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2016 travel diary 19: The Scholar’s Garden #1: Yun Seon-do on Bogildo

Bogil-do, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, 19 May 2016, 10:30am

The Seyeonjeong pavilion and Seyeonji Pond
The Seyeonjeong pavilion and Seyeonji Pond

Way back in the mid Joseon dynasty, being a scholar official was a troublesome occupation. If you were a dedicated scholar you had to act in accordance with your conscience and the highest principles. Unfortunately, as happens with whistle-blowers today, your conscience could be severely career-limiting. If you picked a political fight and lost, you could end up dead – having been told to take poison – or, as more frequently happened, sent away from the seat of power for a number of years. Some scholars took the view that the rat-race was not for them, and voluntarily withdrew from public life. What were you to do while in the political wilderness? Keep your brain active, certainly, by reading the classics and writing poetry or a didactic tome. And take advantage of your leisure time by getting close to nature: build yourself a garden.

Gosan Yun Seon-do in the real world

The scholar Gosan Yun Seon-do was born in 1587. At the age of eight he was adopted by his father’s childless elder brother to carry on the main family line. His education would have focused on the Confucian classics, but he also studied practical subjects such as medicine, economics and geography. Music and poetry were also in the curriculum. He showed great promise, and had no problems passing his first civil service exam at the age of twenty-six with the highest score.

Gosan Yun Seon-do
Gosan Yun Seon-do (Image source:

In 1616, while pursuing his studies at Seonggyungwan National Academy, his conscience caused him grief not for the last time in his life. A memorial to King Gwanghaegun criticizing Yi Icheom, a powerful politician from the dominant Greater Northerner faction, managed to get Yun banished to Gyeongwon in North Hamyong Province – as far as it is possible to get from his family’s home in the southwest of Jeollado while still remaining on Korean soil. It was here that he wrote his first set of poems, Songs to Expel the Gloom.

Seven years later in 1623 (when Yi Icheom was killed in the coup that brought King Injo to power) he was recalled and resumed duties in court. Five years later he was given a signal honour – tutor to two of the king’s sons (the future King Hyojong and his younger brother Prince Inpyeong). While tutoring the princes, Yun was not idle, preparing himself for the next round of civil service exams. He gained first place in the exams of 1632 at the age of 45.

Following Injo’s surrender to the Qing in early 1637, Yun Seon-do retired from politics for a long while. His plan had been to withdraw to Jeju-do, a regular place of exile, but on his way there the inclement weather made him put ashore on Bogildo.

He decided to settle there. And although he spent time at the family seat on the mainland, and in other places where duty or exile took him through the remainder of his life, he died on the island in 1671 at the age of 84.

Gosan’s Daoist Holy Land

The Nakseojae
The Nakseojae: Yun Seon-do’s library, in the 2009 reconstruction

The central valley of the island particularly caught his imagination. He named it Buyongdong, which roughly means “Village of the Half-Bloomed Lotus Flower”. The hills that circle the valley whose peaks sometimes disappear into the clouds or shimmer in the summer heat are said to look like a lotus flower that is about to blossom.

The view from Soeunbyeong towards the Goksudang
The view from Soeunbyeong towards the Goksudang. In the foreground, the Seojae and Mumindang. To the left, out of the picture, is the Nakseojae

The other names he gave the island’s natural features, and to the pavilions he added to the scenery, indicate his desire to create a utopian place for contemplation and withdrawal from the world, while still remaining ready for public service should he be called upon. Indeed the pen-name he adopted, Gosan (Lonely Mountain) suggested solitude but reliability, in keeping with his retreat.

The Nakseojae
The Nakseojae. In front, you can just see the top of the Turtle Rock

The highest peak on the island, Gyeokjabong (433m), has a name related to “gyeongmul”, the Neo-Confucian word for “investigation of things”. At the foot of the mountain he built his home, the Nakseojae (낙서재, or House of Joyful Books), just in front of a large rock that he named Soeunbyeong (소은병), which means “Little Eunbyeong” (or “screen of reclusion”). The Big Eunbyeong which he is thus referencing is Dayingping Rock (pronounced Dae-eunbyeong in Korean), which is located on Mount Wuyi in China, where the Neo-Confucian Scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) retired to study and teach his followers.

