The Hitchhiker's Guide to the North Korea, No. 3: The importance of modesty and etiquette at important locations
I'm a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva / I'm gonna go go go / There's no stopping me. - Queen
According to the Hitchhikers Guide to the North Korea, when traveling to the country it is customary for visitors to stop and pay respect at monuments related to the country’s leadership and heroes. This is an action which may be unfamiliar to those from other cultural backgrounds.
The most well know location at which respect is called for is the Mansudae Grand Monument, the large bronze statues of the DPRK leaders overlooking central Pyongyang. Here a visiting group of foreigners (or Koreans, as is more often the case) will form one or two lines (sometimes a column), from which one representative, sometimes more, will walk towards the monuments to present bearing a bouquet of flowers to present. Upon presenting the flowers, he or she will return to the group and the entire group then bows in unison. Before doing so every person is asked to remove hats and sunglasses as a sign of respect.
Similar customs of paying respect at locations associated with prominent individuals existed in traditional Korea and provide some cultural context. To this day one often can find a number of small stone steles, their inscriptions largely worn by time or covered in green moss, standing before many sights of historical importance. Inscribed on the stone in Classical Chinese, the preferred language of Korea’s past literati, is the following:
This can be read in Korean as: 대소인원대하마비 and translated literally into English as: Big-Small-Persons-All-Dismount-Horse-Tablet. That is "All persons great or small ought get off their horse". In traditional Korea, distinguished officials and scholars often went about their business above the plebeian masses riding atop horse. So put more directly, the tablets remind one to get off your high horse and show some respect.
Some examples of such that you may see around Korea are at the Monument to Loyalty and Sonjuk Bridge in Kaesong, the Retirement Home of Ri Song Gye in Hamhung, and the Chogye Gate at Sokwang Temple near Wonsan. What are these locations and why do they prompt visitors to get off their high horses?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the DPRK states Sonjuk Bridge once bore witness to one of the bloodiest assassinations in Korean history. Near the of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), the powerful Ri family used military power to turn the last of the Koryo kings into puppets. One loyal minister, Jong Mong Ju, stood in the way of usurping the royal throne. A member of the Ri family, Ri Pang Won, invited him to a banquet (cf. the 'Red Wedding' of GoT) and then slew him as he crossed the Sonjuk Bridge on his way home. Jong Mong Ju’s blood is said to still stain the bridge. Later generations recognizing Jong Mong Ju’s loyalty erected the Monument to Loyalty across from the bridge and put up the small steles to ensure all those who passed first dismounted and walked across.
Note that these latter day stele erectors were of the same dynasty which had so bloodily extinguished the Koryo. In Korea the higher fidelities of loyalty and respect can transcend current political leanings, ideology, and past machinations. Along these same lines, Ri Song Gye, the first king of the dynasty, also deserves a dismount at his retirement home in Hamhung. How did the he end up in retirement in the remote northeast of the country? Well, his son, the very same Ri Pang Won who had Jong Mong Ju killed, sent him there. Et tu, Pang Wone?
At the Chogye Gate of Sokwang Temple near Wonsan the stele is not related to such worldly affairs. The road to the temple represents a spiritual journey from the mundane human world to the divine and even those high and mighty in the secular world must lower themselves before entering a sacred place.
In old Mercia, Lady Godiva rode nude atop a horse to humble herself before the good people of Coventry. In old Korea, she would have at least needed to dismount the horse to win their respect. The Hitchhiker’s Guide humbly reminds you to follow local customs and conventions when visiting important locations in modern Korea and elsewhere.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to North Korea – Practical tips for travel in Korea.