East discovers East in Westernized South Korea
Seoul — It says something about South Korea's urban youth today that a 19-year-old woman is deeply engrossed in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's ''One Hundred Years of Solitude'' while operating an elevator in a downtown office building in Seoul.
The scene is not unusual in a country where Korean-language editions of the better-known works of Nobel literature laureates appear within a week after the annual prize winners are announced in Stockholm.
Last year was no exception. Soon after Garcia Marquez's prize for literature was announced, the Colombian author, formerly obscure here, suddenly became famous, particularly among younger readers.
Thanks to South Korean jet-setters and satellite communications, the latest fads, fashions, music, books, and magazines from America and Europe reach here quickly - to the delight of youngsters eager to savor them.
Yet as a result of the nation's miraculous economic progress and its resultant national pride, the young are no longer contemptuous of the native traditions of the past. Nor do they swallow Westernization whole. They are not, in other words, incongruous parodists who blindly accept foreign attitudes and styles.
Many of today's youth, unlike the preceeding generations, possess a discriminating taste.
Largely because of the nation's young music lovers, tickets to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's Seoul concert were sold out three weeks before the event two summers ago. The same thing happened when famed Soviet emigre cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington directed an evening here last fall devoted to the music of the late Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Much of the same crowd would no doubt flock to concerts by top rock artists such as Queen, David Bowie, or Michael Jackson.
Still, an increasing number of young people are now wondering whether these cultural imports from abroad adequately satisfy their appetites and yearnings. Often they wonder if they should not look into their own past to find artistic expressions more palatable and relevant to them.
This renaissance of traditional Korean culture - including art, writings, music and games - among the young is by no means a counter-Western culture movement.
While acknowledging the values of Western culture, these young seekers after Korea's past are looking for indigenous expressions that better express their Korean sensibilities.
For centuries, for instance, Korea's native art was often ignored or discriminated against while scholarly works with a heavy Chinese overlay were hailed as the mainstream of artistic history. With the recent revival of folk painting - the most unique form of Korean art - young people have found the genre that truly represents the wit, humor, and mores of the ordinary people.
Another native art form gaining popularity among the youth is the traditional Korean mask dance, in which song and dance were merged into one, thus creating a lively dramatic vehicle through which the lower classes, with the help of their sharp tongue and earthy humor, managed to vent their frustrations.
In nearly all of these mask dramas, there would inevitably be the greedy landlord; the wicked Buddhist monk in pursuit of of an innocent maiden, and other typical abusers of their positions - all with comic masks and awkward dance steps, to the accompaniment of ear-splitting gongs and shrill bamboo pipes.
Still another is pansori, or narrative song. Of the 12 original pansori songs , ''The tale of spring fragrance'' was the best-known because of the nature of the story: a lovely girl of humble background refuses the amorous advances of the powerful local magistrate. She is about to be executed when she is rescued by her handsome young love of noble birth who returns from the capital as a secret inspector for the king.
The masses who suffered under the corrupt feudal system loved this dramatic, if somewhat sentimental, tale sung by a soloist and accompanied by a drum, with the embellishments of the performer's tragi-comic gestures and vocal acrobatics.
There is also a growing interest among the youth in shamanism, an ancient religion of northeast Asia based on a belief in good and evil spirits who are influenced only by a shaman, or high priest. That shamanism has long been deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Koreans is evident in the country's art and literature, music and dance.
Its influence is comparable to that of Christianity on the art and culture of the West, in that shamanism has helped mold a unique pattern and structure in the consciousness of the Korean people regardless of their religious affiliations. Shamanism is to a large extent the spice and flavor of Korea's cultural legacy - the stuff that the nation's indigenous taste and style are made of.
As one college student put it: ''Isn't it only natural that we - the country's backbone and future - should be interested in the search for our own 5 ,000-year-old cultural roots?''