Dongcheon Seoksil
Dongcheon Seoksil, as seen from Yun Seon-do’s library the Nakseojae on the other side of the valley

On a hill on the opposite side of the valley he built two pavilions on a rocky outcrop that he called Dongcheon Seoksil (동천석실, or “Stone Chamber in the Daoist Holy Land”). From this spot Yun could look out over the whole valley and take in the expanse of natural scenery that stretched out before him. There was also a rock at which he used to drink tea. This area must have taken a considerable amount of effort to develop given its remote location; and to take supplies up there for his tea drinking and other necessaries Gosan designed a pulley system with a silk rope braced against two rocks.

Across the valley there is a viewpoint called Hyeokhuidae (Shining Light Platform) from where he could look northwards towards the king in Seoul – thus showing his loyalty to the throne. These names are but the start of the numerous allusions Gosan made to sages from the past and his desire to study.

Bogildo, with the various elements of Yun Seond-do's landscape labelled
Bogildo, with the various elements of Yun Seond-do’s landscape labelled. (Credit: 김영환 2014,

Needless to say, the structures that Gosan built on Bogildo do not survive unaltered to this day. In fact just about everything we see in the Nakseojae and Goksudang areas were built in 2009-10: when Kim Yong-dok visited Bogildo to see what was left of Gosan’s creation in 1992 prior to his talk for the Royal Asiatic Society (link in Acknowledgements below) all that remained of this area were some shattered roof tiles and parts of the stone retaining walls. But fortunately we have an eighteenth century account of what his vision had produced, courtesy of a member of his family five generations later: Yun Wi’s (1725-1756) Bogildoji (An account of Bogildo) contains invaluable information about the layout of the island and his ancestor’s daily life, which has been useful to the modern conservators.

The turtle-shaped rock (귀암) in front of the Nakseojae
The turtle-shaped rock (귀암) in front of the Nakseojae

For instance, we learn that the turtle-shaped rock in front of the Nakseojae, discovered only as recently as 2011, was used by Gosan as a viewing point for looking at the moon.

Close to the Nakseojae a stream used to flow down the valley from Gyeokjabong – the Nang’eumgye (낭음계), meaning ‘the mountain stream where one sings loudly and clearly.’ Daoist hermits not only looked at the moon but also “sang in the breezes.” (Heo Kyun – GoK p96)1  Either side of the stream was the Goksudang (곡수당 – Twisting Water Hall) and, on the side closer to the Nakseojae, the Mumindang (무민당 – No Regrets Hall). According to Heo Kyun, Mumin refers to “the state of having detached oneself from all external stimuli, and thereby not having to suffer”, while “Goksudang is named after a story about the famous Chinese calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-379), who used to entertain his friends at Qushui Garden (pronounced Goksu in Korean) by composing poetry and drinking wine from cups floating in a stream… Yun Seondo himself also invited his friends and entertained them in a similar manner.” (GoK ibid)

The Sadang pavilion
The Sadang pavilion

Over the centuries the route of the stream has changed, but beside the current river bed two fine pavilions have been constructed. The one at the top of the slope is the Sadang, on the site of the building where Gosan’s body was initially laid to rest when he passed away in the Nakseojae in 1671; just downstream is the modern Goksudang where the sound of the water can be enjoyed – though the current might be too swift nowadays to float wine cups on it.

The Goksudang was built for Gosan’s son, Yun Hak-gwan, and is a splendidly-proportioned single room pavilion with a porch on all sides, ideal for sitting in the shade and taking in the the view. The bridge across the stream that connects the pavilion with the Nakseojae area is called Ilsamgyo (Day-three-bridge), meaning that three times a day the younger Yun would go to pay his respects to his father in the library up the hill.

