Anthropologist Laurel Kendall speaks on Korean folk symbols

Thu, March 6, 2008

On February 22, as part of the spring Korean Seminar series, the Center for East Asian Studies proudly welcomed Laurel Kendall, who is the Curator of East Asian Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, adjunct professor in anthropology at Columbia University, and author of several books. Kendall's paper, "Changsung Defanged: The Curious Journey of the Spooky Village Guardian Pole into a Warm and Cuddly Cultural Symbol," was inspired by a Museum of Natural History exhibit on animism displaying two fearsome changsung, a totem-like pair of male and female guardians that mark the entrance of Korean villages.

This reminded Kendall more of Korea during the 1970s, when changsung often appeared outside the entrance of restaurants, than of "wooden devils," the characterization often attributed by early missionaries and searchers of Asian exoticism. Relying on archival images, interviews with changsung creators and recent displays of changsung material cultural, Kendall tracked the development of changsung from "demonic visage to face of the folk," which is still being negotiated in the material production of meaning.

Kendall described the traditional role of changsung as protectors from demonic spirits in villages or Buddhist temples and enforcers of village morality that commanded respect and fear. Each New Year they received food from cleansed villagers, and were replaced every few years by purified artisans. These rituals continue today in the form of taboos observed by changsung artists and through the offering of rice cakes to changsung that have been erected to bring good fortune to businesses. Drawing on Arjun Appadurai's The Social Life of Things, Kendall argues that this transformation from sacred object to souvenir to natural artifact rests in the continuing belief that these objects have spiritual importance.

The turning point from village guardian to national folk image originates in the revival of folklore studies in the 1960s and 70s, when the changsung received legal protection as cultural properties. Incorporated into the student movements of the 80s through its association with farmers, it imbued the movements with a "rural" or "democratic" spirit while providing them with a recognizable mascot. This became a positive form of nationalism and a marker of Korean distinctiveness. As shown by Kendall, a wide variety of changsung, from fang-bearing demons to depictions of Pak Chan-ho and Pak Se-ri, the baseball prince and the golf princess, provide multiple expressions of the Korean "us" as well as the negotiation within society between spiritual object and commodity.

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