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Published: September 9th 2010
May 1st StadiumArirang Mass Games
The largest stadium in the world (by capacity)
This is one of the main reasons why I wanted to visit North Korea and is definitely the most memorable part of the trip. While impressions of North Korea is generally negative in the Western world, the mass games is probably one of the few things in North Korea that will awe and impress everyone. Recognised by Guinness World Records as the "largest gymnastic and artistic performance in the world" (with more than 100000 performers), the mass games is unarguably the greatest show on Earth and is definitely an event which North Korea can truly be proud of.
On our way to the May 1st Stadium, the venue of the Mass Games, our guide (Guide 1) talked about the origin of the word "Arirang". Arirang was the name of a man who had to leave his lovely wife to go to war. After the war, he returned home but was shocked to see another man with his wife at home. Enraged, he walked away and swore not to return. What Arirang didn't know was that the other man had been pestering his wife for a long time and his wife was about to reject him (the
other man) when Arirang returned. Seeing Arirang walking away, his wife chased after him but couldn't catch up. Feeling disappointed and desperate, his wife sang the following song: "Arirang, Arirang! If you leave me, shame will grow on you. I hope your feet will hurt before you have gone ten ri (about 4km) so that you'll come back." However, Arirang was too far away and couldn't hear her. Feeling bleak, his wife committed suicide. When Arirang changed his mind and returned, he found his wife already dead. Overwhelm by guilt, Arirang committed suicide too. (What a tragedy...) The song which Arirang's wife sang to her departing husband became a popular Korean folk song. Thanks to its memorable melody and touching lyrics, the song became famous internationally and turned into a symbol of Korean culture and identity. After the Korean War, both North and South Korea took the song as its own national folk song, but the 2 countries filled the song with different lyrics and gave the song different meanings. (The song was even transformed into a military march in South Korea.) In North Korea, the song laid the foundation for the namesake mass games. The government named the mass
games "Arirang" because it hoped for South Korea to "return" to North Korea for reunification, just like how Arirang's wife hoped for her husband to return. (Hopefully the story of the 2 Koreas will not end up into the same tragedy as the original ending of the Arirang story...)
We arrived at the architecturally impressive May 1st Stadium. We were told that the stadium has a capacity of 150000, which makes it the largest stadium in the world (by capacity). (Haha! I was so proud and honoured to be able to watch "the largest gymnastic and artistic performance in the world" in "the largest stadium in the world"!) While entering the stadium, I noticed that most of the spectators were actually locals, despite my belief that the mass games was targeted for foreigners. Later our guide told us that the mass games is a "rite of passage" for the North Koreans, just like how the Muslims pay a "rite of passage" to Mecca. The mass games is supposed to be an educational event to show the locals the history of the country, the greatness of the government, and the importance of discipline, cooperation and unity (evident in the combined
movements of the performers). Somehow, the mass games reminded me of the National Day Parade in Singapore. Not only it is a "rite of passage" for Singaporeans, it is also an educational event showing the history of the country, the importance of racial harmony, and the importance of "Total Defence"... (Of course, in terms of the number of performers and live spectators, Singapore cannot compare.)
Even before the show started, we were already impressed by the rehearsal of the flash-card holders. These flash-card holders (some 20000 of them) sat on the other side of the stadium and their flash-cards formed an enormous screen. At the prompt of the commander, all the cards were flipped in unison to form a new picture. Later throughout the show, these cards were regularly flipped to form a series of different backdrops. Shortly after we were seated, the stadium flood-lights were dimmed and the show began. After an impressive prologue, the show went into its 1st act, which served as a crash course of North Korea's modern history, from the Japanese colonization to the creation of DPRK and the Korean War. After the solemn theme of the 1st act, the 2nd act began in
a delightful tone with thousands of children running onto the stage where they performed a series of cute and impressive acrobatics. (We were stunned when a young boy skipped multiple ropes on an unicycle...) The 2nd act went on to display the country's bountiful harvests, with hundreds of running "vegetables" and "farm animals". The cutest of all was the hundreds of running "eggs", which later "hatched" to form hundreds of running "chicks". The 2nd act ended with a spectacular dance where hundreds of performers wearing hats with long ribbons swirled their heads continuously. (Won't they get giddy?)
The 3rd act was a showcase of the country's gymnastic and acrobatic talents, with thousands of hula-hoop dancers, 4-tier human towers, rotating "human wheels", acrobats performing stunts while suspended in mid-air, etc etc... (It felt like a big circus.) The 4th act started off with a massive martial arts display, which was followed by a series of dances (one of which was performed by a team of "female soldiers"). The 4th act finished with hundreds of performers forming the shape of the Korean peninsula and the flash-cards forming the messages of reunification.
The 5th act was a bonus act which (according
to our guide) would only be performed in the 2010 edition of the mass games. 2010 marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and also the start of China's involvement in the war. So the 5th act was specially performed to commemorate the 60 years of Sino-Korean friendship. The act began with the scene of the Chinese army joining hands with the North Korean army to fight against the American aggressors. The solemn atmosphere gave way to a cheerful dance where hundreds of Korean dancers and "Chinese dancers" (North Koreans wearing Chinese costumes) danced together. The dancers were later joined by a group of "pandas", "lions" and "dragons" - the symbols of China. Throughout the dance, the flash-cards in the background formed socialist slogans in both Korean and Chinese. (My fellow Chinese tour group members were pretty amused by the Chinese slogans.) The act ended with thousand of performers surrounding a circular platform holding China's and North Korea's flags, with the flash-cards forming the slogan "Without the Communist Party, there will be no modern China". (The whole act looked like it was specifically designed to please the Chinese government. It's not surprising, given the fact that
China is now North Korea's only friend.)
The show then went into the epilogue/finale, where a giant globe was brought to the centre of the stage and surrounded by thousands of performers who formed the shape of a flower around the globe. The night sky was lit by fireworks, and all the spectators stood up and applauded. What a great way to spend the night. The mass games really didn't disappoint me.
On the next day (the 3rd day of the trip), we made our way to one of the most surreal tourist attractions in the world - the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates North and South Korea. I shall leave this to my next post "A secretive trip to a secretive country (Part 3).
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