**Last updated on: 18 October 2020**
Q: Which song is regarded as the unofficial national anthem of Korea?
A: Arirang (아리랑).
Significance of Arirang to Koreans
Arirang is a very popular traditional folk song among Koreans – in fact, almost all Koreans, whether in South Korea, North Korea or abroad, can sing at least part of this song. As a result, it has the power to unite all Koreans. Throughout history, Koreans have sung it in both times of happiness and sorrow and this song is deeply rooted in the emotions of Koreans. For example, during the Japanese colonial rule, the song became a song of resistance against Japanese colonial rulers. From 1960’s to 1980’s when South Korea was under authoritarian rule, Arirang was often used as the song for pro-democracy rallies. The song was used as the cheering song for the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan and thereafter has become a favourite Korean cheering song for international sports events. Arirang has been registered on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since December 2012.
Arirang is an important national symbol not only to South Korea but also to North Korea. From 2002 to 2013 (with the exception of 2006), North Korea held an annual Arirang Festival or Mass Games featuring a large-scale collective performance by over 100,000 performers, and being recognised by the Guiness World Records as the largest of its kind. The Arirang Festival adopts Arirang as its title song and includes dancing, live music and acrobatics. The most well-known part is the massive mosaic pictures (which change like images on LED screen) created by over 30,000 schoolchildren using large flip-book cards to represent the pixels in one gigantic image. You can watch this video to see an extract of the Arirang Mass Games and watch this video to take a closer look at the “human LED screen” to see how it works. The Arirang Mass Games resumed in 2018 with the title “Glorious Country” to commemorate North Korea’s 70th founding anniversary and an upgraded version using drones, laser and other colourful state-of-art techniques. The 2018 performance was watched by South Korea President Moon Jae-in during his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang in September 2018. You can watch this video for a full version of the 2018 performance. In 2019, the Mass Games returned with the title of “The Land of the People” but the producers were criticized by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for “having the wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude” after the Mass Games’ first performance. The 2019 performance was then suspended for about 2 weeks for adjustments. In 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mass Games performance has still been held with the title of “Great Guidance” to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.
At the 1991 World Table-tennis Championships where South Korea and North Korea fielded a unified team, Arirang was used as the national anthem for the team.
Different Versions of Arirang
Like other Korean traditional folk songs, Arirang has an open structure which allows people to create their own melodies and lyrics. So, the song exists in a lot of different local versions throughout the country and each of these versions has its own lyrics and melodies. It is said that there are over 4,000 variations of 60 versions but most versions are about the joys of life and the power of love, which help people overcome their hardships and struggles. However, the line “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo” is common among most of the versions.
You can hear the following more popular versions of Arirang by clicking the links below:
(a) Bonjo Arirang (본조 아리랑) from Seoul – “Bonjo” literally means “standard key”. This version is the theme song of the movie entitled “Arirang” released in 1926 and because of the movie, has become a widely-known version and is frequently performed both inside and outside South Korea. As it is such a famous version, sometimes it is simply called “Arirang” instead of “Bonjo Arirang”. You can visit this webpage for an English translation of the lyrics of the song to understand its meaning.
(b) Jeongseon Arirang (정선 아리랑) from Jeongseon County – it is said that this is the oldest version which can be dated back to over 600 years ago. It has a slow and mellow melody which conveys a sense of loneliness and an air of melancholy;
(c) Jindo Arirang (진도 아리랑) from the Jindo Island – it depicts the local lives and helps sooth the tough lives of the island; and
(d) Miryang Arirang (밀양 아리랑) from Miryang – with a light-hearted melody, it expresses the common people’s high-spirited and down-to-earth ways.
Origins of Arirang
The exact origin of Arirang is unknown but “Arirang” is said to be the name of a mountain pass in Korea. It is believed that the song originated over 600 years ago in Jeongseon where boatmen crossing the river sang Jeongseon Arirang (inspired by the story about a woman’s unrequited love) while fighting against the tough currents. Later, during the Joseon Dynasty, the song was spread by the over 40,000 construction workers across the country who came to reconstruct Gyeongbukgong Palace. The workers learned the Gangwon Arari and continued singing the song after returning to their hometowns where different versions of the song evolved by adding local colours.
