The shiny, late-model Hyundai sedans parked in the courtyards of homes in the village of Yangdong would be something of a puzzle to the 16th-century Korean nobleman Son So. The odd television aerial sprouting from a black-tiled roof would be equally baffling, not to mention the sight of his descendants sitting around watching other people do things inside a box-like screen. For in the true manner of Korean ancestor worship, today’s family members have no doubt that Son So is somewhere about the village, watching over them.
Son So might even be a little miffed at the lack of obvious activity or industry. After all, he had to suppress a rebellion during the Joseon Dynasty to earn the title of Gongsin, or “Merit Subject.” With the title came the rights to the land on which the village now stands, in a small forest-clad valley overlooking the Allak Stream, which weaves through sweeping rice fields on the Angang Plain, about 5 hours’ drive south-east of Seoul.
In ancient times, fishing boats from Pohang on the East Sea sailed up the Allak to supply the village with seafood.
Yangdong Village is a 30-minute drive from South Korea’s ancient capital of Gyeongju, known as the “Museum without Walls.” Yangdong, a former noblemen’s village, was founded in the 15th century by the Son and Lee families, and is still inhabited today by their descendants. Overlooked by Mt Seolchangsan, Yangdong is a living exhibition of rustic Korean architecture, and today still has a population of around 500 people. Kept in their original state, some homes are run-down, while others are lived in or well maintained, with relatives looking after the buildings as later generations have left the village to work in Seoul and other cities.
Unique in this era of preservation and restoration, Yangdong is a piece of history which is being allowed to naturally decay. There are more than 160 homes ranging in age from 200 to 540 years old, with the extensive dwellings of the nobility (Yangban) dominating the valley, their tiled rooves and stone-walled courtyards built high up the slopes, overlooking the small, thatch-roofed homes of the servants and farm workers scattered below.
During the Joseon Dynasty, Yangdong was a village of political high achievers: 116 members of the Son and Lee families became local government officials, 26 were high-level public servants, 13 passed the military exam, mukwa, and 76 qualified to enter the civil service. The village has two main clan halls, for the Lee and the Son families, a Sadang, an ancestral hall in which is kept portraits and the writings of ancestors, and also a separate Yeongdang, or portrait hall. There also are ten pavilions, which in centuries past were the focal point of a string of annual summer festivals, held in accordance with the lunar calendar, each lasting two weeks, beginning with Yudu (held on the 15th day of the 6th moon). Every year on the first full moon of the New Year (January 15 on the lunar calendar), the villagers took part in a tug of war using a rope which, according to records, “was as thick as a 9- or 10-year-old child’s height.”
It takes about four hours to walk to all the village’s major sites, and despite the occasional modern car, it’s not hard to feel the history of the place. Walking through the dappled light of tree-line laneways, visitors tread the path of the ancestors. Up a winding path off the narrow village road, the voices of playing children echo softly through the valley. Almost in slow motion, an old man rides past on his bike, dismounts at his gate and wheels it across the courtyard, his footsteps quietly crunching on the gravel. Neatly tended vegetable gardens grow behind bamboo fences, and stone walls edged by flowers follow the winding paths that lead to homes tucked into folds of forest further up the valley.
The noblemen’s servants lived in clusters of thatched-roofed houses located just below their master’s home, but they all ate together in the master’s compound. Apart from the field workers and servants who lived in their own cottages, there was also a third category of virtual slave labourers. Passed down through the nobleman’s wife’s lineage, they had little chance of gaining their freedom.
Local guide, Mr Lee Ji Hyu, born in the village in 1949, walks around the earthen courtyard of a dilapidated Lee family home, walking in the steps of his ancestors. Homes were built on the principles of balance, Yin and Yang, and everything related to the five primary elements of fire, wood, metal, water and earth. The depth of reverence for harmony, based on the influences of Shamanism and then, during the Joseon Dynasty, Confucianism, influenced all aspects of life.
Traditional homes were divided into three parts, for the past, present and future grandparents, parents and children, and the variations in sizes of the inner door frames symbolised human ingenuity and the ability to solve worldly problems. Stone steps lead to a sturdy home of rough-hewn timber beams and thick posts, buried deep in the ground of the courtyard, rooted to the earth, a harmonious link, Yin and Yang. Courtyard gates opened inwards to welcome in the morning sun (Yin), while the doors to the home opened outwards to welcome in the night (Yang).
Gardens were not owned by individuals and the sun was borrowed each day to help the plants grow. In a traditional garden, nothing was grown that would prevent the direct access of the sun; there were no lawns and no deciduous trees like pines, that would drop their needles and prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the earth. A juniper tree was planted so it could be used to make incense, burnt to encourage the spirits of the ancestors to stay close to protect the family. “One must be respectful in the presence of the ancestors; at all times one must be polite,” says Mr Lee.
In the grey, aged timber of the rails enclosing the outside landing, carved designs symbolize clouds in the sky, representing nobility – the man who lives high up, “who lives in the sky.”
Steps – Wikimedia Creative Commons
All other photos courtesy of Visit Korea