In traditional hanok houses (and in the rooms of palaces in Korean historical dramas) the floors are always yellow. I’ve often wondered why this is, and recently I got the opportunity to find out when I went on a tour of Myungwon Folk House a traditional hanok house.
Myungwon Folk House belonged to the mayor of Seoul at the end of the Joseon period. It was taken over by Mee Hee Kim, a pioneer of the tea ceremony in Korea. It was moved from its original location and is now part of Kookmin University where it’s used as a school for the Korean tea ceremony. The house is a national treasure as well as a place of learning. And we were told that Kookmin University is the only university in Korea where all the students have to study the tea ceremony!
scene from Dong Yi (MBC 2010)
Anyway, during the tour of the house I asked about the floors. The floors of hanok houses are made of special hanji paper which are treated with soybean oil to make them stronger and waterproof. Quite regularly the floors must be replaced and one of the other participants on the tour told me about what a big (and expensive) job it was to repaper the floors in her grandmother’s hanok house. First of all there are lots of layers of paper (not just one!) which need to be ripped up. Then when the new layers of paper have been laid down, they have to be treated with soybean oil. After this nobody can enter the room until the floor is dry.
At first the floors are a pale yellow colour caused by the soybean oil treated paper. But over time the colour changes. Rooms with the paper floors usually have underfloor heating and the heating causes the shade of yellow to become darker. Eventually some parts of the floor will be different tones of yellow depending on which parts of the floor get more heat. Finally, the floor will become very dark and that’s when it’s time for it to be stripped and redone.
a hanji paper floor in a hanok house restaurant
YELLOW FLOORS IN HOUSES & APARTMENTS
So originally the floors of hanok houses were made of paper from mulberry trees and coated in natural oils. But hanok houses are pretty rare these days and paper floors don’t suit modern life because they are hard to maintain and expensive to replace. Homes have more furniture and care must be taken not to damage the floor scraping furniture around and what not. Since the 1970’s more and more people started living in blocks of flats and now over 60% of people in Korea live in high rise apartments. But the interesting thing (to me anyway) is that the floors of the flats built to replace hanok houses also had yellow floors – but covered with lino not paper.
These days yellow floors seem to be extinct in modern apartments. But the first flat I lived in when I arrived in Seoul had yellow floors in the smaller rooms while the main kitchen and living area had plywood floors. I thought the bright yellow lino floors were very unusual. Now I realise the colour was a nod back to the days when people lived in low wooden houses with floors covered in paper from mulberry trees.