Choi Eun-jin: Arirang
Choi Yong-pil: Kangwon-do Arirang
“Arirang“(아리랑) is Korea’s most famous folk song, and possibly its most famous work of art, period. It has been sung throughout the Korean Peninsula for centuries in numerous local variants. Today I’ve got a variety of versions for you, courtesy of the astonishing Music from Korea website, which I have only just begun to explore.
We begin our Arirangery with Kim Geum-suk’s gorgeous traditional performance of the most well known variant of the song. From there, we move on to Choi Eun-jin’s pop version, which sounds like it was recorded in the 1950s, if not earlier. A group of American musicians going under the name Heart of Coree turn “Arirang” into a lovely jazz ballad, while Yoon Band gives it a heavy metal treatment.
Finally, we’ve got a couple of regional variants. Once again, Kim Geum-suk gives a powerfully emotional traditional performance, this time of “Jongson Arirang,” accompanied by the piri. And we close with Choi Yong-pil’s rendition of “Kangwon-do Arirang” in the Teurotu, or trot, style, a fiercely unfashionable form of low-culture pop music known for racy lyrics, bouncy beats and electronic overkill and often heard emanating from street stalls.
For a song so ubiquitous, it’s a bit surprising that no one knows its origins or even what it’s really about. Last Thursday, I attended a lecture at the Korea Society by Heinz Insu Fenkl, a creative writing professor and folklorist at SUNY New Paltz, on Korean shamanism. As a sort of side note, he proposed his own hypothesis for how “Arirang” gained its place at the center of Korean culture. According to Fenkl, the song is related to the story of Princess Pari, the mythic spiritual founder of the mudang (Korean shaman, usually female) tradition.
Here is the story of Princess Pari, as told by Jie Won Im:
Princess Pari’s proper name is Parideggie; “Pari” being a verb root meaning “to discard, abandon” and “-deggie” a suffix similar to English “-ling,” specifying “one connected with or having the quality of.” The fact that she is a princess abandoned by her parents is one thing that does not change in the different versions of the Parideggie Muga, “Ballad of Parideggie.” The shamanistic tradition being orally handed down, slight alterations by region are inevitable, but the essence of the tale is as follows:
A fortune teller (probably a shaman) informs King Ogu that if he marries the lady Gildae, she will bear him an heir. In his impatience (he is only fourteen in one version), he marries her before the day deemed auspicious for marriage by the fortune teller. Bad luck follows, and the couple has six daughters in a row. Queen Gildae has a taemong, “birth dream,” that her next child will be an exiled angel from heaven, the daughter of the angel Seowangmo, possessor of the elixir of life. When Princess Pari comes along as the seventh, King Ogu is exasperated and in his anger he orders her to be expelled from the palace. The disowned princess is left to perish at some strange and exotic place which is, depending on the rendition learnt by the performing shaman, sometimes “the dragons’ fen,” sometimes an amaranth field, sometimes just some cave deep in the mountains. However she is rescued by a supernatural force (Dragon Queen, Buddha, etc.) or the servant of such supernatural forces, and grows up showing signs of excellence. One day her father and/or mother falls terminally and incurably sick (serves him right) as punishment for throwing Pari away, and Pari returns to the palace. She volunteers to take the long and dangerous journey through the netherworld to SeocheonSeoyukGuk, a westward heaven beyond India, to retrieve a cure for her dying parent(s). She braves many perils (such as washing black laundry white and white laundry black, or being tread upon by a monk, or more seriously tempting fiends) along the way (of course with a little help), and finally procures the potion in exchange of wedlock and a few sons to a celestial being. On the way back home, she prays for the wandering ghosts of those whose deaths were untimely and unfair, before returning to this world. She revives her father, and is forgiven by her parents for marrying without their consent. Finally she becomes a god that receives the Ogu (death rites) and also the fairy god mother of shamans.
The lyrics to “Arirang” are “I am crossing over Arirang Pass. / The man/woman who abandoned me [here] / Will not walk even ten li before his/her feet hurt.” According to Fenkl, this could be a reference to the story of Pari’s abandonment. Why else would a song about abandonment and foot pain become the national song of Korea? As linguistic evidence, he pointed out the closeness of “Ari” (아리) and “Pari” (바리). The root “Ar” (알), meanwhile, means “to know” as well as “to suffer disease,” while “Par” (발), the first syllable of “Pari,” means “foot,” and the similar “peori” (버리) is the root of the verb “to punish.”
Whether this is all just pie in the sky is hard to know, but whatever the origins, “Arirang” seems to be embedded as deeply in Korean culture as the shamanism it may or may not be about.