February 11, 2008
I was raised in Korea as a young child, immersed in my mother's culture. The language, the food, the Confucius hierarchy, the loyalty to family -- these were all weaved into my identity by my Korean family. However, I didn't start to appreciate the cultural icons until I was old enough to understand their significance and the history weaved into those icons. As an American teenager visiting Korea to see relatives, structures like the Namdaemun Gate were merely interesting, but ultimately unimportant to me; I had no awareness of the 600+ year history of the gate, as my cultural emersion occurred long enough for me to learn to be Korean, but not to know Korea.
As an adult, I've read a bit on Korea's history, particularly about the Japanese occupation and the subsequent Korean war, and have found myself drawn closer to Korea's past. I'm still reading One Thousand Chestnut Trees, which is a near-history narrative of Korea. The author and I share a common mixed ethnicity, which brings the story alive in a way that few full-blooded Koreans or Americans could appreciate. There's something about that shared sense of identity that I never understood as a child, but as I get older and share a life with my wife and my children, the idea of a common history has become more important to me.
And so the fiery destruction of the Namdaemun gate is particularly tragic for me. I've been there. I've experienced it in more than just photographs or in stories -- I've seen it in person, and knowing that it burned down due to arson creates in me an emotional response that's honestly unfamiliar to me. It's more than just a cultural icon to me -- it's almost like a piece of my own history.
image: Namdaemun Gate (cc) studentoftheology
Here's a picture of the ancient wooden gate before the fire. It served as a frequent tourist stop, as it made for a good photo opportunity.
Fun fact from the Wikipedia article: "The city gate was originally used to greet foreign emissaries, control access to the capital city, and keep out Korean tigers, which have long been gone from the area."
image: Namdaemun (cc) kian esquire
I have always been struck by the juxtaposition of the wooden structure against the backdrop of growing steel and glass. There was something other-worldly about it in that context.
From the article:
Police arrested a suspect in a fire that destroyed a 610-year-old landmark atop a gate considered to be South Korea's top national treasure, local news reports said Tuesday.
The 70-year-old man, identified only by his family name Chae, was arrested Monday night on Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed police officer. Cable news network YTN carried a similar report.
Yonhap said the man had been charged in 2006 with allegedly setting fire to the Changgyeong Palace in Seoul, which caused $4,230 in property damage.
The fire broke out Sunday night and burned down the wooden structure at the top of the Namdaemun gate, which once formed part of a wall that encircled the South Korean capital.
Some 360 firefighters fought to bring the blaze under control, said Lee Sang-joon, an official with the National Emergency Management Agency. No one was injured.
On the bright side, the Namdaemun gate can be rebuilt. The significance is the symbolism; I don't think that having the original wood makes a tremendous difference, particularly when you realize that the structure was renovated more than once in the past. Even so, it's tragic in its senselessness.