한옥, or traditional Korean houses, are a place where you can forget all of the stresses of the modern world. Designed to withstand the forces of the Korean climate, 한옥 are built with natural elements such as tress, soil, stone and paper. The house offers visitors a chance to learn about Korean history and culture while reconnecting with Mother Nature. -Chung Dong-muk-

Starting at 황지 Pond in 태백, the 낙동강 winds some 500 km through southeastern part of Korea before flowing into the South Sea. It is the country’s longest river, and has been flowing through the peninsula for thousands of years. Sitting along this natural jewel is another important piece of Korean heritage: 하회마을 (Hahoe Folk Village) in 안동, 경상북도.

하회 is a compound Korean word meaning “the water takes a roundabout”. The river literally winds around the village in an “S” shaped bend. in topography-based divination theory, such an area was called “연화부수” meaning “a lotus floating on water”. In ancient Korea, people took account of such theories when deciding where to build a village or house. If a location harmonized with the forces of nature, its residents would be brought good luck. A house built in a manner contrary to those forces would meet with disaster. 하회마을 is home to many tile-roofed 한옥, or traditional Korean houses, because it was a favorable area according to feng shui theory.

A Protective Home

In 1392, when the 조선 Dynasty was founded, state official 류종혜 chose 하회 as the home for the 류 clan of 풍산. Brothers 류운룡 (1539-1601), a renowned Confucian scholar, and 류성룡 (1542-1607), a prime minister who helped the dynasty overcome the Japanese invasion on 1592, were both from the village. Thanks to the success of the 류 family, the village thrived and tile-roofed homes, which were traditionally reserved for the aristocracy, started to appear in 하회. Today, 162 traditional 한옥 houses with roof tiles remain standing.  There are also 211 straw-roofed houses, traditional homes for commoners.

Aside from 한옥, the village is also home to 11 wooden masks designated as the National Treasure No. 121. The masks are used in the 하회 별신굿 탈로리, or Hahoe Mask Dance Drama. The Korean government designated the entire village as one of the most important folk heritage treasures in 1984. Last year, UNESCO listed the village as a World Heritage Site, putting 하회 in the global spotlight.

“It’s not easy to preserve and maintain such a huge tile-roofed house,” says 류세호, owner of 화경당 in 하회마을. “But there are traces of our forefathers in all corners of the house. I can’t just ignore them. I do this out of a sense of duty.

Visitors to 화경당, one of Korea’s best-known 한옥, can feel the structure’s long history. 류사천, one of 류세호의 ancestors, built 화경당 in 1791. Then in 1862, his great grandson 류도성 constructed additional buildings to complete it as the home of the nobility. 화경당 is now the largest in town and is listed by the government as No. 84 among important folk materials.

A trip to 하회마을 is not completed without visit to 양진당 and 충효당 한옥 as well. 양진당 is the home of the head family of the 풍산 류 clan. And it was built by 류종혜 in the 15th century and inherited by his eldest grandson, 류운룡. 충효당  was home to Prime Minister 류성룡, and 류운룡의 younger brother inherited the home.

The 안채 (women’s quarters) and 사랑채 (men’s quarters) are shaped like squares, typical of houses in the southeastern part of the country. The quarters are parallel to each other and connected by a pair of rooms on either side. Shutting the inner door to the 사랑채 ensured the privacy of women. During the 조선 Dynasty woen from the noble class were not allowed to be seen by strangers. When the wife of an aristocrat traveled outside, she would ride in a closed palanquin carried by four people. If she wanted to walk, she had to wear a long hood that covered her entire body. The Korean word during this period to describe women literally meant a person who spends their time inside the house. Men, on the other hand, were free to come and go as they pleased.

The Beauty of Natural Science

한옥 employ the laws of natural science to circulate the air. When you visit a 한옥 like 화경당, you will notice that trees and flowers are planted in the rear garden as opposed to the front yard. This allows the house to keep cool during the summer and warm during the winter. Most aristocratic 한옥 have a wooden-floored hall, or 대청, in the middle of the 안채 that serves as the living room. The front side of the 대청 is wide open while doors shut off the backside. When the sun beats down on the barren front yard, the temperature rises. The heated air rises and leaves the front yard in a vacuum. But in the back yard, plants and tress absorb the heat, making the air a bit cooler. Such cool air travels through the wide-open 대청 and reaches the front yard. This creates a natural circulation of air. In the summer, you can open the doors to the 대청 and enjoy the cool breeze that flows through the house. In the winter, warm air will stay in the house with the 대청의 back doors closed.

In addition to their practical use as a temperature regulator, flowers and trees in the backyard serve as a private garden. The aesthetic theory 차경, which means “borrowing scenery”, helped shape 한옥의 정원. While many Western houses have solid walls, Korean 한옥 have columns connected by a series of windows and doors. These openings serve as frames for the outside world. If you open one door, you might see a small stream flowing across the yard. If you open another door, you might see the flowers and trees in full bloom. Instead of hanging paintings on their walls, Koreans would open their windows or doors and “borrow” the scenery right outside their house.

