Perks and perils of being a national treasure

7 March 2014

It's not a short-lived moment of glory to be bestowed a 'National Treasure' in South Korea. But with glory, there's also danger, reports BELINDA CRANSTON.

If you thought Miss Universe competitions or child beauty pageants were grueling, spare a thought for South Koreans vying to become a 'National Treasure' in the traditional performing arts scene.

The cultural icons were first appointed by the South Korean government in 1968, in the aftermath of Japan's 35-year rule over Korea, with the aim of renewing nationalist feelings among its people.

ANU College of Asia and the Pacific academic Roald Maliangkay says between the beginning of the 20th century and 1945, folk art was considered one of the few aspects of Korean culture untainted by Japanese influence, despite efforts to eradicate it .

"People spoke Japanese, they read Japanese...they were pretty much living a Japanese life," Maliangkay says of Korean urban life towards the early 1940s.

In the name of preserving folk art - something Maliangkay says is taken most seriously by the Koreans - the government head-hunted people with lengthy experience in fields as diverse as folk singing, hat making, embroidery, wine making and folk dancing, for 'National Treasure' status.

Examples include Yi Eungwan, who specialises in singing songs from the now North Korean provinces of Hwanghae and Pyeongan, and Yi Eunju, who specialises in folksongs from Seoul's Kyeonggi province.

Aside from being guaranteed a minimum wage and help in finding accommodation to teach one's craft, prestige in the community is a major perk.

Unlike pop stars, National Treasures can't be knocked off their perch as soon as the next big thing comes along. The title is for life - unless the holder leaves the country, or someone falls ill to the point of no longer being able to teach.

Likewise, holders of National Treasure titles can't be sacked if accused of corruption, drink-driving or other bad behaviour. In any case, Maliangkay is unaware of such scandals surrounding National Treasures he has observed.

He does have concerns over some using their power to convert their students to Christianity.

"Some of these National Treasures are very Christian," he says. "If you want to be their favourite student, you have to go to church."

Becoming a national icon is not for the faint hearted. There is cut-throat competition and heartache among those vying for the gig.

The system of appointing National Treasures sees some contenders offering bribes, adopting a new religion, and even undergoing plastic surgery to seek the favour of their patrons.

"It is obvious with the appointment of some people, that favouritism is involved," Maliangkay says.

In one instance, a woman who specialised in songs from around Seoul died from depression after she was passed over by the committee in charge of appointments.

"All her contemporaries were appointed. But she wasn't, and she was considered as good as the best," Maliangkay said.

"She was very hard working and much loved by her friends."

With many of the 100 or so National Treasures in Korea being aged in their 90s, it can be a frustrating system for arguably more talented underlings waiting in the wings.

There's no persuading most of them when the time has come to relinquish their title to make way for someone else.

"In Korea when you are very old, no one can tell you anything. You can pretty much do as you like," Maliangkay says.

And so it would seem that like a weathered statute perched in a public square, South Korea's current crop of National Treasures aren't going anywhere soon.

This article forms part of the Australian National University's Asia Pacific Ideas series. Read more ideas and vote for your favourite at http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/research

Vote for this idea here.