|In Memory of Dr. Zo Zayong,
a Great Korean
David Mason ( right) with a clean-shaven Zo Zayong (center)
and someone else, with Zo's own "Jang-seung
[guardian-spirit poles] of the Five Directions", in the Emille
Museum compound, October 4th 1988.
However, right after the Korean War he
became horrified by the destruction and
loss of South Korea's folk art, customs and
culture under the pressures of poverty,
Christian missionaries and President
Park Chung-hee's 1965-85 "New Village
Movement" [Saemaeul Undong] and its
component "Movement to destroy worship
of old spirits and superstitions" [Mishintapa
Undong], both of which actively sought to
replace Korean traditions with "western"
modernism. He gave up much of his
lucrative architect career in order to
become a rescuer, preserver & advocate
of folk culture [minsok-munhwa]. In doing
so he became one of the first Koreans to
publish scholarly books about Korean folk
traditions in English -- a pioneer of Korea's
Two great antique San-shin treasures that Horae saved from the
trash in the 1960's. Many more are shown on page #5 in this series.
For many years it was a lonely struggle. He pulled century-
old paintings and other artifacts out of garbage-piles and
demolished shrines, or bought them cheaply from antique
dealers. In those days Korea's folk-art was considered
low-class, superstitious, trashy and shameful by the ruling
elite. The government defined "Korean art" as only the
aristocratic art that followed Chinese conventions. Dr. Zo
was sternly opposed and even threatened when he tried
to exhibit his growing collection to foreigners or publish
bilingual books about it.
a new edition of a eulogy written by David A. Mason, March 2000.
Previous versions or parts were published in various Korean
newspapers, the Acta Koreana Journal of Korean Studies, and
posted on the internet:
Dr. Zo Zayong [Jo Ja-yong] passed away due
to a heart attack on January 30th 2000, or the
24th day of the 12th moon in 4332, by the
Korean calendar. He was a full 74 years old,
but still energetically doing the work he loved.
All those who love the traditional culture of
Korea know and honor his name.
We his students and followers call him Horae
seon-saeng-nim. "Horae" is an affectionate term
for a tiger, referring to his physical resemblance
to Korea's national animal, his fierce devotion to
preserving traditional culture, and his harsh but
loving temper. In the 1970s he first became
famous for his promotion of unique Korean
folk-paintings of tigers, and now his body lies
entombed beneath a huge rock-outcropping
[bawi] which resembles a tiger's face. "Seon-
saeng-nim" is a highly honorific title of a teacher,
and our Horae was one of the best -- educating
the spirits of all, regardless of nationality or
Besides this, he was a pioneering researcher and curator dedicated to excellence, a hard
drinker and big talker, a self- sacrificing preserver and propagator of culture, a wild mask-
dancer and buk-drummer, and a broadly-enlightened warm-hearted human being of the first rank.
I first met Horae Seon-saeng-nim on the day of the Closing Ceremony for the 1988 Seoul Summer
Olympics. That was October third, also the "Opening of Heaven" [Gaecheon-jeol] holiday when
Korea's ancient-nationalist traditions are celebrated. Horae had just finished construction of a
new shrine in the center of his Emille compound, and was holding a public festival to inaugurate it.
Four large carved wooden tablets were set up under a simple roof. Three of them stood for the
Sam-shin, and the last for the Sam-shin-halmoni. Together they represented the collective
ancestors of the Korean people, their collective ideals and identity as a single nation.
In the early evening Horae gathered us all
in a semi-circle in front of the shrine, and
set up a television set facing towards the
tablets (and another one that we could
watch). He played the Olympic Closing
Ceremony to the national spirits, explaining
fluently in Korean, English and Japanese
that it was a venerable custom to report
the family news to the ancestors.
In this way he propagated old Korean tradi-
tions by employing modern technologies to
make them accessible and enjoyable for
everyone of any race or nationality. We all
felt tremendous pride in the grand success
of the Seoul Olympics, as well as a deep
connection to tradition through Horae's
technique. I had an overwhelming feeling of
joy, that maybe just maybe this was the
beginning of the ending of Korea's long
under-expressed bitter suffering [han].
Dr. Zo Zayong [he always used this
spelling although Jo Ja-yong would be
more correct], grew up at the end of
the Japanese-colonial period in Korea,
suffering first-hand the attempted
cultural suppression of those years.
A brilliant student, he took advantage
of a rare chance to study architecture
and engineering at Harvard University
during the 1940's. After being awarded
his PhD he established himself as a
successful architect, by designing
several major buildings in Los Angeles
and Seoul in the 1950's and 60's,
including the YMCA building on Seoul's
main avenue (said to be Seoul's first
"modern" building), and inspiring the
U.S. ambassador's beautiful Korean-
style residence behind Deoksu Palace.