Gyeongju’s Yangdong Village & Hyangdan (香壇) House

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I went on a little excursion to Yangdong Village in Gyeongju with my children.
Gyeongju’s Yangdong Village is a traditional village that, along with Hahoe Village in Andong, was recently designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Apparently it is quite unusual for the World Heritage List to include a village that is currently inhabited.
Why was Yangdong Village in Gyeongju named a World Heritage Site? What is its special charm?
Without a doubt, Yangdong Village in Gyeongju is a Korean treasure that must be well-preserved and protected for the future.
Yangdong Village reportedly received thousands of visitors after it was placed on the World Heritage List. With sightseers swarming over the once-peaceful village, various problems arose.
I hope that each of these problems will be carefully resolved through methodical planning, no matter how long it takes.



  A wide unobstructed view of Gwan-gajeong House, Hyangdan House, and the fertile Angang river plain, as seen from the summit of Mount Seongju. From this spot, Yangdong Village can be viewed in its entirety.  



 Gyeongju's Yangdong Village
 - A historic Korean Village on the World Heritage List

Because of the village’s unusual layout, only some thirty structures are visible from the entrance to the village. You have to wonder how they managed to farm in such a narrow area and how their traditions have continued. This question was finally resolved at the summit of Mount Seongju, which offers an unobstructed view of all of Yangdong Village in its entirety. Gwan-gajeong House and Hyangdan House are in the foreground, while in the distance unfolds a view of the Angang river plain, the source of the abundance bestowed upon the people of Yangdong Village. Generations of yangban, the aristocratic class of the Joseon dynasty, have lived here for the past 550 years, and Yangdong Village of Gyeongju contains about 150 well-preserved Joseon-style dwellings. According to villagers, many hanok (traditional Korean houses) were destroyed during a great battle in the Korean War. This is truly a pity. 

Among the traditional Korean folk villages that have managed to preserve their original architecture in settings that harmoniously showcase traditional Joseon culture alongside nature, Gyeongju’s Yangdong Village has the grandest scale and longest history.  It is also a village with an unbroken 500-year history where the Gyeongju [Wolseong] Son clan and Yeogang Yi clan cooperated with one another. These two clans produced many notable Confucian scholars during the Joseon dynasty, including Son Jung-don (pen name Woo Jae) and Yi Eon-jeok (pen name Hoejae). Even in recent times, descendents of the clan have included some sixty professors, thirty court officials, and two civil ministers. Besides its well-preserved centuries-old architecture, perhaps the biggest reason why Yangdong Village was named a World Heritage Site is that this place has also preserved intangible customs, like Confucian culture and traditional methods of observing family rituals, and auspicious practices for the welfare of the village community such as Yangdong juldarigi (tug-of-war). These traditions have been passed down intact to the present day.

Unlike the configuration of Hahoe Village in Andong, where the buildings’ eaves abut one another, in Yangdong Village, the head families’ houses and large tile-roofed dwellings for aristocrats are situated on higher ground, while thatched-roof dwellings are on the lower flat land. I wonder if the structures were configured this way owing to the village’s unique physical layout. Against the backdrop of Mount Seolchang, Yangdong Village’s shape resembles the Chinese character , with hanok houses situated along three mountain ranges and in the valleys between them. This configuration explains why only about thirty dwellings can be seen from the entrance of the village. To get a real sense of Yangdong Village’s true charm, visitors should fully explore its many hills and dales.

In keeping with its status as a village rich in Korean history, Yangdong Village also possesses many cultural assets. Its four treasures and twelve important folk materials include National Treasure no. 283, ‘Tonggamsokpyeon,’ a book printed using movable metal type which is a valuable resource for historic research on early document techniques, as well as Seobaekdang House, Hyangdan House, Mucheomdang House, Gwan-gajeong House, and a portrait of Son So, a Joseon military official. Simply seeing diverse styles of distinctly Korean traditional houses dating back to the mid-Joseon era makes a visit to Yangdong Village a pleasure worth discovering.

