Yongusil 43: Baekdu and the Re-materialization of Korean Mountains at the Royal Geographical Society

By | August 30, 2014 | No Comments

…’Peik-tu [sic] San or White Head Mountain, lies seven or eight days journey to the west of Hoiryeng [sic] in Manchu territory. The mountain is in three tiers, is 200 li, or 60 miles, high, and the circuit of its base covers 1000 li, or 300 miles. On the summit there is a lake 800 li, or 250 miles, in circumference, whence flow the three rivers Yalu, Sungari and Tumen’ – Making every allowance for the usual exaggeration in such matters, this notice clearly referred to a very uncommon sort of mountain![1]

Erstwhile of the British consular service in China during the late 1890s, Charles Campbell’s initial surprise at encountering Korean charismatic conceptions of Mt. Baekdu amply demonstrates the way in which the mountain was conceived of in dramatic, transcendental terms long before the post- and intra-colonial development of a distinctly Korean nationalism, much less North Korea’s charismatic, theatrical political form, in which the mountain is deployed to reinforce the institutional authority of the Kim family.

Campbell’s encounter was recounted to a monthly meeting of the Royal Geographical Society back in March 1892. As far as we can ascertain, it was the last time that Mt. Baekdu was put up for discussion at an RGS meeting (with the possible exception of the work of intrepid adventurer Isabella Bishop-Bird). The last, that is, until now.

Though the spatial dimensions of Mt. Baekdu are a neglected object of analysis, the same cannot be said of the prominent revolutionary figures who have engaged its terrain and are glorified (or not) in North Korean political narratives. Kicking back against this reality, a Beyond the Korean War Project-sponsored panel, “A Topography of Co-Production: Mountains and the Mountainous on the Korean Peninsula,” part of this years’ Annual International Conference of the Royal Geographical Society, re-materialized academic analysis of Mt. Baekdu and the other elevated topographies of the Korean peninsula.

In his paper, “Constructing Baekdu: Political Charisma and the Geographic,” Director of Research Robert Winstanley-Chesters navigated the co-productive construction of the mountain in social, political and cultural terms, both as lived and as living space within the collective national imaginary. Focusing on the terrain of the mountain itself, its ridges, crags and chasms, Winstanley-Chesters examined opportunities for transference and transcendence, all underpinned by the mountain’s own physicality.

Closer to the field of North Korean politics, Benoit Berthelier, a Sino-NK contributor and PhD candidate at both Yonsei University in Seoul and INALCO in Paris, pondered the production and representation of Baekdu’s wild terrain in Pyongyang cultural and political output in his paper, “The Baekdu Mountain Range and Revolutionary Mystique in North Korea since 1945.” Berthelier looked in particular at that which legitimates and underpins the “Mt. Baekdu bloodline” of the Kim family (백두혈통).

Last but not least, Leiden University scholar Victoria Ten extracted the mountain from the political milieu of inter- and trans-Korean narratives completely, placing its sublime mesmeric spaces within the venerable tradition of Sansin (산신) deities. Her intriguing work, “Mountains as a Collectively Constructed Image: the Case of Korean Gicheon” established contemporary connection between the Korean spiritual manifestation known as Gicheon and contemporary South Korean socio-cultural engagement with the accessible mountains of the peninsula through hiking and outdoor leisure.

This groundbreaking panel, with Associate Professor Wei-Cheng Lin of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of Building a Sacred Mountain (a fascinating study of the Buddhist architecture of commemoration and glorification on another sacred mountain, China’s Mt Wutai) as its’ discussant, is the first in a series of collaborations between the cited participants, wherein the focus is placed firmly on the physicality of the mountains of the Korean peninsula through lenses of social, cultural and political output and tradition. In this way, it is hoped that another 120 years will not be permitted to pass before the next appearance of Mt. Baekdu in the halls of the Royal Geographical Society.

[1] Campbell, C., “A Journey through North Korea to the Ch’ang-pai Shan,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography 14, no. 3 (March 1892): 141.

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