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In the Shadow of Grandfathers: Korea’s Living History

President Neil Kerwin and Ambassador Ambassador Han Duk-soo unveil one of two dolharubangs (grandfather statues).

Dean Louis Goodman, right, watches as President Neil Kerwin, left, and Ambassador Han Duk-soo unveil the dolharubangs in the Korean garden.

If history amounts to the collective memories of our ancestors, an important part of AU’s lineage can be measured in the yawning branches of 68-year-old Korean cherry trees and the kind repose of dolharubang (grandfather statues) that were unveiled this week in the School of International Service’s Korean Garden.

The stone figures, shaped like tall grey mushrooms wearing genteel smiles, were a gift of the governments of the Republic of Korea and its autonomous province of Jeju Island and represent the next step in a long history between American University and the peninsula.

In 1943, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Syngman Rhee, Korea’s exiled and first democratically elected president, stood on the quad with AU president Paul Douglass, who later served as advisor to Rhee. Together, they planted four cherry trees, three of which still stand behind the East Quad Building. As the trees took root, a symbolic hope blossomed—freedom for Korea.

The trees were also an extension of a growing relationship between AU and the Korean people. In the coming decades, prominent Koreans like Park Chung-soo and Lhu Shin-yong counted among AU grads; soon the university established an alumni chapter in Seoul. By the 1990’s, Kim Hyung-kook’s chairmanship of the Center for Asian Studies spurred a deepening association between the university and the republic. Mid-decade, AU created dual degree programs with Korea University and Sookmyung Women’s University.

The ’90s were also marked by annual visits from Korean ambassadors, invited by SIS dean Louis Goodman, for springtime strolls to view the cherry blossoms. Through chats with ambassadors, Goodman learned about traditional Korean gardens, earthscapes that focus less on architecture and design, and more upon the natural progression between living species. Where another East Asian garden might install a bench for reflection, Korean gardeners are more apt to integrate the seating space on a fallen tree.

Those visits and lessons in Korean gardening resulted in close work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dr. Cheong Eun-ju and her mentor Dr. Kim Chan-soo from the Korea Forest Research Institute. Together the team verified the authenticity of the Rhee cherry trees as genetic relatives of Jeju Island species.  By 1997, Goodman began work to formalize a Korean Garden on campus.

More recently, Goodman requested support for the garden from Ambassador Han Duk-soo and from the Korea Forest Research Institute, and through his contacts, Han was able to secure one pair of dolharubang from the Korean embassy, and from the Republic of Jeju, another pair of dongjasuk (small grave statues) plus three traditional Korean gates. Together the Korean Forest Research Institute, led by its Director Koo Gil Bon and Jeju Island have offered hundreds of plants and trees—including Korean cherry trees, rose of Sharon, and Korean pines—to be planted in the Korean Garden over the course of the next two years.

Speaking at the unveiling ceremony Monday, Cheong commented that AU’s Korean Garden is a rarity. In her estimation, of East Asian gardens in the United States, 90 percent are Japanese, 10 percent Chinese, and, until the development of AU’s garden, none were truly structured in the Korean tradition.

Cheong and Koo, both botanists, have a professional interest in the success of this garden. As Goodman states, “Korea as a nation is interested in environmentally friendly things, but has not invested much money in their own genetic research.” Gardens, such as the one at AU, encourage investment in plants and plant science.

In many ways, the garden, which carries with it so much history, and now is guarded by grandfathers— dolharubang—is at the same time a symbol of what is yet to come: the growth of a garden, a deepening relationship between Korea and American University, and a shared commitment to sowing sustainability, in friendly soil.