Because some homes are not yet fully prepared to accommodate the increasing number of visitors who started arriving after the World Cultural Heritage listing came about, many houses with closed gates can be seen. North Gyeongsang Province and the city of Gyeongju should work together and commit generous support towards opening the gates of Yangdong Village to the world. The gates to Gwan-gajeong House and Simsujeong Pavilion are always open. But when I visit these places, I realize that tourists’ attitudes also need to change. Seeing the countless tracks left by visitors who walked on the wooden floors without removing their shoes will bring a frown to the faces of other visitors. If this kind of behavior continues, the gates of Yangdong Village may end up being closed to the world. I believe it is up to us to preserve this heritage that has been unbroken for centuries.

 There are about six sightseeing courses recommended by the residents of Yangdong Village. To completely cover the village, it takes about four and a half hours. Visitors on family outings with young children are likely not able to keep going for that long, so they may prefer a gentle promenade along a course that covers just the village’s most important structures. Be sure to bring your own drinking water and snacks, since there are practically no rest areas or amenities for that sort of thing. For now, when visitors need a break, they should unfold a straw mat under a tree to take a rest now and then. As such, it is a good idea to visit the village on a day that isn’t too hot. On weekends, after ten o’clock in the morning, the village swings into action as hordes of visitors descend. Interpretive tour guides at the entrance of the village are in demand, and the small store by the village’s entrance overflows with people in search of ice cream. If you’re hoping for a rather peaceful excursion to Yangdong Village, you should probably arrive first thing in the morning.



Coincidentally, on the day that my family visited, a joint proclamation ceremony was being held by the cities of Andong and Gyeongju to observe their designated as World Heritage Sites. The festive atmosphere was bolstered by a nongak band playing peasant music.
On the right, the servants’ quarters at Hyangdan House can be seen. Visitors can spend the night there and experience staying in a hanok (traditional Korean house).


  The lotuses are flowering at the entrance to Yangdong Village, next to the Community Center. If you want to hike up Mount Seongju, the trailhead is between the Community Center and the public restroom.


  SkyLife TV satellite dishes can be seen atop every thatched-roof house in Yangdong Village. In the field in front of Hyangdan House, it looks like the rice is ripening in preparation for the autumn harvest. 



This was the home of Son Jung-don (pen name Woo Jae), who served under Joseon’s King Seongjong as the Minister of Personnel. The planar structure of the building’s sarang-chae (the men’s area where guests are received) and an-chae (the women’s area) forms a  ’ shape; the central courtyard separates the sarang-chae on the south from the main building.
Gwan-gajeong House also offers sweeping views overlooking the village and wide plains.



The blossoms on the crape myrtle trees next to Gwan-gajeong House are just lovely.


 
  Yangdong Village is full of untouched classic rural landscapes. Being able to see a variety of vegetables and flowers is great when visiting with kids.


 
  Here is a view of the village from behind Hyangdan House. The pretty places clustered all over give the scene a quaint charm.
Since some of the houses are concealed in the wooded valleys, it is useful to stop at the Community Center and pick up a map to find your way around.


 
This is the road that leads to the center of the village. Since the influx of visitors following the World Heritage Site designation, village residents are being especially cautious when driving.



 
It’s a shame there aren’t very many places to rest. In the future, it would be nice if they consider adding visitor amenities. It seems like there should be some rest spots as long as they don’t adversely affect the scenery of the village.




 There are about 150 households living in Yangdong Village. Most of them have deep roots here, and apparently, many people have also recently moved here from nearby cities like Gyeongju and Pohang. Blossoms on a susemi (loofah) vine can be seen along a wall, and there are Triteleia flowers, which I hadn’t seen for a long time. Trumpet creepers and lotus blossoms are other varieties of flowers that can be found in this rural village. The children were very interested in the tiger butterflies and the frogs, too, which are found everywhere in the village. It was a wonderful feeling to enjoy a leisurely walk in a village in the countryside with my kids.



  The view from in front of the Community Center. Every time I see delicious squash leaves, I feel like eating dwenjang-jjigae, bean paste stew, with ssam (leaf wraps).



 
   I took this shot before hiking up to the peak of Mount Seongju, following the trail next to the Community Center. Gwan-gajeong House can be seen in the distance.


 
   This scene shows the Angang river plain and the village, as seen from the peak of Mount Seongju. The houses are really well hidden within the forest.