Arirang as a Theme in Arts and Pop Culture
As mentioned above, there was a movie entitled “Arirang“(아리랑) released in 1926. The movie is about the tragic story of a Korean college student who became mentally ill after being tortured by the Japanese police for participating in the movement against Japanese colonial rule on 1 March 1919. The theme song of the movie was developed by the movie’s director, Na Woon-gyu, based on his childhood memories of the melody heard in his hometown, and has become a famous version called “Bonjo Arirang”. It is said that the sad melody fitted well with the tragic story of the movie and helped enhance the spirit of resistance against Japanese colonial rule among the Koreans.
A Korean self-portrait documentary film also entitled “Arirang” (아리랑) by Kim Ki-duk was released in 2011, and won the Prize of Un Certain Regard in the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The film addresses the personal crisis and self-examination of his film career Kim Ki-duk himself went through after an incident in which the lead actress of his film “Dream” was nearly killed while acting out a hanging scene during filming and the betrayal of his close colleagues. In the film, Kim Ki-duk belted out the Korean folk song “Arirang” in a coarse but plaintive voice – probably his feelings towards film-making were similar to those of the abandoned woman expressed in the folk song (she misses her lover even as she curses him). He also aggressively expressed his anger and criticism towards his colleagues, the Korean film industry and the government. You can click this links below to watch the trailers of this film:
Arirang is sung at various K-pop concerts. You can watch this video to see the performance by BTS, the K-pop idol group, of a K-pop version medley consisting of different versions of Arirang. The song is well-known among K-pop fans – in November 2011, the flash mob appearing at Pompidou Plaza in Paris also sang this song to lobby for more K-pop concerts in France.
In episode 5 of the Korean drama, The Last Empress (황후의 품격), the Empress sang a pop-style “Arirang” for the guests who enjoyed her performance very much. You may watch this video for the relevant extract.
The beloved Korean figure skater, Yuna Kim, used Arirang as the background music for her figure skating program. You can watch this video to see the relevant performance.
In 2008, during their visit to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed “Arirang Fantasy” composed by Choi Seong-hwan of North Korea.
Things to See in Jeongseon Related to Arirang
The Jeongseon Arirang Training Hall (정선아리랑 전수관) is established to preserve and promote Jeongseon Arirang. It has various facilities including archive centre, performance hall, training hall, restaurant and guest rooms, and offers Jeongseong Arirang training classes.
Since 1976, the Jeongseon Arirang Festival(정선아리랑제) has been held annually (usually in October). However, for 2020, it was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the Festival, visitors can enjoy various performances (including those of Jeongseon Arirang and other versions of Arirang) and delicious food, and participate in culture experiential programs. You can watch this video for highlights of the 2019 Festival and visit the Festival’s website (in Korean) to learn more about the Festival.
On the other hand, while in Jeongseon, visitors can also take the opportunity to visit the traditional Jeongseon Arirang Market which sells local produce and food and is famous for medicinal herbs. It started in 1966 and while many stalls are open throughout the week, the market is in full operation on its official market days (which fall on any days ending in a “2” or “7”), i.e., 2nd, 7th, 12th, 17th, 22nd, and 27th of every month. Therefore, the market is also called the “Jeongseon 5-Day Market” because of the 5-day interval between the official market days. You can watch this video for a brief introduction of the Jeongseon Arirang Market.
Next time you visit South Korea, if you have time, don’t forget to go to Jeongseon to explore the Arirang-related attractions! Have a great time! 🙂
Ahn Sung-mi, “NK’s Kim watches mass games for 75th anniversary of ruling party“, The Korea Herald, 2020-10-12
Justin McCurry, “North Korea’s mass games suspended after Kim Jong-un criticism“, The Guardian, 2019-06-05
“Moon, Kim attend North Korea’s mass gymnastics performance“, The Korea Times, 2018-09-20
Arirang Culture, “‘Arirang’ registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage“, Arirang Special, 2013-12-16
Song Yee-ho and Kim Hyung-eun, “What’s the best way to sing Korea’s song?“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2013-01-01
“From lyrical folk song to cheering song: variations of ‘Arirang’ in Korean history“, The Korea Times, 2012-12-06
Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, “Arirang, lyrical folk song in the Republic of Korea“, UNESCO, 2012-12-03
Korea.net, “Arirang, Korea’s unofficial anthem“, 2012-05-17
Park Min-young, “Kim Ki-duk’s one-man production creates a stir“, The Korea Herald, 2011-05-16
Maggie Lee, “Arirang: Cannes Review“, The Hollywood Reporter, 2011-05-14