Arirang, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
The critically acclaimed director Kim Ki-duk sang the Korean folk song Arirang while accepting the 2012 Korea Pop Culture Artist Award, something he had frequently done in the past including the time when he won the Golden Lion award for Best Film for Pieta at the 69th Venice Film Festival. Asked what the song means to him, Kim said, "It is an expression of Koreans' joy and sorrow."
Like Kim said, Arirang has shared the pleasures and pains of life in Korea. For the director, Arirang seems to have meant sorrow rather than joy. In 2011, he released a film titled Arirang, a self-portrait drama and documentary in which Kim himself appears and narrates his agony and inner conflicts over his life and filmmaking.
As is the case with Kim's film, the song Arirang has been the subject of many films, stories, songs, and arts since the early 20th century. According to the Jeongseon Arirang Research Institute, there are as many as 1,063 Arirang-related works of literature in the forms of fiction, poetry, and essays from 1900 to 2012.
The version of Arirang now known by most people was composed by film director Na Un-gyu for his film Arirang, a silent black-and-white movie released in 1926. Upon its release, the film created a sensation at Dansungsa, one of Korea's first commercial movie theaters.
In The Culture of Arirang, a book by Kim Yeon-gap, the theme song and the movie suffered under the oppression of the Japanese colonial government, which ordered the omission of certain lyrics due to what was seen as seditiousness and confiscated 10,000 advertisement flyers. The deleted verse was "if we fail after battle after battle, we shall set a fire and the world will shatter."
However, the confiscation stirred so much interest among the public that the mounted police had to be mobilized to restore the order. The theater was so packed with viewers that windows were shattered and doors were broken down.
By this stage, Arirang, which was orally passed down from generation to generation, became a modern folk song and a symbol of resistance. Then, the song started spreading across the country. "I composed the song," wrote Na in a memoir. "My hometown was Hoeryeong on the border of Korea and China and when I was a child, they started building a railroad from Cheongjin to Hoeryeong. Laborers from the south sang a sad song with refrains 'arirang, arirang, arariyo.'
"After moving to Seoul, I started searching for people who knew the kind of Arirang I heard but my effort was in vain. But I could only find Gangwon Arirang from time to time... Even folk music masters did not sing it. So I recalled the melodies and created the lyrics and asked a Dansungsa band to set the song to music."
Since then, Arirang has appeared in various cultural formats, though maybe less often as an expression of sorrow. Large groups of cheerleaders for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan sang a version of Arirang by the Yoon Do-hyun Band, regaining heated interest in the song from the general public, especially young people. Olympic champion Kim Yuna skated to the Arirang theme at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships.
Arirang also became a symbol of harmony. North and South Korean athletes marched to Arirang together during the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympic Games. In February 2008, the New York Philharmonic played Arirang at the end of their concert in Pyongyang, North Korea, as well. It was the first time an American cultural organization held a concert there, and the largest contingent of U.S. citizens to appear since the Korean War (1950-1953).