Cultural Heritage

Ondol, or Kang? Chinese, Koreans in war of words over who invented the traditional heated bed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 6:29pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2018, 10:51am

The South Korean government is mulling over whether to apply for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) status for its “ondol,” a traditional underfloor heating architecture, provoking anger from China’s netizens due to a dispute between the two countries over ownership over the technology.

“We have decided that ondol technology is worth being protected as a World Heritage for all mankind,” the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said in an announcement published on Sunday.

It said the campaign would most likely begin next year, because the Land Ministry authority would first conduct research to determine whether it would be valid to list ondol as a Unesco world heritage, before drawing up a budget in the second half of the year.

Ondol is a Korean traditional architecture that involves transferring heat from a stove to an adjoining room via horizontal smoke passages under a thick, raised masonry floor. This makes homes warmer and more livable in the cold Korean winters.

The announcement quickly drew protests from many disgruntled Chinese internet users, who claimed the technology had actually originated from China.

It is thought they were referring to a similar home heating structure, widely known as “kang,” that is traditionally used by residents from the chilly northeastern regions of China, neighbouring the Korean peninsula.

“Isn’t their ondol exactly the same as our kang in the northern region?” said one commentator on Sina Weibo microblog.

“They must have borrowed the idea of kang from us,” another blogger who goes by Guoanan claimed.

However, some more discerning commentators have pointed out that the kang differs from ondol in that it refers specifically to a raised structure in the bedroom, often built with brick and clay, that serves as sitting space and bed for the family. The Korean ondol, on the other hand, is a heating passage beneath the floor of the entire room. Both the kang and the ondol may be connected to the main stove in the house, so the heat generated from cooking can be used to warm the room as well. 

Equally disgruntled were South Korean online users. On the country’s biggest internet portal Naver, internet users defended their government’s plan, arguing that it was more justified for their country to apply for the heritage status.

“In Korea, no matter which house you go to there is ondol, but what about in China?” said one blogger.

Today, the underfloor heating system is powered by electric water-heaters, yet is still referred as ondol and is widely adopted by most South Korean families.

“We have to get it listed before China!” another South Korean blogger urged.

China’s Ministry of Culture, which is in charge of the nation’s ICH applications, on Wednesday said South Korea’s application for ondol would not hinder any future attempts by China to apply for heritage status for their own similar technology.

“The application of ICH is not equivalent to that of trademark. For intangible cultural heritage that spreads and is shared within multiple regions or cultures, each of the nations involved has the right to apply for ICH separately,” the announcement said.

Each country can only submit one item for ICH application each year, and China now has more than a dozen applications in the queue, a spokesman of the Ministry’s ICH department added in a telephone interview with South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

This is not the first time the two countries have publicly feuded over ICH applications. South Korea’s previous applications for kimchi, a dish of fermented vegetables, and the Gangneung Danoje Festival have sparked disputes with the Chinese community due to similiarities with a traditional Chinese pickled vegetable dish and the Dragon Boat Festival, respectively.

China has 38 items that are part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list – more than any other nation.