An analysis of ondols, fan-death, and material sleep culture.
On Going to Bed in Korea
Material sleep culture is a pertinent part of life for people everywhere because—for better or for worse—we all have to sleep and on something. Anthony Burgess’s On Going to Bed, is a work of nonfiction that takes a somewhat humorous approach to his studies by inserting personal anecdotes, it provides one of the most comprehensive records of Western material sleep culture. A large benefit of taking a factual and historical approach juxtaposed by his own thoughts and comments is that the audience is given insight into why these things matter in a broader cultural sense. While he mentions a great variety of styles of beds in use at different times and in different places, what they have in common is that they are all raised, meaning they share an idea of verticality and generally being off the floor. There many cultural reasons for this, but it mainly is a response to disease being spread by rodents, which travel along the ground, and the desire to separate oneself from what is considered dirty or generally unclean. A clear example being in Edinburgh where the wealthy lived on the top floors, while the poor were on ground level where the upper levels would dump their waste into the street below; while not directly related to sleep, it emphasizes a history of the importance of verticality reflected in Western culture and society.1
Throughout the readings on the subject, I failed to find a comparable text that discusses Eastern practices. At least in translated texts, there is nothing that details both current trends in Eastern material sleep culture and the history that influenced those aspects which make it significant. To simply compile a guide in accordance to Burgess’s own style seemed simple enough, especially considered how in countries like Japan, people traditionally sleep on the floor which plays into the idea of verticality again. However, other than creating a thorough guide, I failed to understand why the historical aspect in any given country might be important until properly delving into the various works on the subject.
I focused on South Korea as a case study to avoid generalizing and finding conflicting information because of the complex relationships many East Asian countries have with one another. Upon further investigation, it became clear that verticality was not something that was a priority, it was not even something considered until globalization in recent decades brought in ideas from the West. It struck me that what felt obvious from my perspective (that verticality is important) was hardly pondered by the culture I chose to look into. This becomes problematic for a number of reasons, but primarily one of bias: If you go looking for things that are not there, then you will find something surely, but those findings will not hold true and will reveal more about the researcher’s perspective than the object of inquiry. Koreans tend to focus on bed climate, specifically looking at things like ondol2 and the discussion around “fan death.”3 So the inverse example could be that a Korean researching Western sleep customs would find us using fans a bit ridiculous and therefore would select fan use as their topic, only to find out that verticality is much more pertinent to Western customs of sleep.
The lack of context currently available for Eastern countries only allows for greater confusion on these topics. While I will be overtly looking into the topic of bed climate in South Korea as it influences literature through its role in cultural practices, the conclusion will covertly also investigate how these false conclusions are so easily misconstrued with a step-by-step of how I personally worked around bias in my research.
There have been a fair number of studies that analyze aspects of climate in Korea, but these typically take the direct approach of analyzing weather. A study by Chungyoon Chun specifically analyzed the effects of humidity and illumination and their effect on people in Seoul throughout each season. They discovered obvious differences, but also practices that almost preserved equilibrium. The heat associated with summer makes people more sluggish and naturally tired, but at the same time, the longer days keep them awake longer. The chills of winter make it harder to get warm, but the long nights make it easier to sleep longer. While the findings seem obvious, this study was a building block for other research and to almost prove common knowledge in the community by scientific means.
For the purposes of looking at things from a big-picture perspective, we will simply begin with the idea that the two binary poles of the climate are, simply, hot and cold. In Korean society, heat is represented by ondols and cold is represented by fan death. The first is a physical object with deep historical context and connotations, whereas fan death presents a conversation that allows for an initial look into what is valued in South Korea. As will become evident, the connotations surrounding hot and cold are not as important as the conductors for the elements.
Health and beauty are taken incredibly seriously by the people and the government of South Korea; there are strict standards that have allowed, for example, K-Beauty to be famous worldwide for how high the quality is to the point that drugstore skincare is better than even most luxury French brands. Naturally, anything that might cause death is regarded with even more sincerity. Popular myths are that you should not eat apples at night and that having seaweed soup on your birthday is lucky. Those may not seem as far-fetched from the American perspective as fan death, the belief that you truly will die if you sleep with the fan on, but in the context of cultural priorities, it shows the stringent measures to protect health, and stems from research: An early twentieth-century article by Jungoe Ilbo speculated that a number of deaths were related to the induction of the use of fans in the bedroom, and his findings were quite a cause for concern.
