Saturday, April 30, 2011


Jangseung are Korean totem poles carved with scary figures with name such as "Great General Under the Heaven" or "Great Woman General Under the Ground." The generals once stood in pairs at village entrances, repelling evil spirits and providing safe passage for travelers, who bowed before the posts. Mothers and wives whose men were traveling laid rice cakes, rice wine or dried fish at the feet of the poles. Jangseung were road guardians and served as road signs on the boundaries or towns and countries.

Jangseung poles are usually pines and chestnut tree trunks, about 10 feet tall. The top of a typical one is carved into a face with bulging eyes, a big, bulbous nose, snaggleteeth, along beard and a gaping hole of a mouth. The sinewy shape of the crooked pine tree adds to the totem pole's intimidating look. The stooping figures stare down reproachfully. Many a village kid shuddered on approaching these figures at dusk. Grandmothers warned the young: "The Jangseung will hoist itself out of the ground and fly after you if you don't behave."

No two totem poles look the same. Their shapes and names reflect Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist or animist beliefs and the artistic touch of their makers. Their faces grin, sneer or frown, depending on what angle you look at them. Buddhist monks and Confucian scholars tolerated the homegrown spiritual symbols, but many disappeared after the arrival of Christianity in Korea in the 19th century. Some rural villages still have jangseung.

No comments: