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Life in a Korean Village School

Posted July. 02, 2005 03:39,   


In a traditional ceremony called “Chaekgeori” that marks the full coverage of a book, a teacher and seniors of a village school give school children, who finished studying, an oral test. The children first recite a Chinese poem containing as many as 240 Chinese characters in Eum (pronunciation of Chinese characters). Then, they memorize the poem in Eum and Hun (meaning of Chinese characters). As a last step of the test, they write down the poem according to the questions from testers.

“Evaluators” include six people such as parents of student Jo, and seniors of the village. Students who failed to score more than a certain total of points must retake the test. Beads of sweat stand on the brow of a student who got nervous when a teacher said, “If you don’t pass the test, we have to say goodbye without having Gal-bi (barbequed ribs).” Some who took pity on the students said, “Let them drink water.” However, others said, “In principle, they are not allowed to drink water until they memorize the poem.”

Every Monday, student Jo has attended “Seodang,” the village school with three other children after school since February. The teacher of Seodang is Yoon Sang-hwan (43, a lecturer of history at Dong-guk University) who lives in the village. He voluntarily asked seniors of the village to allow him serve as “Hunjang,” teacher of Seodang, since he was once a student of Seodang in his childhood.

The Chinese poem recited by Jo is part of teaching material for beginners of Seodang during the Joseon dynasty, called “Chugu,” which is a children’s cultural book and contains Chinese poems composed of five Chinese characters. The book is written to teach children about the harmony of humans and nature.

It takes about one or two years to finish the book even for those who are devoted entirely to the book. However, it took Jo only four months to finish it. Other students knew only a few elementary Chinese characters, but they became interested in Chinese poems since they met “Hunjang.” Jo has already learned many Chinese characters, and he is capable of passing the second level of the Chinese character qualification test.

Hunjang Yoon stated, “Young parents are sending students only to hakwons; ‘cram schools.’ But rote learning in those cram schools does little good to students because they do not teach children about the community and polite manners.”

Even though Jo had a hard time recalling some Chinese characters for a few minutes, he successfully completed the tough test within an hour. He became qualified to help other students who have yet to participate in Chaekgeori.

“I am proud of you,” said an evaluator. Jo responded with a big bow. Seniors of the village clapped their hands in approval.

Jae-Dong Yu jarrett@donga.com