Living in South Korea has frequently provided me with various opportunities to shake out my old anthropology degree and try to look at the world with new eyes. One of the things that I find most unusual about Koreans is their understandings of authenticity.
I have multiple examples and anecdotes to illustrate my point, but I’m going to focus on a site I visited yesterday on my morning walk: Yungongdan.

Yungongdan was built in memory of a commander killed in 1592.
The original monument was built on the supposed site of his death, near Dadae Guesthouse, in what is now Dadae Elementary School.
Both the guesthouse and the monument were moved in 1970.
You can see the replica of Dadae Guesthouse in Morundae.

The Yungongdan site is easily accessible from Dadae-ro.

You climb a few stairs

stopping at the Tombstone Mound

and Folk Temple on the way up.

Finally you reach Yungungdan at the top.

The pictures end here, only rambling thought vomit remains.

What is interesting to me, is that Koreans don’t seem to see the difference between an original site or monument and a replica, or a monument removed from the original site that gave it meaning. Everything is decontextualised and displaced. I have countless experiences of going to see a famous site in Korea only to discover it is a replica. I find the experience somewhat jarring. In this case, I believe that the monument is the original stele. Nevertheless, it is removed from the location that presumably would inform the meaning and purpose of the monument. The original location is supposedly on the spot where Commander Yun Heung-sin was killed in 1592. Perhaps it is only my feeling that the removal from the original site impacts on the meaning.

I’m reminded of the Dias Cross Memorial in Kwaaihoek, South Africa. My father still jokes about missioning across the sand only to read that the remains of the original cross are at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. However, there is a difference between moving a monument to keep it from disintegrating, and moving a monument because it is inconveniently placed where a school now needs to be built. His affront resonated with me as I looked at the stele in Dadaepo.

A spiral of thoughts circling authenticity, the Ship of Theseus, and my visits to historical sites across multiple countries and continents still has me trapped in indecision. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a lot of incredible places. The Ankhor Wat temple complex in Cambodia is just phenomenal, a true treasure. Why do I find that site so moving? Why does the knowledge that the stone was genuinely carved in the 12th century make such a difference to my experience? What makes it different from a replica? What is the difference between maintaining an existing site and a replica?

To me, there is a big difference between standing in a building that was actually built in the nth century, made out of stone carved in the nth century, with tapestries, paintings, and furniture from the nth century, and a replica of the original entity. Khoisan paintings in South Africa, castles in Ireland, churches in Italy, beehive tombs in Oman, Greek temples, palaces, museums, a smorgasbord of historical sites. I imbue each site with a sense of sacredness as I imagine the minds that lived and breathed and created there so many years before. Perhaps that’s why I have such a visceral response to the replicas that seem to dominate in South Korea. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a replica as long as it is not seen as the “real deal”. But I guess this is just a construction, really, since the notion of authenticity is actually quite fragile and contingent on many things.

This differing notion of authenticity is expressed in many different facets of Korean culture. Memes are completely removed from their original context and seem to be very fluid. Some instances are far more problematic than others. The annoyingly cheery way my washing machine mauls Chopin to tell me my washing is done is relatively innocuous. The Korean appropriation of hip-hop is another thing entirely. Koreans also seem to have a differing view of ownership of intellectual property, as is evidenced by the plethora of fake Louis Vuitton bags, the Disney characters plastered on everything from t-shirts to phone covers, and the reduction of famous paintings to patterns on mugs and umbrellas.

In a TED talk entitled The Origins of Pleasure, Paul Bloom eloquently discusses issues of originality. He questions “why do origins matter so much? Why do we respond so much to our knowledge of where something comes from?”. I think this quote that Bloom references about forgery explains my feelings perfectly. “The philosopher Denis Dutton in his wonderful book The Art Instinct makes the case that, “The value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation.” And that could explain the difference between an original and a forgery. They may look alike, but they have a different history. The original is typically the product of a creative act, the forgery isn’t.”

When you enter into a historical site there’s an expectation that a particular kind of transaction is happening. Perhaps I’m being overdramatic, but I view my forays to historical sites as a sort of pilgrimage. If the site is assumed to be authentic, discovering that it is a replica feels like a betrayal of trust.


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