One of six designated “Slow Cities” in Korea, Jangheung rests near the southernmost part of the peninsula. Filled with more cows than people, this literary breeding ground is hometown to more than 70 contemporary writers.
Jangheung’s Place in Your Heart
Jangheung could be just another place among the southern provinces in Korea with blue seas, charming mountains, and warm breezes. In fact, describing Jeollanam-do’s (province) Jangheung county in such terms is not incorrect. If one has no special connection to Jangheung, it’s just another place in the south with plenty of sunlight—places like Gangjin’s White Lotus Temple (Baekryun-sa) with its narrow paths or Jangheung’s Hwaejin inlet.
If you are somewhat more familiar with Jangheung, you might know that if an imaginary line was drawn straight down from Gwanghwamun in Seoul, it would bisect Korea into East and West, with its southernmost point passing through Jangheung. While Jangheung is symmetrically south of Seoul, it’s a poor geographical cousin to Gangneung, which is straight east of the capital. It’s not necessary to elevate Jangheung’s status just because of its linear symmetry with Gwanghwamun, however. Those who have traveled widely would probably refer first to the stirring sight of Eulalia grass fields on Mt. Cheon-gwan, while those of more refined tastes would point out that there are more cows than people in Jangheung county. Successively listing the features of this area brings more information to mind: razor clams, gaebul (edible marine spoon worms), and other marine products from Jangheung are considered to be the most delicious, and the Shiitake mushrooms grown in the region can only be purchased by paying a premium. But there’s more. Jangheung is one of only six “Cittaslow” (Slow Cities) in Korea.
All the descriptions so far are points to keep in mind when planning a trip to this area, but they don’t do justice to Jangheung and cannot convey a full understanding of the region. When people dream of Jangheung, when the heart feels stifled and a sudden desire to run off to Jangheung moves us, we must instead turn to Korean literature to learn about this place. On a map draw a line between Gangjin and Boseong and then stretch this line wide—Jangheung county will be contained within the contours of this shape. But we shouldn’t stop here, because truly finding Jangheung requires us to draw out our emotions as if from a well. These emotions are normally buried under the busy schedules of our lives. Feelings of sadness, longing, and warmth are manifested here in Jangheung through the medium of literature.
Have You Ever Heard of a Literary Tourism Zone?
Jangheung can only be reached through literature. This statement is neither baseless propaganda nor an attempt to stir people up; it has a clear, legal basis. Although many people still don’t know this fact, Jangheung is Korea’s first Literary Tourism Zone. In 2008, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy designated three areas within Jangheung County as special zones, and nationwide, Jangheung is the only special tourism zone for literature. In effect, the Korean government has acknowledged that only Jangheung has the ability to draw tourists through literature alone.
Jangheung has a long history as a literary center, with a startling 500-year literary tradition. The first example of gasa, an old form of Korean verse, was created in Jangheung by the poet “Gi-bong” Baek Gwang-hong (1522-1556), in his Gwanseo-Byul-gok (a book of gasa verse). Jangheung’s literary tradition continued to be passed down to subsequent generations even after Baek Gwang-hong was gone. He was followed by what came to be known as the “ Jangheung Troupe”: Wie Sae-jik, Roh Myeong-seon, Lee Sang-gye, Lee Joong-jeon, Wie Baek-gyu, and others who formed the base of Jeolla province’s literary tradition. Giyang-sa, built in honor of the poet Baek Gwang-hong still stands in Jangheung’s Anyang-myeon, Gisan-ri neighborhood. Part of Gisan-ri has also been designated as a special literary tourism zone.
The soul of literary Jangheung county, however, is not to be found in long-lost ancient poetry. Jangheung’s literary magnificence stems from its stature as the blossom of contemporary Korean literature. According to data from the Jangheung County Office, more than 70 contemporary literati hail from this area. The novelists Song Kisook, Yi `Chong-Jun, Han Sung-won, and Lee Seung-U, the sijo (Korean verse) poets Kim Je-hyeon and Lee Han-seong, and the contemporary poets Wie Seon-hwan, Kim Young-nam, Moon Jeong-young, Lee Dae-heum, and others all hail from Jangheung. There are so many it’s difficult to list them all. Their literary achievements still resonate in Jangheung. Song Kisook’s The Mung Bean General, Yi Chong-Jun’s Snowy Road, Han Sung-won’s Port, Lee Seung-U’s “Saem Island” (Saemseom), and other famous works are so numerous that it is likewise hard to count them all. We could describe all of Jangheung as a living museum of Korean literature. In fact, even Jangheung County’s Chief, Lee Myeong-heum, is a poet who has published in various literary journals.
Jangheung’s literary fiction heritage has been particularly dazzling, and there is ample reason why the region is called the home of Korean prose. Song Kisook’s (b. 1935) works are filled with historically-conscious narratives. Yi Chong-Jun (1939-2008) is a representative writer of the 4.19 generation (those that experienced the demonstrations in April 1960 that toppled the Syngman Rhee government) whose works are characterized by sentiments associated with the southern provinces. Han Sung-won’s (b. 1939) works are written from a uniquely religious worldview. In short, each of these major authors represents different genres of modern Korean literature. It is quite surprising that they were all born in the same region yet their works are all so different. If even one of these literary giants had been born in another village, that village would have constructed a literature center, established eponymous literature prizes, and effectively called attention to itself. By contrast, in Jangheung there are so many luminaries worthy of recognition that authorities have already given up on the task of selecting whom to honor. Instead, the entire county has been designated as a Special Tourism Zone for literature.
This designation, however, creates another conundrum. Where should one go to experience literary Jangheung? First of all, Literature Park is located just below Mt. Cheon-gwan. Several hundred literary stone monuments dot the park. However, it can hardly be considered the only worthy pilgrimage site for Jangheung. Likewise, at the other Literary Tourism Zone in Gwansan-eup, Shindong-ri, there is little that has anything to do with Jangheung’s gems of Korean literature. It’s just another southern port village with fine views of the ocean. After much thought, I have therefore decided to introduce readers to several literary sites in Jangheung. One of these is still occupied by its owner, while the others are now empty, yet highly recommended.