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2016 travel diary 16: Yun Du-seo’s historic house

Hyeonsan-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do, 18 May 2016, 5pm.

Yun Du-seo's house
Yun Du-seo’s house

By the time we leave the Jindo bridge area it’s past 5pm. I have a huge range of things on the itinerary that I could try to fit in, should there be time. But to rush anything would not feel right, particularly when the weather is so conducive to taking things easy. My target time for getting to Ttangkkeut Maeul – Land’s End village – is around 6:30. It is about an hour’s drive away if you take the scenic route. And on that scenic route is the historic house of Yun Du-seo. (Important Folklore Cultural Heritage #232). We plug the address into the SatNav and set off. The route takes us along empty roads, past rolling hills and through flat rural farmland: a more relaxing drive you could not possibly imagine. The hills reflect in the water of the rice paddies, and every now and then you get a view out towards the sea.

The view southwards from Yun Du-seo's village
The view southwards from Yun Du-seo’s village

The GPS takes us flawlessly to a quiet village off the main road: a single track road takes us across a paddy. We turn a corner at the end of the field and find a parking space in front of the village hall. It looks like the road will be getting narrower and so we take advantage of the space while we can. We walk through the winding lanes of the village, following the signposts which point the way to the historic building. There is not a sound to be heard, not a person to be seen.

We wander freely around the outside of the house. It was originally built in around 1670 for Gosan Yun Seon-do (1587-1671) on what was meant to be a geomantically propitious spot. But the pungsu experts weren’t familiar with the winds in the area, and the strong sea breezes made the site uncomfortable for Yun. Not that it mattered. Since Yun Seon-do retired from state affairs in 1637, disgusted at Injo’s surrender to the Qing (though Injo’s range of options that avoided Joseon’s annihilation were limited), he doesn’t seem to have been short of places to live. We would see his Bogildo property the next day; he also lived in retreat in Geumswaedong in the middle of Haenam County in 1640; and there was his family home near Haenam-eup that we would see in two days’ time.

Calligraphy on Yun Du-seo's house
Calligraphy on Yun Du-seo’s house

Regardless of whether the famous Yun Seon-do found the place uncongenial, his equally famous great grandson Gongjae Yun Du-seo (1668-1715) lived there. Being born into the Haenam Yun clan had both advantages and disadvantages. Gongjae was an accomplished scholar, and through his family had many important connections. Through these connections he would have been exposed to progressive thinkers: his first wife was a relative of Yi Su-gwang (1563-1628), a scholar who effectively gave birth to the Silhak (practical learning) movement. He was a three-times envoy to Ming China who was familiar with the works of Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit missionaries. Yun Du-seo was closely acquainted with two progressive scholars Yi Ik (1681-1763) and his brother Yi Seo (1662-1723). A later descendant of the Yun clan (Paul Yun Chi-ch’ung (1959-1791) was one of the first Catholic martyrs in Korea.

The main courtyard of Yun Du-seo's house
The main courtyard of Yun Du-seo’s house

Reflecting their association with modernising thought, his clan was in the political wilderness for much of Gongjae’s life. The family belonged to the Namin / Southerners’ faction at a time when the Seoin / Westerners held sway. Moreover, although he passed his first civil service exam in 1693, he was prevented from entering public office because several consecutive family deaths meant that he had to observe mourning periods.

The back of Yun Du-seo's house
The back of Yun Du-seo’s house

Gongjae was known in court circles as a highly accomplished painter and he was invited to participate in the painting of a portrait of King Sukjong (r 1674-1720). The commission was to end in his retirement to Haenam in 1713. Depending on which version of the story you accept, Yun either turned the commission down because he was above such work, which was the job of low-class court painters; or he was prevented from accepting the honour when a political rival insisted that he complete whatever period of mourning he was observing at the time; or the offer was revoked when a Chinese art collector made disparaging comments about Yun Du-seo’s painting abilities.

We know from Gongjae’s self portrait, though, that his skills were considerable.

One of the outbuildings of Yun Du-seo's house
One of the outbuildings of Yun Du-seo’s house

What remains of Gongjae’s house today is the anchae (the women’s quarters), a repository building and a shrine. No longer surviving are the sarangchae (men’s quarters) and the gate quarters. But the remains are spacious enough. According to the Cultural Heritage Administration website the low-lying profile of the roofs of this house are so constructed to avoid the wind as much as possible, but on the day we visited it was hard to imagine the gales that made the spot so inhospitable to Yun Seon-do.

An aged tree in Yun Du-seo's yard
An aged tree in Yun Du-seo’s yard

In the yard over the boundary wall there was a small farm building in which some foodstuffs were being smoked. And the smoke was drifting lazily upwards to the sky, untroubled by any sea breeze. It was a perfect rural idyll, in a village which was not short of other traditional style tile-roofed houses.

Late afternoon smoke next door to Yun Du-seo's house
Late afternoon smoke next door to Yun Du-seo’s house

Yun Du-seo’s Historic House is Important Folklore Cultural Heritage 232, address 122, Baekpo-gil, Hyeonsan-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do.


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