While fan death has developed into quite a wives’ tale, it is and was thoroughly believed as valid; doctors in the 1920s would occasionally write “cause of death: fan” on death certificates for patients when no other explanation could be drawn.4 As fans were relatively new and were the only variable in the environment that had changed, it was simpler to carry on as they always had and keep a “better safe than sorry” mentality. One hundred years later, this idea is still perpetuated, indicating that whether or not there is a factual basis to the claim is not what truly matters; why the belief is still so strongly enforced and what that says about the culture and their attitudes towards bed climate is what matters.
The initial argument for fan death was founded when one perfectly healthy man died in his sleep, the windows were closed, he was properly kept warm, but the fan was left running in his room. This gradually became more common, and every time the rumour of fan death seemed to die down, some new case for its validity popped up. Once, the explanation of fan death was surrounding asbestos, once around asphyxiation, once around hypothermia, and the list goes on.5 It seemed that every time this legend seemed to nearly fall out of use, there was new evidence to back the claim.
There have even been conspiracy theories that the government will push the belief in fan death into the general public. While these claims are ultimately no more than conspiracy, they indicate that the Korean government holds value in not using fans to keep tradition alive. In a country with a language built on respect for elders that is slowly going out of style, the Korean establishment is invested in keeping old things current. By enforcing a certain climate control system (the use of the ondol) and rejecting others (the fan), the connotations of both objects are both enforced and remembered. Ultimately, the conversation around fan death is endless in terms of factual basis, but holds up in preserving traditional systems.
The opposite pole in the climate binary climate is heat, which is where the ondol comes into play. At this point it is important to reflect on my initial topic of verticality because Koreans do typically sleep on the floor on what are called yos,6 which can be stored in a cabinet during the day. Traditionally, blankets were not necessary because if it was cold, you simply turned on the ondol, but if it was warm then you just would not. As a result of this centralized heating unit, many families would sleep in the same room, each with their own mat. This arrangement engenders a sense of community and safety in sleep, both which would have been disturbed by the introduction of fans; fan death in this sense could be called a metaphor for the changing of traditional practices, shown literally in death as the culprit.
Cong Song relays how the historical use of the ondol (and similarly, the Chinese kang) proves an almost innate need for thermal regulation in sleep, which could be useful in explaining where certain “myths,” like fan death, come from insofar as Cong scientifically proves that some fears were valid with methods that were previously unavailable.7 Song’s research does well to comment on the folklore, but also admit to the real-world tendencies and physical impacts that the ondol had as it has been a pertinent part of traditional Korean housing for centuries, but when Japan colonized Korea in the early to mid twentieth century, ondols went on the decline. David Fedman goes into depth on how this iconic heating system played a large role in how Japan was eventually able to justify their presence, including the extremes to which they took deforestation practices in the invaded country.
As traditional Korean homes use a fair amount of wood, specifically for the creation of ondols, Japan manipulated Koreans’ sense of national identity by advertising their vehement agricultural practices that destroyed Korean soil due to overuse as a means of promoting said identity. Once Japan not only colonized but annexed the land and its people, this method actually ended up working incredibly well and the percentage of homes using ondols went up considerably before American presence during the Korean war pushed a Western narrative that stimulated the aforementioned decline, but as this increase in production was introduced by the Japanese, Korea was then also forced to view themselves a country without resources because it appeared that Japan had been the ones to ‘give’ them these pieces of their own cultural practices back (a kind of Stockholm Syndrome).8 Japan eventually ruined Korean ecosystems for wood and other materials to the point that they are currently considered a country without natural resources, which has greatly impacted the makeup of the Korean economy, with the main sectors of industry being entertainment (think K-dramas and K-pop), beauty, and technology. They have become a country run on innovation (though there are of course factories and farm work, but manufacturing and agriculture are not as openly presented nor pertinent as in countries like the United States). Japan effectively created the current capitalist structure of the Korean economy that is held up to this day by presenting itself as the nation rich with goods. The Japanese invasion of Korea preluded that of America and the trauma that caused could likely play a role in the distrust of fans and anything else that seeks to monopolize upon an established culture.
The ondol holds a great literal significance in Korea’s history, but Fedman also argues that is equally as important to the subconscious of the nation, stating that:
Mainland Japanese use the expression ‘clothes, food, and shelter’ to describe the basic necessities of daily life, but in Korea the expression is simply ‘fire and food.’ [. . .] For life in Korea in general and the lifestyle of the Korean people in particular, fuel, that is, the ondol, is essential [. . .] Held up as a constitutive component of Korean culture and a marker of ethnic difference, the ondol became a source not simply of warmth but of a peculiarly Korean disposition.9
Fedman offers a comparison of Korean culture to another—specifically that of the oppressor (even going into Japan’s admiration for the ondol)but rather than address something with abstract meaning in an attempt to prove the defining characteristics of people, he argues that that the ondol does more than the literal (an ongoing theme here) and is reflective of “Korean disposition” and how its citizens carry themselves.10 Fedman is credible here because in the piece where this was mentioned, he also analyzes more tangible things such as the ondol’s effects on fuel and forestry, simply saying that rather than drawing mere scientific conclusions on how efficient things are, a cultural conclusion could and should be drawn as well.