The lotus pond just across the stream from the Goksudang
The lotus pond just across the stream from the Goksudang

The scholar-poet at one with nature

To the south of the Goksudang stood the Chwijeokheon (Seizing the Moment Studio) and to the west was the Ikcheongheon (Untainted Studio) – though these buildings are no longer in existence. Again, according to Heo Kyun (GoK p96), ‘Ikcheong’ in Ikcheongheon came from a line in a famous poem about the lotus flower by a Song dynasty philosopher. That line reads ‘the farther away you can smell its scent, the more untainted the flower is’ – again a reference to the distance that Gosan was maintaining from the seat of power in Seoul. Similarly, the word Chwijeok in “Seizing the Moment Studio” is according to Heo Kyun a reference to

the ancient saying ‘Chwijeok bi chwieo,’ which means ‘the true intention behind fishing is not in catching fish but in enjoying the moment.’ This is an allusion to an ancient tale about Jiang Taigong, an old fisherman whose advice aided King Wu of Zhou to overthrow the Shang dynasty. (GoK p96)

Do an image search for 어부사시사 and this is what you find…

But it also brings to mind the subject of Yun Seon-do’s most famous work: his Fisherman’s Calendar (어부사시사), which was composed on Bogildo. Yun is among the most accomplished Joseon dynasty sijo poets whose work has come down to us. As stated in Heo Kyun in his Koreana article,

The fisherman in this poem is not simply a man who fishes for a living, but a wise man who retreats from worldly pursuits and lives in the heart of nature. Considering that Joseon men of letters did not engage in physical labour, let alone fishing, but would often think of themselves as fishermen at heart.

For Gosan as indeed for any other scholar the objective was to become at one with nature, to be in harmony with the workings of the universe. The fisherman in the poem has achieved this – for example in the second stanza of Summer he asks “are the carefree gulls following me, or is it I who am following them?” Subject and object have achieved an idealised form of unity. (TLA p258)

Right - a copy of the Fisherman's Calendar on show in Bogildo
Right – a copy of the Fisherman’s Calendar on show in Bogildo

The poem is a cycle of 40 five-line verses – an adaptation of the sijo form, in which the verses are three lines long, but Gosan has interjected repeated refrains between the lines. The forty verses are grouped into four sections of ten, each section representing one of the seasons. It paints in words what was a common theme in classical painting: a set of four images of a fisherman in nature, one for each season. The first stanza of Autumn makes clear that this poem is about an ideal fisherman:

A fisherman’s life is idyllic, away from cares of the world…
Do not mock the old fisherman, you’ll see him in every painting. (tr Gross)

And also in Autumn, a line that sums up Gosan’s situation on Bogildo:

I look back on the world of men, the farther off the better. (tr in TLA p258)

The Fisherman's Calendar on display in the Yun Family Museum, Haenam-eup
The Fisherman’s Calendar on display in the Yun Family Museum, Haenam-eup

The other famous poem written by Yun during his stay on Bogildo again emphasised his connection with nature: his six-verse poem called Song of Five Friends (오우가). The first verse reads:

You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade.
Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask? (tr Gross)

The remaining five verses extol the virtues of these five friends compared with other candidates for his affection and loyalty.

The Seyeonjeong

The Seyeonjeong
The Seyeonjeong

You could come to Bogildo and almost not realise all these buildings and pavilions were there, because before you reach them there is the showstopping centrepiece of Yun Seon-do’s utopian retreat: the landscape he created around the Seyeonjeong pavilion (세연정).

Seyeonji map
Information board showing the main features of the garden

This is the area that most people would recognise as a “garden”. Yun probably regarded the whole valley as his garden, but this is the area where he had to resort to the most human intervention to get what he wanted. He diverted the Nang’eumgye stream in order to create a large pond, and constructed a large pavilion by its side. The pond itself was called Seyeonji (세연지), the “nature cleansing pond”, which could signify a landscape washed clean by water but equally could allude to nature’s ability to cleanse a scholar’s spirit. The Seyeongjeong pavilion shares this name and idea.

