As most know, the city of Kwanju, South Korea came into the international spotlight as the site of a civilian protest demonstration in May, 1980. The protest was suppressed violently by Korean armed forces, as the result of which former presidents Chon Tu-hwan and Ro Tae-woo have been arrested.
In recent years, however, I have become interested in the city of Kwanju for its role as a sacred "pilgrimage center" at the center of a cult focusing on those killed in the 1980 massacre there. As a result, I make it a practice to do field work there each May.
According to traditional Korean thought, persons who die unmarried, away from home, or under tragic or vicious circumstances, fall outside the ordinary pale of Confucian ceremonial, and their depth of resentment transforms them into malevolent spirits or wonhon, which are feared for their ability to bring on disasters to the living. In that sense, those who died in the protests at Kwanju can be viewed as beings who, as wonhon marginal to social structure, constantly seek appeasement from the living.
Immediately following the incident in 1980, the imposition of martial law meant that the events of the massacre were not made public. As a result, about the only religious response appears to have been the simple propitiatory rituals conducted by concerned mudang (traditional shamans) in the streets where the massacre took place. Some cases were seen in which the families of young people killed in the massacre arranged "postmortem marriages" for the deceased, mediated by the mudang. In short, people continued to live within the traditional religious world focused on the folk sector.
From the late 1980s, student and working-class political activists began paying visits to the Mangwoldong cemetery, which contains an area dedicated to victims of the May 18 massacre, but the real boom in pilgrimage only came with the 1990s. It appears that the originally simple outpourings of grief for victims is becoming a cultural and folk-art event centering on the pilgrims.
With May, hordes of pilgrims arrive in Kwanju, centering on the three days from May 17 to 19. From the viewpoint of the pilgrims, the dead are "martyrs" (yolsa) who gave their lives for Korean democracy and nationalism. In fact, the life and death of one victim has been made the subject for the "May Drama"--a collective term for the dramas staged at a small theater based on the May 18th incident at Kwangju--, while another has been made the hero of a television drama. The twenty or thirty thousand people who swarm into the very streets where the tragedy occurred now enjoy an orgiastic carnival, even while steeping in the sentiment of empathy and grief for the victims.
Along the streets, plays and traditional agricultural dances are performed as satirical cartoons, sculptures, and paintings are exhibited. This not to mention the crush of stalls that sell various products with some relationship to the events of May, 1980, including cassette tapes of protest songs, photograph collections, and video tapes, together with scarves, T-shirts, key holders and other items displaying the "Kwanju, May 18" logo. Such objects can be called "silent ritual objects" that, together with the pilgrims themselves, open the way to an alternative of counter-discourse.