Jeju Island's Stone Culture
You fly into Jeju excited about your Jeju vacation and as you step out of the airport you look up to see that one of the first things to greet you is basalt - dark, porous volcanic rock: Jeju Grandfather Stone Statues.
- Jeju Island's Stone Culture
You fly into Jeju excited about your Jeju vacation, and as you step out of the airport, you feel the fresh sea breeze brush against your face. You look up to see that one of the first things to greet you is basalt rock: dark, porous volcanic rock.
Statues made of the igneous rock called dolhareubang, literally “stone grandfather”, wear a hat and welcome travelers with wide, open eyes.
As you ride out of the airport onto the roads, you see even more of this rock: houses and storehouses built of stone, a wall made of stacked stones, even fields with stones scattered here and there.
There is nowhere else in Korea where you can find these stones, and it is a point of awe and wonder not just to Koreans but international visitors as well.
Jeju Island was formed by volcanic activity that started about 1.8 million years ago and continued sporadically until about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Hallasan Mountain, the only mountain in Jeju, is the highest in South Korea at 1,947 meters above sea level, and it stands majestically in the center of the island as proof of Jeju’s volcanic history.
Some 360 volcanic cones called oreum cover the landscape of Jeju, and together with Hallasan Mountain, they make up what is Jeju Island.
The highest point on the island is at Baengnokdam, the summit of Hallasan Mountain, and the altitude decreases as you go down to the coast, where villages are developed.
The mid-mountain region, 200 to 400 meters above sea level, is made up of Jungsangan, which is the area that occurs between 200 to 600 meters above sea level and is used mainly for livestock farming.
Various types of lava topography can be seen in Jeju. The wide, smooth areas created by low-viscosity pahoehoe lava are called bille in the Jeju dialect. As flat as asphalt roads, you can see these unique formations in coastal areas like Haengwon-ri. Rough, spiny formations created by highly viscous a’a lava make for wonderfully scenic sites, such as Yongmeori Coast.
Jeju Island became a member of the Global Geopark Network in 2010, and its geological value is found in sites like Suwolbong Peak, Sanbangsan Mountain, Jusangjeolli Cliff, Cheonjiyeon Falls, Manjanggul Lava Tube, Seonheul Gotjawal, Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, and Udo Maritime Park.
Stones have a direct impact on Jeju's agricultural culture. Unlike mainland Korea, there is no nutrient-rich soil in Jeju, and the ground is largely made up of volcanic rocks, making it a very difficult environment for farming.
Rice, a staple food in Korean culture, was very hard to grow, so it was traditionally imported from the mainland. Eventually, the tenacity of the Jeju people led them to plow the infertile land, picking out stones to cultivate the soil.
Agriculture is now a major industry in Jeju, and most of the crops grown here come from these very stone fields. Farmland built on the stony ground is suitable for mandarin farming, which requires good drainage, and has resulted in Jeju Island becoming the largest mandarin cultivation area in Korea.
The makeup of the soil differs around the island, so while most mandarin farms are in Seogwipo, green and yellow vegetables such as garlic, broccoli, and lettuce are grown in the west, and carrots and radish are grown in the east.
Today, the stones of Jeju are enjoyed and adored as natural wonders, but before their fame, they were challenging obstacles for the people of Jeju to overcome.
The greatest masterpieces created by pahoehoe lava are lava tubes. Lava flows from Geomun Oreum Volcanic Cone stretched a distance of over 10 kilometers to form world-class lava tubes such as Manjanggul Lava Tube, Gimnyeong Caves, Yongcheon Caves, and Dangcheomul Caves. Although these caves are 100,000 to 300,000 years old, they have not been damaged and have maintained high states of preservation.
The Yongcheon and Dangcheomul Caves are especially noteworthy, as it has been found that sand from the surface, rich in seashell matter, penetrated the caves through cracks and tree roots to create stalactites, cave pearls, and limestone, which are usually found in limestone caves.
These unique characteristics of Jeju’s lava tubes contributed greatly to its designation as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
There are many different types of stone walls in Jeju. A jipdam, or “house wall”, is built to demarcate houses, a batdam, or “field wall”, to draw boundaries along fields, a wondam is built on a beach to catch fish using the ebb and flow of tides, and a sandam stands around a gravesite to protect it from grazing livestock.
The majority of stone walls in Jeju are external walls that are built by carefully stacking one stone atop another. There are gaping holes and spaces between the rocks and as it’s built in a single row, it looks as it may topple over at any moment, but, in fact, these stone walls rarely do collapse.
Expert wall builders shake the stone walls after they have finished building them. If the entire wall moves with the impact, the elasticity is proof that the wall has been built correctly, and it will not collapse even under the pressure of strong winds.
Historically, the people of Jeju Island did not create boundaries between fields, so quarrels were common and the strong often invaded the fields of the weak. Livestock also roamed the fields, causing damage, and strong winds prevented crops from growing properly.
An official from the mainland named Kim Gu (1211-1278) was sent to Jeju and after seeing the suffering of the people, he ordered the locals to build stone walls along their property. Disputes over ownership soon ceased, as did damage that was caused by livestock and wind.
