Throughout 5,000 years of Korean history, Seoul has been an important city. In the Chosun Dynasty, Seoul was the capital of the nation, and during that period, which lasted about 500 years, many palaces were built. Today, these palaces are famous heritage sites and are well visited by foreign visitors who come to Seoul. However, do people really know the his¬torical background of the palaces? Do visitors merely admire the scenery? Kim Oh Jieun, the Sookmyung Times reporter, went to the palaces to find out what people can experience there besides the scenery.
Changgyeong-gung: a History of Sadness beneath a Beautiful Landscape
Changyeong-gung was constructed during the rein of King Sungjong as a place where his three queen dowagers, his grandmother, his aunt, and his birth mother could spend their senior years. However, during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, all the buildings were burnt down. Restoration was done, but due to several fires, only the main royal court, Myungjung-jeon, its entrance, and part of the queen’s palace remains. Unfortunately, the bad luck doesn’t end here. During the Japanese colonial era, Japanese used the site as a zoo. After independence, the Korean government restored it to its former glory.
The reporter was surprised to find very few visitors there, and most of the tourists were not really looking at the palace or were concerned with its history but simply admiring its landscape. She wanted to join a tour guide of the palace, but since few people were interested, she merely wandered about the palace on her own. Walking alone, she read the information on artifacts outside the royal palace. Unfortunately, the brochure was quite simple compared to other palaces; it only presented information on when traditional events would be held at the palace. Outside Myungjung-jeon was the site where the king once engaged in conferences with his lieges. There was a pot called ‘Deumeu,’ which was used to distinguish fires. She also saw King Sungjong’s Taesil and Taesilbi or King Sungjong’s umbilical cord. From the information she read, she learnt that the royal family kept the umbilical cord originally near Seosamneung Royal Tombs in Gyeonggi-do Province but it was later moved into the palace by Japanese researchers. Once she’d finished here tour of the palace, she noticed a Chinese family walking around the palace without a tour guide. She suggested asking for a guide, but they said, “The tour guide time doesn’t fit our schedule. Also, we really just want to admire the landscape here because we’ve heard how beautiful the natural scenery is at this palace.” After hearing their words, she was disheartened to learn the palace was not known for its historical value but beauty.
Gyeongbok-gung: Unending Importance
Gyeongbok-gung has been important since the early Chosun Dynasty. It was here where most political decisions were made. Like Changgyeong-gung, it was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. During King Gojong’s early reign, his father had it restored. When the reporter entered the palace, she was surprised by the number of visitors, despite it being an early morning. Along with Korean visitors, there were Japanese, Chinese, American, and other nationalities from around the world. It was a big contrast to that of her Changgyeon-gung visit. There were so many visitors gathered at the main entrance to Gyeonghoeru. There were big tourist groups to small groups of 2~3 people and even solo tourists looking around at the artifacts. Surprisingly though, upon entering inside Gyeongbok-gung, there were very few visitors. Each tourist she spotted had borrowed a mp3 guide from the main entrance or bought a simple brochure worth 500 won. The brochure had Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese. When she did spot some smaller groups, they were being guided by Korean friends, not professional historians. While other tourists focused on the buildings, she focused on smaller items. She realized that at the end of the handrail of Geunjeong-jeon, the main throne hall, were stone statues of twelve earthly branches. She didn’t know why at first, but after reading through her guidebook at the end of the tour, she discovered that it was believed the animals would protect the king and royal family from evil. Also, there was a picture of 10 figures at Jagyeong-jeon, the residence of Queen Dowager, called ‘Ten Longevity Chimney.’ It was made to give the queen wishes of a long life. Leaving the palace, she saw the Haetae statue in front of Gwanghwamun gate. It was used as a dismount marker for carriages and horses before walking through the main gate. Besides the ancient buildings, these smaller artifacts are also important historically.
Deuksu-gung: Witness of Late Chosun
Lastly, she went to Deuksu-gung. Before entering, she saw the ‘The Royal Changing of the Guards Ceremony’ along with many other people who took lots of pictures. After the ceremony ended, but before entering the palace, she bought a brochure. The cost was the same as the palace above but not many bought one. She noticed that there were once again few visitors inside this palace. She wondered why, so she asked one of the palace guides. He claimed that “Deuksu-gung is smaller than other palaces, so there isn’t much for tourists to see inside. People come only to view the royal guard ceremony or to visit the art museum inside.” Historically, Deuksu-gung was not built as a living quarters for the king. This palace was the house of King Sungjong’s brother. However, during the Japanese Invasion of Korea, King Seonjo was forced to move there since his other palaces were destroyed. After many years, King Gojong changed the name to ‘Gyeongun-gung’ and expanded it. Here, he announced the Great Han Empire and made many reformations to the Chosun Dynasty. The reporter realized that there is also a European style building inside the palace. At first she thought the building was a museum made by the Korean government, but actually, it was made during the Great Han Empire. It is called Seokjo-jeon. She read the information explaining its origin and learnt it was originally made for King Gojong’s stay and was designed by a western architect. Outside that building, there is a western fountain. She tried to enter the building, but she was only permitted to view the basement because viewing of the first and second floors of the building require an online registation. In the basement, she visited a small museum of history centering on the Great Han Empire and remains of king Gojong. After Seokjo-jeon, she went to see the western sun clock across the fountain. She learned that Deuksugung was a place where eastern and western culture could meet.
Know History by Seeing More
After vising three Chosun Dynasty palaces, Jieun strongly urges Sookmyungians to do the same. To go to Changyunggung, take bus 151 from the Sookmyung Women’s University entrance station. To get to Gyeongbok-gung, take bus 7016 from the same station. Lastly, to go to Deoksugung, take bus 506. All three palaces are only about 30 minutes from Sookmyung. After visiting the palaces, Jieun realized how little historical background she has so far. Understanding the palaces proved much more difficult than expected. Also, she learned that it is important to have a palace map while touring. Without a map, she had a hard time finding her way. It was hard to rely solely on direction signs at the palaces. She strongly felt that the palaces should not be promoted as promenades. Indeed, the landscapes are beautiful, but that is not the only treasure these royal palaces have. What is more valuable is the story that lies hidden inside each palace. In addition to the big artifacts, the smaller artifacts can provide us with memorable stories. She regrets not visiting Changdok-gung due to time constraints, but has decided to go next time. She wishes to end with these final words of advice.
“We should focus on history more than nature.”