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[Opinion] Traditional Ondol Heating System

Posted August. 27, 2005 03:01,   


We now have breezes in the morning and at night. We even feel chills at dawn. It seems like only several days ago, we suffered from heat waves, and seasonal changes are amazing. At this time of the year, we feel like enjoying the tradition Ondol heating system, but times have changed. The days when we used to enjoy baking sweet potatoes at the furnace of the Ondol room, and listen to folk tales from Grandpa are now gone.

Ondol used to be enjoyed in the northeastern part of China and some parts of Mongolia as Korea’s unique heating system. Heat is sent through pipes under the floor, and the small warmed pipes underneath it emit heat. This system began in the Old Stone Age, went on to the Goguryeo and Goryeo, and was established nationwide in the Joseon Dynasty. Percival Lowell, a U.S. scientist, wrote a travelogue regarding the Joseon Dynasty titled, “The Land of the Morning Calm (1885).” In the book, he states that Ondol is like a fire pot warming a room in the wintertime. There is a hole outside the room for the heating system, “agung,” or a furnace. Once fire is set, warm smoke is spread apart crossing a maze, which is intricately connected like a beehive. The idea is brilliant.

Ondol has the wisdom of our ancestors. The thick stones are for the lower part of the room, and thin ones for the upper, to spread the heat evenly by reducing the temperature gap. This would prevent the accumulation of moisture and the risks of fire. Agung also reduces heat loss in cooking rice. It is said that France’s CNRS (Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique), is conducting research on Ondol as a means to save energy due to the scientific mechanism of Ondol. The Oxford Dictionary’s new edition has “Kimchi,” and “Ondol” in it. It may be expected that Ondol will soon be adopted by other Asian nations as one of the many Korean Wave products.

Remains of Ondol from the kingdom of Balhae were excavated from Russia without much harm. Once again, it was proven that the history of Balhae and Goguryeo is a part of Chinese and Korean history as Korea’s unique necessities were found there. Ondol not only gives warmth as a heating system, it also reveals historical truth as relics.

Song Young-eon, Editorial Writer, youngeon@donga.com