These stone walls were built for hundreds of years afterward, and if lined up in a single row, they would measure over 22,000 kilometers. The walls of black basalt flow and wind around the entire island, giving it the nickname, “the great black dragon wall”.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations acknowledged the humanistic value of Jeju’s batdam and designated it as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.
The earliest dolhareubang date back to the 18th century, and there are currently only 47 authentic statues standing today. Two of them are located at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. On the mainland, a Korean totem pole made of wood called jangseung was erected at the entrances of villages, temples, and castle gates to protect against evil spirits and epidemics.
What the jangseung is to the mainland, the dolhareubang is to Jeju Island. Dolhareubang were erected at entrances to government offices and served as a guardian deity. Although they all look similar, upon closer inspection, you can see that the shape of each dolhareubang is different. Jejumok dolhareubang, with an average height of over 180cm, are friendly-looking and exude dignity and authority.
On the other hand, statues from Daejeonghyeon and Jeonguihyeon have an average height of 140cm and are more simple and playful in appearance. The dolhareubang that stands in front of Gwandeokjeong Hall used to be made fun of for looking silly because of the tipped-over hat, but modern-day visitors seem to enjoy the look and praise it for being trendy.
A structure in which several large stones are erected as pillars and a flat, elongated rock is placed on top is called a dolmen. About half of the world’s 30,000 dolmens are located in Korea. They are formed in various shapes, and the dolmens found in Ganghwa, Hwasun, and Gochang have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
More than 100 dolmens have been uncovered in Jeju. The dolmen found in the sea at Gwanjeon-dong Hagwi2-ri in Aewol-eup is the only underwater dolmen in the world. It is submerged underwater at high tide and appears at low tide. Scholars believe that it may have been a tomb like other dolmens, or it may have been an altar to the sea god.
Jeju Stone Park is a place where you can see various types of Jeju stone. It is built on a vast area of land with Gotjawal forest, surrounded by four oreum (volcanic cones). Without damaging the virgin forest of Gotjawal, the park has created themes that pay homage to the story of Seolmundae Halmang and the 500 Generals, Jeju’s creation myth.
The park’s design flows seamlessly with the landscape in a harmonious manner. The myths and history of Jeju Island, its folk culture, and the cultural history of the home have been organized by era so you can take a trip back into time.
You can also view stone pagodas that were built to protect villages from bad fortune, copper magnets meant to protect tombs and commemorate ancestors, and bulteok that were normally built by the sea by haenyeo for shelter from the wind and to change their clothes.
STONEMASON JO HWAN-JIN: DOLBITNA SCHOOL OF ART
What does stone mean to the Jeju people?
The people of Jeju have been greatly influenced by stones in their lives and culture. It was hard work to remove all the stones from the fields to start farming. It was close to disaster. But in the end, stones protected the people of the island. Building a batdam with selected stones protected crops, houses were built with stone, stone walls protected people’s lives from enemies, and they also gave protection from typhoons and harsh winds.
Is it true that the nature of the stones varies greatly from region to region?
Stones found in the east are harder and stronger. There are a lot of small pebbles in the west, so root plants cannot be grown. Instead, vegetables that grow above the ground are grown, like cabbage, broccoli, and barley. In the east, there is much volcanic ash and sand, so crops that dig into the ground like carrots and radishes are cultivated.
Do you have any interesting stories about stones?
There are foreign masons I communicate with, and they are surprised when I tell them that half of the dolmens in the world are in Korea. In English, they are called “dolmen”, but when I tell them that the word for stone in Korean is “dol” they’re even more surprised. They’re also fascinated by the sandam stone fence that is built around our tombs. In their countries, it’s not common to put stones on nobles' tombs, but rather, they are placed on the average citizen’s grave. In other countries, stone-made structures have disappeared or have become ruins, but in Jeju, many masons are surprised that Jeju’s batdam, wondam, and sandam are still being used in daily life.
Also, foreign stone temples and pyramids are all relics of the past, but in Jeju, these relics are still being used today. Stone warehouses, stone houses, stone tools, and batdam are all very unique. Many of Jeju’s stone walls are built up 1 meter to 2 meters high, and they wonder if it won’t collapse. Basalt has great surface friction and these walls do not collapse due to the great skill that the people have acquired.
What are the characteristics of Jeju stones?
Because Jeju stones are made of hardened lava, each stone has a different shape and feel. In other countries, similar-looking stones are stacked together, like bricks. In Jeju, you must study the land to find which type of stone will work best. It takes a lot of skill to be able to pick out the right stones.
I heard that your father is also a stonemason?
My profession is dolchaengi. It is a term for people who live and breathe stones. In standard language, it is what we call a stonemason. You must have stamina and dexterity. It’s a pity that it’s not a popular line of work these days. It’s hard work. A work made of stone is a work of art that lasts for many years. This stone wall can last ten thousand years. It's an inexhaustible art. I hope to one day see the world recognize dolchaengis as artists.
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