When the Han Froze Over

Ice covering the Han River provided winter recreation and summer refrigeration for Joseon Korea.

Words by Robert Neff



Ice Fishing circa 1920-1940


Prior to the twentieth century, the Han River generally froze over during the winter. This had the practical effect of isolating Seoul from the rest of Korea. The junks that supplied the city with most of its supplies were unable to sail between Chemulpo (modern Incheon) and Mapo and Yongsan, the two principal river ports serving Seoul.

The only other means of transportation between Chemulpo and Seoul was a rough bandit-infested road that was further hampered by the fact that there were no bridges over the Han River until the beginning of the twentieth century. With the ferries unable to operate, carts and travelers were forced to make their way across the river on the ice, avoiding the thin spots near the center of the river.

For many, however, the freezing over of the Han was a boon. Bird hunters would stalk their game near the few ice-free spots where large numbers of birds flocked. Stalwart fishermen would cut holes in the ice and brave the elements to catch the numerous fish in the river.

Judging from old photographs taken during the early and mid-twentieth century, ice skating was also quite popular on the river. Ice skating was first introduced into Korea in 1884 when an American naval officer brought a pair of skates with him and skated on the ponds and paddies around Seoul. Another attempt to skate on the river took place in 1889, but much to the dismay of the Western missionary who tried it, the ice proved to be too thin and dangerous due to the warmer-than-normal winter.

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Ice from the Han River was also an important part of Korean culture especially in the palaces. During the Joseon Dynasty, after the river was sufficiently frozen over, ice cutters armed with saws would go out and cut blocks of ice, 12 centimeters thick and about 1.8 meters long, and transport them by carts to the two royal icehouses in Seoul.  According to Professor Sung-hee Han, these icehouses were Dongbinggo, which supplied ice for the court’s funerals and other formal rituals and Seobinggo, which provided ice for the palace kitchens and nobility. Even today, these are the names of two neighborhoods in Yongsan-gu.

Not only was ice used in the preparation and preservation of food, but it was also used to preserve the corpses of kings and queens. The body of a Korean monarch was not given final burial until after a five-month period of mourning was completed. During the warmer months, the body was kept from decomposing by placing the coffin over a large tray of ice. Professor Han estimates that up to 15,000 blocks of ice were used for this purpose.

Outside of the palace, ice was a luxury that few people could afford. Nobles were given bingpae or ice ration cards, that entitled them to a certain amount of ice according to their rank. There was even a black market for ice. In the winter of 1468/1469, King Yejong cracked down on the corrupt officials who smuggled ice out of the storage facilities and sold it to the common people.

Westerners living in Korea were another group privileged enough to enjoy refrigeration and even built their own ice houses to store it. In a letter to his son in August 1904, Horace Allen, the American minister to Korea, wrote, Our ice has given out. A week ago there was a good supply, but when it gets so low it turns in and melts all at once. I am going to build the house up just twice as high for next winter so I can put in as much again.

Allen, like many Westerners, was wary of purchasing ice from Korean vendors. Many of these vendors sold ice taken from the river, but others sold ice taken from rice paddies which, considering they were fertilized with night soil (human waste), were deemed unsanitary. Allen preferred to have his servants fill empty kerosene cans with well water and set them outside to freeze. Once frozen, the cans were then heated just enough to allow the block of ice to slide out when the bottom was pounded.

Modernization doomed the ice culture of Korea. Global warming has been blamed for the Han River freezing over less often and for shorter periods of time than in the past. Of course, the demand for ice is now satisfied by modern freezers and refrigerators. But even today, large slabs of ice are still used by fishmongers to help keep their products fresh while on open display in the small neighborhood markets throughout Seoul. These large slabs of ice are supplied by the small and increasingly rare shops that sell not only ice but kerosene and gas. These are some of the last remaining traces of Joseon Korea still found today.