by Tobias Thornes
Somewhere beneath the steel spires of China’s biggest city lie buried the remnants of a tiny village of ages past. Somewhere – overridden by congested roads and railways, over-trodden by millions of traipsing feet – lie the bones of countless generations now forgotten. It seems ironic that even in a city where the majority claim to adhere to the traditional religious beliefs including ancestor-worship, pictures of the past should be so utterly obliterated. Modern generations have traded the rolling landscape of their forebears for yet another shrine to capitalist modernity, with towers reaching for the heavens as if to proclaim the greatness of mankind’s tall triumph over his small beginnings.
Do they look down in judgement on their children, those deceased whose every cherished custom has been cast off, whose every landmark of their lives has been dismantled? Will future generations judge it a swap well made, when they look upon the splendour – or the ruin – of Shanghai? But theirs is not the power to prevent or to protest; the dreamed-up and the dead dwell, alike, in silence, looking on while the living labour, love and lust and do what they believe is best, oblivious.
Shanghai has little time to stop and ponder; this is a city of fast-paced production and consumption, a busy-ness that chokes the very air and smothers the mind in a thoughtless smog, while wheels wear down and chimneys churn their pointless plumes of smoke. Ferried across a choppy sea to Seoul, I almost feel as though I haven’t moved at all, so similar appears the Korean capital. A high-speed train has raced me from the port to the city, a fireworks display of garish lights and screens at this bustling evening hour. Aboard the city’s busy subway, I find myself surrounded by a distracted population that seems to be somewhere entirely different, lost in the dream-worlds of their telephone screens. Almost every ear is plugged. This is the world’s most wired-up, switched-on city, drowning out both day and night with synthesised sound and light. It’s almost as if the people here are afraid of the dark, afraid of the silence.
Ninety per cent of South Korea’s population is huddled into cities; nearly half of its fifty-million-strong population in Seoul alone. Amidst this crowd I stand out conspicuously: nearly everyone around me is of Korean ethnicity. But even more so than the inhabitants of Shanghai, these have adopted a conspicuously non-native way of life. This country pioneered high-speed internet, in 2005, when ninety-seven per cent of the populace was already plugged into internet-connected ‘smart ‘phones’. The boon of universal healthcare jostles against the modern phenomenon of low birth rates to create a rapidly ageing, albeit well-educated, society more reminiscent of modern-day Europe than most of Asia, its neighbour Japan excepted. The country has been praised, in recent decades, for adopting ‘Western’-style democracy and for a religious tolerance unparalleled in this turbulent region.
This is also the home of the movement for a capitalist solution to climate change. It’s with a sad sigh that I look upon the headquarters of the ‘Green Climate Fund’ and the ‘Green Growth Institute’, those vocative advocates of the notion that companies and governments can still make money – still ‘develop’ into capitalist copies of the West – whilst fighting climate change. Everything I’ve seen on my journey so far has left me in little doubt that they are mistaken. Capitalism causes over-consumption, which causes climate change. The one cannot be detached from the other.
But there’s little sign of this notion in Korea. All around me flash signs bearing familiar names – ‘Hyundai’, ‘Samsung’, ‘LG’. The architecture is a mish-mash of steel and glass rising out of the traces of older, rather different flavours of design. It’s a city forged through decades’ worth of destruction and reconstruction, a city that races ahead of the game and doesn’t let the past linger for long. From the perspective of capitalist growth and material ‘progress’, I find myself in a boom town: being at the cutting edge of technology is, surely, modern-day South Korea’s biggest preoccupation.
Or is it? It’s not all smiles that I see in Seoul. The English homonym seems expressly inapt, for this is the city where ‘soul’ seems most lacking. The supposed tolerance of the government stops short at conscientious objection, and the arrest of Jehovah’s Witnesses judged to be criminals for their pacifist objections to compulsory military service is a stark reminder of what people here are truly worrying about. The government spends fifteen per cent of its budget on the military; the spectre of its northern neighbour looms large. In its very desperation to be plugged in, taken away somewhere else – in its very denial of Korean culture and embrace of an entirely alien capitalistic emphasis on growth, technology and consumption – the South displays an urgency to distract itself from the ugly sister that cuts it off from mainland Asia, a monstrosity moulded from modernity’s most devastating industrial war and now armed with technology’s most terrifyingly destructive development, the atom bomb. Do the people of Seoul really want this Westernisation-on-steroids? Or are they simply afraid to be Korean, because they are afraid of what other Koreans might do?
Stepping outside the neon city, however, I find South Korea proper to be a quite different experience. Three-quarters of this country is mountainous, and the view from the train that zips me across the rugged ridges is quite as breath-taking as any I have seen elsewhere. It’s Monsoon season, and down in the plains the air is hot and humid, but the picturesque province of Gyeongsang is at its most luscious. I’ve come to visit just three of the twelve World Heritage Sites that attract visitors to this peninsula, and here, at last, I find signs of the real Korea – remembrances of a lost past. Ruined temples and palaces and almost Pompeii-like preserved historical villages arouse deep feelings of connection with those who ruled, who lived, who worshipped here hundreds of years ago.
At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics (it had to be spelt with a capital ‘C’ to prevent any unfortunate confusion with the North Korean capital Pyeongyang) it wasn’t the superficial glitz of digital technology that took centre stage in the opening ceremony. Instead, displayed on the digital screens were images of these: these sites of genuine heritage, these relics of an ancient splendour, and the forests and wetlands amidst which they nestle. In the late twentieth century, those areas were eroded without thought in the name of ‘progress’. Now they are protected by no fewer than twenty National Parks in a country little larger than Scotland. Traditional Korean culture and architecture celebrated and encouraged harmony with nature. After decades of fear and distraction, we can hope, at least, that Korea might be at last reawakening to its true self. Yet still the shadow of the nuclear-armed North obscures the light of day.