Owner of cultural heritage
Until 1995 diplomatic corps stationed in Seoul sat through national ceremonies without understanding much of what was going on around them.
During speeches by dignitaries, the singing of commemorative songs, and the shouting of three hurrahs, these diplomats just followed what the Koreans did.
But then it must have dawned on the government that this was neither diplomatic nor polite. Thus, simultaneous interpretation services began for those non-Koreans at major ceremonies, such as on March 1 Independence Movement Day and National Liberation Day on Aug. 15.
When former president Roh Moo-hyun passed away in 2009, interpreters in charge of national events had to prepare themselves for the funeral held on May 29. They had to learn new processes and vocabulary to deal with the funeral of a VIP. Designing the whole procedure must have been a new experience for those in charge.
A good reference for the interpreters came from the BBC footage of the funeral service of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. On YouTube the whole process is presented in 36 video clips running nine minutes and 59 seconds each plus the final one lasting six minutes and 22 seconds. In the same year, on Aug. 22, when a national funeral was held for the late president Kim Dae-jung, it was a much smoother process.
As an organizer of an interpretation team for these events, I have long wondered from where and since when the format of these ceremonies originated? There are elements of traditional Joseon period culture mixed with Western formality.
A global meeting like the G20 Seoul Summit obviously contributes to standardize protocol and formality of ceremonies. This is actually part of the process of creating a living tradition of our times. All of these things combined make up our cultural heritage in the long run.
The biggest traditional ceremony conducted in Korea is the royal ancestral rite ``Jongmyo Daeje.” Every year on the first Sunday in May, the royal ancestral worship is conducted at the Jongmyo royal shrine of the Joseon dynasty. The tradition has continued for 600 years.
The King’s procession from Gyeongbok Palace to the shrine is now a reproduction. However, the rite itself is an actual ceremony conducted by the Royal Family Organization, although Koreans no longer seem to care about the royal Yi family.
When I first attended the Jongmyo rites, it was a shocking awakening for me to the meaning of tradition. The commands and chants of the rite master were the same that I used to hear at family rituals. How could the tone, tempo, and intonation of every phrase be so identical when there was no tape recorder, video filming, or TV?
The prime model of the Jongmyo rites was followed by families of the whole nation through various channels. That tradition carries on still today, as a cultural heritage of Korea.
The two-hour long ritual, music, and dance are important parts of the ceremony. The ritual music was composed during the reign of King Sejong in the 15th century, based on Chinese court music. It has been performed in Korea since then. The best preserved form of Chinese court music can be found in Jongmyo ritual music. Does this raise the issue of ownership of heritage?
Some traditions could have been invented intentionally, as analyzed by Eric Hobsbawm. Some traditions were denied, effaced, or distorted in the past, but once a tradition is accepted and inherited by the people, it becomes part of the cultural heritage of that people.
A patriotic writer compared the Jongmyo ritual music with Western music, and wrote ``Our ritual music advanced the Baroque music of the West by more than 200 years.” It was repeated at the recent Jongmyo ceremony and copied on official websites including the one for the ``10 Best Symbols” of the Korean culture. It was even included on a Web page for children.
A blogger went a little bit further, kindly explaining that ``The mourning music (弔曲) of Baroque music appeared more than 200 years after our Jongmyo ritual music.” Because of the same pronunciation of the Chinese characters, he mistook suite (組曲) for mourning music. Anyway, is it valid to compare the ancestral rite music of the Joseon Dynasty with Baroque music?
It is good for people to be proud of their own cultural heritage. However, competition for ownership, originality, or superiority will take us nowhere.
The writer is first-generation official simultaneous interpreter in Korea. She is chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.