[Weekender] How Koreans survived the winter the old-fashioned way

[Weekender] How Koreans survived the winter the old-fashioned way

[Weekender] How Koreans survived the winter the old-fashioned way

Joseon-era painter Lee Hyung-rox “Seoljunghyangsi” (National Museum of Korea)

Winters in Korea can be notoriously harsh with temperatures sometimes dropping to minus 10 degrees Celsius.

Seoul experienced the coldest day in 35 years in January last year, with a low of minus 18.6 degrees Celsius. Some parts of the city, such as Nowon-gu and Eunpyeong-gu, recorded lows of minus 21.7 and 22.6 degrees Celsius, respectively, according to the Korea Meteorological Administration.

Records also show that winter used to be longer on the Korean Peninsula. The average annual temperature in the last three decades between 1991 and 2020 increased by 1.6 degrees compared to between 1912 and 1940, according to data from the Weather Agency.

So how did previous generations, without central heating and electric heaters, survive these long cold winters?

“When Korea used to be a traditional farming community, people did not move around all day long as we do now. During the winter, people relied on the food and work they had done in the other seasons and spent a lot of time at home. and in the village, ”said curator Lee Gwan-ho of the National Folk Museum of Korea.

An oven for space heating and cooking in the house of the late Shin Jae-hyo in Gochang (Cultural Heritage Administration)

An oven for space heating and cooking in the house of the late Shin Jae-hyo in Gochang (Cultural Heritage Administration)

He was born in Hongseong County in southern Chungcheong Province in the 1960s and remembers living through many long cold winters.

“Hanok (traditional Korean houses) were cold and especially vulnerable to cold breezes coming from outside. What people did to offset the cold was to burn wood in agungi (Korean ovens) to keep the ondol (underfloor heating) warm.”

Since trees were hard to get hold of, people sometimes had to resort to boiling water in a gamasot, a large pot used in Korean cooking.

“Throughout its modern history after the Korean War, when the country was experiencing economic hardship, the heating system in many homes was not as modern as it is now. It resembled the traditional system much more, especially in the countryside,” he said.

Ondol: Korea’s traditional underfloor heating system

Ondol is not a Korean invention, but it has been an integral part of the Korean way of life since the Joseon Dynasty, which began in 1392. As early 20th-century historian Son Jin-tae famously said, “Koreans were the ones born. , grew up and died on ondol. ”

Isabella Bird Bishop, a 19th-century British writer who traveled extensively through Korea, once said that it was too hot to sleep during her stay at an inn.

In her book “Korea and Her Neighbors”, published in 1898, she wrote: “The room was always overheated from the fire of the ponies. From 80 ° to 85 ° was the usual temperature, but it was often above 92 °.”

“I spent a terrible night at my door because it was 105 ° inside. In this oven, which warms the floor and spine comfortably, the Korean wayfarer revel.”

The modern underfloor heating system installed in almost every Korean home now has its roots in this old-fashioned ondol using a wood-burning stove, explains Professor Kim June-bong, president of the International Society of Ondol.

“(Today’s) water-based underfloor heating system, which works with hot water circulating through pipes connected to a boiler, is an improvement from the same mechanism where an agungi used to heat the floor in traditional Korean houses,” he said.

“The heating system used in apartment buildings is essentially ondol.”

Unlike radiators that come from the West and are designed to keep the air warm, the ondol heats the floor, Kim said. It is more comfortable, economical and keeps your feet warm.

Nubi: Quilting with Spiritual Influence

Nubi, a quilting technique in Korea, was also used to keep people warm. The traditional quilting involves sewing materials such as cotton wool into clothing and fabric.

“Without anything like ‘insulated clothing’ at the time, nubi were used to help protect against cold weather,” said Kim Hae-ja, who received the title of Master Artisan of Quilt from the Cultural Heritage Administration.

Nubijang Kim Hae-ja, a Traditional Korean Quilter (Kim Hae-ja)

Nubijang Kim Hae-ja, a Traditional Korean Quilter (Kim Hae-ja)

She noted that nubi became more common after cotton was introduced into the country thanks to Mun Ik-jeom, a politician from the Goryeo kingdom. However, the technique had already existed before then.

“Among the upper class, seamstresses did the work, while ordinary people did not have time to quilt their clothes. They were too busy, ”said Kim Jae-ha.

Quilted pants from the Kim clan in Cheongju (Cultural Heritage Administration)

Quilted pants from the Kim clan in Cheongju (Cultural Heritage Administration)

Records show that clothes padded with cotton were made and sometimes paid to the government as a form of tax, she explained.

Although quilting in itself is not unique to Korea, the level of dedication and extent of nubi was covered over a piece of clothing, to give the clothing a religious significance.

“As if it were a matter of religious belief, people thought it would bring good luck and avoid difficulties in putting effort into clothing. Nubi is, in my opinion, a product of dedication,” she said.

However, it is worth noting that nubi was not common, she added. It was often reserved for high-class people, including bureaucrats and civil servants as well as army soldiers during the Joseon Dynasty.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)

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