The bus ride from Suwon station takes you through the nightmarish urban landscape that rapid industrialization has wrought – human-beehives as far as the eye can see, garbage flung haphazardly everywhere, choking diesel fumes, and a brownish pall across even the clearest of blue skies. It’s the sort of dystopian vision of the future that science fiction writers were conjuring up 50 years ago, made real.
The bus pulls into a massive parking lot, shadowed by yet more of the beehive apartment buildings, the surrounding hills actually covered in trees. After you pay the entrance fee and pass through the massive wooden gates (a grandfatherly ticket collector welcomed me in English, which was a pleasant surprise), you step into a world ably and lovingly preserved, free of the kind of kitschy disneylanditis that characterizes these sorts of places elsewhere in the world. Other than some modern sun-yellow and fire-engine-red plastic crap being hawked at a few of the ‘market’ stalls, the illusion is marvellous. The Folk Village is actually populated full time by artisans, farmers, performers, brewers and so on. It is truly idyllic, particularly in contrast to the unpleasant urban realities outside.
Interestingly, though, the idyll that it preserves, that of Korea of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, was not a golden age for anyone but the elite yangban class (about 10% of the population for most of the era). Commoners (sang-in or yangmin), which made up about 50% of the population – farmers, merchants (generally considered to be the dregs of non-slave society, oddly enough, considering the intensely mercantile nature of modern Korea), craftsmen – were forbidden by law to use the language of the yangban. Peasants were, by law, forbidden from leaving their land, and required to carry identity papers at all times. The lowborn, chonmin, were those born to hereditary professions like tanning and butchery, gravedigging, bark-peelers and basketmakers, and also included entertainers, shamans and kisaeng, the Korean equivalent of the Japanese geisha.
All non-yangban men were required to perform forced labour as well as military service. It is estimated that during the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), approximately 1/3 of the Korean population were slaves, either privately- or government-owned. Slaves did not have surnames, and lowborn women frequently were not even granted a forename. Torture as punitive punishment for infractions of the law was de riguer. Life was not pleasant for the vast majority of the population, a reality not surprisingly ignored by the multilingual signs posted around the village. (There was, however, a photograph of a man being tortured above the entrance to the recreated jail. Koreans seem to have different feelings will regard to cruelty and violence than I am accustomed to – this is something I’m still trying to figure out.)
The Folk Village was lovely, and relaxing, but even with the perpetual haze, the endless waves of concrete, the hell-bent bus drivers and their demonic taxi offsiders, even with the corruption and sexism of today’s Korea, it’s a better place out in the city than it was in the carefully preserved Good Old Days.
But we all love a little nostalgia for what never was, don’t we?