HAVE YOU ever seen a young man in han-bok* with a pamphlet that says “Free Bow” on the streets of Insa-dong? That man is Moon Hyun-woo, and he had traveled to over 33 cities in 17 countries to introduce Arirang internationally when he was only a university student. Now, he works as a Korean Culture Expertise (KCE) and a director of Korean Traditional Culture Promotion Committee (KOAYU) to promote widespread enjoyment of Korean culture around the world. The Yonsei Annals discloses Moon’s youthful passion towards Korean culture through this personal interview.
Annals: What led you to promote Korean culture performance globally as the director of Arirang Yurangdan while you were still a university student?
Moon: Arirang Yurangdan is an organization that promotes Korean cultural performances around the world. When I heard that China had placed Arirang on the list of its national intangible cultural assets under the “Northeast Project” in 2011, I instantly wanted to show to the world that Arirang is a valuable Korean folk song. I was aroused of my childhood memories of singing Arirang with fellow overseas Koreans when I lived in Malaysia. Arirang has meant more than a traditional song to me, so I thought it was a perfect chance to plan a world tour to introduce Arirang. I could have looked ridiculous because I neither majored in guk-ak nor had sufficient money to organize the tour. I ran around on my own two feet to advertise my plan to various companies and organizations, and finally succeeded in getting a sponsor of ￦100 million for the tour.
Annals: In what aspect did you change through participating in the Arirang Yurangdan tour?
Moon: Whenever we performed out on the streets, I frequently saw Chinese and Japanese tourists cheering and clapping for us. It was so ironic because the purpose of our tour was to advertise that Arirang is a Korean folk song, not China’s or Japan’s. However, upon seeing foreigners react so favorably to the song, I realized that I had started the tour with a totally mistaken, parochial idea that Korean culture was ours, that is the Koreans’, and the best. I instantly took off my cultural blinkers, which had prevented me from seeing in different new perspectives, and tried various kinds of performances. For instance, in Egypt, by drawing Korean calligraphy on the papyrus we tried to bridge the two cultures and culturally communicate with the Egyptian people. In other countries, I was surprised by how people were touched to tears by Arirang. Previously, I had thought that only Koreans could culturally understand and embrace the deep sorrow hidden in the song. As such, I learned how people from other countries can just as well empathize with Korean culture as the Koreans themselves.
Annals: With such unique experiences and interests, how did you decide to start-up as the first KCE?
Moon: KCE, which I named myself, is a job that designs Korean culture so that it is more accessible and enjoyable to the public. There are already many people who are promoting Korean culture such as those who plan guk-ak** performances or prepare various Korean traditional festivals. However, I wanted to be different from such people. A friendlier approach to the public, rather than fancy large scale cultural events held by the government, will be more effective in reviving traditional culture. KCE also plans events mainly for the younger generation, with hopes that they would continue to enjoy traditional culture even when they get older.
To fulfill this goal, I have begun to plan various events using 100 representative aspects of Korean ethnicity and culture that was designated by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, starting from very well-known local subjects such as han-bok*, mak-geol-li***, and tae-kwon-do**** to many other unfamiliar cultural elements. It is my vocational duty to make an open environment in which anyone can take delight in enjoying Korean culture. I also hope that there will be people who actually dream of becoming and living up as KCE.
Annals: Were there any difficulties in pioneering a new field of work?
Moon: Frankly, there was none. Even when I was in college, unlike my fellow students who were stressed over employment, I was just too excited to graduate. I had no doubt that I would certainly continue the career of promoting Korean culture. To be specific, with the experiences I had from the Arirang Yurangdan tour, I already knew what I should do and what I was interested in the most. So after graduation, I submitted a business plan for Arirang School, which won the Grand Prix in “Creative Tourism Business Contest” held by Korea Tourism Organization. With the given foundation fund, I could thankfully establish a platform for a start-up.
Annals: You also have planned various events like “Free Bow,” “Oh My Gat Party,” and “Korean Graffiti,” which all blended traditional elements with the modern. What is the source of inspiration for your creative ideas?
Moon: The events that I have planned all start from the Korean cultural elements. And I really like puns which actually helps me when I am doing my job. For example, in the process of planning an event related to gat*****, I thought of random words that had similar sounds, such as “god,” and “Korea Got Talent.” Then with those ideas, my crew and I named the event “Oh My Gat Party,” in which people wearing gat could act as individual gods to provide donations to others and be on a mini talk show. So it does not require much work and all we need to do is just draw funny elements out of a given source and develop it into interesting events. If one is passionately engrossed with something, ideas and catch phrases from other sources such as books and magazines naturally add up to it.
Annals* What other events do you have in mind for the upcoming months?
Moon: Among the 100 symbols of Korean ethnicity and culture, there is dong-ji, which refers to winter solstice, so we might plan a new event related to the winter season. Other than that, we are also going to open “Age Ending in Nine” Cultural Concert. As the Korean word for it, a-hop-su****** sounds similar to “I hope so,” I hope the concert will bring hope to the audiences. Moreover, the term “Hell Joseon” is socially widespread nowadays, so we are thinking about planning “Hello Joseon” event instead. In this way, I want to turn such negative terms into more optimistic ideas.
Annals: Do you have any last words for the members of Yonsei University?
Moon: Consider yourself as kim-chi. Since kim-chi is a fermented food, it might be a little smelly from a distance, but it slowly ripens to become palatable as food. Likewise, I would like you to keep looking at yourself at a distance to observe how you gradually ripen at your perfect timing. While you wait for that time, I hope you broaden the scope of your experiences as much as you can.
*Han-bok: Traditional Korean clothing
**Guk-ak: Korean traditional music that comprises of folk music and court music
***Mak-geol-li: Traditional Korean alcoholic beverage made from rice or wheat
****Tae-kwon-do: Korean martial art, which is a globally-recognized sport included in the Olympic Games
*****Gat: Korean traditional hat worn by men along with han-bok
******A-hop-su: Years of age ending in nine such as 19, 29, and 39