Posted : 2014-06-29 15:49
Updated : 2014-06-29 17:45

Cha Jung-geum keeps Deep Rooted Tree's idea

Cha Jung-geum, 61, head of the Deep Rooted Tree Foundation, in front of a traditional Korean house that is part of the Deep Rooted Tree Museum in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. / Korea Times photo by Kim Ji-soo

By Kim Ji-soo

BEOLGYO, South Jeolla Province — The five-hour drive from Seoul to this southern town starts with gray city skylines, and then moves on to mountain ridges, flat plains and ends, once again, with more mountain ridges.

In the middle of June, the town of Beolgyo and nearby city of Suncheon are lush and green. Both are famous among visitors for the regional specialties — for cockles and wild tea.

But for many like Cha Jung-geum, 61, the area is first and foremost their hometown.

Cha was born in the nearby town of Gurye, but moved to Seoul after marriage. She returned to the area several years after the death of her husband, Han Sang-hoon, to continue his business of making wild tea and "onggi" or Korean earthenware. But she also returned to establish the Deep Rooted Tree Museum, currently located in Suncheon — just a 10-minute drive from Beolgyo.

"Kookjang Banchado of Jeongsun Wanghu" or the painting of the procession and the order of the state funeral of Queen Jeongsun (1745-1805) is on display at the Deep Rooted Tree Museum in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province.
/ Courtesy of the Deep Rooted Tree Museum

The museum houses some 6,500 Korean cultural and folk items that her late brother-in-law Han Chang-ki left behind.

For those who may not know Han Chang-ki (1936-1997), he was a phenomenal salesman who headed Britannica Korea for more than a decade. More importantly, he was a lover of Korean traditional culture things including "pansori" or traditional Korean narrative opera, green tea, "hanok" or traditional Korean house and clothes. He also founded the Deep Rooted Tree magazine in 1976, an all-Korean, horizontally-written magazine that Koreans in their 40s and 50s remember. The magazine's name is derived from the first hangeul work of the epic poem, the "Yongbieocheonga," or "Songs of Flying Dragons through the Heavens," published during the Joseon Kingdom. (1392-1910).

A special series dubbed "Biography of the People" is on display at the museum.

The magazine, which was ahead of its time, published cultural articles and special biographical profiles series such as the "Biography of the ‘Minjung' (People)," which detailed the everyday lives of rural people. The series is on display at the museum, which consists of a large modern edifice and a sprawling hanok. The 90-year-old hanok originally belonged to traditional strings master Baekgyeong Kim Moo-gyu and was featured in veteran director Im Kwon-taek's 1993 film "Seopyeonje." It was also a found that her brother-in-law once wanted to purchase.

The late Han announced in the maiden volume of Deep Rooted Tree magazine that the people are the foundation of the Korean culture and for this reason the magazine was committed to conveying the stories of people and culture during the authoritarian times in Korea. The magazine was shut down in August 1980 by the new military government.

A collection of items ranging from a secret royal inspector's badge to a hat presumed to have been worn by officials in the late Joseon era.

In an interview with The Korea Times, Cha said her brother-in-law, who had never married, was always nice to her, so she did not hesitate to care of him during the last 45 days of his fight against liver cancer.

"There was so much conflict (over his estate) after my brother-in-law passed away that for a while, I didn't feel like talking to anyone who came up to me and mentioned my brother-in-law's name," said Cha. She and her late husband were in conflict with other will executors over how to carry on with Han's legacy, including the 6,500 folk and cultural items that he collected over his lifetime.

"But during those last days, I admired what he did during his lifetime and decided to continue his passions," said Cha when asked why she took it upon herself to complete the construction of the museum and supervise its operations 14 years after her brother-in-law's death.

"He was a man who loved ancient art and tradition, and collected seemingly small items that should be shown in a rightful space of their own," she said.

Even as he was struggling against his illness, he bought a 19th-cenutry blue and white porcelain ceramic pencil case worth about 80 million won, she said.

Of the cultural items stored in the museum, about 800 are on display, including a star-shaped hammer from the Bronze Age and the "Kookjang Banchado of Jeongsun Wanghu" or the painting of the procession and the order of the state funeral of Queen Jeongsun (1745-1805).

Other interesting artifacts on display are a decorative cover for the round hole of a traditional candy-shaped Korean pillow, covers used to protect rafters in a hanok, ceramic cigarette holders that may have been used by the wealthy in the early 20th century and folding screen dividers, which were popular until the late 1970s in Korea. These everyday items offer visitors a sense of connection to people from various periods.

An average of 3,000 to 4,000 people visit the museum every month, which would have made the man who collected the relics proud.

"I don't expect every visitor to know all about Han Chang-ki, but I hope that visitors will know and spread the word about a farmer's son who grew up well and promoted the traditional culture," Cha said.

She and her husband could have sold Han's collection or donated it to another museum after Han's death. There were three outsider will executors who wanted to use the collection and start a foundation. But Cha and her husband, who was the fourth will executor, believed Han would have liked the collection to stay in his museum.

The collection was plagued by rumors and conflicts about family finances. "There were many rumors including which people said that my late husband didn't get along with his older brother," Cha said, shaking her head still in disbelief. "My late brother-in-law was like a father to my husband because their father had passed away so early," Cha said.

She and her husband eventually set up a foundation and memorial at Han's house in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul. Her husband kept his liver cancer diagnosis a secret and put off treatment for a year in order to focus on the foundation. Her husband passed away a year after they started, putting her in charge of the foundation. From there, she set out to establish the museum.

"I have seen other people's lifetime collections donated and then exhibited only briefly as national museums, and then stored in warehouses," said Cha. "I didn't want that for my brother-in-law's collection, which was his life."

The foundation, however, was in dire need of financing. Although Deep Rooted magazine was reincarnated as "The SAEMIKIPUNMUL" magazine four years later, it had to close once again for financial reasons. The memorial in Han's Seongbuk-dong residence was also withering, much like other private museums in Seoul. That's when she moved the museum to the hometown of her late brother-in-law.

She donated the museum to the city of Suncheon, which gave 2 billion won for the museum's construction.

"I have been through many things," Cha said.

Does she, even for a minute, regret donating the relics to the museum? Does she wish she has kept it in the family?

"No. I am very glad and proud that the museum stands as it is now," Cha said.

The museum is located at Nakan-myeon, Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. The nearest train station is Suncheon, which is a bus ride away from the museum. For more information on the museum, call 061-749

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