한옥 designers try to make small doors and windows throughout the house so inhabitants can view their garden from different angles at different times of the day and in different seasons. The designers had to take into consideration not only the shape of the house, but the placement of trees and flowers and the location of the surrounding landscapes, be it mountains or rivers.

Visitors to 하회마을  can see wonderful examples of 차경 at the 만대루 Pavilion of the 병산 서원. Located near 화산 on the east side of 하회, the 병산 서원 is a memorial for the scholarly achievements of 류성룡. Sitting on the second floor of the broad 만대루 Pavilion, you can see the 낙동강 flow by a picturesque mountain. Along the river spreads a white sand beach that glimmers in the sunlight. Wild geese pass their time on the beach. if you come at dusk, the orange-colored twilight covers the river like something from a gorgeous landscape painting.

류세호, the owner of 화경당, decided to open up his 한옥 to visitors four years ago. He says that he wanted to share the great science and spectacular beauty of 한옥 with people from around the world. “한옥 can only be preserved when people live there,” he says. “You have to light up the fireplace in the kitchen and heat up the house made up of trees, clay and stone to breathe life into it. If I wanted to bring in guests, I thought I might as well do it right and present the true beauty of 한옥 and great taste that you can enjoy there.”

Thanks to 류’s efforts, those who stay at 화경당 get to enjoy delicacies of a traditional Korean house. They can stay warm on the 온돌 floor and sleep in the same type of beds and eat out of the same brass utensils used by noblemen of the past.

한옥 Revival

한옥 tourism has been formally registered by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism as a business and is growing in popularity nationwide. The Association for Proprietors of Korean Culture Houses has played a leading role in the industry. Its members include 380 propietors of ancient houses across the nation. It has helped open such homes to tourists from Korea and around the world, teaching visitors about Korean culture and heritage.

“Many of our member homes are national or local cultural heritage, and in the past, we were always trying to stay out of them for protection,” says 이강백, head of the association and owner of  Sungyojang in 강능, 강원도. “But we could only preserve the homes by having people see them. Bringing in guests is what I needed to do, too.”

Sungyojang is a 310-yeard-old house where 10 generations have lived, and it’s one of Korea’s most famous 한옥. In 2000, Sungyojang was ranked the top 한옥 in the country. The 관동 region, or the eastern part of Korea, lies next to the dark blue East Sea and is known for it beautiful scenery. Scholars in the 조선 Dynasty with refined artistic tastes always made Sungyojang a stop during their travels through the 관동 area.

“The reason there are many annexes to 한옥, such as 행랑채, 사랑채, and 별당, is to encourage whoever was passing through to stop by and stay overnight,” 이 says. “It was never a house only for the owner. But in modern times, it has lost its meaning and we’ve lost our heart. And to turn back time and revive that original meaning, Sungyojang will stay open to everyone from around the world.”

To accommodate modern visitors, some of the old facilities of 한옥 have been upgraded. For instance, many 한옥 owners have installed flushing toilets, standing basins and shower  stalls. To help facilitate these improvements, the Cultural Heritage Administrations is preparing a manual for the renovation and repair of 한옥. Since many old homes are registered as cultural heritage, the government wants to ensure that the historical attributes of 한옥 were preserved, as homeowners make the houses more comfortable for visitors.

The movement to preserve 한옥, comes after a century of disregard for the traditional homes. Following the 조선 Dynasty, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and remained under colonial rule until 1945. The five years following the liberation were marked by chaotic ideological conflicts. Then, the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 demolished what little was left on the peninsula. Over some 50 years in the post-war-era, Koreans had to constantly try to make ends meet and had little interest in investing in the preservation of cultural heritage. Koreans’ enthusiasm for accepting Western culture led to a materialism that valued the new and shiny over the old and traditional.

It wasn’t until the 21st century that Koreans had reached a comfortable income level and some began to question their harried lifestyle. They adopted “live slowly” as their mantra, and took an interest in 한옥 and other traditional elements. What does “live slowly” mean? Perhaps it’s no different than living as mankind should. That is, living trying to coexist with nature; minimizing material goods that cater only to our convenience, such as cars; and trying to be thankful and satisfied with life each and every day. But living slowly in this fast-paced world is difficult. We know that the exhaust from vehicles speeds up global warming, but we still pick up our car keys for even short trips.

It’s quite meaningful that places tha value slow living such as 하회마을 in 안동 and 양동마을 in 경주 have been registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Another international organization, the Cittaslow movement, has designated several Korean villages as “slow cities”. In Korea, you can experience the slow life in seven places, including 한옥마을 in 전주, 전라북도, and 한옥마을 in 담양, 전라남도.

Source: Korea People & Culture Magazine, March 2011


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