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Discovering Hanok's Hidden Beauty
By Kim Ki-tae
Yangjindang Mansion in Andong, North Kyongsang Province
/Courtesy of Ddanworld
Entering the main gate of hanok, Korea's traditional house, you may
encounter a male servant in white olden-day attire diligently sweeping
the front yard. The house's daughter-in-law in a chignon scurries to the
kitchen, as her maid wearing her hair in braids follows closely behind.
In the open living room stands the house's noble patriarch with a long
pipe in hand. As he looks over his vast territory beyond the wall, two
of his grandsons sit in the kneeling position, one reads aloud from a
Chinese classic, while the younger one dozes off.
For Park Seon-ju, curator of National Folk Museum of Korea, visiting a
hanok is like traveling back in a time machine to the past, to a scene
typical of the Choson Kingdom's days. Her new book ``Strolling Around
Hanok (Hanul Arae Kiwajibul Konilda)'' is a record of her time travels
to 22 time-honored mansions scattered around the nation.
``It is thrilling to visit old houses and find vestiges of the ancient
resident's lifestyles,'' Park told The Korea Times in an interview on
Tuesday at the museum building. ``Understanding the structure of each
hanok helps better understand their daily lives, and vice versa,'' Park
For example, while visiting Karam Chongtaek mansion in Yongdok, North
Kyongsang Province, she said the residence's design materializes the
owners' virtue of conciliation and harmonization.
Referring to Yun Chung's mansion in Nonsan, South Chungchong Province,
she said the elegant design shows up the integrity of the former owner
Yun, a well known Confucian scholar (1629-1714).
Park also said Korea's noble residences are mostly designed not to
overwhelm, but rather to comfort visitors through a peculiar
juxtaposition. ``In architectural terms, you won't feel any disruption
while moving from the gate to the front yard, and around the rooms of a
hanok. Thus, you can psychologically feel integrated in the structure,''
According to Park, the style is the major difference between traditional
Korean and Western mansions. ``Western ones are apparently grandiose and
brilliant, but I do not feel at home within them,'' she said. ``I feel
that Western mansions are viewed more as objects, while the Korean
structures are more homelike.''
To better appreciate the aesthetic aspect of the hanok, Park suggests
visitors should see how the residences connect with their surroundings.
``If you lift the whole compound up and move it to another area, it
would become a completely different building. A hanok should be viewed
in the context of its surroundings,'' she said.
Park uses the example of Kwangajong, meaning ``observing farming.'' The
mansion, located in Yangdong, North Kyongsang Province, is designed for
its owner to be able to overlook its adjacent rice paddy, where farmers
work on the field. ``The whole compound is built to directly face and
harmonize the paddy. In another place, the name would be different,''
She also advised visitors to imagine how males and females move in the
house in the web of routes among gates, rooms, kitchen and stores.
``Meticulous observers may find every house sets its separate courses
for males and females to move along, and it is quite interesting how and
where the routes for the two sexes intersect in each house,'' she said.
Attracted to the beauty of the hanok, she drives out of Seoul almost
every weekend. Last year she visited Andong, a city in North Kyungsang
province, nine times. She says it's always nice to stumble upon
unfounded ``jewels'' on her field trips. ``In every village, there are
usually one or two handsome, well preserved houses,'' she said. The
field trip is a decades-long hobby for the graduate of the Architectural
Engineering Department at Yonsei University. She was even taken in by
the police during a trip to Kyodong Island off Kanghwa Island west of
Inchon in the early 1990s. The islanders reported her to the police,
suspecting the stranger with a camera and measuring equipment was a spy.
For the avid hanok lover, it is regrettable to see more and more
traditional houses left unpreserved or inhabited. Of the 22 mansions in
the book, nine are empty or used as homestay accommodation. Of the 13
other mansions, mainly only older people reside in them, with most of
their offspring living in urban areas. Park points that the old heritage
needs more financial support. ``A house is no longer a house if there
are no residents,'' she notes.
Park's Tips on Appreciating Hanok
1. Look at the scenery around the residence from the inside rather than
from the outside.
2. When seeing the mansion from the outside, observe its structural
relationships with its surroundings, like roads, mountains, streams and
3. See how the architecture uses the sunlight for illumination by
observing the arrangement of windows
4. Imagine how its male and female residents would have moved within the
compound along the nexus of routes. There are always separate routes for
the different sexes and, more interestingly, junctures.
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