Haeinsa Security, and the Chinese Earthquake

Haeinsa is the temple where the Tripitaka Koreana, carved meticulously on wooden plates, is stored. It’s a major site in Korea as far as heritage goes. I wish I’d photographed the info plate in front of the woodblock storage area, because it was more than a little amusing. It explained how the Buddhist scriptures were carved into wood in order to concentrate the power and force of Buddhism and guard Korea against Mongol invasion. So then, when the Mongols invaded and left the carvings as ashes, they went ahead and carved it all again.

Well, we ended up wandering  past the main temple and checking out a couple of the smaller ones first —  they were mostly peaceful and quiet, compared to the main temple — and when we finally got to the real temple, it was kind of nice because we probably wouldn’t have gone on to the outlying temples afterward, and would have missed out on them.

The woodblocks are stored in a somewhat astonishing way: they’re not quite exposed to the elements, as they’re stored under the floor of the most elevated temple buildings, but they are exposed to the extreme heat, humidity, and cold of the Korean climate in a way that would make one expect them to rot apart quite quickly… which they haven’t, of course.

But they are exposed in another way, which is more troubling. While I saw a great number of fire hydrants around the woodblocks-storage area, I didn’t see hoses for those hydrants readily available (or anything that looked like boxes in which hoses were being stored). I couldn’t see well enough inside the storage areas to see whether water sprinklers had been installed inside, but I did notice that there were, for a lot of the storage compartments, wide enough spacces for people to get a small pipe or their fingers through. Worse, the temple structures in that area seem to be made primarily of wood, and are flammable in themselves.

Which brings to mind the idiot who torched Namdaemun not so long ago. In my last post, I wrote about how little effort was put into restricting the action of a drunk, belligerent man on the train I was on yesterday, but anyone who’s lived in Korea more than a short while can recognize the society’s reluctance to exert control over badly behaved drunks and badly-behaved older people — especially older men.

Well, it’s very hard to change society, or culture — since the effective permissiveness towards the behaviour of elders arguably has its roots in Neo-Confucian tradition — but given all of that, you’d think that precious national treasures would have been given more security, especially since the poor security at Namdaemun was exposed in the news as part of the reason it was so easy to burn down. But have Korea’s other historical monuments and treasures been given better security? I haven’t had a chance to visit other gates or other sites in Seoul, but my impression was that Haeinsa isn’t very secure at all. People were able to enter with backpacks, even though such packs could easily have concealed large bottles of flammable liquid. Nobody was supervising the tourists, and it was very easy for me to go around the back of the complex, where not a single visitor besides me was visible.

Maybe nothing else will get burned down, but isn’t it silly to count on that?

While I’m on Namdaemun, here’s an interesting tidbit I noticed in the Sisa-In magazine that Lime reading the other day: the earthquake in Tibet was referred to just the same way as the Namdaemun burning was referred to here: as “China’s 9-11.” I kind of looked funny at it, trying to figure out whether it was some kind of conspiracy theory, but realized that it just meant the event was a gigantic national shock. It seems that even in a relatively good magazine, the Korean media’s understanding of 9-11 doesn’t go so far as to imagine that the shock of 9-11 was that a city was attacked by foreign terrorists. I’d say the Chinese earthquake has a lot more in common with Hurricane Katrina and the disaster that was New Orleans after Katrina hit.

Lime and I talked about the emergency response to China’s disaster (and a little about Myanmar, too); I wondered whether people would be reluctant to contribute, given how China’s been under a lot of critical fire lately, but it seems people have been quite generous, actually, at least to China. (Doubts about the government in Myanmar have lessened people’s generosity in response to that disaster.) If you can hack your way through the Korean text, Lime writes interestingly about her feelings regarding her own immediate reaction to the disaster in China, and that of other Koreans online.

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