The Korean Rose (대한민국의 무궁화), or more commonly known as the Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), is the national flower of South Korea. This is a flowering shrub plant in the mallow family. It is native to south-central and southeast China but has been widely introduced to the rest of the world.
The Rose of Sharon can be found featured everywhere in South Korea but most prominently in the refrain of the national anthem:
무궁화 삼천리 화려강산 대한사람, 대한으로 길이 보전하세.
“Roses of Sharon and three thousand Ri full of splendid mountains and rivers; Great Koreans, to the Great Korean way, always stay true.”
The Korean National Anthem, known as the 애국가, translated literally as “Love Country Song” and translated better as: “The Patriotic Song”, begins every single sporting event in South Korea. Every baseball game, every soccer game, sports events with celebrity players, the Rose of Sharon is mentioned every time. The only song that is arguably sung more is Arirang, which is a traditional Korean folk song, and even that song mentions flowers blooming right before it ends and although it does not mention a specific type of flower, I would bet my money that they were referring to the Korean Rose.
The Rose of Sharon is considered by the South Korean people to be a symbol of the Korean people and their culture. Ancient records, first cited about 1,400 years ago, prove that even before the Gojoseon Era (unknown to 108 BC) the Korean Rose was treasured as a “blossom from Heaven”. Further, this flower was so valuable to the Silla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD) that the kingdom also referred to itself as Geunhwahyang (근화향) which means “the country of the Rose of Sharon”. The ancient Chinese referred to Korea as the “land of wise men where the Rose of Sharon blooms”. The Rose of Sharon grows all over the Korean peninsula and is known to be a hardy shrub that can withstand polluted air, heat, humidity, poor soil, drought and frost. This shrub with its five pointed blooms can withstand almost anything and symbolizes the victories and struggles that the Korean people have suffered and survived.
To give a quick history lesson, the Korean people have withstood invaders since the beginning of time. China, Japan and Russia were always trying to work their way into the Korean peninsula and conquer it for their own. Most recently, this happened with the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876. Korea, which was still unified at the time, became a protectorate of Japan. This was the first step to colonization which would begin in earnest in 1910. This colonization was horrible to say the least. The Korean people were stripped of their names and language, children were still sent to school but they were only allowed to speak, read and write Japanese. The Japanese colonizers destroyed cultural landmarks, most notably they demolished the Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁), which was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), and replaced it with the Japanese General Government Building and, to rub salt in the wound, that building was constructed to look like the kanji radical for “sun” (日) to symbolize Japan’s other name, “the land of the rising sun”.
During the time of Japanese colonization, Nam Gung-eok (1863-1939), a Korean gentleman and scholar, sent tens of thousands of the Korean Rose from his home to public places throughout the country, schools and churches specifically, so that they may be planted in “hills of Roses of Sharon”. Nam hoped that they would symbolize Korean optimism and hope while making the statement that the Korean people would not be subjugated. For this message of hope, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1933. This event would later be referred to as “the Rose of Sharon incident”. After the Korean people were liberated from Japanese colonial rule the first thing the people did was to make the Rose of Sharon their national flower.
This flower, 무궁화 (mugunghwa), literally translates to “the eternity flower” or “the flower that blooms in inexhaustible abundance” and can be found all over South Korea. The Presidential Standard of South Korea is a pair of phoenixes flanking the Korean Rose. The flower is a part of the lawmaker’s badge, South Korea’s Supreme Court logo, and it is a part of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance logo. Hotels in South Korea are not rated on the star system, they are instead rated 5 Roses-of-Sharon. This flower also names a type of Korean train service called the Mughunghwa-ho (무궁화호) which is the most affordable train service and serves the everyperson in Korea.
Besides seeing this flower all over public buildings, the flower is also dried and brewed into a tea and is used as a medicinal curative to lower blood pressure and cool the body. In addition to the real-life uses, this flower is also named in the Korean version of Red Light, Green Light. In Korea the game is called “The Rose of Sharon has Bloomed” (무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다). No one knows quite how long Korean children have been playing this game but it has been mentioned in relatively old literature and is played in a very similar way to America’s Red Light, Green Light. This game is so common and such a part of the Korean culture that celebrities will play this game on reality shows like Running Man (런닝맨), Dad! Where Are We Going? (아빠! 어디가?) and even TXT played this game on their reality show One Dream.TXT.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Mansae (만세) by Seventeen (세븐틴) mentions both the flower and the game in both their lyrics and in their music video. But, if you don’t like pop music, then Mad Clown also has a song called Rose of Sharon (무궁화), and if you’re a fan of oldies then Sim Soo-bong’s (심수봉) song Rose of Sharon might be more your speed. There is also the South Korean drama called Lovers in Bloomed (무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다) in English but the direct translation of the title is: the Rose of Sharon has bloomed. There is also the 1993 bestseller novel The Rose of Sharon Blooms Again (무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다) which was later turned into a 1995 movie of the same name. There are also so many poems dedicated to this flower that they cannot all be mentioned.
This hardy shrub with its bright, five-pointed blooms is not just a national flower for the Korean people but it is a symbol for their longevity and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Flowers are beautiful but they can also serve as a reminder of hope and strength. The next time you happen across the Rose of Sharon I hope you’re reminded of your own strength.