Friday, September 21, 2012

The Big Rock and the Pig Head

I witnessed something fairly unique yesterday. At around five-o'-clock, my co-teacher announced that there was going to be a special ceremony outside at the front of the school, and that it wouldn't take long, so I should attend. Curious, I joined her and all of the school's faculty and staff.

Front entrance of my school.
In this photo I took a few weeks ago of the front entrance of my school's campus,  there is definitely not a big rock on top of that small brick platform on the left. Instead, there are trees.

But now, there's a big rock on it! The trees are gone, replaced by an enormous sculpted hunk of granite with hanja and Korean carved into it. I remember seeing it for the first time earlier this week, but I must not have realized that it hadn't always been there.

So, when I arrived at the "special ceremony" with my co-teacher, the rock was covered by a large white sheet. As it turns out, this was an unveiling ceremony for the sculpture.

One of my coworkers told me that the four Chinese characters were the school's motto: 元亨利貞 (yuán hēng lì zhēn, something like "first, prosperity, benefit, loyalty"; and in Korean: 원형이정, won hyeong yi jeong). But she herself questioned the necessity of a giant boulder in front of our campus. It was, after all, a huge investment from the school, the price tag being an estimated $10,000 USD. (Her speculation -- in brief because I don't want to talk about school politics, yet -- was that a rather pushy member of the Parents' Union thought it inappropriate that our school didn't have one, and as he was himself in the business of carving big rocks, offered his services, astronomical costs aside.)
3... 2... 1...
The unveiling ceremony was nice and official and all (look at those white gloves!), but after the rock was uncovered, what happened next was extremely interesting. A table was brought in front of the sculpture. The table was laden with fruits, candles, incense, a giant rice cake (떡), a dried fish wrapped in bundles of thread, and an entire pig head. Yup, the boiled head of a real pig, right in the middle of it all.

The principal (left) goes forward to give insa.
I watched in curiosity (and some strange apprehension) as my school's principal gave insa at the altar by prostrating himself three times in front of it and then putting an envelope of money inside the pigs mouth. My coworker explained the symbolism: the incense was to ward off bad spirits, and the pig was offered to good spirits to promise prosperity; that's why people put money in its mouth (and also stuck bills in its ears). And if the pig head happens to be smiling, you get extra good luck. The threads that were wrapped around the dried fish represented longevity. And the rice cake was... well, I think that was just there because Koreans eat rice cakes in every conceivable situation.

This was the first time I've ever seen a traditional Korean ceremony of this kind. My coworker also made it point to tell me that I was lucky to have been able to see it. Although it's a traditional ceremony, it's actually becoming less and less commonplace these days. She even admitted that it was the first time she had witnessed this kind of ceremony herself (but she is Buddhist, so I imagine that she is familiar with the whole insa thing in similar situations).

With the food on the altar and everything, I felt a mix of innocent foreigner interest and religious uneasiness. As a Christian, I knew that I was definitely not going to prostrate myself at the altar or put money in the pig's mouth, even though many of the other teachers and staff members did. And I'm glad that nobody pressured me to, either. As for the food, I had a brief moment of panic when I was offered a bit of rice cake and bit into it: does this count as eating food sacrificed to idols? But that quickly subsided when I remembered 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul concludes that the mind prevails over matter in situations like these and you shouldn't make a big deal of things that... aren't a big deal.

So that said, I'm filing this one under "cultural experiences" and look forward to other random and unexpected happenings of a similar caliber. And with that, I leave you with the Lord of the Flies himself!
Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh! (Oh and yes, this thing is actually eaten afterwards. A special machine flattens the thing whole and turns it into boiled pork slices, served with dipping sauce.)


  1. Woah! Boiled pig heads! I've only ever seen these at the Nagasaki Lantern Festival (Chinese New Year) at the few Chinese Confucian temples that around China town. I've been to similar ceremonies in Japan, but usually there are just a whole bunch of speeches, some cutting of red tape, and a big ball with confetti and streamers that opens up. The only religious element I've seen at such events is MAYBE a shinto priest will come by and bless the place with incense and an offering of fruit and such. No pig heads :(.

    1. Haha, I'd have loved to see a big ball with confetti and streamers (reminds me of Super Smash Bros Melee...)!

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