created by anonymous artists within the last three 
centuries.  They included wonderfully imaginative depictions of dragons,
tigers, mythical animals, mountain spirits and other Shamanic deities. 

In the 1980's he moved with his wife to the southern slope of high 
craggy mountains in the center of South Korea -- partly to escape 
official harassment and partly to live in harmony with nature, closer 
to the villages.  He became known as the Tiger of the Remote-From-the-
Mundane-World Mountains [Sogni-san].  

Using his studies of ancient times and architectural skills, he built 
a clay-walled house, a proper Emille Museum building, and a compound 
of shrines, firepits and thatched huts that modeled those lived in by 
Korean ancestors more two thousand years ago.  He held educational 
festivals in this compound, teaching busloads of children, farmers and 
international groups about the practices and spirit of Korean folk-
traditions.  The events often climaxed with masked dancing around a 
bonfire to samul-nori drumming, in the style of ancient exorcisms of 
harmful spirits.

By 1990 official attitudes had changed, and Horae's collection became 
regarded as a national treasure, exemplifying a truly unique Korean 
spirit.  He started up what he called the "Old Village Movement", 
traveling the countryside seeking surviving tutelary shrines, trying to 
inspire the remaining residents to maintain them and revive old ritual-
festivals at them. He tried to educate young Koreans about their ancient 
traditions and inspire them to respect them.  Sometimes after years of 
gentle prodding and providing support he was successful; sometimes he 
wasn't and that disappointed him. 

In about 1987 Horae founded the "Sam-shin Association", dedicated to 
furthering his projects, with a hundred members (mostly young Koreans; 
I wasn't aware of any non-Korean-race members other than myself).  
After decades of primary devotion to tigers and the Mountain-spirit 
[San-shin], he turned his studies towards the old Shamanic deity the 
Triple-spirits [Sam-shim].  In these triplet-gods-of-conception he 
found a trinity-symbol that he could associate with other religious 
trinities across Korean culture, from the Christin Father-Son-Spirit 
and the Buddhist Buddha-Dharma-Sangha to the Neo-Confucian Heaven-Earth-
Humanity.  In their grandmother-god-of-lifespan [Sam-shim-halmoni] he 
found a unifying principle that could represent the spirit of the entire
Korean nation from King Dan-gun onwards.

Horae was my greatest teacher during my long stay in Korea, and the 
inspiration for my years of travel and research that led to my latest 
book, titled _Spirit of the Mountains_ (Hollym, 1999).  I never did 
get the chance to present a copy of my book to him, and tell him how 
much his work and example meant to me, before he left us.  That 
disappointment will remain with me for a long time.  But his strong 
spirit is infused throughout my work and that of thousands of others, 
and will achieve immortality as we carry his lifeswork onwards.  I 
consider it a high honor to be known as one of those influenced by 
him to participate in the preservation and globalization of traditional
Korean culture. 

I first met Horae Seon-saeng-nim on the day of the Closing Ceremony for 
the 1988 Seoul Olympics. That was October third, also the "Opening of 
Heaven" holiday when Korea's ancient-nationalist traditions are 
celebrated.  Horae had just finished construction of a new shrine in 
the center of his Emille compound, and was holding a public festival 
to inaugurate it.  Four large carved wooden tablets were set up under 
a simple roof.  Three of them stood for the Sam-shin, and the last for 
the Sam-shin-halmoni.  Together they represented the collective 
ancestors of the Korean people, their collective ideals and identity 
as a single nation.

In the early evening Horae gathered us all in a semi-circle in front 
of the shrine, and set up a television set facing towards the tablets 
(and another one that we could watch).  He played the Olympic Closing 
Ceremony to the national spirits, explaining in three languages that 
it was a venerable custom to report the family news to the ancestors. 
In this sort of way he propagated old Korean traditions by employing 
modern technologies to make them accessible and enjoyable for everyone 
of any race or nationality.  We all felt tremendous pride in the grand 
success of the Seoul Olympics, as well as a deep connection to 
tradition through Horae's technique.  I had an overwhelming feeling 
of joy, that just maybe this was the beginning of the ending of Korea's
long bitter suffering [han].

Dr. Zo Zayong collapsed and died of a heart attack last January 30th 
at the age of 74, still doing the work he loved.  We were prevented by 
circumstances from holding a memorial service at his tomb today, but 
we hope to do so on Arbor Day (April 5th).  I hope that all those who 
love Korea and it's traditional folk culture will stand with me on 
these two days to honor this "Human National Treasure" as he deserves,
and commit ourselves to carrying his work forward in every generation 
to come.


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