A hanok reflects the Korean people’s philosophy of nature and the universe. This philosophy is what underpins Korea’s nature-friendly and human-oriented architectural tradition.
Ancient Koreans thought the sky was round and the earth was square. This view of the universe, known as cheonwonjibang (round sky and square earth), was directly incorporated in Korean architecture. For instance, important or high-rising edifices were built round while residences, or lower edifices, were square or rectangular. Pillars or columns of Buddhist temples or royal palaces were round whereas ordinary houses were constructed with square pillars or columns.
Our ancestors thought of the human body, which has a round face and rectangular feet, as a small universe and the house we live in as a mid-sized universe; hence “life” was a universe within a universe. They believed the three main components of the universe were sky, earth, and humans, and considered the number three as an auspicious number. This is reflected in architecture, where shapes or motifs usually recur three times. A Korean house is also organized in a way that reflects the yin and yang principle, the universal principle of birth and change. Roof tiles, for example, are considered positive (convex-shaped) or negative (concave-shaped), residential buildings were constructed on positive sites, where sunlight reached, and the number of kan was kept to an odd number.
A traditional Korean house is the fruit of Korean people’s long endeavors to create an ideal living space in harmony with nature and their attention to seasonal changes in the surrounding environment. This awareness of the environment is precisely feng shui. Feng shui is an empirical science and wisdom acquired from observing the earth and the movement of water and wind so that humans can obtain water and use wind for better living.
Hyeol (穴) The area of a mountain range where qi 氣 and jing 靜 are most concentrated.
Josan (祖山), Jongsan (宗山) Mountains located at a distance behind the hyeol.
Jusan (主山) A high mountain behind a hyeol.
Ansan (案山) A low-rising mountain in front of a closely located myeongdang (an ideal site in feng shui).
Josan (朝山) A large, high-altitude mountain located at a distance beyond an ansan.
Myeongdang (明堂) A site located immediately before a hyeol, considered surrounded by the blue dragon and the white tiger in feng shui.
Jwacheongnyong (左靑龍 Left blue dragon) A mountain to the left.
Ubaekho (右白虎 Right white tiger) A mountain to the right.
Naejwacheongnyong (內左靑龍 Inner left blue dragon) A mountain located within the far left mountain.
Naeubaekho (內右白虎 Inner right white tiger) A mountain located within the far right mountain.
Naesugu (內水口 Inner water mouth) Located inside the site, the point where streams join each flowing downstream.
Oesugu (外水口 Outer water mouth) Located outside the site, the point where streams join each flowing downstream.
As they enter a hanok, people say they feel comforted and enriched. Although small, it does not feel crammed or tight because hanoks were ergonomically designed and constructed. All spatial arrangements of a hanok are directly connected to the human body, so each space is optimally sized and located to facilitate the use and movement of the human body. For example, the threshold between a room and the hall has the width of an adult’s shoulder, and a height that is comfortably reachable by an arm when sitting on the floor. Since people are usually sitting down in a room, the ceilings and the height of fixtures are generally lower than those in the hall, where people are usually standing.
People’s dreams and ideals are poured into the building of their own house. Above the entrance of a traditional Korean house, long wooden tablets are hung with inscriptions that portray the family’s customs and traditions. A house is bound to bear the imprints of the particular temperament of the family that occupies it, forged by successive generations’ values, attitude and ethics in life. Located in Gurye in Jeollanam-do Province, Unjoru, a Joseon Dynasty upper-class house over 300 years old, is the largest residence of a non-royal family with 90 kan (traditional Korean unit of measurement). The wealthy owners of Unjoru were well known for sharing their wealth with the community. Behind the outside shed was a large rice bin for less fortunate neighbors who didn’t have much to eat. The family purposely placed the rice bin in a less visible place so that those who took rice from the bin would not feel embarrassed.
Korean people created a behavioral system focusing on respect and consideration for others. A traditional Korean house was one of the main spaces where politeness and manners were practiced. Because of the under floor heating system of a hanok, the section closer to the furnace is especially warmer, and the warmer area was reserved for elders. In shrines, they worshipped the memory of ancestors through regularly held memorial services, and observed the rules of the community to maintain social order. Meanwhile, to protect the privacy of domestic life, women occupied the inner section of a house, and men the outer sections.