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A Sea-Splitting Festival Brings Joy to Koreans

Low tide allows a long walk to an island and a chance to celebrate ancient ways

The bus lulled passengers to sleep and then jostled them awake as it pulled around the hills of South Cholla Province, a neglected corner of this Asian "tiger."

At a rocky beach where other buses were unloading their passengers, we got off and watched in anticipation, waiting for the the sea to split.

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Every spring, tourists from around South Korea, and a handful of foreigners, come to this obscure part of the Korean peninsula to witness an event of Biblical proportions.

Because of an extremely low tide that occurs every spring, an arching dry path suddenly emerges connecting Chin Island to a smaller island. Thousands of visitors stream across the 1.75-mile long, 131-feet wide "Miracle Way," celebrated once again last weekend with the 19th annual Youngdeung Festival. The event was accompanied by a range of traditional Korean performances, unrelated to the splitting of the sea.

Chin Island is one of hundreds of islands off the southern sweep of the Korean peninsula, cloaked in quiet forests and amoeba-shaped farmers' fields. Part of the archipelago spread out in front of us, mirroring the seemingly endless clouds in the plain blue sky. The legend behind the sea split concerns an old woman who was abandoned on the smaller island and who, after praying, was granted a miracle: an arching dry path across the sea.

Out on "Miracle Way," people in knee-high yellow rubber boots collected a particular variety of seaweed, whose roots claw around softball-sized rocks. Occasionally checking their watches, the tourists were careful not to be stuck on the path like the Egyptians in the Bible, who while chasing the fleeing Israelites were drowned in the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, a rather unrelated, and un-Biblical, celebration began on the seashore. Country folk drank local drinks made from fruit and gromwell roots and danced to folk music. Vendors sold hard candy, boiled silkworms, and spicy chicken. In a cross between trance and ballad, some performers acted out exorcisms and funerals. In a rite to facilitate the passage of the dead, dancers untied knots in a long white sheet, which represented the path to heaven. In a show of nationalism, a group of women performed a loud circular dance - once used 400 years ago during a Japanese invasion. The clamor was used to convince the Japanese that they were outnumbered.

But what does this have to do with the splitting of the sea? Before being dubbed "The Korean Miracle of Moses" by a vacationing French ambassador, Pierre Lande, in 1975, there were no accompanying festivities.

I was told simply that the locals first organized the festival in 1977 and saw it as a good way to have fun and make money. It seemed to work on both counts, and elements of Chin Island's Youngdeung Festival are considered important bits of Korean culture, officially. The Ministry of Culture in Seoul has a habit of classifying and numbering national historic and cultural resources in order to add them to the national canon. According to tourist brochures and plaques, these include:

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*"Chin Island Dog, Natural monument No. 53: never defecates in the house, is faithful, intrepid, and a fierce fighter."

*"Ssigim Exorcism: Traditional Custom No. 72 to placate the dead and keep away evil spirits."

*"Namdo Field Song: Important intangible cultural asset No. 51, to stave off damage to harvest, sung to the barrel and hourglass drums."

But national treasures are not all stuffed and shelved. Almost uncannily, on Chin Island, the famous Chin Island Dogs were everywhere - wandering around doorways in their shiny orange coats, robust but at ease like off-duty marines.

But for a new generation growing up in the cities, the cultural links have become tenuous. While watching the festivities, my young Korean friend kept asking, "Isn't that really great?," as if she were searching for its relation to her own life.

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