Mountains of Unified Culture:
Baekdu-Daegan As the Spine of Korea
Matthew F. Fleming
The Baekdu-Daegan As The Spine That Binds The Korean Peninsula
The idea of the Korean Peninsula as a nation bound together by the spine of the Baekdu-Dagan mountain range is something that many will recognize as South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s famous imagery and policy direction in recent times. Through his speeches for unity and relations at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games; surrounded by the Baekdu-Dagan, to his visit to the sacred mountain of Baekdu located in North Korea, this acknowledgment of the mountain range’s power and significance for the Korean peninsula has revitalized the recognition of the ever-present historical and modern significance of the range.
Whether it is North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Moon Jae-in planting a native pine tree along the border with the mixed soil from both Baekdu and Halla mountains, or the national anthems of both North and South Korea praising the holy peak of Mt. Baekdu, the importance of the Baekdu-Dagan mountain range is clear. However, why this mountain range is so sacred and vital to the Korean Peninsula lies in its deep cultural, spiritual, and geographical history of the mountain range of Baekdu-Daegan that many have forgotten.
What is the Baekdu-Dagan?
Korea’s famous Baekdu-Daegan is a crescent-shaped mountain system that runs through the length of the Korean Peninsula at around 1500 km long. The head or start of the range is Mt. Baekdu in North Korea. The range then continues down to the bottom of the peninsula in South Korea, with Cheonhwang-bong or the “Heavenly Monarch Peak ” of Mt. Jiri.
Along with this main mountain range, the system branches out like the roots of a tree throughout the peninsula, creating thirteen “branch ranges.” These range’s valleys fill with water from the east, west, and south seas, creating the large rivers and canals throughout the peninsula, providing the water necessary for early irrigation and development. It is because of the unique and central importance of the mountain range in the country’s geographical makeup that the name as the “spine” or “backbone” of the Korean Peninsula first began to catch on and supported the beginnings of the range as something sacred.
However, when Korea found itself under Japanese occupation, the Japanese imperial forces attempted to restructure the Korean mountains to meet Western geography ideas. These new ideas of ranges were based on a perception of the ranges on geological structures under the ground rather than topographical ones previously defined. Nevertheless, after the end of the Japanese imperialism occupation, the idea of the Korean “spine” persevered, and the depiction of the range as the backbone of the country in national maps and various historical and modern artworks remained, further solidifying this idea of a kinship between the mountains and the Korean people.
This close relationship between the Korean people and the Baekdu-Dagan range would continue to be a defining feature that impacted the Korean peninsula’s further development through its influences in traditional Pungsu Jiri philosophy and practices. Pungsu Jiri is most notably known as Korea’s form of the widely known idea of Feng Shui from China’s Daoism. This ancient art of divinatory geomancy is considered the origin of Korean society’s idea of living in “harmony with nature.” This very idea has dictated the arranging of buildings and other sites, such as the architecture of Korean Buddhist temples to the construction of entire cities on the peninsula under the version known as “designation of position.” Pungsu Jiri’s idea that the divine force known as Gi radiates from Mt. Baekdu down through the Baekdu-Daegan range provides life-giving energy and protection to the entire Korean peninsula, solidifying the development of the country around the importance of this mountain range as a “spine” and life-giving force.
The Head of The Spine – Baekdu Mountain in North Korea (백두산, 白頭山)
With a literal English translation of white-head, Baekdu Mountain might be most famously known as the mountain used as the North Korean national emblem. However, its significance goes way farther back to the country’s cultural, religious, and societal foundations.
Mt. Baekdu is the Korean peninsula’s highest mountain at 2,744 m (9,003 ft). With the most sacred and holy of peaks, and it’s location at the most northern part of the peninsula along the North Korean-Chinese border, the mountain has been referred to as the head of and the grandfather of the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range. The mountain is a still-active stratovolcano and contains a caldera lake (a lake formed by the inward collapse of a volcano) known as Heaven Lake at its peak. This peak is considered the spiritual home for the Korean people and played a significant role in the Korean peninsula’s mythological, cultural, and spiritual history.
