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“Come Hither!”: A Midsummer Night’s Idyll

Posted July. 22, 2004 22:25,   


A Night at a Traditional “Hanok” Dwelling—

Cheongsong, Gyeongsangbuk-do lies surrounded by layer upon layer of mountains reaching over 900m above sea level, with Mount Wang looming at their center.

Cheongsong Village, ensconced deep within the mountains, has little to do with the secular world outside; there, you can still feel the blessings of nature as heaven intended, pristine and untainted. The village is also home to traditional tile-roofed houses (called “hanok” in Korean), some spanning a staggering 99 rooms, which allows for a solitary and tranquil experience of the ways of old. Imagine immersing yourself in life as lived by our ancestors, inside a tile-roofed house built just as they used in days gone by, playing traditional folk games.

In a courtyard punctuated with small, unnamed plants stands a well where water is drawn by a bucket tied to a rope. The fire burning cheerily in the furnace lends heat to the rooms and the iron cooking pot, and you awake to the chirping of magpies in the early morning light. At the Old Songso House, located in Deokcheon-li, Pacheon-myeon, Cheongsong-gun, life is still as simple and charming as it was more than a century ago.

The Old Songso House was built around 1880 by “Songso” Shim Ho-taek, the seventh-generation descendent of Shim Cheo-dae who was famed as a “manseokkun” (literally meaning “someone rich enough to own 10,000 seoks of rice”) during the reign of Joseon Dynasty’s King Yeongjo. As the size of civilian dwellings at the time was restricted to 99 chambers or fewer, the Old Songso House is the largest in scale among private homes.

Designated as Gyeongsangbuk-do’s folkloric record No. 63, the House is more often known by its nickname, “Rich Man Shim’s.” Park Gyeong-jin has been a long-term lessee of the Songso House since last year, and is currently operating it as a place for those seeking the “hanok” experience.

The door creaks every time it is opened, announcing its 120 years of history, but the dignity of the tall main gate remains intact to this day.

Stepping inside the gate, the sham wall first comes into view. A sham wall, or “heotdam,” is a small partition that screened the women as they moved about the inner building (known as “an-chae”) from being seen by the men in the detached living room (named “sarang-chae”). Past the sham wall is the sarang-chae: the large one inhabited by the lord of the house, and the small one occupied by the eldest son and heir.

The an-chae, tucked quietly away behind the sarang-chae, was a space for the women of the house. Arranged in a typical square shape, the entrance leads into the rooms and the kitchen toward the east, and the storehouse and the silo toward the west. To the left of the main gate stands the “byeol-chae,” an independent structure inhabited by the concubine or second wife.

Children love to play hide-and-seek on the spacious, labyrinthine grounds. And in the courtyard, they often find not only tiny tree frogs the size of their fingernails, but also swarthy toads as large as an adult’s fist. It’s delightful to watch the shaggy dogs go wild with excitement at the sight of a roaming toad.

Folk Games are Fun, Too—

When you need a diversion from the peace and quiet of the hanok, traditional folk games—kicking shuttlecocks, shooting slingshots, tossing arrows, making plate pictures, and trundling hoops—provide ample amusement. Park personally supplies these games lest his guests feel bored spending the evening in a house with no radio or television.

Each event is worth a hundred points, for a total of 500. When someone breaks a standing record, he or she receives a clay chili paste pot made by Lee Mu-nam, who is one of Gyeongsangbuk-do’s “Intangible Cultural Assets.” Anyone making the top 10 gets to go home with a souvenir made from traditional paper (called “hanji”).

Kicking shuttlecocks tests your skill at moves like the “mole cricket” (a basic one-legged kick), the “heollaeng-i" (roughly translated as “loose and easy,” for which you must keep the shuttlecock in the air without touching your kicking leg to the ground), and the alternating two-legged kick. The goal is to keep the shuttlecock from falling.

For the hoop-trundling event, scores are tabulated from the time it takes you to do one lap around the entire house. The “tuho,” or arrow-tossing, involves throwing 12 arrows one by one into a cylindrical receptacle. In the slingshot competition, contestants fire their slings at a gong standing 10m away. Hits are only acknowledged if the gong sounds.

“Chilgyo” is a kind of puzzle made up of small thin plates cut out of a square board measuring about 10cm on each side. Using these pieces—cut into five triangles, one square, and one parallelogram—you can make some 500 different shapes, including people, animals, plants, and buildings. It’s brain development, the traditional way—and comes highly recommended by Park himself.

Chilgyo began in China around 600 B.C., and the plates are also known as “wisdom plates.” It was also popular among Western intellectuals: its enthusiastic fans include the author Edgar Allan Poe, and Napoleon, while he was in exile on St. Helena Island.

Hanok Meets Creative Dance—

Nights at the old house in the mountains are a far cry from life in the bustling city. Perched on the exposed wooden living room floor, by the dim light seeping through the yellowish paper doors of the rooms, you find yourself encircled by the sounds of nature, like the gurgling of the stream as it crosses the front of the house, and the chorus of the frogs as they warble upon the rice paddies.

In the late-night hours, people gather under the twinkling stars to cook potatoes in an iron pot in the courtyard and exchange animated conversation.

On August 21, Japan’s Tokyo Creative Dance Company is scheduled to perform at the Songso House. It would be an experience indeed to watch the dancers as they flit over the broad rear garden, against the backdrop of traditional clay walls. 054-873-0234

Written by Trip Planner Choi Mi-seon


Photos by freelance photographer Shin Seok-gyo