Lit by streams of bright sunshine, illuminated by birdsong, the ancient house of Seon Byeong-guk by the gentle Samcheon River looks as appealing as a lotus in bloom. This old house is the treasure of Mrs. Hong Young Hee, a 65-year-old Korean woman with a kind, noble face, and a friendly smile.
The history of Seon Byeong-guk
Mrs. Hong’s husband’s grandfather was a prince during China’s Jin dynasty. He visited Korea, was impressed by the prevalence of natural beauty, and decided to settle there. As the founder of the first trading company in Korea, he proceeded to build a glorious and prosperous career.
When King Gojong died in 1919, at the end of the Choson dynasty, Mrs. Hong’s father-in-law volunteered to pay for the king’s funeral as a mark of honor and respect. In response to the family’s goodwill, the court decided to send a team of builders to construct a splendid house. The house was named Seon Byeong-guk (after Mrs. Hong’s father-in-law) and was diligently built at the foot of Mount Songnisan.
Embracing traditional Korean architecture
Typically, traditional Hanok houses were only permitted to have square columns and a maximum of 99 rooms. However, Mrs. Hong’s house has 134 rooms and round columns, much like those in the royal palace.
The house is divided into three areas: Sarangchae (the guest house), Anchae (a detached house) and Heangrangchae (an open space). The floor has been constructed from bare, polished wood, and large sliding doors made from wood and paper.
Inside the main hall, a glorious, tiled roof is supported by two large wooden beams. The beams are covered with translucent veneer, revealing and accentuating the beauty of the wood, which itself has been carved to resemble oriental dragons.
It is widely acknowledged that Mrs. Hong’s is the largest and most beautiful home among the few ancient houses that still exist in Korea today.
In 2003, Mrs. Hong’s husband moved to Seoul in pursuit of business, leaving his wife behind to manage the house. The industrious Mrs. Hong welcomed thousands of tourists, including high-ranking figures of national importance, overseas students, American and European tourists.
The house was awarded national heritage status by the government in 2018.
Health, heritage, and happiness
Mrs. Hong herself is a delicate woman, whose energy and industrious nature belie her 65 years. She still welcomes visitors every single day.
“My body was very weak in the past,” Mrs. Hong admits. “I could only lay down and could not do anything. However, thanks to a miracle that came to my life, I’m very healthy and able to take care of my house without anyone’s help.”
Mrs. Hong was able to recall respiratory problems that dated all the way back to her school days.
Later, after giving birth to her child, Mrs. Hong became so frail that she couldn’t move, even to take care of basic needs such as bathing and eating. She was frustrated, sensitive, and held a grudge against her debilitating condition. At the age of 40, people unkindly commented that she “looked like a miserable old woman.”
Mrs. Hong endured numerous hospital visits in pursuit of an answer to her health problems, but doctors advised her that she was ostensibly healthy. “I could hardly eat any food, even instant noodles or kimchi. I could merely eat a little rice, but I could not even digest it,” Mrs. Hong describes.
The blessing that came to her later in life, however, the home that her beloved father-in-law left to her family, proved to be her saving grace. Life delivered her “a miracle,” and the opportunity to start a brand new chapter.
“In 2003, my sister began to practice Falun Gong. Having heard about my illness, she told me to practise,” Mrs. Hong shared. “Finally I decided to join her. It was such a miraculous experience; in a short period of time, my skin gradually become glowing. I also felt better and was able to clean the house and do things that I could not do before.”
It was a turning point, having suffered for half of her life. The more Mrs. Hong practised, the more she discovered an openness of mind. And with an open mind came a revolutionary change of perspective.
“I realized that all my thoughts and doings in the past were really selfish, narrow-minded and contemptuous,” Mrs. Hong realized. “Compared to the Falun Gong’s standards of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, I am far behind.”
“I began to be more altruistic,” she continued. “Now, when I encounter a conflict, I try to look inwards to find my shortcomings, and thus calm my mind. Peace and tranquility are the most valuable to me.”
A family legacy of kindness
Mrs. Hong’s father-in-law was a man of merit; he treated his neighbors and family members excellently.
During his lifetime, he encountered many students who could not afford their education, so he volunteered to build a school for disadvantaged students in the village.
In South Korea, landlords used to impose very high taxes on farmers. However, Mrs. Hong’s father-in-law exempted many penniless farmers from this tax. He even gave rice to those who were struggling to feed their families. Grateful villagers, in turn, gifted him with chopsticks and spoons.
Their gifts are now cast in a metal memorial plate in front of the gate of the old house.
Mrs. Hong is continuing her father-in-law’s legacy of kindness in her own way. “Every week I go to the nearby clinic to teach elderly practitioners how to do Falun Gong exercises. And when the house was being renovated, sometimes I cooked meals for the workers. I felt that they deserve to be respected.”
Embracing a new way of life
Falun Gong helped Mrs. Hong to relocate her strength after so many years of living inside a seemingly helpless body. Now, Mrs. Hong hopes to educate others through her living example.
“Each year, our family welcomes about 30-50,000 visitors,” Mrs. Hong began. “I think this is a great opportunity for me to introduce people the beauty of Falun Gong and the inhuman persecution that is taking place in China.”
In the light of the persecutions, many people look to Falun Gong with caution, assuming it is an illegal practice. Mrs. Hong hopes to change their minds.
Three years ago, Mrs. Hong also started introducing tea ceremonies to tourists in an effort to celebrate traditional values and practices. Within the majestic space of the ancient house, and in tandem with the peaceful spirit of the owner, visitors have had the chance to enjoy delicate teas and relive the spirit of Korean aristocracy.
Since practising Falun Gong, Mrs. Hong has discovered that relocating one’s true self and returning to traditional values are truly the most precious things of all.