David Mason (Seoul)

10 May 2019


This lecture explores how the Baekdu-Daegan Trail has opened and become popular in South Korea in the last 30 years, and by now has gotten some serious international recognition as a tourism attraction. It shows how the entire range and its origin Mt. Baekdu-san has become an issue of relations with North Korea.

The Korean term Baekdu-daegan (白頭大幹) designates the concept of the mountain-system of connected ranges, and specifically the traditionally-designated continuous range main-line and watershed-source that runs most of the length of the Korean Peninsula, ending at Mt. Jiri-san, with its Jeongmaek branch-ranges channeling all rivers from it to the sea. It has an 1100-year cultural history, and Baekdu-san has become the most culturally important mountain of Korea, with Halla-san as its modern counterpart. We will breeze through an understandable historical timeline from the mediaeval era up to today, showing what this grand range and the mountains that begin and end it mean to the Korean people within their various ideologies, using plenty of photos as examples.

However, its traditional conception does not simply refer to a topographic feature, but includes the idea that this mountain-system is a vast conductor of ji-gi (telluric earth-energy) through the entire nation. This concept is traditionally attributed to the works of National Buddhist Master Doseon (9th cen), who is credited with the launch of Pungsu-jiriseol (Korean Feng-shui). The concept continied to evolve in the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties and throughout the 20th century, becoming symbolic of fundamental national unity and the spiritual vitality of the ethnic-based nation, including motifs in religious shrines and in modern mountain-trekking.

Out of all the mountains that it includes, Baekdu-san has risen from ancient obscurity to become one of the most important and powerful symbols that the North Korean regime utilises in its domestic and external political propaganda to support its ideology of national legitimacy, making if the site of its key historical narratives of its leadership. This mountain has also become very prominent in south Korean cultural ideology, having become identified with the official myths of the origin of the nation, and taken as a symbol of the aspirations for national re-unification. This lecture will have its continuous theme from start to conclusion, exploring how Pungsu-jiri thinking operates in contemporary Korea, and what the Baekdu-Daegan now means means for re-unification aspirations as well as tourism development.



David A. MASON is Professor of Cultural Tourism at Sejong University in Seoul, and a longtime researcher on the historic spiritual characteristics of Korea’s mountains. He has served as a professor of Tourism and Public Service for 14 years, as a consultant for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for 5 years, and had other previous jobs in Korea. A native of the USA, he developed a passionate interest in hiking Korea’s landscape and sacred sites. He was appointed the national Honorary Ambassador of the Baekdu-daegan Ranges in 2011. Having earned an MA in the History of Korean Religions from Yonsei University in 1997, he has authored and edited ten books on Korean culture and tourism, including Spirit of the Mountains about Korea’s traditions of sacred mountains and their spirits, the English Encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism, and Solitary Sage, a biography of the iconic cultural hero from Korea’s Unified Silla period, Ch’oe Ch’i-wŏn.