[KS] charcoal in yeontans?

Norman Thorpe cor1882 at yahoo.com
Sat Dec 10 12:51:40 EST 2011

Yeontan were/are indeed made from coal, and their production was one of the main reasons for coal mining in 20th Century Korea. Yeontan were a key source of energy for heating and cooking during the 1960s and 1970s, being used both in stoves and for heating under ondal floors.  When the first multi-story apartments in Korea were built in Mapo in the 1960s, even they still used yeontan for heating in each individual apartment.  Eventually, heating systems for apartments and newly built houses became more sophisticated with the use of boilers to heat water that would warm floors, but those boilers often were still fueled by yeontan.

Before the boilers were in wide use, every winter, newspapers would carry stories about people who’d been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Many, many other people had close calls. Another drawback was the necessity to replace the yeontan every 10 to 12 hours, a process that chilled the house for an hour or two until the new briquette was fully aflame.

The most widely used briquettes were cylindrical, about 6 inches tall and 6 inches across (see photos on the URL below). They were hand-delivered by pull-cart or jigae, and it was a dirty job for the workers.

An interesting museum, the Boryeong Coal Museum (보령석탄박물관) tells a lot about coal mining and the production of yeontan. It’s located outside of Daecheon Beach, better known for its mud festival.

The museum is worth a visit; it even has a simulated ride down into a coal mine. It also has a room where visitors can hand-manufacture a yeontan.  It has a good web site, with pictures of yeontan on a conveyor belt, a yeontan stove, etc.  http://www.1stcoal.go.kr/

In the Korean case, we really should call the briquettes coal briquettes rather than charcoal briquettes like North Americans use for barbecues.

Norm Thorpe

--- On Sat, 12/10/11, Brother Anthony <ansonjae at sogang.ac.kr> wrote:

> From: Brother Anthony <ansonjae at sogang.ac.kr>
> Subject: [KS] charcoal in yeontans?
> To: "Korean Studies Discussion List" <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
> Date: Saturday, December 10, 2011, 6:28 AM
> I think that the confusion comes from
> the etymology of 'tan' whether in yeontan (briquette) or
> seoktan (coal). The Chinese character 'tan' is (if anyone
> can read it online) '炭' which in Korea is identified as
> "숯 탄" (sut tan) where sut / 숯 is the Korean word
> meaning 'charcoal'. I think there is no doubt at all that
> the modern domestic briquette is and always has been made of
> anthracite and part of the confusion comes from a lot of
> Koreans (and perhaps others) not knowing what 'charcoal' is,
> how it is made, or how it differs from other forms of
> 'coal'. The internet is full of mentions of "charcoal
> yeontans" but that does not make for proof, being only a
> sign of fairly natural confusion. All technical descriptions
> specify that the briquette is made using anthracite.
> In recent years the yeontan has become something of an
> endangered species, as described by the Korea Times in 2007
> http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2011/04/123_11874.html
> (an article where the word 'charcoal' manages to creep in
> once despite its stress on the shortage of anthracite). One
> result is probably a large increase in the number of broken
> limbs on icy slopes in winter, since in the Good Old Days we
> used to thankfully crush used yeontans all the way down the
> hills when it snowed. The clouds of filthy dust that rose
> above Seoul in the wind after the ice and snow were gone
> were an unhappy by-product, as were the cases of black lung
> disease among people living close to the huge mounds of
> powdered coal in the yards of yeontan factories.
> The nicest way of looking at yeontans is in a poem by An
> Do-Hyeon:
> One coal briquette 
> There are lots of other ways of putting it 
> but it's as if  what we call life 
> means becoming a coal briquette 
> for someone other than myself. 
> From the day the floors first feel chilly till the
> following spring, 
> the loveliest thing on all the roads of Korea 
> is the briquette truck chugging 
> its way up steep inclines with all its might. 
> I eat piping hot rice and soup every day, 
> but it's as if I had not realized that once the flame has
> caught hold, 
> each briquette grows scorching hot, 
> seeming to know just what's required of it. 
> It's as if I have been unable to become a briquette for
> anyone so far 
> because  I was afraid of the way, once love has caught
> fully hold 
> all that remains is a sorry handful of ash.
> On careful thought, 
> it's as if what we call life 
> is pulverising me 
> in order to make a safe path where someone other than
> myself 
> can walk at ease on slippery mornings after snow has fallen
> and I had failed to realize that. 
> A final bit of nostalgia: it used to be such fun to get
> home late on a freezing evening and find that the yeontans
> in the stove had gone out because no one had been there to
> change them, so one had to start all over again and it took
> ages before they were properly lit and glowing. The young
> generations don't know what they have missed.
> Brother Anthony
> Sogang University etc

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