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 – virtually 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 has 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. Until 2014, North Korea holds 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. However, 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.
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’ 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.
Arirang is sung at various K-pop concerts. You can watch this video to see the performance by Kim Jae-joong, the K-pop singer, of a K-pop version 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.
The beloved Korean figure skater, Yuna Kim, used Arirang as the background music for her program at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. 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. Foreign musicians also composed different arrangements for Arirang, for example, Gary Schocker’s “Arirang for Flute and Piano”, Grant Cochran’s “Arirang for Soprano Solo”, and Judith Herrington and Sara Glick’s “Arirang Flute Obbligato”.
Things to See in Jeongseon About Arirang
There is a school called “Arirang School” in Jeongseon where you can find more than 6,000 items relating to Arirang (e.g., albums, music scores, cigarettes and matches with ‘Arirang’ brand, books, photos, etc.) on display and attend classes on Arirang.
Since 1976, the Jeongseon Arirang Festival has been held annually and this year, the Festival is scheduled to be held on 9 to 12 October 2015. During the Festival, visitors can enjoy the performance of Jeongseon Arirang and visit the Korean folk market, “Jeongseon 5-Day Market” which opens once every five days. You can visit their website (in Korean) to learn more about the Festival.
Next time you visit South Korea, if you have time, don’t forget to go to Jeongseon to visit the Arirang School and participate in the Jeongseon Arirang Festival! Have a great time! 🙂
Reminder: The next post will be published on 21 May 2015. Watch this space!
Jon Dunbar, “Arirang, Korea’s unofficial anthem“, Korea.net, 2015-04-05
Arirang TV, “Korea’s Intangible Cultural Heritage – Arirang“, Arirang Special, 2013-12-15
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
Park Hyun-sook, “‘Arirang’ Korea’s theme song to share with the world“, Koreana