Jeong Duk Yi
Professor, Dept. of Cultural Anthropology, Chonbuk National University

History and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Jeonju

Jeonju is the most popular city in Korea for its traditional culture. Jeonju is ranked number one in terms of the number of living human treasures, the cultural heritage index, and the traditional cultural and art performance index, indicating that traditional culture is more actively practiced and performed in the city than any other city in the country. Against this backdrop, the Korean government designated Jeonju a traditional cultural city, and traditional culture has been at the heart of the urban-development strategies of Jeonju. The city’s rich traditional culture dates far back in history.

It is presumed that the area of present-day Jeonju has been inhabited since the prehistoric era, as paleolithic relics and dolmens were discovered in the area. But, the geographical name first appeared in historical records in 685. Jeonju was the seat of the provincial government as it is now. Records on intangible cultural heritage of the city were first found in literature from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Gyu-bo Lee (1169-1241), who served as a senior official in Jeonju, described in his book, Dongguk Isangguk Jip (Collected Works of Minister Gyu-bo Lee), residents visiting Gyeongboksa Temple to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday, praying to the Dragon King for rain on Deokjin Lake, and worshiping village gods during Dano (a traditional festival). These suggest that Buddhist and folk culture were prevalent at that time. Records show that musical performances and plays were performed to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday and Dano during the Goryeo Dynasty. It is therefore assumed that they were also performed in Jeonju on the same occasions.

The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) suppressed Buddhism and adopted Confucianism as the state religion. Confucianism emerged in many regions, including Jeonju, while Buddhist culture waned. As Seong-gye Yi (1335-1408), the founder of Joseon, came from the Jeonju Yi clan, Jeonju was considered the cradle of the Joseon Dynasty. Gyeonggijeon Shrine was established in the city to honor the founder, and various memorial rites for him were, and are still, conducted at the shrine. In 1475, a repository was established at the shrine to archive daily accounts on the words and acts of all the Joseon kings as well as state affairs. The records were kept to guide the kings down the right path. Daily accounts on the governors’ activities were also recorded. Such documentation practices were influenced by Confucianism, which emphasized the importance of reflecting on one’s actions.

The influence of Confucian culture is also evident in Confucian schools. The Jeonju Confucian School (JCS) in Jeonju Hanok Village enshrines tablets of Confucian scholars of China and Joseon, including Confucius, Mencius, and Zengzi. Confucian schools were official educational institutions where students commemorated great scholars through memorial rituals and learned the teachings from the scholars’ books. At JCS, rites for Confucius and other Confucian scholars is still held every spring and fall. A Western-style school system was introduced during the late Joseon period, and today JCS provides classes on traditional manners, calligraphy, and Confucianism. Confucian ethics and thoughts are still relevant in Jeonju.

Jeonju was a provincial capital city during the Joseon Dynasty. The provincial government carried out various cultural projects in the city, including distributing books that were made through woodblock printing on hanji (traditional mulberry paper). The main subjects were related to Confucianism, ethics, agriculture, and medicine. Jeonju played an important role in book publishing, as the abundance of clear water and mulberry trees in the area enabled quality paper production. In the late Joseon period, large volumes of books were published and sold nationwide. Quality paper production also led to stimulating relevant activities such as publication, painting, and hanji crafts. Hapjukseon (folding fans) or taegeukseon (fans with the yin-yang symbol), made from locally produced paper, were offered to the king.

Gyeonggijeon Shrine, snow covered in winter © Jeonju City

During the Joseon Dynasty, Jeonju was the most vibrant local city for music performances. The provincial governor, also acting as the regional commander, brought soldiers from around Jeolla Province to conduct a large-scale military drills every winter. On the last day, to entertain soldiers, a large feast was held with various musical performances and plays that continued throughout the night. In Jeolla Province, shamanic rituals were widely performed, from which shamanic songs naturally developed. Over time, the narratives of gods were replaced by ordinary stories, which led to the development of pansori (a genre of musical storytelling). The provincial governor and the city mayor called in the best pansori singers in the country for competitions and performances. Competition winners performed in the royal palace or in the houses of senior officials and got paid reasonably well in return. Some of them were even offered public posts. Performers and singers, who belonged to the shaman association in Jeonju, presented performances at government events, birthday celebrations for district magistrates, events related to state examinations, village rituals, and rites for rain, and, in exchange, the performers were exempt from taxation, military duty, and forced labor. They also performed at civilian birthday parties and wedding ceremonies and received money or grain in return. On a market day, pansori singers appeared on a temporary stage in the marketplace and sang “Chunhyangga,” one of the most popular pansori songs, which drew massive audiences. As such, Jeonju became the national center of pansori.

Dano-je (Dano festival) of Jeonju was a major national festival since the Goryeo period. It was believed that washing one’s hair in Deokjin Lake would make hair shiny and help heal illnesses or stay healthy. During the festival period, the lake drew people from not just Jeolla Province but also Chungcheong and Gyeongsang provinces. Having deep clear water, Deokjin Lake was an ideal place for bathing, especially during short breaks after the rice planting season. In 1938, as many as 30,000 women went to the lake to wash their hair. A large open market was established to serve the crowds with food and drinks. In parallel, various performances and plays, such as traditional wrestling and swing, took place.

