Midang is the penname of the poet Seo Jeong-ju. It carries the meaning of “not yet fully grown” or a “wish to forever be a boy.” The Midang Literary House is located in the poet’s hometown of Jeollabuk-do Province, Gochang-gun, Buan-myeon, Seonun-ri. The positioning of the Literary House is quite special. There is a large mountain (Mt. Soyo) behind, the ocean (Byeonsan Beach) in front, the poet’s house of birth to the left, and his grave to the right. Even throughout the rest of the world, it is rare to find a poet’s life, death, and memorial all gathered in one place, in the midst of beautiful, natural scenery.
The Midang Literary House was originally a school, a branch of Bongam Elementary. When the school was scheduled to be closed due to the dwindling number of students in the remote village, cultural administrators had the idea to repurpose the building as a memorial hall for Seo Jeong-ju. With 5,000 of the poet’s personal effects on display, visitors can see the majority of Seo’s writings as well as various everyday items he used. There are more personal effects preserved at the Midang Literary House than at any other author’s memorial hall in all of Korea.
One of the Literary House’s peculiarities is the five-story exhibition tower designed by the architect Kim Won. Many of the exhibits are on display on the ground floor of the school building, but the tower holds the most precious items. If the single-story school building is said to resemble the ocean, then the tower represents the mountains that surround the village. It is a man-made construction combining the horizontal and vertical to create the ocean and the mountains, but it succeeds in replicating the harmony of nature found in the poet’s hometown.
This building doesn’t try to stand out from the landscape. Instead of trying to overwhelm or resist its surroundings, it is comfortably nestled in nature’s embrace. One could say that this was the architect’s philosophy. The Midang Literary House is in the center of the village, but it doesn’t give off that sort of feeling. It seems to have kept alive the land’s original “school”- like personality quite well.
When climbing the stairs to the fifth floor of the tower, it feels as if you are climbing a mountain. Pictures of the world’s most famous mountains are hung on the walls to see as you ascend the stairs. These pictures are from a collection of 1,628 mountains that Seo memorized as he got older. As he reached his mid-seventies, he challenged himself to memorize these mountains as a way to prevent memory-loss. The Midang Literary House purposefully displayed these photos as a testament to the poet’s tireless efforts even as he aged.
The Midang Literary House was opened one year after Seo passed away, on November 3rd, 2001. Every year around this time, the village hosts a literary festival to commemorate the opening. The highlight of the festival to present that year’s best poet with the Midang Literary Prize. This award, which is sponsored by the Korean newspaper Joongang Daily, has the interesting tradition of holding the awards ceremony in the poet’s hometown.