– These are the stories of the palaces that bore witness to the joys and sorrows of the Joseon Dynasty, from its early days to its heart-breaking end.
“Learning from history” is certainly an inspiring phrase. However, history is not the past, rather it is an effort to understand the present and predict the future based on the knowledge of what came before. Therefore, learning about the origins of a country is incredibly important.
By understanding the history of a country, one can infer everything about that country, including its culture, food, language, and the behavior of its people. To understand Korea’s history, let us journey to Hanyang, now known as Seoul, the capital city of Joseon. Let us find out what stories the city has to tell through an exploration of its palaces.
Upon any mention of Korean palaces, the first that will undoubtedly come to the minds of many is Gyeongbokgung Palace. Built as the main royal palace immediately after the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty about 600 years ago, it was also called “Bukgwol (Northern Palace),” as it was located to the north of the city. The Chinese characters for “Gyeongbok (景福)” mean “great fortune,” and with Namsan Mountain and Cheonggyecheon Stream in the front and Bugaksan Mountain at the back, the palace is considered to be located on one of the most auspicious sites, according to the principles of feng shui.
A symbol of the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeongbokgung Palace comprises majestic buildings that proudly boast ancient beauty, such as Geunjeongjeon Hall, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, and Gwanghwamun Gate, each of which are a symbol of the country’s foundation.
Among the palace buildings, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, constructed in the middle of a pond, represents the romantic and elegant architecture of the early Joseon period. Geunjeongjeon Hall (Throne Hall) was a venue for official functions and banquets and serves as a symbol of the Joseon royal family as coronation ceremonies and important state functions were held here.
As a matter of fact, Gyeongbokgung Palace was abandoned for 273 years. During that period, its reconstruction was planned several times, but was never realized. The main reason was because the palace had been the site of the “Strife of Princes,” when in 1398, Lee Bangwon, son of Taejo, the first king of Joseon, killed his two half-brothers when one of them was favored as the crown prince, leading him to become Taejong, the third king of Joseon, in 1400. Another reason was that the palace grounds could be seen from Baegaksan and Inwangsan mountains.
After Gojong, the 26th king of Joseon (r. 1863-1907), ascended the throne, the reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung Palace was finally decided, and his father, Heungseon Daewongun (who ruled as regent), personally oversaw the reconstruction for a period of over four years from 1865. After the construction was complete, Gojong moved into the palace in July 1868. At the time, Gyeongbokgung Palace was a magnificent palace, with more than 330 buildings, but during the nation’s tumultuous history, it would be abandoned once more
After 1910, the Japanese Government-General Building was built within the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the palace became a venue for exhibitions. An effort to fully restore Gyeongbokgung Palace to its former glory was launched in 1990. After several outbreaks of fire and reconstruction projects, the royal palace was finally completed in 2010.
The second palace to be constructed after Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace’s unique spatial composition, which strikes a beautiful harmony with its natural surroundings, was recognized, leading it to be designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1997. This proved its formative aesthetic qualities, which defied former conventions.
Changdeokgung Palace was built by King Taejong, the third ruler of Joseon, in 1405 as a secondary palace of Gyeongbokgung Palace. A secondary palace was used in place of the main palace during times of war or the occurrence of a significant incident. Historically, the kings of Joseon resided in Changdeokgung Palace when they could not use Gyeongbokgung Palace for state affairs, making it one of the Joseon Dynasty’s most important royal palaces.
However, Changdeokgung Palace is also one of the palaces that offers a glimpse into the pain and suffering of the Joseon royal family. Yi Seonggye, known as King Taejo and the first ruler of Joseon (r. 1392-1398), fathered eight sons, and in the course of selecting the crown prince, a power struggle, known as the “Strife of Princes,” broke out. In the end, Lee Bangwon became the third ruler of Joseon, known as King Taejong (r. 1400-1418). Taejong was reluctant to return to Gyeongbokgung Palace, as it was where he had killed his brothers to seize the throne, and ordered a new palace to be built east of the main palace. This was how Changdeokgung Palace came to be, and consequently, Gyeongbokgung Palace was abandoned for many years.
Changdeokgung Palace was used as the primary palace of Joseon for some 270 years, until the reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung Palace. Also, this is why its original form was relatively well preserved during the period of Japanese colonization and has now become an invaluable historical site in the study of the history and culture of the Joseon Dynasty.
In contrast to the main buildings of Gyeongbokgung Palace, which are situated in perfect symmetry from right to left, the buildings of Changdeokgung Palace do not follow any such artificial structure, but were built to be in harmony with Eungbongsan Mountain in the background. As such, Changdeokgung Palace is the most “Korean” palace and features a layout that offered convenience and familiarity to the royal family who took up residence there.
Its greatest feature is the breathtaking harmony it creates with its surrounding natural environment. While Gyeongbokgung Palace was constructed on a large flat area, Changdeokgung Palace was built to follow the contours of the natural geographical features of the land. Similar to Spain’s Park Guell, which highlights the beauty of nature by respecting the natural curves of the terrain, Changdeokgung Palace was inspired by nature and is comprised of sharp yet elegant curves.
The famous Secret Garden in Changdeokgung Palace was especially beloved by many kings for its harmonious arrangement of trees and flowers. Stepping into the Secret Garden is like taking a peaceful stroll in the woods with the expansive presence of Bukhansan Mountain in the background.
Deoksugung Stone-wall Road, which was the background of “Gwanghwamun Sonata”, and the royal guard-changing ceremony held in front of Deoksugung Palace never fail to capture the attention of not only foreign visitors but also Koreans. However, this site has a sad history.
The original name of Deoksugung Palace was “Gyeongungung Palace,” and it was used as a temporary palace for more than 300 years until the abdication of King Gojong, the 26th king of Joseon (r.1863-1907). During his reign, Gojong transformed the palace, making it a place of compromise between tradition and western culture, while he attempted to motivate the surrounding western powers to keep Japan in check. However, the palace sustained significant damage during the throes of confusion caused by the pressure of western powers during the late Joseon period, the Eulmi Incident (assassination of Empress Myeongseong by the Japanese), the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), and the Korean War.
In particular, after the demise of King Gojong, it became a palace without a master since 1919, and the Japanese built roads, a park, and a school within its grounds. Subsequently, during the Korean War, the palace grounds and buildings of Gyeongungung Palace sustained continuous damage, and its former grandeur as a palace completely vanished.
Deoksugung Palace served as the background to many significant incidents during its history and was at the center of many of the historical events of the late Joseon period. In contrast to other palaces, the buildings of Deoksugung Palace were designed in the late Joseon style. The western-style architecture of Seokjojeon Hall and the fact that the legations of numerous countries were located in the vicinity of the palace gives us some idea of the confusion that Joseon must have faced amid the world powers at the time.
Despite its painful history in the early 1900s, Deoksugung Palace has now become a popular destination for both domestic and international visitors and hosts various festivals and events throughout the year.