Regeneration of the Old Inner City in Jeonju and Intangible Cultural Heritage

Urban development in Korea had focused on developing new towns on the outskirts of cities, as suburban areas were less inhabited, and thus developers were less likely to face stiff resistance from residents over development issues. The old urban centers’ populations dwindle, however, as residents, commercial facilities, and government offices moved from existing urban centers to new towns, which resulted in old urban centers turning into ghettos.

That was also the case of Jeonju. In the 1980s, the city successfully expanded with a large-scale development of new suburban towns. In the 1990s, people, especially high-income earners and young generations, moved to apartment complexes in the new towns. Major government offices of Jeollabuk Province, including the provincial office, the police agency, and the office of education, were relocated to the new towns. All this accelerated the decline of the inner city. Consequently, the inner city was mostly occupied by elderly people living in shabby hanok (traditional houses). The inner city continued to face an increasing number of empty houses and worsening environments.

To address the situation, the city government took advantage of the 2002 FIFA World Cup as Jeonju was one of the host cities. The efforts involved transforming the old urban center (Jeonju Hanok Village) into a place that could offer attractions and experiences related to traditional culture for World Cup visitors. The focus was put on traditional culture, as Jeonju was the most traditional city in the country. Main program initiatives were designed to allow visitors to learn traditional music; experience making traditional paper, fans, and crafts; learn traditional manners and customs while wearing traditional attire; stay overnight in traditional houses; and make or eat popular local foods.

Traditional cultural festivals, such as Dano-je (renamed to Pungnam-je) and the Jeonju International Sori Festival, were directed to move their venues to the old urban center. Stages were established for traditional cultural performances, and street performances and events were also organized for weekends. Simply put, the city remodeled Jeonju Hanok Village into a place where one can enjoy and learn traditional culture, performances, and cuisine all at once.

The city government opened the doors of Gyeonggijeon Shrine and Jeonju Confucian School, which had been closed for conservation, and significantly expanded traditional culture programs. It also encouraged various traditional culture events in the village. The city and private entities built several facilities to offer diverse experience programs related to traditional culture. These included various experience centers, museums, and performance halls.

On the other hand, the city government made efforts to ensure that diverse contents on traditional culture were concentrated on the village. Traditional cultural festivals and programs were primarily held in the village. People were given support when they were planning to start new programs related to traditional culture in the village. Traditional house construction was supported with up to KRW 50 million while construction of any other types of structures was prohibited. Information panels were put up to explain the history and culture of each tourist site. Traditional gardens, pavilions, and water channels were built along the main road. Tour guides were put on standby to provide visitors with explanations about the history and culture of each site.

As the result of the efforts, Jeonju Hanok Village has become the richest center of traditional culture in Korea. The city government requested the central government to designate the city as a traditional cultural city and provide support for development. The request was accepted, and in the process, the National Intangible Heritage Center and the Korean Traditional Culture Center were established close to the village to provide various traditional cultural performances and crafts programs. There are also night tour programs to allow visitors to explore and experience traditional culture under the moonlight. Meanwhile, Jeonju was designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and a Slow City. It was also selected as a must-visit Asian city.

Tourist in traditional Korean attire, hanbok © Jeonju City

Jeonju Hanok Village has now become the best traditional tourist destination among tourist attractions developed since the 2000s. The number of visitors increased from almost none in 2000 to over ten million in 2016. With a significant increase in visitors, however, there are concerns that the village might lose its core elements of traditional culture that has enabled visitors to enjoy and experience intangible cultural heritage of Korea, as performances and foods that feature a mix of tradition and modern or a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures are increasingly taking holding. If the village fails to maintain authenticity of traditional culture, it might not be as attractive as it is now.

Jeonju’s Identity and Intangible Cultural Heritage

As Jeonju was the home of Seong-gye Yi , the Joseon Dynasty founder, there are shrines that hold portraits of the king and memorial tablets for the Jeonju Yi family. The city also takes pride in its distinguished publication culture and Confucian traditions. A traditional music contest, which started during the Joseon Dynasty, attracted the best traditional singers from across the country to perform in Jeonju. Jeonju naturally became the home to several renowned singers and appreciators of traditional music. Such legacies made Jeonju the most prominent Korean city with intangible cultural heritage.

As such, Jeonju shows the highest rate of attendance and participation in traditional culture. Traditional culture is like air to the residents. Traditional culture can be found in every aspect of life. Jeonju indeed is regarded as the best representation of traditional Korean culture. The critical role of traditional culture is also reflected in urban development strategies. Jeonju successfully transformed the once barren inner-city area into a national tourist destination. The experience suggests the possibility of urban development based on traditional culture. It is now believed that we can move forward, not backward, by transmitting and practicing traditional culture.

The city government is about to take steps to develop the city as an international cultural city with more diverse cultural contents. It aims to make the entire city a place that allows visitors to experience both traditional and modern culture and arts by enhancing the image of the city as the best cultural and art city in Korea; promoting the city as a traditional center for future tourism; fostering the city as a traditional cultural heritage city where the past and the future coexist; and forming a sustainable premium hanok village. In this way, the rich intangible cultural heritage of the city can reflect a unique blend of tradition and modernity. The operation of various cultural facilities, such as cultural houses and living culture centers, is more active than in any other city in the country, which is to ensure that culture and arts can be enjoyed by the residents in their daily lives. The city will encourage greater voluntary participation of residents in cultural and art activities to further promote tourism and industry.