Autumn creeps up on us with the changing colors of the rice paddies. Nonsan, a predominantly granary area, is covered in a blanket of gold. This is where the foot of Geumgang River meets the Yellow Sea.
The blooms of the crepe myrtles are starting to fade. The delicate flower blossoms are nicknamed baegilhong, which means “100 days of red blossoms”. These are the trees that first greet visitors to the Myeongjae Traditional Estate in Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do Province. The softly flowing bend of the crepe myrtle’s branches and trunk are unpredictable, portraying the city’s essence of beauty.
The Traditional Estate of Myeongjae Yun Jeung (1629-1714) was built in 1709, and has survived 300 years of history. Many students and followers of the Joseon Dynasty scholar Yun Jeung (who was also known as Myeongjae), made a united effort to build this estate, which is reflected in the unique designs that were implemented both inside and outside the house. However, Myeongjae decided to live in his original cottage as he believed himself unworthy of living in such a grand estate.
The historical site does not have a wall surrounding the property. The absence of walls expresses that all who visit the estate will not be turned away, irrespective of their status or position. The Yangban Society of the Joseon Dynasty was strict on the distinction between upper and lower classes. For a commoner to step foot into the estate owned by a yangban (or aristocrat), they first needed to be granted permission to enter. However, the Myeongjae Traditional Estate was different. They rid the estate of walls so all who visited would be granted access.
Ridding the estate of walls would have its own inconveniences. Visitors to the estate would arrive when the owner was greeting other guests, which was considered a great discourtesy. The Myeongjae Traditional Estate and the exposed sarangchae (a detached house where the men of the estate reside) portion of the estate had a solution to this problem. The sarangchae had separate stone steps for the owner and guests. If the owner’s shoes were on the owner’s stone steps, this would indicate that the owner was present. If the owner’s shoes and guest’s shoes were present at each stone step, this indicated that the owner currently had guests and the visitor would be asked to visit at a later time.
Before stepping up on the toenmaru (narrow porch running along the outside of a room) there is another detail that should be noted, which is the seokgasan. Seokgasan is a man-made rock mountain used in landscaping gardens, and is usually found in estates built on relatively flat land. The owner would have practiced asceticism on this replica mountain, in lieu of the real thing. The Myeongjae Traditional Estate’s own seokgasan is made in the image of Mt Geumgangsan and can be seen from all the rooms of the estate.
Another area of interest within the sarangchae is the numaru (upper floor). Numaru, by definition a floor as high as the attic, is usually built as a protruding floor supported by a pillar. The placement of the numaru higher than the main floor symbolized authority and was used for studying, banquets and to greet guests. The Myeongjae Traditional Estate’s numaru is special because of the view it provides through the window. When the shutter is folded and hung out of the way, a spectacular view of the baegilhong and the pond is presented. The proportion of the window is also precisely 16 to 9: the exact proportion of today’s HD TVs was used by our ancestors 300 years ago. The windowsill is situated 30 cm above the floor, which is just the right height for a person to rest his arm on the sill.
The sarangchae holds three rooms for three generations: the grandfather, father and grandson. The window in the grandson’s room also has a great view of a 400-year-old zelkova tree and Mount Gyeryongsan in the distance. Right next to the door is a meter-high chimney. For most Korean traditional homes the chimneys are built high above the roof so the inhabitants avoid inhaling smoke. Yun Wan-sik, the eldest grandson of Yun Jeung and caretaker of the estate, states, “the smoke from the estates of nobility caused disharmony among the commoners. Most people would be starving at that time, and the sight of such smoke would upset them. The builders decided to lower the chimney so the smoke would not be visible to neighboring people”.
THE ART OF SCIENCE
The main building holds many feats of architectural science while also taking into consideration the people using the premises. The Joseon Dynasty was strict on the distinction between the sexes, and the portion of the estate where the women resided was carefully designed to meet their needs. One example is an internal wall that blocked an outside view of the home’s interior when the main gates were opened. The partition was set so that all who entered needed to walk around the partition to the right to enter. There was a 30 cm gap between the bottom of the partition and the ground to show the feet of the all people entering. This was to identify the rank of the person entering by checking the person’s shoes. Straw shoes would mean the guest was a commoner, while rubber shoes would mean the guest was a child or woman.
Another area of interest is the space between the main building and gotganchae (a storage area for food and household items). Both buildings have a narrower south wall compared to a wider north wall to form a rhombus shape, built to control the velocity of falling rain and block the cold northern winds, while also allowing the cooler southern winds to enter at will. Although it sounds fairly simple, it is a difficult technique to duplicate.
Besides the Myeongjae Traditional Estate, there are other tourist sites in the Nonsan area. The region is downstream from one of the four major rivers of Korea, the Geumgang River, which is covered with wide plains and famous for its various cuisines. Of all the foods manufactured in the area, the most famous is Ganggyeong Jeotgal. Jeotgal is a traditional fermented food where fish, fish eggs or fish intestines are salted and preserved. Although the predominant taste is salty, many different, harmonious flavors are also present, making this dish a delicacy with its sweet, spicy and sour undertones.
The Ganggyeong-eup neighborhood in Nonsan provides more than half of all the shrimp Jeotgal consumed in Korea. Although Ganggyeong is a small port located on the banks of the Geumgang River, all the shrimp from the river would gather in this area to bring prosperity to the residents. An 8 km drive from Nonsan will take the visitor to Ganggyeong and all of its famous Jeotgal stores. The store has over 20 different Jeotgal for sale, from the most expensive myeongnan jeot (salted pollack roe) to the more conventional toha jeot (salted shrimp). All visitors ordering the 7,000 won Jeotgal Baekban are given samples of all the different Jeotgal above, a great way to try and differentiate the tastes between each one.
Nonsan was a part of Baekje during the period of the Three Kingdoms in Korea and has a rich history that is well preserved. Visitors are recommended to see the historical sites of General Gyebaek, who fought and died protecting Baekje from the allied forces of Silla and the Tang Dynasty.
Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, November 2011