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University Arbor

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GINKGO, two ginkgo trees in the garden of Myeongnyundang

Two Ginkgo Trees in the Garden of Myeongnyundang
In the garden of Sungkyunkwan, you will see two cloud-like ginkgo trees that soar and spread their branches skyward. The trees witnessed the nation’s sorrows at the end of the Joseon Dynasty and suffered the tragedy of the Japanese occupation. If we trace further back however, they too had their time in national prosperity where the nations brightest gathered around Myeongnyundang and studied, in the hopes of reaching the highest enlightenment and prestige. Now, they are too old -- a hole in one small corner is filled with a dull chunk of cement -- but they are still full of vigor, and the wildly firm branches that hold their places unwaveringly against the wind, somehow remind us of an old, all-accepting saint who seems to have experienced every sweet and bitter taste of life.

In the garden of Myeongnyundang Lecture Hall at SKKU’s traditional campus, the home of Korean Confucianism, two ginkgo trees stand facing each other. For almost 500 years, the leaves grew in spring, cast shade in summer and shed yellow leaves in fall. Now, the trees stand like two friends who have spent all their lives together, and they watch over us with their caring eyes.

These ginkgo trees are designated as Natural Monument No. 59 of Korea. The trees have a height of 21m and a chest-high circumference of 7.3m with branches spreading out 10.5m to the east, 12.0m to the west; 10.0m to the south and 12.0m to the north.

The Confucian Academy was originally built in 1398, during the seventh year of the reign of King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty, but the records show that it was destroyed twice and later reconstructed. The trees, which are the only surviving original features of the campus, also have traces of fire damage. The ginkgo trees here show a development of aerial roots hanging down from the branches, which is rarely seen in Korean ginkgo trees. Also, it is very interesting and unusual to note that the ginkgo trees in this Confucian shrine are in fact, all non-fruit-bearing male trees. The two trees were designated as natural monuments even during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Confucius is said to have taught his disciples under a ginkgo tree, and as a symbol of his teachings, ginkgo trees were planted in Sungkyunkwan and in all Confucius shrines and schools of Korea. The ginkgo trees in Sungkyunkwan are believed to have been planted by Yun Tak, the Daesaseong (head of Sungkyunkwan) around 1519, in the 14th year of King Jungjong’s reign of the Joseon Dynasty.

During the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, Myeongnyundang was destroyed by fire, but these ginkgo trees survived and still stand (to testify in silence) in the very place where the fundamentals of life were taught. Still, many students stop by this place to study and talk about life, and perhaps these trees too, have been learning about life all throughout those years of watching people go by and the world changing around them.

From ‘The Dignity of Tree’ by Lee Yang-ha

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