From left, Shin Suhyeon, Kim Gyuri, RAS Korea President Steven L. Shields, Song Sumin and Korea Heritage Education Institute Chairperson Kim Ji-myung / Courtesy of RAS Korea.
The K_Heritage_Lab is a working group of experts — students, researchers, translators and writers– on Korean issues organized by the Korea Heritage Education Institute.
By Steven L. Shields
Three years ago, when the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Korea received several unsolicited essays from students at the Dongducheon Foreign Language High School, we were thrilled by the gesture. The students had heard of RAS Korea’s financial plight, but since young students have limited finances, they hoped to contribute just the same. The gesture deeply moved the RAS Korea officers and directors. Their essays were published in RAS Korea’s annual journal, “Transactions” (vol. 93, available free from raskb.com).
The encouragement we received was multi-layered. Not only did the students cheer us on with a “fighting” spirit, but they also showed that there is great hope among young people in Korea for exploring their heritage and finding an interest in Korean history, arts, music and literature. This spirit was even more poignant, knowing that many of the students wrote these essays during their busiest of high school years, while preparing for the university entrance exams.
What followed the next year was even more encouraging. Several other students came forward and asked how they might write an essay for publication in the RAS Korea journal. Discussions among the officers and editorial staff resulted in launching an annual essay contest. Last year’s winners were announced through this column, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic social distancing restrictions, we could only mail the winners certificates and prize money. We enjoyed email contact with the winners and the other contestants. We believed that continuing the contest was a valuable effort in fulfilling RAS Korea’s founding objectives.
The contest for 2021 garnered four times more entries than the previous year. We expanded our panel of judges to accommodate the need to choose the top three essays. The task was difficult, the topics diverse and the quality of thought, organization and expression were commendable. The essays must be written in English, so most entrants usually attend foreign language high schools or international schools in Korea. A few have lived overseas as younger children. This year’s entrants represented more than a dozen different schools throughout the country. The three winners came from Naju, Busan and Dongducheon. That the nation was represented in its broad regional diversity is a profound symbol of the young people of Korea today.
RAS Korea hosted the three winners and one guest at our offices in Daehangno on Saturday, July 3. We wish we could have presented their awards at a more significant event, such as our annual garden party ― but sadly, that event has been canceled for a second year. Despite the challenges, we enjoyed great conversation around the table and learned a bit more about each of the winners, their schools, their families and their dreams for the future. Two of the winners are in their final high school year, deep into preparing for entrance exams. One winner is a second-year high school student.
The panel of judges chose two runners-up and a first-place entrant. The two runners-up for the Second Annual RAS Korea Essay Competition are Kim Gyuri and Shin Suhyeon. Kim Gyuri is from Pusan Foreign Language High School, and her essay was titled, “Pride rolled in a kimbap.” She talks about the high-speed culture of the modern era and how fast kimbap can be put together for a delicious, quick meal. She took the metaphor further into how Korean cuisine has rich flavors and worldwide acceptance. For Ms. Kim, kimbap represents all that is wonderful about Korean culture and tells how it helped her get in touch with her Korean roots after living abroad with her family for many years.
Shin Suhyeon, from Dongducheon Foreign Language High School, is president for the 2021 school year of the DFL branch of RAS Korea. Her essay, “Harmony and Balance,” begins by describing a painting at Gyeongbok Palace where two dragons are depicted intertwined among clouds. She notes the “yin-yang” principle of how the clouds follow the dragons and how dragons create clouds. She suggests that this image is a metaphor for the wisdom of the rulers of the nation. As harmony and balance are essential in human relations, she argues that in the globalized world, where boundaries are no longer static, harmony and balance are ever more critical.
“Korean Spirit in the Historical Poem” is the title of Song Sumin’s winning essay. Ms. Song is a second-year high school student at Jeonnam Foreign Language High School in Naju. She explores themes of Korea’s poets, especially those during the Japanese occupation, and how their poems brought attention to sadness and injustices as well as plucked at the heartstrings of patriots throughout the nation, spurring them on in their fight for independence. Such poems, from a difficult time, contain Korea’s soul, mind and history. Ms. Song’s essay has been published in the current volume of “Transactions” (vol. 95), available to members or by a separate purchase from the RAS Korea office.
RAS Korea is grateful to the Asia Development Foundation for subsidizing our administrative needs and to Kim Ji-myung of K-Heritage Lab for sponsoring the prizes.
Saturday, July 3, 2021, was a pride-filled day for RAS Korea and its members. We are honored by the many students who submitted essays. Youthful enthusiasm and thoughtful writing enrich our lives. We look forward with great expectation to next year’s competition.
Steven L. Shields, a retired cleric, is president of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea (www.raskb.com) and a columnist for The Korea Times. Visit raskb.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the society.