Standing on the Panseokbo taking a photo of the main Seyeonji pond

The water from the Nang’eumgye stream was trapped by the Panseokbo (판석보 – wall of stone and boards) – a dam which served as a bridge to the other side of the pond during the dry season and a weir when water levels were higher, adding to the variety in the landscape. With the Seyeonji in front of the pavilion, there was a smaller, square shaped pond at the back – the Hoesudam (회수담 – Swirling Water Pond).

The Hogyakam
The Hogyakam

The largest rock in the Seyeonji is called Hogyakam (혹약암), signifying a toad that has not yet leaped; Gosan sometimes called it Waryong (Crouching Dragon) Rock, after the Chinese scholar-official Waryong Zhuge Liang (181-234) (during the Three Kingdoms period), who lived in seclusion until the warrior king Liu Bei came to seek his advice three times. “This rock gives us a glimpse into Yun Seondo’s desire to serve in office again under a ruler who truly understood and recognised his talents.” (GoK p97)

The Seyeonji pond with the Seyeonjeong pavilion
The Seyeonji pond with the Seyeonjeong pavilion. On the right, the Panseokbo bridge which dams the pond

The garden underwent a significant renovation in 1993, and the Bogildoji was consulted as a source for the work. As part of the renovation, two platforms (the East and West platform) were reinstated on the spit of land to the north of the pavilion. Gosan would sit in the pavilion with his friends, enjoying the performance of musicians standing on these small stage areas. According to the Bogildoji

‘As soon as they got to the garden, his followers stood beside [Yun Seon-do] respectfully and courtesan-dancers stood by to serve him. He asked that a small boat be placed in the middle of the pond. He then asked a boy who was dressed in brightly coloured garments to rock the boat slightly and sing the Fisherman’s Calendar, which the scholar had composed himself, in a gentle, soothing tune. Musicians would then begin to play wind and string instruments, at which time Yun Seon-do would tell his followers to dance on the Dongdae and Seodae platforms. Sometimes, he would also ask dancers wearing long-sleeved costumes to perform on the Oksodae Platform [the “Jade Pipes” platform on the opposite side of the pond, partly concealed in the trees]. Every step and every movement would be perfectly choreographed to match the rhythm. One would be able to notice this just by observing the reflections in the pond.’ (translated in GoK p97-8)

The Seyeonjeong pavilion and Satuam
The Seyeonjeong pavilion, with, in the foreground, the boat-shaped SaTuAm rock (사투암)

In the epilogue to his Fisherman’s Calendar Yun himself hints at the scene that is painted in the above account:

“When I set a boat afloat in a clear pond or a wide lake, and guests sing and row together, wouldn’t it be another great pleasure?” (translated in TKG)

If this entertainment seems to verge on the licentious, we should remember the words of the Book of Rites:

Poetry expresses the intent. Singing prolongs the notes. Dance movements put the body into action in harmony with the sentiments. These three things originate in the mind, and the musical instruments accompany them. In this way, the affections are deeply seated, and the elegant display of them is brilliant. (GoK p98)

To close with my final quote from Heo Kyun:

To Yun Seon-do, who was both a Confucian scholar and a poet, singing and dancing were not any different from composing poems. They were all different means through which he could cultivate his mind and express his inner feelings. (GoK p98)

Visiting Buyongdong

So, how can present day visitors appreciate Gosan’s earthly paradise? It would be a rare visitor who composes her own poetry and can afford to hire musicians, dancers and a boatman to perform it. Today, not much dancing could be done on the West and East Platforms – trees are growing there – while the Jade Pipes Platform is something I have only found out about since returning home. Maybe it is concealed in trees, but it is further up the hill on the opposite side of the pond. It was not something that leapt out at me when I was gazing out from the pavilion.

