The Korean House - 4.1 Confucianism and the Composition of Hanok

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Understanding Korea Series No.5
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The Joseon Dynasty was established in 1392 by Yi Seong-gye, a general of the Goryeo Dynasty, with the support of Neo-Confucian scholars. For this reason, Neo-Confucianism was adopted as the state ideology of the Joseon Dynasty from the early stages. Neo-Confucianism was a new a form of Confucianism developed by Confucian scholars of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). Confucianism developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius in the sixth century BCE. There had been significant changes in Confucianism throughout the Han and Tang Dynasties. Neo-Confucianism of the Southern Song, specifically the doctrine of Zhu Xi (1130–1200), advanced a unified worldview and epistemology by applying the Chinese traditions of Buddhism and Daoism to Confucianism.

This ideology was not immediately accepted by people of different classes at the emergence of the Joseon Dynasty. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, Neo-Confucianism was adopted everywhere—even by the country villages. The daily lifestyle of the general public was greatly influenced by the contents of a book titled Zhuzi Jiali (Family Rites of Zui Xi). This book describes proper conduct within the family according to the philosophies of Neo-Confucianism, such as how to promote ethical discipline in both family and social lives, as well as the detailed steps of rites of passage in the four ceremonial occasions (coming of age, wedding, funeral, and ancestor rituals). For example, this book contains descriptions of the behavioral standards for family members, differentiating between the roles of parents and children, men and women, and children and the elderly, as well as addressing family ceremonies and their procedures. The aforementioned description of Confucian ritualism influenced Korean housing and, moreover, remains influential in modern Korean society.

At the same time, during the Joseon Dynasty, the logistics of agricultural management presented challenges to housing design that were not faced in previous eras. Until the end of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), the two most common agricultural practices—crop rotation and shifting cultivation—were carried out biennially. The rice farming practiced in China’s southern region, however, was first implemented during the late Goryeo Dynasty and spread. By the late Joseon Dynasty, southern Chinese rice farming was performed throughout the Korean peninsula. Moreover, advanced agricultural techniques such as adding compost to the soil to recover the fertility were introduced in the early Joseon Dynasty. With this advanced farming technique, it became possible for annual cultivation on the same land while increasing the density of land use.

Under these circumstances, the land of country villages was owned by the yangban, or the ruling class of the Joseon Dynasty, and served as their source of income. The ruling class was mainly composed of Neo-Confucian scholars who practiced the proprieties of Confucianism. Most of these male literati believed performing ancestral rites thoughtfully and hosting their guests with the utmost devotion were their most important jobs. They spent the rest of their time reading books and supervising household chores, including farming. In order to provide the work space for the literati, the house was separated into the anchae (the main quarters or women’s quarters) and sarangchae (the men’s quarters). The sarangchae would usually be located at the front side of the house while connected to the main quarters via a toenmaru or were sometimes built separately. Even though the sarangchae and anchae were within the same area, visibility from one side to the other would be blocked. This means that people in the sarangchae could not be seen from the anchae, and vice versa. This was because men would frequently use the sarangchae to host guests, while the anchae was used by women and family members only.

Among the other topics it addresses, Family Rites of Zui Xi clearly outlines the gender roles for men and women. According to this book, the role of an adult male is to be a patriarch. This book describes perspectives on gender roles that espouse gender discrimination, and this characteristic is reflected in the house as well. The sarangchae, a work space for males, is not attached to a kitchen and only consists of an ondol room and maru. The maru was particularly used as a space for public activities such as meetings, so various forms of maru were developed.

An ancestral shrine, sadang, with a gate and fence

It appears that ancestral shrines known as sadang started to be built in a noblemen’s houses during the Joseon Dynasty. A sadang is a place to enshrine the ancestral tablets of up to four generations of household ancestors. This custom shows that ancestors up to four generations back are still considered to be members of the family even after death. The faithful scholar’s daily schedule began with paying respects to the ancestors at the sadang. The sadang was usually located at the back of the main building and separated by additional walls and a gate. For people who could not afford to build a sadang, they instead used a closet in the daecheong (main wooden-floored hall) of the sarangchae or anchae to enshrine the ancestral tablets. On the anniversary of the ancestor’s death or on major holidays, descendants took the ancestral tablets from the sadang or the closet, placed them on the north side of the daecheong, and held a memorial ceremony for the ancestors. Through this ceremony, all descendants showed their respect and gratitude to their ancestors by serving rice wine and food.

A daecheong in an anchae

Since the sarangchae was built separately, the anchae, or the main quarters of the house, was used by family members and children, particularly women. If one wanted to leave the house from the anchae, one would have to pass by the sarangchae. One of the consequences of this feature was that female members of the family were under surveillance by the male members and therefore restricted from leaving the house on their own. Furthermore, upper-class women were expected to hide their faces with a cloak-shaped veil when they left the house.

The anchae was generally composed of the main ondol room for the highest-ranked female member of the house, a daecheong that served as the center of family life, a kitchen as the main work space for household chores, and a courtyard. In addition, the ondol room on the opposite side of the daecheong was mostly used by an elderly woman or a girl. Boys either used the ondol room in the anchae that was closest to the sarangchae or rooms in the sarangchae itself.

A backyard behind anchae, with a jangdokdae and clay pots

The house of upper-class landowners also had spaces for many servants and slaves, who were separated according to the gender of the person. Women were mainly responsible for work in the anchae while men were in charge of the outdoor work. Called haengnangchae, the servants’ quarters were attached to the main entrance, and male servants lived there. Female servants stayed in the inner rooms of the anchae or in the building closest to the anchae known as an anhaengnang.


Because the front of a house was shielded from view by the main entrance and the haengnangchae, the backyard behind the anchae that was directly connected to the kitchen became a private family space. In this private space, there were platforms called jangdokdae used for storing and preserving foods such as sauces and condiments in clay pots. This private space could also be used to hold a well for supplying drinking water and doing laundry, or could hold a small flower garden for enjoyment. In contrast, the yards in front of the sarangchae and haengnangchae were public spaces used as a work space for agricultural work. According to the gender role responsibilities, men mainly performed the activities situated at the front side of the house while women usually stayed in the rear of the house occupied with family activities.

Understanding Korea Series No.5 A Cultural History of the Korean House

Foreword · Introduction

1. Nature & Culture of Korea

2. The Beginnings of the Korean House · 2.1 Prehistoric Dwelling Sites of the Korean Peninsula · 2.2 Formation of Ancient Society and House Patt erns

3. Hanok: The Formation of the Traditional Korean House · 3.1 Ondol and Completion of the Traditional Hanok · 3.2 Types of Hanok · ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES THAT REFLECT REGIONAL CHARACTERISTICS


5. Integration with Modern Culture · 5.1 New Housing Types aft er the Opening of Ports · EXPOSITIONS AND THE CULTURE HOUSE · 5.2 Transformation of Hanok in the City · AN EXAMPLE OF URBAN-TYPE HANOK: GAHOE-DONG · 5.3 The Emergence of Multifamily Housing · THE TERM APARTMENT|THE TERM APARTMENT|THE TERM APARTMENT

6. Modern Korean Housing · 6.1 Transformation in Korean Housing aft er Liberation · VARIOUS FEATURES OF THE URBAN DETACHED HOUSE · 6.2 The Popularization of the Apartment · SUPPLY OF APARTMENT COMPLEXES

7. The Present and Future of Korean Housing · CHANGES IN INTERIOR SPACES OF APARTMENTS

Glossary · About the Author