South Korean Weltscherz Series: (No.3) History Besides the Rice Paddy

The bustling, British seaside-sized town of Andong finds itself some 90 minutes north of Daegu, nestled into the countryside of the ROK. And it’s long been on my wife and I’s day trip list since we started dating almost two years ago, such was the promise of this place from those who had been and what the guidebooks told us. So, before the summer months came with all that malign heat, humidity, and stuffiness, we headed forth to Andong.

Well, not exactly, Andong. Hahoe Folk Village is in the vicinity and is certainly classified as being in Andong City, according to the site’s tourist pamphlet, yet Andong is more of the drop-off point for most coming by bus. For those coming by car, parking is abundant. Either way, a short five minute bus ride from the ticket stand to the site itself is still in the offing. I can only reason that this is an attempt to preserve the primitive roads and limited infrastructure.

Moving on. Our old, rather worn Lonely Planet (2010) advises the reader to “[a]rrive early in the morning and the mystical beauty of the village creates the illusion that you are in another time (p.231).” It’s quite the statement, and it certainly piqued the historian in me for sure. And as for the anthropologist, the tourist pamphlet proudly boasted that “[d]uring the 34th World Heritage Committee session held in July 2010 in Brasilia, Brazil, Hahoe village was named, together with Gyeongju’s Yangdong village, as Korea’s 10th UNESCO World Heritage site.” Certainly this place had global pedigree then! These were quite wonderful endorsements.

The first thing one notices about Hahoe, once one has walked beyond the Information Board, I think, isn’t the village itself - it’s the landscape that surrounds it. Fetid but delightedly Asian rice-paddy greets the visitor not long after disembarking from the bus-ferry. Tufts of rice stalks shoot out of the still, glass-green wetland at regular intervals; frogs creak, mosquitoes buzz, and the cicadas in the middle-distance sing. I’m not sure if anything says ‘rural Asia’ more than the rice-paddy field. In this sense, perhaps more than any other, and in stark comparison to Korea’s electric-hungry mega cities, it did feel like ‘stepping into the past,’ for seldom does the foreigner venture into Korea’s paddy regions. 

Paddy aside, it’s the sheer cliff that I appreciated next. Vertical sheets of jurassic rock seem to entomb this place, shielding it from the onrush of modern Korea and the grey-blue mountains in the distance. Atop these primordial faces, there are gallant, other-worldly pavilions bestriding the horizon—mainly clustered around the Buyongdae Cliff, opposite the ferry jetty—that seem timeless, made even more special in a country that does not seem to stop. The trusty pamphlet informs my wife and I that the cliff has been loved by scholars. That’s certainly easy to see why given the pleasant view not only of the village  below but of the seemingly man-made, though entirely natural, Nakdong River that snakes around the site, entirely surrounding its full extent save for a small isthmus that grants accessibility to the village and its introductory ancillary building that includes the car park. It is this serpentine water course that gives the village its name: ‘hameans’ means river, and ‘hoe’  translates as ‘turning around,’ according to the tourist literature.

Only after ingesting these surroundings for a few moments can one legitimately return to man’s creations. Comprising of 63 straw-roofed houses, 50 tile-roofed habitats, and 29 structures of other types—still lived in by a population of over 200 residents—the low density of this tiny village certainly is quite a difference to built-up, sky-reaching apartment blocks of the cities. The Lonely Planet writes that “[o]n your left, a magnificent village of centuries-old homes, so impeccable in design you’d swear you were living in the Joseon dynasty (p.231).” While I was familiar with the broad brush strokes of Korean history and architecture, I was unable to put the smooth-beige walls and hay-fortified roofs against any other comparison that wasn’t vaguely Anglo-Saxon wattle-and-daub houses in places like Somerset (UK), or the buildings on the planet Tattoween in Star Wars. Admittedly it was the latter impression that stuck.

There was, however, no Master Yoda. But there was a certain Ryu Unryong, a famous Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty; his legacy lingers with such cultural amenities as the Byeongsan Confucian Academy (built to honour him) that sits at the base of Mt. Hwa, as well as the short, winding ‘Scholar Road.’ Ryu Unryong’s brother, Ryu Sengryong, also rose to fame, eventually becoming prime minister in the trying period of the Imjin War. During this time, the kingdom came very close to complete Japanese subjugation by Hideyoshi and his army of battle-hardened samurai. Had it not been for several brave, desperate stands on land, and some impressive battles at sea, Korea might have ended up a Japanese colony three hundred years earlier than it did in the 20th century. The Ryu family are most associated with Hahoe; their descendants have lived at the site for some 600 years, a fact that is represented by at least six houses originally built by the family dotted around the very heart of the village’s thoroughfares. The narrow lanes added to the fiction of ‘going back in time,’ while the generous spread of garden flowers—loving cared for—add to the beauty and afforded some charming backgrounds for shots of my pregnant wife.