Gazing out from the Seyeonjeong
Gazing out from the Seyeonjeong

But that is one thing that you can do, to appreciate Gosan’s vision. In the heat of the day the pavilion provides shade; and with the shutters open on all sides a cooling breeze flows gently through. You can acquaint yourself with four of Gosan’s five friends: water and stone, bamboo and pine. And if you wait until nightfall you can appreciate the fifth friend: the moon. Water and stone is of course all around. Planted just outside the pavilion is a pine tree (which was originally situated on the other side of the pond) – an evergreen and thus a symbol of loyalty and fidelity. In the northeast corner of the garden, below the Panseokbo, is a pool surrounded by bamboo – a plant which Gosan lauds for its strength despite the stems being hollow inside. These bamboos are the first thing you see of the garden when you drive into the valley.

The pine tree by the Seyeonjeong
The pine tree by the Seyeonjeong (photo: TKG)

You are surrounded by nature, by four of Gosan’s friends, and, in the names Gosan gave to the landmarks and buildings in his secluded retreat, you are also reminded of the way a Confucian scholar sought to improve his mind in emulation of the sages of the past while perhaps preparing for a return to loyal duty should his services be required by a king in the future.

Looking towards Gyeokjabong
Looking towards Gyeokjabong from the Seyeonjeong pavilion area

In total we spent around 2 hours looking around the Seyeonjeong and Nakseojae / Goksudang areas before catching a 1pm ferry back to the mainland. We consciously omitted the Dongcheon seoksil. If I were to visit again, having done all the reading and research that I should have done before going there the first time, I would probably spend the whole day on Bogildo. Certainly I’d visit the Seyeonjeong and Nakseojae again, and I’d devote an hour to hiking up to the Dongcheon seoksil to enjoy the view. There’s a good collection of photographs here showing the pavilions, ponds, the view, and the stone (Cha-pawi, (茶바위)) where Gosan used to drink tea. I’d also want to take a look at the lament which Song Si-yeol carved onto the rockface on the east of the island, and maybe walk to the top of Gyeokjabong and explore some of the beaches. In fact, I’d want to spend at least a night on the island.

Who knows, like Yun Seon-do, after a day or two I might decide I want to stay there for a long, long time.

Yun Seon-do’s Garden on Bogildo Island is Scenic Site No.34. Address: 57, Buhwang-gil, Bogil-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do


In this article I draw heavily on the following sources:

  • Heo Kyun: Gardens of Korea: Harmony with Intellect and Nature, tr Donald L Baker, Saffron Korea Library 2005. Cited as “GoK”. Available at Amazon:
  • Heo Kyun: An Old Poet’s Elegant Garden in Nature in Koreana Vol 27 No 3 (Autumn 2013) published by Korea Foundation. Cited as “Koreana”. Available as an ebook on Issuu or online here.
  • KBS World Radio: Yun Seon-do, Joseon Era Politician, Poet and Man of Refined Taste, 2012, available online here.
  • Larry Gross: Sijo Masters in Translation – Yun Sŏndo (1996), which has the complete text in translation of Song of Five Friends and Fisherman’s Calendar as well as helpful biographical and other background information. Cited as “Gross”. Available online here.
  • Traditional Korean Gardens: Representative gardens of the Joseon period, Korean National Arboretum 2012, p51. Cited as “TKG”. Kindle version available here
  • The Korean Institute of Traditional Landscape Architecture: Korean Traditional Landscape Architecture, Hollym (2007). Cited as “TLA”. Available at Amazon,
  • Kim Yong-dok: Kosan, Yun Son-do (1587-1671): The Man and His Island, in Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Vol 67 (1992). Available in soft copy via the Royal Asiatic Society website,

It will be evident that I am particularly indebted to Heo Kyun.


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Song Si-yeol’s last chiselling on Bogildo

  1. See Acknowledgements for bibliography. []

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