On March 1st, a collaboration of student organizations took to the streets of Insadong for an orchestral flashmob. I have to admit, the whole thing made me a bit teary eyed.
The orchestra played a traditional piece called Arirang, followed by the Korean national anthem. Arirang is an ancient folk-song that many consider to be the unofficial national anthem, likely because it’s infinitely more beautiful than that which was actually chosen. Almost every Korean knows the song well:
Arirang Pass (아리랑 고개) is an imaginary rendezvous of lovers in the land of dreams, although there is a real mountain pass, called, “Arirang Gogae,” outside the Small East Gate of Seoul. The heroine of the story from which the Arirang Song originated was a fair maid of Miryang. In fact, she was a modest woman killed by an unrequited lover. But as time went on, the tragic story changed to that of an unrequited lady-love who complained of her unfeeling lover. The tune is sweet and appealing. The story is recounted in “Miss Arirang” in Folk Tales of Old Korea (Korean Cultural Series, Vol. VI).
What makes this flashmob more poignant than most is the sincerity with which it’s pulled off. Instead of whacky, offbeat shenanigans the tone is played down, contemplative, and downright patriotic.
Though the lyrics vary from version to version, the most commonly known is the Bonjo Arirang, the lyrics of which are translated as follows:
If you leave and forsake me, my own,
Ere three miles you go, lame you’ll have grown.
Wondrous time, happy time—let us delay;
Till night is over, go not away.
Arirang Mount is my Tear-Falling Hill,
So seeking my love, I cannot stay still.
The brightest of stars stud the sky so blue;
Deep in my bosom burns bitterest rue.
Man’s heart is like water streaming downhill;
Woman’s heart is well water—so deep and still.
Young men’s love is like pinecones seeming sound,
But when the wind blows, they fall to the ground.
Birds in the morning sing simply to eat;
Birds in the evening sing for love sweet.
When man has attained to the age of a score,
The mind of a woman should be his love.
The trees and the flowers will bloom for aye,
But the glories of youth will soon fade away.
The song is not only popular in South Korea, but massively popular in the North as well. Each year in from early August to mid September North Korea holds the Arirang festival, an epic celebration with song, dance, children’s performances, and theater. It tells the story of a young couple that are forced apart by evil, which is considered a symbolic analogy for the rift between the North and South of the nation. But whether it’s being sung by the North or the South, you have to admit that it’s a beautiful piece.