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
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.
- Yeon: gama for the king, queen or the
- Deong: gama mounted by princesses
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