I first would like to thank Sonya for sharing her special experience at the opening ceremony of the 50th Anniversary of Canada and Korea’s Diplomatic Relations in her article, “Zion Mission Women’s Choir Bares Soul of Arirang.” As a music lover, I strongly agree with her that music actually “transcends language, time, politics, and culture,” and provides a link between any nations and communities; just like the Zion Mission Women’s Choir and the Canadian audience in this case. Although the English-speaking audience may not understand a single Korean word, I sincerely believe that they could have felt deep grief and pain from the plaintive melody of “Arirang,” the iconic Korean folk song.
As Sonya has mentioned in her post, the tune, “Arirang” indeed is an unofficial national anthem of Korea that men and women of all ages know and sing. The song differs from region to region, but the most well-known one is “Bonjo Arirang.” Unlike other versions that have been orally passed down from generation to generation with no specific composers, “Bonjo Arirang” is an exceptional case that was composed for the theme song of the movie called Arirang which was written, acted, and directed by Na Woon-Gyu, the starter of the auteur film-making tradition in Korea.
“I produced the song,” Na Woon-Gyu explained during his past interview. “When I was in elementary school, I could hear the labourers from south who were constructing the railway continually singing the verse ‘Arirang, Arirang.’ Then after years, I came up to the capital [Seoul] and looked for the original song, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any clues. So there was no other way, but to remember back the melody as much as I could and write lyrics by myself.” His movie released on October 1, 1926 projected a shadow of the nation suffering during the Japanese colonial era, and as it gained much popularity across the country, the people started to sing the theme song, “Bonjo Arirang” as a way of expressing their sorrow of losing their country. Since then, it has been recognized as a piece of music that embodies the spirit of the nation, not only reflecting grief, but also joy of winning back Korea’s freedom and independence after 1945.
For this reason, “Arirang” has been overwhelmingly loved by Koreans for generations, and with the government’s endless efforts and community’s collective contributions toward protecting this cultural asset, it has been finally inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on December 5, 2012! In a press release, UNESCO introduced this traditional song as “an evocative hymn with the power to enhance communication and unity among the Korean people, whether at home or abroad.”
“We hope the registration of Korea’s most popular folk song as UNESCO cultural heritage will help increase the world’s awareness of Korea and the South Korean people’s perception of the importance of their own intangible cultural heritage,” the Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea concluded. To celebrate and share this pleasant news, the Administration will be holding more Arirang festivals and exhibitions from this year.