The Korea Herald


Oeam Village: A walk into history

UNESCO World Heritage candidate keeps authentic Joseon village atmosphere for 500 years

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 27, 2013 - 20:32

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The Korea Herald is publishing “Korea’s Cultural Pride,” a 10-part series on the country’s cultural and natural heritage. A total of nine tangible and 14 intangible examples of heritage have been designated UNESCO World Heritage items for international preservation. This year 15 cultural properties are on the tentative list, awaiting designation. This installation will explore Oeam Village, created 500 years ago, which still keeps the Joseon atmosphere. ― Ed.

About 500 years ago Lee Sa-jong, a low-level government official, came to a peaceful hamlet near Asan, South Chungcheong Province.

He married a daughter of Jin Han-pyeong, a wealthy man in the village, and settled down. Since Jin had no son, Lee supported his father-in-law, which solidified his status in the village that had previously been dominated by the Kang and the Mok clans. Soon after Lee settled in, the current structure of the village consisting of aristocrat housing, and dozens more houses for servants and tenant farmers is believed to have been formed.

Since then, Oeam Village (pronounced “weh-am”), named after the penname of Lee Kan, the sixth descendant of Lee Sa-jong, has maintained its beauty, tradition and, above all, its community.

Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List, the village still has all it takes to be a “Yangbanchon (village of aristocrats).” About 150 residents still try to retain the “authentic Oeam style,” living in the same old buildings and keeping the traditions. A substantial number of them also make a living by running bed and breakfasts for tourists who want to take a peek into the lifestyle of late Joseon era people. 
Meju, or fermented soybean, are hung on the eave of a traditional house. (Korea Tourism Organization) Meju, or fermented soybean, are hung on the eave of a traditional house. (Korea Tourism Organization)

Centuries of preservation

UNESCO also notes that Oeam Village is all about maintaining the original form of the farming village dating back to mid-Joseon through continuous conservation work.

“The spatial composition of the village and houses display how Confucianism, the dominant ideology of Joseon, settled into society. Most villages that had emerged naturally went through an overall change at the beginning of the Joseon era, transforming to befit the novel ideology. The whole process can be witnessed in the village,” UNESCO says on its website.

More than half of the buildings are thatch-roofed. And every year, residents thatch their roofs with new straw. The technique has been handed down in the village through tradition. All the houses in the village are walled with various-sized stones that were easily found in the town fields.
Winter in Oeam Village, South Chungcheong Province (Korea Tourism Organization) Winter in Oeam Village, South Chungcheong Province (Korea Tourism Organization)

Many houses reflect the typical garden style of the late Joseon era.

“Ponds, waterfalls and streams were made using the artificial waterways and valleys and artificial mountains were constructed with stones and ornamental plants,” UNESCO writes.

“In spring and summer, cherry and apricot trees are everywhere, while in autumn the foliage leaves and persimmon trees create an authentic Korean village atmosphere,” Oeam Village management office says on its website.

And with Seolhwasan Mountain in the background and a waterway in the front, the place fits well with the fengshui philosophy. In order to suppress the “strong energy of fire” of the mountain, the residents added “Seol,” or snow, to the name of the mountain.

They also created an artificial waterway that runs through nearly all households in the village. The water is used for daily life as well as to put out fires since traditional wooden houses are more flammable.

“It is unique to the town,” said Lee Jun-dong, head of the preservation committee of Oeam Village. 
A bridge across the man-made waterway around Oeam Village (Korea Tourism Organization) A bridge across the man-made waterway around Oeam Village (Korea Tourism Organization)

Tales in every corner

Designated as Korea’s Important Folk Cultural Asset No. 236, the houses in the Oeam village have interesting tales of their own.

Some of the noble-looking ones have names such as Champandaek, Gyeosudaek, Chambongdaek and Byeongsadaek, named after the occupation the owners held ― Champan is a high-ranking government official while Byeongsa is a term used to honor a mid-ranking military soldier. Gyosu was a professor at the national university and Chambong was a low-ranking regional official.

Some of the houses were named after the locations where owners worked as a government official, another common practice. The home of Lee Jang-hyun (1779-1841), who worked as the magistrate of Songhwa in Gyeonggi Province, was named “Songhwadaek” while “Yeongamdaek” was named for the magistrate of Yeongam in South Jeolla Province.

“If the owners didn’t have a job title, their houses were given names based on the town the wife of the family was from,” said Lee Jun-dong. “For example, if the woman came from Asan to marry her husband in the village, her house will be named ‘Asandaek.’”

The residents still hold shamanic rituals for the zelkova tree at the village entrance and totem poles while burning old hay on the day of the year’s first full moon in January.

“The Lees still hold an annual religious ritual for Jin Han-pyeong, who is technically an in-law, because he accepted Lee Sa-jong and his offspring as part of the family and the village,” said Lee Jun-dong. “Keeping the ritual for nearly 500 years on the maternal side is a very, very rare thing in Korea.”

Future of Oeam

Currently about half the residents are of the Lee clan and the majority of the villagers are farmers. Also, a considerable number of the households consist of two or more generations, unlike most other nuclear families in urban areas.

“I guess people always have the strong sense of identity of being a Oeam Village resident. The young ones who have jobs in nearby cities choose to stay in the village to support their parents and other families while helping them with farming and other chores. To them, to do otherwise is not an option,” said Lee Jun-dong, who also returned to the village 10 years ago after living 30 years outside the village.

The residents are hoping that listing on the UNESCO World Heritage List would put their village on a whole new level.

“Our goal is to make more people understand the traditional and unique culture of Korea through the village. Currently we have about 400,000 visitors every year,” he said.

“And we hope the enlistment will be a sign of international acknowledgement of our history, culture and efforts to preserve them,” he said.

By Bae Ji-sook (