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Published: September 15th 2012
Today I headed for Dosan Seowon, a famous (in Korea) Confucian Academy established by the renouned Korean scholar, Toegye (at least that was his pen name). Both scholar and academy are artistically featured on the 1,000 won note, which is about as common as a £1 coin or a dollar note. So I was already well acquainted with the place and man
Nevertheless, I braved the vagaries of the Andong bus system and headed out of town towards the academy. I had only just arrived and bought my entrance ticket when I was pounced upon by an enthusiastic cultural volunteer, whose name sounded something like "misery". Contrary to her name, she was cheerful and pleasant and gave me my very own guided tour in English.
I learnt that the academy was built in two stages. The earliest parts were designed by Toegye ("tow-gyeh") himself and built in the late 16th Century. The scholar himself lived in one of the houses from his retirement from public office until his death. Apparently, he was so popular that the king kept offering him ministerial positions, which he kept declining and then having to make the trip to Seoul to say thank and
Dosa Seowon Toegye's house
The "old part" of the academy
sorry politely enough not to cause too much offense. (Writing this now, all I can think of as a parallel is Dumbledore, how sad...)
The second part of the academy was built a few decades later and greatly expands the complex to include two libraries, seniors' and juniors' dorms, a shrine to the great Confucian scholars, a lecture hall and a printing room, as well as accommodation for the caretaker and his family.
The whole complex is quite beautiful, both in its design and layout, with the beautfully crafted wooded supports and roofs I am coming to recognise. It is situated with its back to the mountain, overlooking the Nakdong River, which seems almost tropically green.
Across the river, facing the academy is a small hill adorned with a memorial stele in its own little hut. This is to commemorate the fact that the infamously difficult Civil Service Examination (the pinnacle of an artistocratic man's achievements during the long Joseon dynasty (1590s to 1910)) was exceptionally held here - on the riverbank under the pine trees. Apparently Dosan Seowon was the only place outside of Seoul that this exam was ever held, and the essay style question
Dosa Seowon Lotus pond
Next to Toegye's house. According to my guide, the ethos of Korean architecture is to have buildings within nature, rather than nature within a building (eg a courtyard garden). The academy was therefore built into and surrounded by the lake and the woods
was hung on a board from one of the tree branches. The pine groves now exist only in the artist's depiction on the 1,000 won note, but the stele remains to remind visitors that of the 400 or so candidates who took the exam, only 11 passed. And we thought Finals were tough...
Toegye is also revered because he was a bit of a rebel. During an era where Confucian thought dominated - with its rigid adherence to social hierarchy (determined once and for all at birth) - Toegye (whose real name was apparently Yi Hwang) argued for a system built more on merit than birth-right. Sadly, he didn't seem to fight women's corner - another traditional word for wife, I have discovered, was "inside person" because they were never supposed to leave the house - but I like the idea that he was fighting for some form of equal opportunities as far back as the 16th Century.
Due to the infrequency of the buses, I was stranded at Dosan Seowon for the better part of 3 hours, which left me more than enough time to explore the complex fully (!) after which I headed back into Andong
Dosa Seowon Students' Dorm
The earliest students' dorm was designed by Toegye in the shape of the Chinese letter I for learning. Sadly, although very scholarly, this meant that the back of the house was poorly lit (the academy is South-facing) hence the need for so many windows...
and then immediately out again to the small hamlet of Icheon-dong only 15 minutes out of Andong. Icheon-dong doesn't have much to boast about - apart from the 40 foot Buddha carved into the mountain face, that is.
So I walked (respectfully) around the Buddha and his guardians and caught the bus back to my motel (and the mountain of food still waiting for me from yesterday). Thus concludes my last day in Andong.
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