  Behind Gwan-gajeong House are Mucheomdang House and Gyeongsan Seodang. It’s a really wonderful image, to see houses with tiled and thatched roofs, harmoniously nestled among the valleys and mountain range.


 
  Off in the distance, that must be Seobaekdang House, with a juniper tree next to it. The head family house of the Wolseong Son clan, Seobaekdang House was built by Son So (pen name 양민공). It’s also the birthplace of Son So’s son Son Jung-don (pen name Woo Jae) and Son So’s grandson, Yi Eon-jeok (pen name Hoejae), born to his daughter.
Come to think of it, I guess it could be said that this village has continued for 550 years built on a clan society of descendants of the Son clan and Yi clan along with outsiders who married into the clans.
They told me the descendant of a woman who married into this village centuries ago even came here to pay respect to the ancestor’s grave.


 
This shows Gwan-gajeong House, at the entrance of Yangdong Village, and Hyangdan House on the far right side.



Gwan-gajeong House. This is the house where Son Jung-don (Woo Jae), who served under Joseon’s King Seongjong as the Minister of Personnel, once lived. Now open to the public, it attracts many visitors.


 
Hyangdan House. This house was bestowed by King Jungjong when Yi Eon-jeok (Hoejae) was dispatched from Hanyang (Seoul) to begin his post in Gyeongsang Province as a provincial inspector.
His mother was very ill, and he made a request to the king to let him keep her close by so he could look after her. Impressed by his filial piety, the king built this house so he could care for his ailing mother.  The structure of Hyangdan House is somewhat different from other houses. They say it was built that way intentionally to make it a little easier for his physically afflicted mother to get around.


To get a proper appreciation of Yangdong Village, you have to visit every corner of the valleys.
The houses are well-hidden in the forest.  It looks like the structure on the far left is Mucheomdang House. It was built by Yi Eon-jeok (Hoejae) as an annex to the head family dwelling of the Yeogang Yi clan. This extension of the sarang-chae (the men’s area where guests are received) was used for multiple purposes, including performing ancestral rites, receiving guests, rest and repose, and scholarly activities. 


 
  Mucheomdang House can be seen to the right of a chogajip (traditional home with rice straw-thatched roof), with Daeseongheon visible in the back. It must be great to look down on the village while hiking up on the mountain range.  


 
The house at the center with the gingko trees and fragrant juniper is none other than Seobaekdang House, the head family dwelling of the Wolseong Son clan. With a name that suggests the action of making 100 inscriptions of the character ‘’ (in), meaning ‘endure,’ the house is said to embody the principle ‘Patience and more patience.’  
This is the birthplace of Yi Eon-jeok (Hoejae). The house belonged to his mother’s family, indicative of the common Joseon era practice of males moving in with the wife’s family after marriage. 


 
  At the upper left, you can see a small portion of Mucheomdang House. Hm, the name of the house at the center isn’t shown on the map. 


 
  On the Sujoldang Course, you can see hanok (traditional Korean houses) and the Angang river plain.  





Hyangdan House(香壇), Treasure no. 412

The first thing you see upon entering the village is Hyangdan House. This house was bestowed by King Jungjong to Yi Eon-jeok (Hoejae), a neo-Confucianist scholar of the Joseon era, when was he appointed as the Gyeongsang gamchalsa (provincial inspector). The position of gamchalsa in the Joseon era was a very powerful government official with the executive and jurisdictional authority of a governor over a region equivalent to today’s North Gyeongsang Province.
They say the house originally had 99 rooms, but since approximately half the house was burned during the Korean War, including storage buildings, the mill, outhouses, family shrine, horse stable, and annexes, only about 56 rooms are still standing today.
Yi Eon-jeok’s descendants, who had been living there, returned from seeking refuge during the war, and found the house half-burned with the roof covered in bomb shells. They say that the household’s books, genealogical documents, and cultural assets were either burned or torn to shreds. The only thing they were able to salvage was an ancestral tablet, which they enshrined in the house’s main building.   
The structure of the dwelling has an unusual ground plan: its two separate courtyards connect the an-chae (the women’s area), sarang-chae (the main area of the male head of the household), and haengrangchae (servants’ quarters) in the form of the character ‘.’ Round columns are used throughout the entire structure, as befits the stature of an elite household.
Currently, the descendants are planning a restoration of the original 99 rooms. I hope that the authenticity of Hyangdan House will be maintained in the restoration of this valuable cultural heritage.