Dating back to Korea’s first kingdom, the Gojoseon state in 2333–108 BC, Mt. Baekdu is believed to be considered the birthplace of Dangun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom in Korean mythology. The belief goes that Dangun was born from the Son of Heaven, Hwanung, and a bear who had been transformed into a woman named Ungnyeo. It was because of this belief that it was worshipped, and all the kingdoms that followed would continue to worship this mountain.
However, in more modern times, Mt. Baekdu is also known as a sacred place of revolution for the Korean people. During the imperialist Japanese invading occupation during WW2, the Baekdu Plateau became a haven to hide from the Japanese by utilizing its dense forests. The mountain’s position also allowed Koreans fighting for independence to go in and out of what was then known as Manchuria China to ambush the Japanese forces, spread tactics to fight the Japanese, and keep alive the idea of independence for Korea.
A New Tail – Halla Mountain in South Korea (한라산,漢拏山)
Mt. Halla is the tallest mountain in South Korea and only second to Mt. Baekdu in all of the Korean Peninsula with a height of 1,950 meters (6,398 ft). At the top of the mountain is a caldera lake known as Baengnokdam or White Deer Pond, the holiest site in all of Jeju island. According to traditional Korean mythology, a 100 Shin-seon; a spiritual-immortal or known as an enlightened person, would ride around on white deer on the peak, giving the lake its name. In traditional Korean beliefs, white animals were and still are considered sacred, and the prevalence of them on Mt. Halla added to the sacredness of the site. To this day, annual ceremonies to heaven and the spirit of Mt. Halla are conducted.
While geographically, the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range can only encompass the peninsula itself, Mt. Halla of Jeju Island has begun to be considered a new symbolic end of the Baekdu-Daegan. This societal addition follows the similar ideas of the traditional history of the range as a life force and spine of the peninsula. Mt. Halla’s addition to this spine connects all of Korea from the northernmost point down to the southernmost point, including even the island of Jeju.
In addition to this perception of a fuller spine, support for this perception is rooted in the vast similarity between the imagery of the North’s Mt. Baekdu and the South’s Mt. Halla as possible Yin and Yang, similar to how traditional Neo-Confucianism saw Baekdu Mountain as the grand patriarch and Mt. Jiri as the grand matriarch of all Korean mountains. Both being volcanoes with sacred lakes in their summit-craters, both contain the character “Baek,” meaning the sacred color White, and being located at opposite ends of the country, has positioned the two to symbolize together a “complete” Korea, and for some, a symbol of a reunified Korea.
Living in Harmony With Nature, Rediscovering The Spine of Korea
While the Baekdu-Daegan range has played so much importance throughout history in defining the peninsula and its people, hiking the range as a simple pastime did not begin till the 1980s and 1990s when governments started to create trails “out of pride that their territory is part of this nation-defining range.” However, it was in the 2000s that monuments, stairs, trail-markers, water, and access-points were created around these mountains, and in 2004 with the rapid increase in the country’s economic strength and the shortening of the workweek from six days down to 5, hiking skyrocketed as a significant pastime and the most popular activity for middle-aged people to do in their leisure time. This increase in hiking has been viewed as a sort of rekindling of Koreans as mountain people, and ones who live in harmony with nature.
In today’s reality, the mountains continue to hold a solid sacred and holy significance to many people. However, while some might have moved away from the religious or spiritual aspects, the geographical influences and teachings of Pungsu Jiri continue to connect people to their country and nature outside of the Bbali-Bbali (fast-fast) life of the city. One thing is for sure, the radiating Gi of the mountain range remains alive today, inside of every group of families, friends, and co-workers that continue to connect with their country, history, and origins by hiking to the peaks of these mountains.