Traditional Korean Medicine in Korean Culture #1: Ondol and Samgyetang

Korea is a country of contrasts and contradictions, in which seeming opposites can coexist in harmony with each other: it is a developed modern country with a high standard of living while keeping traditions alive at the same time; it has world-leading technology, but it is not uncommon for people to consult a shaman for advice. Another good example of this is traditional Korean medicine (TKM): although there is a well developed infrastructure of Western medicine, TKM still places an important role in the lives of Koreans.

Hanok
A Hanok’s (traditional Korean house) ondol system is fully in harmony with TKM

An ondol (온돌), a unique integral part of the traditional architecture in Korea, is an underfloor heating system. When we stoke the fire in the stove (agungi; 아궁이), the heat transfers to the stone (gudeuljang; 구들장) underneath the room and is disseminated throughout the whole house creating a warm cozy atmosphere. Then, the smoke exits through the chimney.1

A simplified diagram of the ondol underfloor heating system
A simplified diagram of the ondol underfloor heating system

The ondol system is based on one of the main principles in TKM, namely suseunghwagang (수승화강)2. This proposes that the upper part of the body, particularly the head, has to be cool and the lower part of the body has to be warm. In an ondol room, there’s a winmok (윗목) and an arenmok (아랫목). The arenmok is the place which is closer to the agungi, therefore, it is hotter. The winmok is the place which is closer to the chimney, therefore, it is cooler. People direct their heads toward the winmok and put their feet toward the arenmok when they are sleeping. Also, when they sit on the floor, their hips are warm and their heads are cool. Thus, ondol makes it easier to achieve the status of suseunghwagang.

Samgyetang
It is traditional to have samgyetang in the summer to help endure the oppressive heat

Another good example is the tradition of eating samgyetang (삼계탕) in summer. Samgyetang is whole chicken stuffed with Korean ginseng, dates, sticky rice and garlic, cooked slowly and served in hot broth. In herbal medicine, chicken is considered to possess hot properties, and other ingredients of samgyetang such as ginseng, dates, sticky rice and garlic are considered to have warm properties3. In summer the outer part of the body becomes hot in response to the hot weather, whereas the inner part of the body (inner organs) remains much cooler. Eating samgyetang is a way to warm up the inner part of the body, thus rebalancing the body. On the other hand, naengmyeon (냉면, cold noodle soup) used to be the food to have in winter.

Links:

  1. Buttumak (부뚜막) is a flat area above the agungi to place pots. Buneomgi (부넘기) is a raised fire entrance to an ondol flue in order to prevent flames going backwards. []
  2. Suseunghwagang literally means that the water (cold) energy has to move up and the fire (hot) energy has to move down in the body. []
  3. In herbal medicine, every type of food or herbs has its own property, from extremely hot to extremely cold. It is the basic principle that if the inside of the body is hot, then we should complement it with food or herbs of cold properties, and vice versa. []

6 thoughts on “Traditional Korean Medicine in Korean Culture #1: Ondol and Samgyetang

  1. This is one of the most important principles in Korean Medicine. In an ondol room, there’s a winmok (윗목) and an arenmok (아랫목). The winmok is the place which is closer to the agungi, therefore, it is hot. The arenmok is the place which is closer to the chimney, therefore, it is hot. People direct their heads toward the winmok and put their feet toward the arenmok when they are sleeping.

    This explanation is a little bit confusing. Are both 윗목 and 아랫목 hot? One should be hotter than the other.

  2. The explanations on 아랫목 and 윗목 seem to be still confusing.
    아랫목 is the place closer to the agungi and warmer.
    윗목 is the place closer to the chimney and less warm.
    You put your head toward 윗목 to make head cooler and and lower body warm.

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