|Title||Our Lives Beyond Epidemics|
|Venue||Special Exhibition Ⅰ|
IntroductionWe often only to realize how precious something was once it is gone. When COVID-19 suddenly broke in 2020, ordinary daily life and the warmth of together ness left us for a while.
Since ancient times, epidemics – diseases or illnesses that spread widely – have swept our lives, regularly disturbing the human desire to live a long and healthy life and disrupting people’s everyday routines. The Korean expression “it’s scarier than hohwan mama” (another name for smallpox), shows how people have lived with epidemics for so long that they have even become a part of our everyday language.
COVID-19 and masks – these two terms have awakened us to the preciousness of “ordinary daily life” and “value of togetherness”. In this second year of not being able to see each other’s full faces, the National Folk Museum of Korea presents the special exhibition <Our Lives Beyond Epidemics> looking back at major epidemics that have shaken human life from past to present and how they were endured and overcome.
The exhibition is comprised of three sections. The first, entitled “Everyday Life + (Plus) Epidemics,” examines epidemics that have swept across Korea and the people who weathered them. The second section “Everyday Life – (Minus) Epidemics” highlights the acts of healing carried out by people working to survive disease. The third and final section, “Everyday Life ± (Plus or Minus) Epidemics,” presents the stories of people who continued on with their daily lives despite the spread of infectious disease and clung to the value of togetherness.
The exhibition is intended to offer refreshment to minds that have become fatigued by the pandemic. It is also hoped that you will be able to transcend time and encounter another version of yourself, one who did not abandon their optimism in face of an epidemic.
We hope that you will be able to take with you the wisdom and will to manage life in an epidemic while dreaming of going back to the normal life that we once enjoyed.
Part1. Everyday Life + (Plus) EpidemicsEpidemics have long been part of human life. The oldest record in Korea related to an epidemic is found in one of the volumes of “Baekje bongi,” the records of the Kingdom of Baekje, from Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms). It mentions the epidemic broke out in 15 BCE, meaning the written history of epidemics in Korea goes back more than 2,000 years. Even at this very moment, we are receiving updates on the COVID-19 situation through channels including the news and emergency alert texts, and epidemics continue to permeate our daily lives. Depending on the times, there have been different words for referring to epidemics, and information on the spread of diseases was provided through various means. Human encounters with epidemics in Korea have been directly embodied in journal entries, paintings, and Pansori epic chants.
1-1 Records of Epidemics
From the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE – 668 CE) to the present, there have been numerous records made of epidemics, as can be seen on the wall of the gallery. Epidemics were historically referred to in Korean records with one or two Chinese characters, such as 大疫 (daeyeok), 民疫 (minyeok), 疾疫 (jiryeok), 癘疫 (yeoyeok), 饑疫 (giyeok), 疫 (yeok), 疫疾 (yeokjil), and 疫癘 (yeongnyeo). Sometimes they could be detailed with the names of the disease, such as 痘瘡 (duchang, smallpox) and 紅疫 (hongyeok, measles). Illnesses that had not been heard of or seen before were sometimes referred to as 怪疾 (goejil), meaning a grotesque disease. In this way, epidemics have remained part of life while undergoing changes in name. Places swept by epidemics were marked by suffering.
1-2 Human-epidemic Encounters
Epidemics shake up ordinary daily lives. Some people lose beloved family members to fierce epidemics, and even many who manage to survive have had to live with traces on their bodies for the rest of their lives. Such circumstances during the late Joseon Dynasty, a period that was rampant with epidemics, were depicted in and conveyed through Pansori epic chants and portrait paintings of the time. The diary of a nobleman from the eighteenth century vividly records his grief over losing his family to a sudden disease that swept through his household, but also mentions his relief at having survived the disease himself. In this way, epidemics were a part of everyday life.
Part 2. Everyday Life – (Minus) EpidemicsEpidemics have disrupted everyday life and taken the lives of many people for millennia. However, humans do not just collapse helplessly in the face of the epidemics. Our efforts to escape from these diseases have been fierce, both in the past and present. People have turned to all available resources, including using herbals for medicinal treatment and folk practices such as the Mama Baesonggut (a shamanistic ritual for sending off the smallpox spirit) and talismans. Moreover, once an epidemic had swept through, people undertook defensive measures to prevent it from returning.
2-1 The Treatment of Epidemics2-2 The Prevention of Epidemics
In order to treat plague victims, people tried to develop remedies using on their own experience and on the regular observation of symptoms. Based on these efforts, various medical books, including the Dongui bogam (Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine) were published. When a disease could not be treated through medical technology, people deified the disease and prayed for it to politely go away after staying for just a short while. Duchang (smallpox) was deified and referred to as “Mama.” The performance of the Mama Baesonggut embodied the human wishes for the Duchang God to stay for a bit and then quietly leave.
People have also worked to prevent epidemics by attempting to provide medical treatment and rid them from the surroundings. The active practices undertaken to prevent epidemics included Cheoyongmu (The Dance of Cheoyong), a royal narye or exorcism ritual; Jangseungje, a village ritual performed in honor of the guardian posts; and talismans hung inside and outside the house. In modern times, hygiene was established as an important means for the prevention of epidemics, and hygiene efforts such as washing hands and ensuring clean water emerged. In addition, vaccinations such as jongdu to prevent epidemics were institutionalized, and many common diseases retreated from human life.
Part3. Everyday Life ± (Plus or Minus) EpidemicsHumans are likely to encounter multiple epidemics across their lifetimes. This has been the case for people of the past, and is true for us in the present as we live through COVID-19. Unidentified diseases will probably appear in the future, disrupting once again people’s everyday lives. Nevertheless, people are constantly searching for ways to cope with new epidemics. They try hard not to overly separate themselves from others since humans cannot live alone. The present landscape of social distancing greatly resembles of that of the past. People may have lived in different eras, but we lived in a similar manner.
3-1 Carrying on with Everyday Life Amidst Epidemics
Although the daily life of the past and present marked by epidemics appears to have been temporarily forgotten, there are many resemblances. In a journal dating to the eighteenth century, there are records of discussions over postponing a marriage ceremony when an epidemic hit the village. This is similar to the trend in the present day to have just a small wedding or to postpone the ceremony. Moreover, a small ritual by the head house of a clan in the twenty-first century overlaps with a noble household of the eighteenth century deliberating over whether to postpone ancestral rites because people passed away in an epidemic. Although there has been some joy in the unfamiliarity of pursuing outdoor activities inside the house, the times when we casually asked after each other and met up together are missed.
3-2 Standing Together Amidst an Epidemic
Since epidemics spread among groups of people, it is necessary for prevention for people to distance themselves from each other. However, paradoxically, we know that humans must stick together to overcome epidemics.
People have managed to spend their ordinary daily lives together. From the local aristocrat who wrote an oration for a yeoje (a ritual performed for abandoned spirits) to support the stability of a village community to a neighborhood patrol of the twenty-first century who perform disinfection measures every day for the safety of the community, to people who donate handmade face coverings, we may be from different eras and regions, but our willingness to dream together of resuming an ordinary daily life and to put even the smallest measures into practice has remained the same.
EpilogueEpidemics have appeared in the past and present and will continue to appear in the future.
We will stand together in the face of the epidemics of the present and future, just as we have done in the past.