Obangsaek (오방색) – Discovering Peace and Harmony in Korean Culture

Samulnori Drum

If you are interested in K-pop, K-dramas or anything Korean then you would definitely know about the Korean greeting ‘annyeonghaseyo’ (안녕하세요). It is probably one of the first few words than any Korean lover learns (probably after saranghaeyo (사랑해요) and oppa (오빠)). But, do you know what is the actual meaning of ‘annyeonghaseyo’?

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It does not literally mean ‘hello’ but has a more contextual sense which can be translated as ‘hello’ in English. So, of course, ‘annyeonghaseyo’ is a greeting but the Hanja (Chinese characters) which make up ‘annyeonghaseyo’ literally can be translated to “Are you at peace?”. This peace is not related to the conditions of your surrounding but is a question about whether your mind and body are at peace. In the olden days, people and society in Korea were not as well off as today. Since such difficult and uncertain times, the tradition of using ‘annyeonghaseyo’ as a greeting has continued till today. A tradition passed down generation after generation and withstanding the tests of time.

But this notion of ‘peace’ does not simply end with this beautiful greeting. This ‘peace’ is prevalent in various Korean traditional and cultural aspects as well. And where there is peace, harmony and tranquillity cannot be far behind. The concept of harmony is a huge part of Korean culture. The concept of peace and harmony is an intricate concept in the Korean’s life. This can be seen by the concept called ‘obangsaek’ (오방색) which translates to five colours and five directions where each direction is associated with one of the five colours. The five colours and directions are also denoted by seasons and elements of earth as well. Each direction is represented by the four mythical creatures.

Obangsaek - Five Directions and Five Colours and their corresponding season, elements and mythical deities
Obangsaek – Five Directions and Five Colours and their corresponding season, elements and mythical deities

This obangsaek is a part of the everyday life of Koreans. These directions and colours come together to balance each other out and form a great harmony of good and bad. This concept is prevalent in Korean traditional food like ‘국수’ (Guksu – Korean noodle soup) where garnishing in five different colours are used to decorate the dish. This can also be seen when on the first birthday of a child, the parents dress up their child in the traditional Korean outfit ‘saekdong jeogori’ (색동 저고리) which consists of these five colours and is believed to keep away evil omens and bad influences.

In other words, ‘obangsaek’ represents hope for health and prosperity and an intrinsic understanding of harmonization with nature. It conveys the importance that harmony and nature hold in traditional Korean lifestyle. The belief that everything should be in balance and harmony is still popularized in the food habits. If you have seen 대장금 (Jewel in the Palace, 2003) then you would know how much importance the Korean culture places on a balanced food or diet. This clearly shines through in the Korean saying that good food is the best medicine.

From the traditional music, food, dance, clothing and everything in between embodies this spirit in Korea. The spirit of peace, harmony and tranquillity which can be seen everywhere in Korean culture and even in their traditional architecture which is also based on Confucian principals and the concept of yin and yang.

Pungmul - Traditional art-form of Korea
Pungmul – Traditional art-form of Korea

I, myself, may not be a Korean or have lived in Korea, but I have experienced this strong cultural influence personally. I experienced this while I learnt and performed ‘Samulnori’ (사물놀이) at the Korean Cultural Centre, India. Samulnori literally means performing using four items or instruments. Samulnori originally came from 풍물 (Pungmul) which is the traditional folk art of Korea which is traditionally performed outside.

Just like in obangsaek, each instrument in Samulnori has some symbolization. The chango represents rain, Jing symbolizes wind, Buk represents clouds and kkwenggwari symbolizes lighting. Also, the leather used in Chango and Buk also symbolize the sound of earth or ground while Jing and kkwenggari represent the sounds of the skies or heaven. According to Korean philosophy, where heavens and earth meet humans are found. This relates to the concept of Chun-Ji-In (meaning Heaven, Earth and Humans). Samulnori is considered incomplete without human sounds inter-mixed with the beats. This is the reason why performers shout in regular intervals and sometimes even sing a few phrases.

The four traditional instruments of Samulnori

Through ‘Samulnori’ I learnt and realized a little bit about the conceptualization behind the instruments and music of this traditional Korean musical art-form. Samulnori is where the 5 elements, the 4 directions, 4 seasons, as well as Chun-Ji-In (meaning Heaven, Earth and Humans) all come together in harmony to create the thrilling and captivating music. All this comes together in the clothes they wear, the instruments the play and most importantly the musicians who perform together. The performers come together in a harmonious play to form one entity through one rhythm, one beat, one sound. It is the moment when the clouds, wind, rain and thunder come together, and when such elements of nature come together then great feats can be achieved.

This is the power of culture, the intrinsic nature of peace, harmony and tranquillity coming together as one. This force has probably also empowered such a small nation to become a developed and powerful country in today’s world. Culture is a powerful concept. It is an intangible heritage passed along generation after generation. It is a window through which we can understand different countries and their people. Culture might change with time and sometimes may even be forgotten but its essence lasts long. It is reflected in subtle ways in everyday life.

Finally, I would like to end this article by asking a simple question – 여러분 오늘은 안녕하세요? (yorobun, oneuleun annyeonhaseyo?); Are you at peace today?

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About Poornima

A Korea-phile by nature~ Love everything Asian and originally from India. Fluent in Korean language and knows Chinese language as well. Has Masters in East Asian Studies (with special interest in Korean culture and politics)

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April 1, 2018 8:30 am

Thoroughly enjoyed that post Poornima. And annyeonghaseyo to you.

pushpendra dwivedi
April 1, 2018 11:57 am

interesting traditional post sharing

August 19, 2018 8:27 pm

Very well written and quite informative.
Could you also break up the word, annyeonhaseyo, and say which specific word means peace?