You can learn a lot by simply visiting historical attractions, but you’ll learn even more by spending some time in the shoes of those who actually lived there! Grand 99-kan (traditional Korean counter of space between two pillars) hanok houses are perfect for exploring the life of a yangban family, Joseon’s aristocracy. At the time, this was the largest a single household could be built outside of the royal palaces, limited to only the extremely wealthy. Let’s follow the family to see what a typical day is like!
* This column portrays a typical day in the life of the aristocracy from the Joseon dynasty; it is not based on any real person or location.
For the yangban, the day starts with the rising of the sun. The elder of the house would take walks in the gardens each morning to meditate on the day to come. He could take hours walking around looking at the plants or simply pacing along the stone walls. The rest of the household would watch and wait in anticipation, trying to decern the elder’s mood based on the length of the walk or the expression on his face.
All male yangban were scholars and their mornings were often spent studying. The goal of all yangban men was to pass state exams, which meant they had to do a lot of reading if they wanted to surpass their peers. However, as the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so occasionally they would take breaks to entertain guests. Because of the extreme separation between the men and women of the Joseon dynasty, the females of the household would use peep holes in the wall to see who had come to visit, and prepare accordingly. The peep holes are built in such a way so that one hole in the anchae (women’s quarters)-side provides a 45-degree angle view through two holes on the sarangchae-side.
It stands to reason that if your house is one of the largest in the nation, the table you eat at would be just as big. Each meal was filled with nutrients for a healthy diet, featuring the standard rice, soup, and kimchi, along with anywhere from five to nine different side dishes. Not only that, the yangban were known to have five meals a day! Simbuja Bapsang in Cheongsong is one place that still serves the typical yangban set meal.
After a productive morning, the yangban family could relax in the afternoon. Men typically played baduk or janggi, a type of Korean chess. Women would play tuho nori (arrow-throwing) for exercise, or follow more artistic pursuits such as sewing or writing poems. These days, many historic houses that are open to the public provide the opportunity to experience various activities common to the yangban of the past. These experiences range from active participation such as playing traditional games or pounding rice cake, to watching traditional events like a wedding or music recital.
At the day’s end, the household give an evening greeting to their elders before retiring to their respective rooms for private time. At this time, the men could study more or read for leisure. If they were up for something more active, they would sneak off to their wife’s room in the anchae to spend the evening together.
There are some historic houses that also offer the chance to spend the night in the traditional rooms. Most of the houses are located in the mountainous areas of the countryside. Away from the noise and lights of the cities, you’ll be able to enjoy a peaceful evening just like the yangban of the past. You can even view the stars filling the night sky if you decide to step outside from your warm, ondol-heated room.
* This column was last updated in February 2020, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details before visiting.