Written by Dyami Millarson
While I was recently watching episode 5 of the 2021 Korean historical drama series River Where the Moon Rises (달이 뜨는 강), which is adapted from Choi Sa Gyu’s 2010 Korean novel Princess Pyeonggang (평강공주), I noticed a crying and hugging scene where bamboo stems with ribbons and ropes were featured in the background.
This was not the first time I have seen scenes of this kind in a Korean drama as I have seen scenes in other Korean dramas featuring trees or rocks adorned with ropes and ribbons, but this was the first time I consciously remember seeing bamboo being adorned with such ropes and ribbons (though I suspect to have seen this more often, yet this detail had apparently escaped my conscious attention). Perhaps since this scene was a bit different from what I expected to see, namely trees instead of bamboo stems with ropes and ribbons, it made me think about something this time:
While I already knew about trees with ornaments in Korean traditional culture and I did intuitively know something about the magical properties associated with such trees, it dawned upon me suddenly that we have something visually similar in Dutch traditional culture. Such a tree is called lapjesboom (cloth tree) or koortsboom (fever tree) in Dutch. When people get sick, they or their loved ones go to such a tree and hang a cloth on the tree in the hopes that their loved one will get better.
Some superficial visual similarities aside, the underlying function of the trees and their ornaments in the Korean dramas I have watched in the past, as well as the function of the bamboo trees and their ornaments in the aforementioned Korean drama, was different from that of the lapjesboom/koortboom that I am familiar with from Dutch traditional culture, however. Although not explained in that scene of River Where the Moon Rises, a kind of rope made from straw was used to decorate those bamboo stems (trees or rocks in other Korean dramas). This type of rope is called saekki (새끼) in Korean. The function of those ropes is to stave off bad luck; they help keep evil away. Hence these ropes are taboo ropes or geumjeul (금줄). Taboo refers to the fact that something is forbidden, namely entry is forbidden to evil forces.
Of course, from a Dutch traditional perspective, it may be said that the lapjesboom/koortsboom helps to ward off evil forces as well in that it may drive out the evil spirits causing disease (people traditionally believe invisible spirits are responsible for disease, which may be seen as a pre-modern precursor to the modern belief in bacteria that are invisible to the eye). In conclusion, the scene I saw with a Korean taboo rope was an intriguing instance of Korean traditional beliefs being featured in a Korean historical drama and it worked as a visual cue that reminded me of the lapjesboom/koortsboom in Dutch traditional culture, which prompted me to compare these two traditional cultural concepts and assess their (dis)similarities.
For our cultural research purposes, I believe it is relevant to show some screenshots of the Korean drama scene in question and to illustrate thus what I have described in the paragraphs above. So this is what the bamboo stems with ornaments featured in the Korean drama River Where the Moon Rises look like from different angles: