Archive for February, 2018

Full Snow Moon … (or, Kisaeng Cousins)

February 25, 2018

Once upon a time, dutiful daughter Goldilocks paid a visit to the winter cottage of the Three Bears.  She borrowed Cinderella’s golden carriage and traveled for twelve hours through cloudy skies, across trackless wastes, above stormy seas, until the jagged mountain crests of the Three Bears’ homeland at last appeared, shimmering far below in the pale golden light of dawn.  Her carriage glided softly down to earth … and landed at Incheon International Airport. Welcome to Korea.

Thus ends our fable, and so another one begins: The moonarch of New Baekjae sought to renew his nation’s spirit and the mandate of heaven after abrupt dynastic change.  The former kingdom of Old Silla had proven itself grossly unworthy of the people’s trust and had disintegrated in shameful disgrace.  The courtiers of Old Silla had hoped to distract their subjects with an elaborate festival of winter rites, but their greed and crimes had been too brazen to be ignored.  The angry minguk brandished their moral outrage in the faces of their rulers, and sent them scurrying to seek cover in whatever refuge could be found.  A new leader was acclaimed for his righteousness and the new dynasty installed upon the ruins of the old.  The winter festival proceeded almost exactly as scheduled, further adorned by the addition of ritual specialists from the neighboring northern kingdom of New Goguryeo.

Such was the splendor of these winter rites that emissaries from around the world came to New Baekjae bask in the reflected radiance of the ritual performance.  However, some such emissaries were less welcome than others.  A century-long tradition had established an implicit protocol (widely understood among most nations) which specified the appropriate political status of the visting dignitaries.  Distant lands, poor countries or tributary states could be represented by mid-level functionaries.  In contrast, close allies and near neighbors of the host nation were expected to send officers of the highest rank to attend the ceremonies: if the king himself could not attend, his chief minister should represent him.  New-found frenemies were a special case, and could pose something of a protocol dilemma.

Take, f’rinstance, the usurper tyrant of Beautyland.  Under their respective previous dynasties, Beautyland and Old Silla had been the closest of allies for more than half a century.  New Baekjae hoped to maintain that traditional friendship, but the new king of Beautyland was more interested in amassing tribute “gifts” than in maintaining harmony among nations.  His demands became increasingly crude, insistent and abusive.  He repeatedly tried to goad New Goguryeo into attacking its southern neighbor, while simultaneously professing warm friendship for New Baekjae.  As a further sign of his contempt and arrogance, he sent his young daughter Goldilocks to act as Beautyland’s representative at the winter festival ceremonies, even though she held no official post within the government.  So once upon a time, dutiful daughter Goldilocks paid a visit to the winter cottage of the Three Bears…

Thus ends our second fable.

Backgrounder

On several previous occasions, Waking the Dragon has taken inordinate delight in pointing out the cultural significance of backdrop scenery that invariably adorns the performance of public political ritual in Korea. During the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye regimes, the traditional Korean screen panels displayed at Cheong Wa Dae were used as a coded reference to mark the social status of foreign visitors being received at Old Silla’s royal palace.  A lavish and ornate gold screen embellished with auspicious symbols denoted a valued friend, while a Jeosun-era scene of kowtowing barbarian emissaries was reserved for lower-status races and classes.  The moonrise kingdom of New Baekjae has continued these practices … with a new twist.

Thus, behind the banquet table at Goldilocks’ state dinner, we can discern a newly-visible panel of that familiar Jeosun screen painting on display. Who are those tiny two-dimensional figures in the background?

They’re kisaeng entertainers, that’s who.  Traditional female singer-dancer-whatever partytime companions … low-status women who perform a function in Korean culture similar to that of geishas in Japan.  They’re renowned for their beauty, manners and feminine talents, but their only job is to serve men.  This is the woman’s role in patriarchal Jeosun society … and in some other places with which you may be familiar.

But what’s the message, and to whom is it directed?  Well, since Koreans know that the barbarians of Beautyland are too ignorant and self-absorbed to understand an implicit rebuke even when it’s staring them in the face, it seems likely that this coded message is intended for another audience –the courtiers of New Goguryeo.  The northern kinfolk need no translation: “Beautyland has sent a kisaeng as its emissary, and we in New Baekjae regard her as of no importance. Whatever she may say will be (politely) ignored.”

Get the picture? Liu Yandong certainly does.

Advertisements

A Plause That Refreshes

February 20, 2018

On its face, which proposition is inherently less credible/plausible:

Not really a tough call.  Not that it really matters.  Not even to Comrade Bear.