The small scale of the place, in fact, made the experience more enjoyable and indeed manageable given my wife’s condition. The go-at-your-own-pace mentality of the village eventually brought us out by the Mansongjeong Pine Forest that swiftly petered out before the long, rolling beach in front of the Buyongdae Cliff. The view, and perhaps more, the peace of this panorama, was a special moment. 

It was during those thoughts that my ‘issues’ with the site crystallised. Personally, Hahoe Folk Village was disappointing. I was hoping to see a better, close-to-authentic reconstruction of the original. There was no discernible way to really know which, if any houses, were original, or if they were simply reconstructed. One could argue that was intentional, but to my eyes—and I don’t pretend to be an expert—all I could see were reconstructions. At the very least, many may have been originals with significant reconstructions undertaken but evidently with modern methods and materials that exposed the falsehood which visitors attempt to make real. For example, there was modern filler at the end of reasonably decent looking period tiles, and equally contemporary glass Coke-a-Cola bottles that were set into the masonry of the walls. These, for me were issues limiting the historicity of the place. Another problem for the imagination was the proliferation of 20th century material culture: motorcycles, cars, satellite dishes, and other modern amenities stood out regardless of the supposed aesthetic of the place. For me as an ancient historian, the place reminded me more of Arthur Evans’ Knossos obscenity, which is not a positive thing.

My wife, however, was successful in tempering my initial reactions as we sauntered back. She made a good case that for most Koreans and foreigners alike this really is an insight into the past, devoid of almost all of the technological accoutrements that we are used to in our lives here. They are unlikely to see the imperfections of this window into another time in the way that vexed me. And she’s right. Perhaps in this sense, the English pamphlet is justified in what I would describe as a contentious statement:

“The World Heritage Committee assessed that [the] historic village[s] of Hahoe and Yangdong are seen as the two most representative historic clan villages in the Republic of Korea as the outstanding ensemble of the buildings, layout and building traditions are exceptional reflections of the social and cultural system of clan villages that is specific to this area, and of the way they evolved over the century.”

While I feel quite strongly about these perceived issues, I am sure that they are in the minority camp. That said, I won’t budge on my next critique. Now that I’ve got to a certain age, and after having seen in excess of 200 museums around the world, I more often than not tend to skip related displays unless they are particularly recommended or there is a special exhibition that has particularly interested me. Despite this, I remain an avid reader when I go to historical sites, and like to take my time to absorb the information displayed (often to my wife’s annoyance). At Hahoe there wasn’t much signage; most of the information was limited to the English pamphlet that we were given and which has been helpful in producing this blog, but didn’t expand on it’s interesting notes. For me, minimal signage really is a let down - it is essential to properly understand and interact with a site.

Less redeemable still is the sad, almost depressing marketplace, situated close to the river. It must have once been the thriving hub of the village, but today, despite the throngs of tourists that come here, it had the feel of a bucket-and-spade shop in a British seaside town during the winter. While some items caught the eye, it was generally a representation of the wares one finds at most ‘traditional’ sites at he more famous (and/or culturally significant) temples—wooden cooking utensils, incense sticks, and dozens of other forgettable items. Little seemed to be handcrafted by the locals, which is what I would have loved to have seen and probably would have paid for. That said, many of these items were surprisingly cheaper than they are at other sites.

A highlight that my wife and I agreed on was the ‘Taffy.’ When my wife mentioned this word, I, as a Brit from the West County, immediately thought of Wales—I had no idea what she was referring to. Taffy, as it turns out, is a sugar-spun, centre-filled candy known as Yeot in Korea. They were not to my taste (my wife devoured them with gusto), but what I did find fabulously interesting was the manufacturing involved. The man before us, behind the snack stand, was daubed in chef-whites and wore a classic cook’s hat as tall as the Pope’s mitre. With a smattering of English, he described the ingredients and the rough outline of how he made these treats, which, in my mind, took on the form of magic. 

I wondered how the chap made the candy that my wife ate on the way back to the bus stop. And then some more over lunch. As for real meals, what you might call the reception/carpark area, had several restaurants serving jjimdak, and not much else. Luckily, we both like this style of Korean cuisine, and happily consumed it. If we were vegetarians, there would have been a good chance of starving. (Korea doesn’t always cater for herbivores, and less so again for those who are vegan or have food-allergies.)

Overall then, even if the village itself may have been less than I had hoped, the trip was anything but a wasted effort. As previous excursions have expressed, escaping to the countryside is a welcome antidote to city life, and few places I’ve been to (that don’t involve hiking up a mountainside) are as peaceful as those around Hahoe. In the end, I accepted Hahoe for exactly what it wanted to be.

For more information, here’s a link to the website: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/ATR/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264148. For those in Korea, tourist information can be sought on (050) 852-3588 (Hahoe Village Tourist Information Centre), or Explanation and Interpretation Desk for Tourists available on (054) 840-3803. Equally, feel free to get in contact with The Digital Traveller Team.

Thomas Dowling

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