The material sleep culture of South Korea and its history with these technologies of the ondol and the fan is heavily intertwined with both national identity and the intense trauma. The relationships between history, identity, and trauma can be seen fairly readily in the cultures the Burgess discusses as well. In Korea, the fixation on bed climate could be seen as a scapegoat or as a mode of bonding; what the control of sleeping climate has in common with verticality is that they both impose a notion of safety, one from separation amidst invasion and one from disease amidst terrible sanitary conditions that allowed for diseases like Cholera or the plague to spread in Europe.
By understanding Korea’s use of bed climate as a means of keeping the nuclear family healthy and together, it is understood that is the priority in their country. In the same vein, verticality suddenly becomes clear as a metaphor for capitalism; which is not as out of left-field as it sounds: thinking back to the urban layout of Edinburgh, where the rich were literally atop the peasants, and the direct correlation that had to the raising of beds where the general symbolism of the wealthy living above meant that being physically raised in any form was a symbol of status. As you look further into the matter, the link is as strong as any, even from an insider’s biased perspective, such as my own.
In terms of general sleep culture, South Korea is about as opposite as it gets to the United States: families preferring to sleep in a room as a unit, in multi-purpose spaces, making compact rather than demonstrating abundance of excess; focus on bed climate, which might read as a metaphor for collectivity, as opposed to verticality, which tracks metaphorically with capitalism. To have ever have supposed that imposing one culture’s own themes upon the other would give a clear view is ridiculous; if you do not reside in the place you are writing about, understanding another culture’s customs and technologies in terms of their own values is an important aspect of human-centered design11 and communication in general.
In “Could ‘Ondol’ Gain World Heritage Status?” author Sunny Lee summarizes my thoughts well. Lee makes a point to recognize that things are of varying importance in reference to “world heritage,” to debate how possible it is for a technology that is seemingly perfect, as Cong also describes, could still be useful daily in societies where that is simply not the priority.
It fails to fully form any sort of conclusion on its own, but it does well to point out this flaw or difference that prevents the level of understanding necessary to go into research without bias and emphasizing the importance of working hard to fight against exactly that. My research reveals how such seemingly small things as the objects and practices associated with going to bed are important, closely wound to histories long, complex, and brutal histories. To ridicule fan death or fixation on sleep climate is almost to denying a sense of what the culture has gone through to remain what it is.
While South Korea is the example here, it is readily applicable to any culture. To simply compare cultures under what one holds important, as Robert Bean did by comparing Asian and American heating and cooling systems, is not sufficient because it is not proportional to importance to said culture. In other words, comparing apples to oranges. There may be similarities, but not necessarily equivalents, making said comparison futile. Understanding a culture for what is innately important in a world that is increasingly in communication with one another. Analyzing the history of material sleep culture is a credible reference because everybody has to sleep at some point or another.
- Anthony Burgess, On Going to Bed (Abbeville Press, 1982).
- Ondol: under-floor heating system, a traditional Korean technology associated with the use of the Yo (floor mat) atop wooden floors
- Fan death: The Korean myth that if you fall asleep in a room with a fan on, you will die
- Jungoe Ilbo, “Strange Harm From Electric Fans,” Domestic and International Daily, 1927.
- Ilbo, “Strange Harm From Electric Fans.”
- Yo: a thin futon placed on the floor. Plainly, a bed.
- Cong Song et al.,“Identification of Local Thermal Conditions for Sleeping Comfort Improvement in Neutral to Cold Indoor Thermal Environments,” Journal of Thermal Biology 87 (January 2020).
- David Fedman, “The Ondol Problem and the Politics of Forest Conservation in Colonial Korea,” Journal of Korean Studies 32, no. 1 (2018):25-64.
- Fedman, “The Ondol Problem and the Politics of Forest Conservation in Colonial Korea.”
- Fedman, “The Ondol Problem and the Politics of Forest Conservation in Colonial Korea.”
- Human-centered design: specifically a problem-solving style, it prioritizes natural instincts of any individual over things like aesthetics. Designed for use of ease.