on…Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁)

Posted: 31/01/2014 in Architecture, Asia, History, Korea
Tags: , , , , ,

Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 at the start of the Joseon Dynasty. This new dynasty moved the capital to Seoul, the earlier Goryeo Dynasty was based in Kaesong. The palace dominates the northern part of Seoul and is a testament to one of the longest running dynasties in the World – 1392–1897.  The name Gyeongbokgung translates to “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” Its dominant location in the heart of the capital is no accident, with Bukhansan to the north and the mighty river Han to the South, the location was deemed ‘auspicious’ by the traditional practice of geomancy or Feng Shui.

Gwanghwamun

Gwanghwamun

If you ever doubt the benefits of this practice I recommend taking a closer look at this building; it seems like the modern skyscrapers of Seoul are queueing up to pay homage to this building or rather this complex of buildings. My first encounter with the centre of Seoul was ascending the steps from Gwanghwamun station only to be met by the awesome sight of King Sejong guarding the path to the Palace with the snow-capped Bukhansan in the background. The palace grounds stretch all the way to the Blue House – the home of South Korea’s President. I have been to the palace about five times and I would recommend it as being the number one priority on a Seoul bucket list.

Changing of the Guards

Changing of the Guards

The first structure is Gwanghwamun Gate (mun means gate). This is the main entrance to the palace and it is linked to the major parts of Seoul by the  Sejongno boulevard. As I mentioned earlier, this street is the beating heart of Seoul because it contains the statues of King Sejong and Lee Sun-shin. To get a good idea of this central axis I recommend visiting the Seoul City Museum. They have models and pictures which allow you to appreciate this area in all its glory. Gwanghwamun Gate is also where you will see the changing of the guard. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Japanese  destroyed the gate and built their own government buildings. The gate appears quite modern looking , especially compared to some of the other stone gates in the capital. This is down to the fact that it was rebuilt in 1968 using concrete. As you walk through the gate you get an immediate impression of a large-scale landscaped layout with several important buildings. I will tell you about some of them moving south to north.

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Gangnyeongjeon ( 강녕전) was used as the king’s main residence, I always imagine King Taejo living here after seeing him in the amazing drama ‘Deep Rooted Tree’.  Like most of the palace buildings in Seoul it was destroyed in the Japanese invasion of 1592. It has also suffered fire damage on other occasions. Since then it has been rebuilt to its original design. The only disappointment, especially to any European visitor, is that it doesn’t look particularly old. This is a common problem with many of the monuments in Korea, but at least they are being restored. The building sits on a tall stone foundation, and a stone veranda is in front of the building. You might see similar structures throughout Korea, but few match this one for scale and location.

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The next building moving north is Geunjeongjeon ( 근정전) which is a Throne Hall, or was a Throne Hall because Korea is a Republic these days. The name means ‘diligence helps governance’, a very Confucian name. This type of room will be familiar to anyone who has  seen films like ‘Elizabeth’ or who watches TV shows like ‘Game of Thrones’. This two-tiered stone edifice was where the king formally granted audiences,  greeted foreign ambassadors  and gave royal declarations. I imagine that King Sejong decreed the new alphabet from here. The highlights for me, and anyone with a love of close up photography, were the  sculptures of  animals on the balustrades. There is also a stone-paved courtyard  lined with rank stones or pumgyeseoks( 품계석). These were important for a Confucian society because each stone indicated where the officials were to stand. This strictly ordered ranking system is still very much a part of corperate culture in Korea. People get very uncomfortable until they know their age or rank relative to others.

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The most scenic of all the buildings for me is the Gyeonghoeru (경회루) Pavilion. This was a state banquet hall during the Joseon Dynasty. Its first inception  was  in 1412, but it was burned down in 1592, yes there is a predictable patten with fires in that year! The reason I like it so much is because it is located on an island of an artificial, rectangular lake. The wooden structure  sits on top of  stone pillars, with wooden stairs connecting the second floor to the first floor. The outer perimeters are supported by square pillars but the inner columns are cylindrical. Three stone bridges connect the building to the rest of the palace grounds, the balustrades around the island are decorated with sculptures depicting twelve Zodiac animals. The same twelve animals can also be seen near the folk museum.

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I’m going to miss some of the other buildings and move on to another favourite: Hyangwonjeong ( 향원정) This is a smaller, two-story hexagonal pavilion built on an artificial island of a lake. It was built later than the other buildings and reminds me of a kind of oriental folly, the sort you might find in the park of an English stately home.  The name Hyangwonjeong apparently means “Pavilion of Far-Reaching Fragrance,”. I’m not sure why it was called this but it does feel less city like at this northern end of the grounds. It is perhaps the most photogenic of all the buildings in the palace, I once fell asleep on the grass next to the lake.

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Getting there:

Gyeongbokgung Palace Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5.

Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 2.

Top tip: There is an all in one ticket which you can use for other palaces. However, if you don’t have much time then perhaps just visit this one.

 

Comments
  1. Nice article. I think Gyeongbokgung is the grandest of the Palaces. http://backpackerlee.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/the-grand-palaces-of-seoul/

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