Splendid and Yet Ostentatious
Yoo Ji-hyun Cub Reporter  |
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승인 2006.03.01  00:00:00
트위터 페이스북 구글 카카오스토리


THE TRADITIONAL slave-driven transportation, the palanquin (gama in Korean), has many similarities with a modern limousine. Luxurious. Elegant. The center of attention. But as we see it, the first question that comes to our mind is, "Is all that luxury worth the taxes we pay?" A gama, which nowadays seems to have found its place in the "elegant part of our history" might actually have been nothing but a limousine of the Joseon Dynasty. And it may have been even less friendly than that as it reflects the class system of the time. 

  Of course, we cannot simply say that the gama was the useless result of over expenditure. Besides   transporting the riders, it served well the purpose of shining the spotlight on them and protecting them. The gama ride of the king around the palace was one of the few ceremonies of the time, and the common spectators were able to escape from daily life by watching. In addition, the royal ride was used from time to time as the channel for the common people to actually voice their problems directly to the king. The common people were allowed to come up to the gama to talk to the king. Without gama, the life of the Joseon Dynasty might have been much different.

  However, not all differences the gama made were positive. "It was very closely related to our strict tradition of emphasizing the purity of all women," says Prof. Chung Yeon-sik (Seoul Women's Univ). The image of women of high rank having their bodies accidentally touched by slaves and their faces looked at directly by slaves bothered the men of the time. As a result, the women were forced to stay inside most of the time.

  The gama was not only a reflection of sexual discrimination but also that of the tradition of the class system and slavery. As men of the high class began to ride in gamas for the purpose of convenient transportation, the gama became the symbol of power and wealth. This was a natural result considering the amount of man power and money required to carry one person. It was the symbol of such luxury that even the kings had to leave their gama when they were going to hold ancestor worship, as a sign of humbleness. To show the importance of the rider, the gama carried flags of deities such as the blue dragon, the white tiger, and the phoenix. Sometimes, it carried ceremonial articles like axes, swords, and spears. These distinguished the rider from ordinary citizens, making the rider seem more majestic.

  Some interesting side effects arose because of this gama tradition. Many people of high rank developed   diseases from the lack of exercise. Prof. Chung recalls, "Some women even developed vertigo when they stepped out into their yard." In spite of these side-effects, the thought of being carried by other people was the dream of many common people. As democracy slowly took hold, and as money became important in society, the act of selling and buying official ranks became ubiquitous, destroying the strict class system. From that time, most slaves gained freedom. As the workforce of the slaves was gone, the gama was soon out of sight as well.

  Yes, it is true that the gama is an important heritage of our culture. However, it is also important to admit the negative characteristics of our heritage. Gama, known only as beautiful and convenient work of art is one example of such great and ostentatious over-expenditure. Maybe it is high time we look around to find other "gamas" in our society.

Gama Facts

- Yeon: gama for the king, queen or the crown prince
- Deong: gama mounted by princesses
- Yeo:  roofless sedan chair the king used to travel around the palace
- Yoyeo (low-held gama), Chaeyeo (colored gama), Hyangjeongja (open dragon gama): roofless sedan chair the king used to travel around the palace

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