Jinju Lantern Festival

Tucked away in the south western corner of Gyeosangnam-do 경상남도 on the eastern side of South Korea. Jinju 진주 is a small city that has always been a center of life for the surrounding farming communities. Before it was a modern city it was a Fortress in the Jeosan Dynasty, the Silla Dynasty 신라 新羅 before that, and the Goryeo Dynasty 고려 高麗 before the Silla. Jinju is one of the original settelments in the area though few historical buildings remain having been burnt to the gound many times by invading armies over thousands of years.

Outside of Jinjuseong Fortress 진주성 there is not much to do in Jinju. Upon arrival we decided to walk around to see the fortress during the day then again in the evening for the lantern festival also known as Jinju Namgan Yudeung Festival, 진주 남강유등축제.

I thought only a few hours would be enough to see the whole fortress but it is truly massive containing several ongoing excavations and the only National Museum that goes in depth about the Imjin war 1592-1598 with Ming dynasty (China) and Joesan Dynasty (Korea) against the Japanese empire (during the transitions from the Momoyama Period to the Edo Period) who were invading Korea.

The Museum was not only informative but was able to transport you to when the fortress was under attack by displaying the weapons, armor, and  paintings of the the war. 

Also on the premise is what’s considered the second most famous Pavilion in Korea, Chokseongnu Pavilion 촉석루. Pavilions seem insignificant to the viewer despite the intricate painting that surrounds them. However, not only are pavilion built as command post for war but also as places to rest and relax during times of peace. During peace time they become gathering places for scholars, poets, and artiest to debate philosophies and to be inspired by their peers. In a culture that covets scholarly learning above all else this relic is a symbol of the only way to achieve social and economic advancement through scholarly study.

Off of the Pavilion there is the Uigisa Shrine 의기사 신사, “shrine of the entertainer” to Nogae 나가에 This was probably the most surprising thing about the whole fortress. What was this women able to accomplish in a time period where women didn’t leave the house that people built a shrine to Honor her?  Two words Squid Game. I wonder if Hwang Dong-hyuk 황동혁 the creator got his idea for a very iconic moment in the show from her. 

Having won the battle and captchered the fortress the Japanese generals decided to party it up and get ‘litty’. Nogae an entertainer hired for the feast lured a Japanese General down to the river front where she embraced him before throwing herself and the general to their death in the Nangsong River 낭송. Off the shrine you can walk down the steps to a wood door in the battlements that leads you out to the very same rock Nogae sacrificed her life on. 

Nogae is a national hero and the People of Jinju have made sure her store doesn’t die by painting murals in her memory along the river front. She is truly a bad ass.

Also on the premise is a huge war memorial to the fallen of the Imjin war in the form of an alter, and a Shrine to General Ha Gong-jin 하공진 河公鎮 for his exploits and his loyalty during the Goryeo Dynasty 고려 高麗 (Pre-Jeoson Dynasty which is also pre-united Korea in 1010 AD. Note that this is also pre-Korean writen language hence the names apearing in both Korean, how they were spoken, and in Chinese, how they were writen.)

Also on the premise are two other shrines, another pavilion and Hoguksa Temple 호국사 of which were closed or in the mist of being restored. Which was ok because by the time I had finished the museum my feet were weary and I was on the way to hangry. Not wanting to miss the night festivities of the Lantern festival it was time to check in to the hotel and get some food.

In a matter of hours the fortress had transformed itself into a magical play ground filled with lights, music, craft vendors and lanterns of all shapes and sizes. What is now a joyous event originally began as a way to memorialize and pay homage to those fallen in the Imjin war. During the Siege on the Jinju fortress the Jeoson Military would light signals on the river to prevent the Japanese army and navy from crossing it. These fire signals were also used to communicate to people in the surrounding villages of the area. 

The Jinju lantern festival is massive event with lanterns of all varieties, some are made in the traditional silk fashion hanging from the trees others tell of folk tales, some are made by the local children and others tell the history of Korea. On the river front is the most impressive display of lanterns. Although you do have to pay 2,000 won each way to cross the lantern bridges to get the best view of them it is well worth it. With the fortress walls lit up in the background you are able to feel the scale of attack it must have taken to capture the fortress during the war. These massive lanterns don’t even reach the base of the rock which the fortress sits on. 

Which every step you take there is something to learn about Korea whether it’s how every day people lived and workers or its the crave for peace and climate justice that the younger generations yearn for. Its hard to comprehend the importance and beauty of all you see in just one evening which is why I will return next year. If you’re in Korea in the month of November don’t miss this festival. It is truly a festival filled with magic and delight.

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