The Korean House - 1. Nature & Culture of Korea
|Understanding Korea Series No.5|
|← Previous||A Cultural History of the Korean House||Next →|
|Introduction||1. Nature & Culture of Korea||1) Prehistoric Dwelling Sites of the Korean Peninsula|
Korea is a peninsula, located northeast of the Eurasian continent, bordered by China to the north, Russia to the northeast, and Japan to the southeast across the Korea Strait. Geographically, the Korean peninsula is situated in a temperate climate zone of the middle latitudes; the temperatures of its southern and northern regions are significantly different, however, due to the long distance between the two areas. The annual average temperature of the Kaema Plateau region, located at Korea’s northeast side near the border of China, is 5.5°C, whereas the annual average temperatures of Seoul, the capital of Korea located in the middle of the Korean peninsula, and Jeju Island, Korea’s southernmost region, are 12.5°C and 15.5°C, respectively. Therefore, the difference in annual average temperature between the northern and southern regions is 10°C.
In addition, Korea has four distinct seasons. Winter is generally cold and dry due to the Siberian anticyclone. In contrast, the summer is influenced by the North Pacific anticyclone, resulting in high temperatures and humidity. Spring and fall have mostly clear and dry weather. For the central region, the average temperature of January, the coldest month of the year, is –2.4°C, and the average temperature of August, the hottest month of the year, is 25.7°C. The difference between the average temperatures of the coldest and hottest months of the year is 28°C.
These characteristics of the Korean peninsula’s natural environment have greatly influenced modes of production, housing styles, and the overall lifestyle of the people who have lived there. As early as the Neolithic Age, grain agriculture developed on the Korean peninsula and rice and barley became the main crops that sustained the Korean people. This development of the agricultural industry necessitated the formation of human settlements that promoted the effective management of arable land. Therefore, premodern Korea’s typical rural landscape consisted of agricultural land in the settlement’s lowland. While villages formed around agricultural land, other facilities such as schools, religious spaces, and cemeteries were built in more mountainous areas. To cope with Korea’s four distinct seasons, individual houses were equipped with an ondol, or a system of chambers to funnel warm air under the floor, to avoid the cold during the winter period. During the summer, the maru, or wooden floor, located at the center of the house was used for the family’s communal activities, as well as to cool off.
Paleolithic sites offer evidence of people living on the Korean peninsula as early as 700,000 years ago. Neolithic sites once occupied by Homo sapiens, the direct ancestors of modern humans, have been discovered throughout the entire Korean peninsula. Examples of such sites from the Neolithic era, which started around 5000 BCE, are the archaeological sites in Osan-ri, Gyeonggi-do; Yangyang, Gangwon-do; and Dongsam-dong, Busan. Bronze Age archaeological sites dating back to around 1000 BCE have also been found, offering evidence of further developments in agriculture.
However, monuments using advanced architectural techniques eventually appeared after the establishment of the state system by the ancient dynasties. The emergence of ancient kingdoms on the Korean peninsula traces back to the first century BCE. Three ancient kingdoms known as Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla were established on both the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria. This period coincides with the time period during which the Han Dynasty unified most regions of China and expanded its power to Manchuria. Under such circumstances, Chinese civilization spread throughout the Korean peninsula and accelerated the formation of Korea’s ancient kingdoms.
During the formative stage of ancient kingdom development, the kingdom’s northern population in Manchuria and the mid-southern population on the Korean peninsula established independent nations. However, as people resided side by side over a long period of time, they became more and more similar both culturally and politically. Thus, it was natural that the movement toward unification gradually gained momentum. In the middle of the seventh century, the Korean peninsula was finally unified by Silla, the southern kingdom, which resulted in Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean peninsula falling under the rule of the Chinese dynasties. After this period, as a succession of unified dynasties of Korea gradually expanded their territories toward the north, the entire Korean peninsula, with its boundary along the Dumangang (Tumen) and the Amnokgang (Yalu) Rivers, became the territory of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) and has maintained its borders even to this day. As this shows, the Korean peninsula has a long history of unification that has fostered in the population a strong national consciousness of homogenous ancestry and cultural homogeneity.
Most Koreans still believe that the Korean house has a distinctive style with a long history. For example, every traditional house on the Korean peninsula has the unique floor-heating system called ondol. This system includes yeondol, which are horizontal flues installed beneath the floor. Contrary to the popular assumption that this ondol system has been used by Koreans throughout history regardless of their location or social standing, the ondol’s compositional method was not finalized until the middle of the twelfth century, and at that time it was only used by the upper-class elderly and ailing. Over many centuries, however, the ondol was incorporated into houses of all classes and in every region of the Korean peninsula. Use of the ondol changed the overall layout of the house because it influenced the location and design of the maru room, kitchen, and other areas of the house. Thus, the Korean house shows a great difference between the periods before and after the use of the ondol.
Another dramatic change to the Korean house occurred during modern times when contemporary techniques and materials were introduced to housing construction. After a long period of voluntary seclusion, the Joseon Dynasty opened its ports to foreigners as late as 1876. Japan, which experienced Western influence earlier than other East Asian countries, was itself highly influential during this period, and finally annexed Korea in 1910. Throughout the first wave of modernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the traditional house maintained its uniqueness while adopting new building materials such as glass, metal, and brick, partially becoming standardized and urbanized.
At the end of World War II in 1945, Korea became independent from Japan, though the Korean War was triggered in 1950. In 1953, an armistice was signed at the military demarcation line that had been established at the time, and Korea has remained divided into the North and the South until now. In the 1960s, South Korean society began to develop rapidly in conjunction with its economic growth. Industrialization and urbanization were followed by mass production of housing. Particularly after the 1970s, the significant growth of high-rise apartment buildings brought notable variations to the Korean housing market.
Under the present circumstances, over half of the country’s housing options are apartments, and over 90 percent of Korea’s total population resides in the urban areas. The current Korean house, however, still uses the unique floor heating system with the yeondol being replaced with hot water pipes. This demonstrates that the ondol is the most important characteristic of the Korean house.
If a hanok is understood to be a traditional Korean house made of a timber-framed building with a tile or thatched roof and having an ondol and maru as its main spatial components, then the history of the Korean house can be classified into three major periods: the pre-hanok period (up until the mid-twelfth century), the hanok period (from the mid-twelfth century to the 1960s), and the post-hanok period (from the 1960s onward).
- The temperature of North Korea was collected from the global transmitting system (GTS) in 2013 with temperatures measured in Celsius. Source: “The National Weather Service Homepage,” http://www.kma.go.kr/weather/climate/past_tendays.jsp?stn=108&yy=2013&mm=10&obs=1&x=19&y=13.
- Average climate date of 30 years. Source: “The National Weather Service Homepage,” http://www.kma.go.kr/weather/climate/average_30years.jsp.