When a door isn’t just a door, it must be an old Korean doorDoors are special in Korea. Wherever a house has a few spare centimeters between curb and foyer, in goes a wall and gate. Of Seoul’s original eight gates, five are restored or lovingly preserved. Namdaemun is national treasure No. 1; Dongdaemun is historic treasure No. 1.
Korean shamanism assigns doors their own gods. The gates of Jeju communicate with neighbors by a semaphore of slats. Man himself is, in one traditional formula, a door between earth and heaven. In any wandering, do not miss the doors of Seoul.
A door separates and joins. A Korean door must never do one to the exclusion of the other. Heaven must not be cut off from earth, or a human from his fellows. The perfect door is translucent, allowing a play of light and shadows from both sides. Millennia ago, Korean artisans developed mulberry paper for this effect. But paper is a delicate thing. A moistened finger can be poked right through a panel, exposing all within ― a fact that has produced much sport among neighbors on Korean wedding nights. Traditional Korean doors are latticed, backing the paper. A 5-centimeter (2-inch) space between slats is typical.
The Joseon period limited ornamentation on the doors of commoners. Simple crisscross lattices are commonest, squares or diamonds. Slats are lathed and notched to interlock smoothly; all by hand.
Other patterns are based on ideograms. Toward the north, the jeong pattern is popular, from the character for a well; it lets in the most light. In central Korea, ya (meaning, among other things, “ugly”) makes an airy pattern of interlocking squares. In the South, yong (“useful”) lets in less of the killing sun. “Long life” and “good luck” are, predictably, also popular.
Palaces and temples knew no restrictions on ornament; here master-carpenters let fancies flow free, with doors galore. Most popular, hexagonal patterns allowed trompe l’oeil effects, the lattice structure cleverly concealed under the sinuous carving. It also lends itself, happily, to patterns based on blossoms. Painted in bright dancheong colors, the result is an illuminated devotional art reminiscent of European stained glass. Every picture tells a story; every color, too, has meaning. Green dominates, for the East, the fertile spring, the dawn, enlightenment. Many temples also face east to catch the sunrise through their latticed doors. Red is fortune, abundance. Yellow means turning within, the core. White is mourning. Black is mystery, night and the guiding stars.
Watch too for the language of flowers. Red peonies or pink azaleas represent spring. The lotus, growing secretly below the surface, exploding in blossom on contact with light, is enlightenment. Yellow chrysanthemums are autumn, cloudy camellia winter hardship. Cosmos is inconstancy. Cherries are youthful beauty, with the sad subtext that such beauty soon fades: The flowers of the cherry last only days. Pine or bamboo are endurance, as both survive winter with leaves intact.
In the symbolic menagerie, cranes are souls flying to heaven. Turtles are stability, eternity. Dragons are energy, water, time and fertility. Ducks are married love, constancy. The phoenix or fire-bird may look like a chicken ― there is an old Korean saying, “one phoenix in every brood of hens” ― but it is a songbird, and it lives forever. It is the south, the feminine, summer sun. Tigers are passion and renown. Deer, who shed and regrow antlers annually, mean rejuvenation.
A bottom panel often features a fierce creature with horns, whose eyes seem to follow your movements. This is a haetae, there to frighten demons. Unless you are a demon, you need not be frightened.
You may buy new and antique doors in several Seoul markets: Insa-dong, Changan-dong Antique Market, Hwanghak-dong Flea Market and Itaewon.
The sound of spring rain on stiff paper or the morning calm of summer seen through the silhouettes of a latticed door may be the ultimate experience of Korea.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia.