In the week that Hahoe folk village near Andong was admitted to the UNESCO heritage list, LKL recalls a visit to Namsa-ri, a less-visited but equally impressive hanok village.
Friday 7 May 2010. After our visit to the Nambugun memorial museum we were feeling in sombre mood. But fortunately, lunch comes to the rescue. Sancheong is known for its rice, indeed I was told that the Blue House wouldn’t accept any other rice. This particular restaurant’s speciality is rice mixed with nuts and beans, served in a sizzling stone bowl. There are the usual vegetable and meat side dishes including bossam1: steamed belly pork to be wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. On finishing the rice, water is poured into the bowl and the charred grains scraped off the bottom, and left to brew for a few minutes for a tasty rice tea, Sungnyung. It’s the sort of thing that would probably be regarded as frightfully bad manners in England, but it’s a way of making sure than not any of that precious rice is wasted.
The restaurant is a popular one, and in a private room on the side a large party of dignitaries from Seoul are tucking in to their own lunch.
Next on the agenda is a visit to the local hanok village. The village’s name is Namsa-ri. Unlike the folk village in Yongin, the artificial creation that we had visited on the first day of the trip, this one is the genuine article. It traces its history to pre Goryeo dynasty times, though the oldest surviving building dates to the 17th century.
We walk down a long alleyway, tall walls on either side preventing roving male eyes from seeing the timid and vulnerable womenfolk on the other side. Or maybe it’s the other way round, because we were told that the reason see-saws and swings were a popular diversion with young Joseon dynasty girls was so that they could propel themselves high enough to see over the walls and eye up the local boys. The village is famous for its walls: it is known as Namsa Yedam Chon – “Lovely Walls Village”
At the end of the alley we come across the local yangban’s house. Its grounds are open to the public, but the house itself is still inhabited by a “real” person. To demonstrate its ongoing use, an exercise bike is on the veranda.
To the side of the male reception rooms is a door in the tall garden wall leading through to the women’s quarters. Open the door, and you see another tall wall. After all you don’t want casual passers-by to get a sneak peek of the ladies as you go through. In order to get to the women’s quarters you need to go round another corner, having shut the door.
Although it’s early May, the sun is beating down fiercely. Korea’s famed four distinct seasons seem to be reducing to two: springs and autumns are getting shorter and shorter, and today it seems like it is summer already. The sun is bright, and the glare of the red azaleas is almost painful on the eye against the green of the other shrubs. In another corner of the courtyard is the kitchen garden: one of the few places the wife and mother-in-law can easily talk and gossip about the husband of the house.
At the end of another passageway is the old village school, still in impressive condition. One of the rooms is available for rent, for families to sleep in overnight. Why would they want to do that? Namsa-ri, like Sancheong more generally, is full of ki energy from the earth, and the energy seems to be strongest in this school building. Once again, our guide demonstrated the power of ki. Yoseph was asked to make the “O” with his thumb and index finger, and Mr Min tried to break the “O” before and after Yoseph placed his hands on the wall of the building to absorb some of the energy. Yoseph didn’t look convinced, but Mr Min carried on regardless. “You see? And that’s why people sit on the floor in Korea. It’s to absorb the ki energy from the earth.” And there was me thinking it was to get the heat from the toasty warm ondol system…
And there’s more to be said of Namsa-ri, this tiny hamlet in the small county of Sancheong. It has produced three national assemblymen currently in office. Admiral Yi Sun-shin stayed there on his way to giving the invading Japanese another bloody nose with his famous turtle ships. And it was in Namsa-ri that a secret plot was hatched to send a Korean delegation to the Hague Peace Conference in 1907. This was a big international conference designed to build on a framework for governing international relations and expand on the 1864 Geneva Convention.
Since 1905, Japan had governed Korea’s foreign policy as an interim stage towards full annexation in 1910. Nationalists saw the conference as an opportunity to protest about Japanese occupation of Korea and to proclaim independence. The problem was, as Korea didn’t have its own foreign policy they couldn’t send their own delegation. A secret proclamation was drafted on hanji, Korea’s famous indestructible mulberry paper. The paper was rolled up into rope, and a pair of sandals was woven out of the rope. And thus was the crucial document smuggled out of Korea to the Hague, to alert the international community to Japan’s aggression. The Korean delegation to the conference were unsuccessful in getting their message fully heard, but represented a brave manifestation of nationalist resistance to Japan.
Sancheong is truly a place in which legends are made. After such heroic tales, a cup of tea was in order, and Namsa-ri has a gem of a tea-shop, packed with curios for sale. We ordered a round of patbingsu (팥빙수): sweet red beans, fresh fruit, and a sweet milky sauce piled on top of crushed ice. A perfect refresher for a hot day.
- The Korean delegation at the 1907 Peace Conference in The Hague, summary of Koen de Ceuster’s talk at the conference “Social and Cultural Change in late pre-modern Korea” held at the British Academy in December 2007.
- Namsa Yedam Chon page on the Visit Korea website
- For an enticing photo, see http://rokdrop.com/2010/05/30/picture-of-the-day-korean-bossam-pork/