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Published: September 7th 2012
Insadong (phonetic, emphasise the "ng" in "dong" with a hard "d" sound) - the palace district.
Seoul has a silly number of palaces, built by successive kings mostly in the Joseon dynasty which started in the late 1300s and ended 67 kings later when Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, so a visit to Insadong was rather a foregone conclusion.
Today I saw the principal residence, Gyeongbokgung ("ghee-ong-bock-gung" - say it in one breath with hard "g" throughout and emphasised "ng" at the end).
Or rather, I saw its third avatar, the palace having been destroyed by the Japanese not once but twice - the first time following the Japanese invasion in the 1500s and the second time following annexation in 1910. (In the best Fawlty Towers tradition, today's watchword was "don't mention the Japanese").
The palace is vast and, at least the external courts, quite barren. Successive huge, open square courts lead from the Southern (and main) gate to the Throne Room (called the Chamber of diligent governance in a rather pointed nudge to whoever was gracing the chamber at the time), the chamber where the king was advised by his committee of ministers (presumably
where they monitored said diligence) and finally to the king's residential wing. Only at this last stage did greenery start to appear, although it did so thick and fast with some charming gardens and pavillions.
At least, they were charming up to the moment when our guide told the story of the last queen of Korea, Myeongseong (posthumously promoted to empress after her widower had delusions of grandeur - immediately before being ousted from power) was brutally murdered by a (Japanese) hit squad.
The architecture reminded me a lot of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, with square buildings raised on stone platforms (the more important the building, the higher the platforms), concentric square steps with statues of legendary and auspicious beasts guarding entry. Familiar, too, were the sweeping roofs, with their curling ends adorned with characters from the Chinese tale Journey to the West. All painted vibrant colours of red, green and blue.
The Koreans seem to be more practical, though - for all their talk about the architecture and panopoly being designed to emphasise the grace and austerity of the monarch, they also have very prosaic (and sensible) bird-defences in place. The guide made sure to
Meant to keep out ill-wishers, fire (a constant worry in an all-wood complex) and demons it guards the sacred stream that runs infront of the entrance to the throne room.
point these out.
The reconstruction of the palace only started in 1996, so most buildings are still missing, but you could see enough to appreciate the size and layout of the place.
In keeping with my gradual discovery of Korean history, I was interested to discover that Korean kings governed according to a strict Confuscian philosophy. This meant that the king was pushed (tirelessly, it seemed) to improve himself as a scholar but also that - despite the pseudo-divine status he held, much the same as the Chinese emperors - he was also held to account by his panel of advisers and, more intriguingly, by his bevy of chroniclers.
The latter appeared to work almost independently of the king and without fear of any retribution for presenting the king in a less-than-favourable light. One of the examples the guide gave us was a king who fell off his horse during a hunt and ordered his companions not to tell the chroniclers. The whole event - including the instruction not to tell the chroniclers - was subsequently set down, by said chroniclers, for posterity.
I also discovered that Korea is a nation of bureaucrats - everything (and
Gyeongbokgung Throne Room
The roof was desiged to mimic the slope of the mountain behind it.
I mean EVERYTHING) that happened during the Joseon period (being nigh on six centuries), important or trivial, was written down (in triplicate, at least) in the most minute detail and stored for future use. As a result Korea has both hundreds of records (recovered from the French and the Japanese variously - apparently someone else's hundred-year old records are not as worth holding on to as someone elgin's marbles) and incredible detail about its monarchy, despite the huge upheavals of the past century. The lawyer in me was quite proud that there is at least one nation that understands the importance of a paper trail. Quite frankly, we measure up poorly in Europe by comparison.
Also on site in this vast palace complex are two museums - the National Palace Museum, which gives you detail ad nauseum on all things related to the monarchy (with the obligatory phrase "to show the grace and austerity of the king" inserted every other sentence) and the National Folk Museum.
No, I am not tempted to speculate as to the political justification of the use "national" in this context referring as it does to the whole peninsula.
The Folk Museum was
The Thone Room was guarded by the four mythical creatures (White Tiger, Red Bird (phoenix, which in Korea appears in pairs!), Blue Dragon and Black Tortoise-Serpent) and ten of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.
great as it not only gave a potted history of Korea (North and South) but also had lots of pretty displays - including a reconstructed Korean village through the ages - which was about all I could deal with by the time we got to the museum toward the end of the day.
As far as I can tell, Korea kick-started history far earlier than we sluggish Brits, helped in no small part by the enlightenment and advanced political structure brought by the spread of Buddhism and Confuscianism. The first Korean empire (Gojoseon, capital in Pyongyang) was founded as early as 2300 BC and stuck around until 630 AD when the Silla dynasty took over (capital, Gyeongju where I hope to go later this month) and finally the Joseon dynasty from 1392 onwards.
Sadly, this political stability which seems to have characterised Korea historically(notwithstanding various skirmishes with China or Japan or both, including the Sino-Japanese war) was completed shattered in the 20th century where Korea seems to have lurched from one crisis to the next (Japanese annexation, civil war, division of the country, civil unrest, the list goes on).
It was an interesting potted history, but notable
The screen behind the throne is set behind the king, his throne, portrait and even his coffin at all occasions. I represents the king (red moon) and the queen (white moon) and the five mountains of the kingdom (or of wisdom, depending upon your source)
in what it left out as much as what it included. No mention of the uproar caused by the (one imagines forceful, how else?) insertion of Christianity into a funamentally Confuscian state. The opening of Korea to the Western world in the 1870s was touched on only briefly (noting in passing that it was "forced" and then concentrating on the influence of American and European culture and commodities on Korean culture). No mention of the civil war at all, or of modern North Korea, although that is perhaps unsurprising.
"I have spread my history* under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my... landmines." Indeed.
* is it perhaps a little harsh to call them dreams.
Having walked the length and breadth of Gyeongbokgung at least twice, we headed to a traditional restaurant which served Ginseng chicken. I use the term "traditional" advisedly, as apparently the dish is originally Chinese, but since the Chinese don't really eat it any more it has been adopted by Korea and is now something of a speciality. We ate sitting on the floor at low, square tables and the chicken, stuffed with rice, gingseng and other veg, came in a
bubbling soup in a clay pot. Another culinary triumph for Korea, although I learnt that I need to take up yoga before I'm ready to face another traditional restaurant.
We took a stroll around Insadong (palace district) by night to digest both the food and the sights. Not far from the (now illuminated) palace, there is a statue of Korea's most beloved king, Sejong who, apart from being a scholar and a gentleman, invented the Korean alphabet as it is now (hangeul). Koreans, I have discovered, are extraordinarily proud of the fact that it is the most straightforward and easy to learn alphabet in the world - usually informing you of this fact with a pointed "so why don't you understand it" look.
Ah well, another day, another language, eh?
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