Dawn’s Early Light

Back at the turn of the (solar) year, Lunghu provided his customary analysis of Kim Jong-un‘s New Year’s message and its attendant media coverage.  To offer a bit of graphical balance in the composition of that post, he included an image from ROK President Park Geun-hye‘s attempt at a preemptive media strike: her own New Year’s message, televised in (South) Korea on New Year’s Eve.  No analysis of her text seemed fruitful, and no commentary seemed necessary. Generally speaking, Western media didn’t even bother to report her remarks.

In the past, during the Lee Myung-bak dynasty, Lunghu found it more useful to examine the subtext than the text, the hidden message displayed or enacted during South Korean media events, often to be found hidden-in-plain-sight in the background scenery.  This practice is one that he has (regrettably) neglected during the Park II regime.  Well, it’s time to remedy that oversight with a brief and belated discourse on President Park’s stage set backdrop.


Reading from right to left in traditional Chinese style, we see a trio of spotted deer cavorting beneath a tall pine tree in a forest glade next to a plunging mountain cataract. A bit further to the left –above Park’s left shoulder and beneath her left ear– we can spot a cluster of large round pinkish-tinged fruits, probably peaches.  To her right (our left), at approximately the level of her right tricep, we can see half of a turtle swimming in the swiftly-flowing stream fed by the waterfall.  Finally, at the left-most side of the frame, we see the flag of South Korea draped on its flagstaff.

What can we infer from these symbols?

  • Pine: Emblem of longevity and resistance to the elements –the pine is evergreen and long-lived.  The pine is often depicted in Chinese art with other symbols of longevity such as the peach and deer.
  • Deer: Pronounced “lu” in Chinese, it is a homophone with a character meaning “wealth” and “official promotion.” When depicted with court officials, the deer signifies a wish for fame, recognition and a long, successful career.
  • Waterfall: Water symbolizes wealth, and the waterfall represents profits pouring in.  A lake or plunge pool next to the waterfall has the very auspicious name of “treasure bowl.”  Trees painted on the right-hand side of the waterfall are for keeping off misfortune.
  • Peach: Associated with Shoulao, the God of Longevity, the peach is a symbol of long life.  Even better, it can confer immortality: peaches grown in the orchard of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母) instantly give the peach-eater permanent, godlike immortality and mystic powers. The wood of the peach tree is said to ward off evil.
  • Tortoise: Another symbol of longevity … and more. The tortoise also represents the cosmic order: its shell symbolizes the heavens, its body the earth, and its undershell represents the underworld. The Black Tortoise (玄武 – xuán wǔ) is the “Mysterious Warrior” guardian spirit of the north and represents the winter season.
  • Water, Mountains and Rocks:  This combination suggests peace and harmony in the country presided over by the emperor.

Adding It All Up

Longevity, longevity, longevity, longevity.  Four symbolic assertions (pine, deer, peaches, tortoise) that Park Geun-hye intends to be around for quite a while.  Probably not as long as her father (let’s hope!), but she’s announcing her intention to continue “a long, successful career.”  She may also be attempting to subliminally identify herself with Xiwangmu.

Money finds money.  Two symbolic assertions (deer, waterfall) of wealth and prosperity.  On the surface, this is a boast of South Korea’s prosperity.  But the anonymous artist who painted this backdrop may also be making a deeper statement.  In Seoul, money has traditionally had a way of pouring into the Presidential office from all sides. Its flow tends to intensify in the final years of a President’s administration, as s/he prepares for “retirement.”  Since it’s always impossible to completely fill the President’s “treasure bowl,” eventually one or two close aides must be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion when the corruption becomes too obvious.  Perhaps there are three deer in the Park Blue House who need to ward off misfortune with trees to the right of the waterfall.

Alles ist in ordnung.  Two symbolic assertions (tortoise, water/mountain/rocks) of order and harmony within the kingdom.  This claim isn’t entirely plausible, because Korean order is being enforced in an increasingly authoritarian manner and Korean “harmony” is largely a facade.  But in a Confucian society it’s a claim that rulers have to make so that they can justify their mandate for governance.


But Wait –There’s More!

In addition to all that Sinocultural symbolic allusion in the landscape backdrop, there’s also the symbolism of the South Korean flag –the Taegukgi. It has a rather interesting history as a national emblem that has evolved from a royal banner bestowed upon Korea’s Joseon Dynasty by the Qing Emperor of China. Long story short, the current ROK flag features four of the eight I-Ching trigrams (gua) arranged around a red/blue Taegeuk “yin-yang” symbol.

The four chosen trigrams are:

  • Geon (in the upper left, 3 parallel solid lines) symbolizing heaven
  • Ri (in the upper right) symbolizing fire
  • Gam (in the lower left) symbolizing water
  • Gon (in the lower right, 3 parallel broken lines) symbolizing earth


Worth noting:

  • Geon is solid Yang
  • Gon is solid Yin
  • Ri is Yin-within-Yang
  • Gam is Yang-within-Yin

As displayed upon its staff (rather than when rippling in the breeze), the Taegukgi reveals only two of its four trigrams: Geon and Gon (Qian and Kun in Chinese).  Geon shows above the Taegeuk, and Gon below.  In a superficial reading of the symbolism, this arrangement places heaven above and earth below –just as one would expect in the natural order of things.  Or so you’d think.

However.  In Taoism and the I-Ching, things are not always what they seem.  Perhaps they’re almost never what they merely seem.  When Qian and Kun (Geon and Gon) are arranged one above the other in an I-Ching hexagram, the results aren’t exactly positive.  In fact, Qian / Kun = Pi; Hexagram 12 of the I-Ching, symbolizing obstruction or blockage.  Pi is denoted with the modern Chinese character foǔ  –meaning “not!”  The Pi hexagram describes a state of affairs in which Heaven (above) recedes up and away from the earth (below), blocking the cosmic interaction that permits dynamic development of the true Tao. “The Tao of the inferior man prevails and the Tao of the superior man wanes.”  The negative Yin energy of the earth dominates, Yang energy retreats.  The inferior man will not preserve justice and truth.

So this is not at all an auspicious symbol to display on New Year’s Eve, and not at all an encouraging portent for inter-Korean relations in the coming year.  It’s possible that Saenuri Party members are so thoroughly Christianized that the ancient I-Ching symbolism of the Taeguk trigrams isn’t fully understood or appreciated, and they’re unaware of the hidden message being proclaimed every time they stand beside the flagstaff.  The good news is that the Tao is all about constant, inevitable change. Obstruction will run its course and give way, the superior man will ascend to his proper place, and the Pi hexagram will be transformed into another configuration of Yang and Yin energy. Eventually. Inexorably.




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