 
 
This photo of Hyangdan House was taken while approaching from Gwan-gajeong House. It gives a good view of the daemunchae (gatehouse).


 
  Hyangdan as seen from in front of the Yangdong Village Community Center. Lotuses are grown here in the village.  Mr. Lee Uk now lives at Hyangdan House, where he maintains every inch of the place. They say living in a hanok is really hard, but he puts great effort into breathing life into Hyangdan House, after it stood empty for 40 years.


 
  This is his older brother, visiting from Seoul, taking a little rest. 
Because Mr. Lee is putting up new wallpaper and refinishing the floors, he said visitors are allowed only for limited hours these days.  It must not be easy to manage the large and small artifacts brought outside while the interior renovation is going on.  There used to be a fragrant juniper tree more than 500 years old in the yard of Hyangdan House, but it was blown down a few years ago during a typhoon.  Judging by the stump that remains, it must have been a really huge juniper tree.
Just think how much better it would be if the centuries-old juniper tree were still guarding the house.


 
Before Yangdong Village’s World Heritage designation was announced, some reporters came here to cover the story, he said.  If it weren’t for the World Heritage designation, this story that otherwise would have gotten buried on page eight instead stood out in a glowing ‘special edition’ of the newspaper.  To shoot the photo that appeared on the front page, they brought in a crane 30 meters tall.  He gave us advice on good places to see in Yangdong Village, pointing out sites from the map in the newspaper.  This is a cabinet for gwanbok, formal government attire, where they used to store things like the traditional horsehair hats called gat, hat cases, and official robes. I reckon you can’t see this kind of stuff just anywhere.  I’d like to thank Mr. Lee for spending time with us, along with the lotus leaf tea and the dandelion tea.  


 
Lotus flower tea, served in a hundred-year-old ceramic bowl. Dandelion tea, made with dandelion root, licorice, and other ingredients. Dong-woo, who just won’t stay put in this venerable old house.
The memory of sharing this time with Mr. Lee, hearing about Hyangdan House and Yangdong Village, will stay with me for a long time.  Gyu-ri took this shot of her Dad talking with Mr. Lee.


 
  I really liked other places in Yangdong Village, but I have to say I really, really liked Simsujeong Pavilion.  The centuries-old pagoda trees that surround Simsujeong Pavilion add to the picturesque atmosphere.  I thought the leaves of the pagoda tree looked a little like acacia leaves. 


 
  I took a shot of Simsujeong Pavilion from behind. How nice it was to take a little rest in the shade of the pagoda trees. 


 
The pagoda trees and crape myrtles surrounding Simsujeong Pavilion are really great. It looks as if the house in front of Simsujeong Pavilion is occupied.


 
My family is usually pretty bad about taking family photos when we’re sightseeing. That day we got one group shot, on a road in Yangdong Village.


 
  A close-up view. I hope we can go on another nice trip in the autumn.



 
There are no stores within the village, but here’s a place where you’ll find three vending machines behind the pyeongsang (low wooden platform). There was nobody around.  
Our family took a little rest here.


  The ravine side of the village has a dirt road, which is good. The paved road that cuts through the center of the village is too narrow, posing a risk of accidents.


     
  A paper lantern given out at the World Heritage List proclamation ceremony. Dong-woo, sprawled out on the floorboards.


On the day my family visited Yangdong Village, there was a proclamation ceremony that evening in honor of the village’s addition to the World Heritage List. The event was attended by the Governor of North Gyeongsang Province and city officials from the cultural heritge divisions of Gyeongju and Andong, as well as the eldest sons of the head families. Thanks to the party afterwards, where visitors were given ddeok (rice cakes), makgeolli (Korean rice wine), and side dishes, we didn’t have to eat dinner that night. I would like to thank Mr. Kyung-Ho Kim of GyeongBuk Network who helped us a lot during our one-night/two-day trip to Gyeongju.  Thanks…  here’s a tip of the hat to you! 



▶ A satellite picture of Yangdong village


Official web site : http://yangdong.invil.org/

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