An introduction to Dolhareubang, Jeju, South Korea
What visitor to Jeju hasn’t marvelled at the mysteries and origins of Dolhareubang with their big eyes, round bellies, and secretive grins? In my first few weeks walking around the Island, I never felt like I was truly alone – volcanic rock “Grandfather Stones” peeked out of the grass on the side of roads and stood watch at the foot of bridges and doorways.
People believe that Dolhareubang may be gatekeepers protecting Jeju inhabitants from disease, fertility symbols or even tools of propaganda that represented the political power of shamans from the past. If you’re pondering their origins, or you‘re just looking for a fun excursion, it’s worth the trip to see the originals or go to the Dolharbang Park to see replicas and modern Dolhareubang creations.
Dolhareubang are unique to Jeju-do and have been around since 1754. It is believed that there were 48 originals: placed at the east, west, and south gates of three fortresses in the former three regions of Jeju Island. They vary in size and features according to region. The biggest Dolhareubangs (about 187 cm in height) come from the region that held the greatest political power, Jejumok in the north. The second largest (about 141 cm) are from Jeonguihyeon in the southwest, and the smallest (about 134 cm) stood guard in Daejeonghyeon in the southeast.
Local historian Dr. Kim Dong Jun at Cheju National University educated me about the different theories on the origins of Dolhareubangs. With the help of a translator, Kim told me that they were named in 1972 when scholars were classifying traditional folk materials. He went on to say that Dolhareubangs have had many names related to the ideas of their origin. For example, the name Beoksumeori links them to the Jangseung (otherwise known as Beoksu)—wooden totem poles on the mainland of Korea. The name Ongjungseok associates Dolhareubang to a great Chinese general named Wanongjung. After Wanongjung died, villagers feared invasion and erected a huge statue of him at their gate to keep his death a secret. Kim explained that just as the statue of the great general had kept people safe from invading armies, Jeju people believed that Dolhareubang placed at gates would protect them from the then cholera epidemics and starvation.
While the history of their different names reveals some theories about the purpose of Dolhareubangs, it doesn’t explain why they were seen as fertility symbols. According to Kim, it wasn’t until about the 19th Century that women began to grind and ingest the tip of the nose of Dolhareubang in the hopes of either becoming pregnant or giving birth to a baby boy. Perhaps their somewhat phallic appearance gave rise to that belief after their creation rather than it being their original purpose. When I asked Kim what he thought the Dolhareubang represented to Jeju people, he responded by saying that in the hearts of Jeju people they are the gate-keepers of Jeju and protect people from disease.
I wanted to know more about theories concerning the physical appearance of Dolhareubang. It seemed likely that they were gatekeepers warding off disease or other threats, but why did they have round friendly features?
Ben Haddow, with his degree in Fine Arts and an interest in Dolhareubang since he first came to Jeju in 2002, may have some answers. Haddow speculates that Dolhareubang were made as political propaganda for powerful shamanic mushroom cults. He supports this theory with references to Korean art, literature, and etymology. He drew my attention to the eyes, the cropping, and the caps of the Dolhareubang. He explained that the big “shining glazed-over eyes” may be indicative of the ‘enlightened one.’ He also pointed to the cropping of the statues at the legs: like mushrooms, they are firmly planted in the ground. The “Stone Grandfather’s” hat may be described as mushroom-like and Haddow disputes that it is purely a phallic symbol. If anything, he argues, the Dolhareubang represent a union of the masculine and feminine because mushrooms appear to “reproduce without seed.” He is coming out with a paper and graphic novel discussing his theories next year.
Out of the original Dolhareubangs, there are 45 left on Jeju, 21 of those in Jeju city alone. As the plaques near the originals indicate, a few popular places to visit them at are the gate of Cheju National University, Gwandeokjeong, and Samseonghyeol (as legend tells it, the “birth place” of the founders of Jeju).
Of course, if you want to compare the differences between the originals and entertain the idea that they are all in one location, the Dolharbang Park is definitely worth a visit. Here they have photos and good replicas of all the originals left, including an unfinished one found in a tangerine farm. There is also a host of interesting Dolhareubang made by modern sculptors. These Dolhareubang defy convention with massive hands, tall legs, or stone and wooden animal companions. Some of the more impressive ones are the Dolhareubang band: one that looks like The Thinker, and a huge curvy one that looks like it may block you from proceeding down the path. My favourite? A “friendly giant” sculpture begging the photo opportunity to dangle in his monstrous hands.
The only thing that was missing at Dolharbang Park, with its carefully labelled and organised sculptures, was the air of mystery that usually surrounds these stones. Perhaps a better time to visit would be in the winter when they are half-covered in snow. For isn’t the unknown what is so universally appealing about Dolhareubangs? Keep a lookout for them in your peripheral vision while on Jeju and you may notice that the Dolhareubang keeps his lips pursed in that self-satisfied smile of his. He may be a vigilant gatekeeper, a fertility god, or even a tool of propaganda, but I prefer to think that behind that cool exterior is the sculpture of a man about to burst out laughing.