|In Memory of Dr. Zo Zayong,
a Great Korean
David Mason ( right) with a clean-shaven Zo Zayong (center)
and someone else, with Zo's own "Jang-seung
[guardian-spirit poles] of the Five Directions", in the Emille
Museum compound, October 4th 1988.
However, right after the Korean War he
became horrified by the destruction and loss
of South Korea's folk art, customs and
culture under the pressures of poverty,
Christian missionaries and President Park's
1965-85 "New Village Movement", both of
which actively sought to replace Korean
traditions with "western" modernism. He
gave up his lucrative career in order to
become a rescuer, preserver and advocate
of folk culture [min-sok-mun-hwa]. In doing
so he became one of the first Koreans to
publish scholarly books about Korean folk
traditionsin English -- a pioneer of Korea's
Two great antique San-shin treasures that Horae saved from the trash in the
1960's. Many more are shown on page #5 in this series.
For many years it was a lonely struggle. He pulled
century-old paintings and other artifacts out of garbage-piles
and demolished shrines, or bought them cheaply from
antique dealers. In those days Korea's folk-art was
considered low-class, superstitious, trashy and shameful by
the ruling elite. The government defined "Korean art" as only
the aristocratic art that followed Chinese conventions. Dr. Zo
was sternly opposed and even threatened when he tried to
exhibit his growing collection to foreigners or publish bilingual
books about it.
a new edition of a eulogy written by David A. Mason, March 2000.
Previous versions or parts were published in various Korean
newspapers, the Acta Koreana Journal of Korean Studies, and posted
on the internet:
Dr. Zo Zayong [Jo Ja-yong] passed away due to
a heart attack on January 30th 2000, or the 24th
day of the 12th moon in 4332, by the Korean
calendar. He was a full 74 years old, but still
energetically doing the work he loved. All those
who love the traditional culture of Korea know
and honor his name.
We his students and followers call him Horae
seon-saeng-nim. "Horae" is an affectionate term
for a tiger, referring to his physical resemblance
to Korea's national animal, his fierce devotion to
preserving traditional culture, and his harsh but
loving temper. In the 1970s he first became
famous for his promotion of unique Korean
folk-paintings of tigers, and now his body lies
entombed beneath a huge rock-outcropping
[bawi] which resembles a tiger's face.
"Seon-saeng-nim" is a highly honorific title of a
teacher, and our Horae was one of the best --
educating the spirits of all, regardless of
nationality or social standing.
Besides this, he was a pioneering researcher and curator dedicated to excellence, a hard
drinker and big talker, a self- sacrificing preserver and propagator of culture, a wild mask-dancer
and buk-drummer, and a broadly-enlightened warm-hearted human being of the first rank.
I first met Horae Seon-saeng-nim on the day of the Closing Ceremony for the 1988 Seoul
Olympics. That was October third, also the "Opening of Heaven" holiday when Korea's
ancient-nationalist traditions are celebrated. Horae had just finished construction of a new
shrine in the center of his Emille compound, and was holding a public festival to inaugurate it.
Four large carved wooden tablets were set up under a simple roof. Three of them stood for the
Sam-shin, and the last for the Sam-shin-halmoni. Together they represented the collective
ancestors of the Korean people, their collective ideals and identity as a single nation.
In the early evening Horae gathered us all
in a semi-circle in front of the shrine, and
set up a television set facing towards the
tablets (and another one that we could
watch). He played the Olympic Closing
Ceremony to the national spirits,
explaining fluently in Korean, English and
Japanese that it was a venerable custom
to report the family news to the ancestors.
In this way he propagated old Korean
traditions by employing modern
technologies to make them accessible and
enjoyable for everyone of any race or
nationality. We all felt tremendous pride in
the grand success of the Seoul Olympics,
as well as a deep connection to tradition
through Horae's technique. I had an
overwhelming feeling of joy, that maybe
just maybe this was the beginning of the
ending of Korea's long under-expressed
bitter suffering [han].
Dr. Zo Zayong [he always used this
spelling although Jo Ja-yong would be
more correct], grew up at the end of
the Japanese-colonial period in Korea,
suffering first-hand the attempted
cultural suppression of those years. A
brilliant student, he took advantage of
a rare chance to study architecture
and engineering at Harvard University
during the 1940's. After being
awarded his PhD he established
himself as a successful architect, by
designing several major buildings in
Los Angeles and Seoul in the 1950's
and 60's, including the YMCA building
on Seoul's main avenue (said to be
Seoul's first "modern" building), and
inspiring the U.S. ambassador's
beautiful Korean-style residence
behind Toksu Palace.