Jung Yonhak
Researcher, National Folk Museum of Korea

Perception of Water

Water is commonly perceived as the source of life, and such a perception can be found in numerous legends. All living beings depend on water. In Korea, water was considered sacred, leading to many beliefs related, including jeongsu (water purification) beliefs related to exorcism. People sanctified water to preserve clean water. Sacred water implies that water should be kept clean and not abused. Today, with the development of water supply systems, water is no longer sacred. Instead, there is a great demand for quality water, and water is increasingly commercialized. This article explores water management traditions and practices related to wells and dammed pools (reservoirs), which are some of the most important sources of water in our daily life.

Community Sharing a Well to Secure Clean Drinking Water

A well does not just provide drinking water but also plays a pivotal role in forming a community. In rural or fishing villages, houses are built around the well. In mountain villages, people settle along streams. While a spring is where water naturally flows from the ground, a well is an artificial hole bored into the earth for a drinking water supply. Generally, people living close to each other join efforts to build a well and use it as a shared source of drinking water. As the result, a community is naturally created. Like people who live under the same roof are considered a family, people who use the same well naturally become members of the community. If the demand for water exceeded the supply, the well had to be used for drinking water only. So, people had to travel long distances to wash clothes in a creek. Access was banned to save water, but it was also in part to keep the water source clean. After water-supply systems became popular, however, wells were used more for washing clothes than for drinking.

Building a well requires much labor and only those who participate in the work are entitled to use it. Therefore, it can be said that well use is decided even before the well construction is completed. Community members cooperate to maintain the well. A well is generally cleaned on the fifteenth day (or first full moon day) of the new year on the lunar calendar and on the fifteenth day of July on the lunar calendar. On the first full moon day, people clean the well and make offerings to perform a village rite. On the fifteenth day of July, people clean the well to remove the dirt accumulated during the rainy season, before performing a village rite.

Dammed Pools and Community

Dammed pools (bo) and reservoirs (jeosuji) are artificial structures built to store water. They are designed to retain water and rain, but reservoirs refer to water storage built in highlands, and dammed pools refer to those constructed in lowlands. And, while reservoirs store water throughout the year, dammed pools are drained after the rice planting season is over and before the rainy season starts.

In the past, people formed private associations (gye) to manage dammed pools or reservoirs. Such an association was called bogye. Later, it became more commonly known as surigye (private water use association). Since farmers could not construct a dammed pool by themselves, members of one or more villages built, managed, and shared a dammed pool together. Bogye not only allowed for water management and use but also helped strengthen solidarity among village members. To operate bogye efficiently, a director and managers were elected, and meetings were held regularly or temporarily. In a general meeting, members discussed when to release the water as well as water distribution methods.

Dammed pools are also popularly known as mulgwang. Gwang is a space to store things, such as crops, like a shed. A rice storage is called byeotgwang (byeo meaning rice), and a water storage is called mulgwang (mul meaning water). Mulgwang retains water for irrigation and releases the water when the rice is ripening, because water supply should be adjusted according to the rice growing cycle to secure high yields. While water is critical in rice growth, water should be removed from the field in the ripening phase to help the rice develop better. Therefore, the dam of mulgwang is opened to release all the water before the rainy season starts in July to prevent water flowing from the pool due to heavy rainfall. Meanwhile, if rice fields were located on higher ground than a dammed pool, water was abstracted from the pool using water pumps.

After juldarigi (traditional tug-of-war) was held, the rope used in the game was used to block the dammed pool or placed on the riverside. In the Yongin region, it is said that people would block the dammed pool with a massive rope after the game was over, suggesting that it was a large-scale event. In some regions, the rope was arranged along the riverside to pray for rain or prevent the river from flooding. Juldarigi ropes were used as such because the ropes were believed to be the dragon, a water deity. People believed that bringing the ropes to the water would prompt the dragon to adjust rainfall properly.