[personal profile] niori_1709
Say you were traveling to Korea for a short period of time, and could have only day in Seoul. You think to yourself 'Hey, I wonder what things are a must see?', and decide to ask me. You wonder which of the five palaces you should see, because who doesn't love palaces? If this were the case (and feel free to ask if you're ever in this part of the world), I would, without hesitation, point you towards Gyeongbokgung Palace. The others (including the two I've previously mentioned) are all interesting and have something unique to offer, but Gyeongbokgung Palace is the crown jewel of Seoul (possibly Korean) palaces.

Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395, only three years after the founding of the Joseon Dynasty. It became the main palace and centre of the royal family, and stayed that way (off and on) for the next five hundred years. Gyeongbokgung being a site of power made it a prime target during the Japanese invasion in the 1500s. It ended up burned down, though both sides dispute who did it (Koreans say the Japanese burned it down, the Japanese say it was the Koreans who burned it down so it couldn't be taken by the Japanese). It stayed as basically a burned out ruin for nearly 300 years, and other palaces were built to fill in for it. The palace was finally rebuilt in 1867, and it was made bigger and better than ever (only to be demolished during the Japanese occupation starting in 1910 until the end of WW2, and rebuilt again a very long time later).

One thing I didn't expect was how huge Gyeongbokgung was. When I say it's massive, I mean that it is very, very massive. In fact, I stayed there for at least half a day, and yet I didn't even get to explore everywhere. The size alone makes it an awesome palace to visit, because you know you're going to get the most bang for your buck (though entrance was only like 5, 000 won (5ish dollars) when I went). There is so much to see at this palace, and an amazing story to go along with almost every part of it, especially when you begin to look at the fall of the Joseon Dynasty and the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea.

The main entrance to Gyeongbokgung Palace comes in the form of Gwanghwamun Gate. Just outside the gate, you'll find yourself facing the Haetae. It's a statue of a creature from Korean mythology, a lion covered in scales and with a horn on its head, and it was built during the Joseon Dynasty because the creature was said to protect it from harm (specifically fire). It's a strange looking animal, and it's one of those myths that make me raise my eyebrows and go 'Huh? Where did this come from?', but it's very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that Seoul has been using it as their tourism symbol/mascot for years.

Once you enter into the palace proper, you come to the main area, Geunjeongjeon. This is where the king took care of the more pompous matters of state, such as coronations and receiving foreign dignitaries. Now, every Korean palaces has an area like this. Gyeongbokgung however, takes it and doubles it. Not only in the size of the building, but the size of the courtyard itself. The main building (throne room) looks like it's two stories, which is different from the norm. Appearances can be deceiving, as this building proves when you get close enough to get a glance inside. It's actually just one story, but it has a massively high ceiling, decorated in every primary colour you can think off. The ornate is so obvious that you can almost taste the riches and care that went into building this throne room, because it was made to impress. Unlike the building, the stone courtyard is exactly as large as it appears at first glance. The stones are uneven and cut roughly, and it makes it more than a bit irritating to walk on. It's not because of poor craftsmanship or cost cutting, but to reduce glare...and to make sure, if you're going to be planning any sort of attack, it's going to be a challenge. It's the reason why there are no trees as well, in any palace courtyard- no where for an assassin to hide. The only thing on the stone ground is a few iron rings attached to the stone, and I'll admit that I was completely confused about what they were even doing there. I guessed that they were left over from some sort of construction...and I was wrong. Turns out, they're there to anchor tents in case it was too sunny or rainy, because forbid the idea of the king not looking perfect. Geunjeongjeon is impressive for its side, make no mistake, and it's even better lit up. Now, normally the palace closes pretty early in the evening, but a few times a year, they open up for a few hours at night, and the main buildings are lit up. It looks amazing, and the lights do make it seem like it's something important.

While Gyeongbokgung was home to many a king, the most famous one has got to be King Sejong the Great, who I've talked about before. He's the king who brought Korea Hangul, allowing the country to use writing other than the complicated Chinese symbols. Korea's famous sundial and water clock were also invented during his reign. He employed Jang Yeong-sil, a genius who invented the sundial in 1434, and it's not just any old sundial. It didn't just tell the time of day, but the 24 subdivisions of the seasons, and built in the shape of a hemisphere, and had water mechanics that made it strike a clock to show the time. It was an awesome invention, which showed that Korea not only understood the celestial heavens, but was able to harness them as well. King Sejong, in particular, saw the importance of it. In another part of the palace, he had Heumgyeonggak built, a place for astrological study and observation. It was a place to study the stars, something Korea had been doing long before the Joseon Dynasty.

Every palace needed a place or two to rule, obviously. It wasn't the only thing a palace was for, of course. The royal family needed a place to live, and like all other palaces, those places were divided into quarters. The queen's quarter, Gyotaejeon, was where she ruled her household, much like the king ruled his country (I don't even want to know how much work and effort would go into running a palace). The most interesting part of the queen's quarters was the terraced garden, called Amisan. The flowers were beautiful of course, as was the ground, covered in bright green. It was a lovely place, and I can see the queen and her ladies spending their days there, when they could, relaxing. It's a place I certainly wouldn't mind relaxing in. There's also something extra special to the garden, a design I haven't seen at any other palaces. Strangely enough, these interesting features are chimneys needed to have ondol (in floor heating) heating system. They're solid brick work, mostly shaded red, but with light brown bricks inserted in places to make a design. They're wonderful, and it's obviously that someone sat down and thought 'well, they have to be there, so how can I make them pretty for the ladies?', and then just that. I salute them.

Another interesting living area is Jagyeongjeon, the area built for Queen Dowager Jo. Once upon a time, I wrote an entry on Deoksungung Palace and the last independant Korean king, King Gojong. Queen Dowager Jo was instrumental in bringing him to the throne. In thanks, the dowager queen's quarters was rebuilt, and made into the most elegant and comfortable section of the palace. She's more than just bringing her son to the throne, because her son (King Heonjong) became king when he was eight, and she kept her hand in the throne while he ruled. When her son died with no son, and then his successor died without a son, she was the driving force behind putting King Gojong on the throne at age twelve. Twelve year olds can't rule on their own of course, so of course she stuck around for the next ten years and controlled state affairs from behind the scenes. Like many a royal mother before her, she was the ruler without the crown, and I tip my hat.

That isn't the end of King Gojong, however, which I've remarked before. I've talked about his move to Deoksungung and the way he was torn between his father's desire to remain away from outside influence and his wife, Queen Myeongseong, pushing for modernization and ties with the West. As Deoksungung Palace proves, Gojong was leaning more towards modernization, and to do this, he felt he had to break away from his father's influence. To do this, he built a palace within the palace, at the rear of the property. That palace is Geoncheonggung (fun fact- 'gung' at the end of a world, such as Gyeongbokgung, translates to 'palace'. That means that the name of this area is Geoncheong Palace, inside Gyeongbok Palace). This was the place where King Gojong and his wife lived, and it's both grand and beautiful. The highlight of the area is the pond called Hyangwinji, which was my favourite part of Gyeongbokgung. It's a large pond, filled with lily pads and lotus flowers, with brightly coloured gold and white coy fish skimming the surface of the water and searching for food. There's an island in the middle of the pond, with only a small bridge leading up to it. On that small island is one of the most beautiful pagodas I've seen in Korea. It's not all that high, really, but still manages to look like it has an upper and lower part, and it's shaped like a cone, until you reach the top. The roof flares out more than usual, coming to sharp arch points. The colours, while the same as all other formal buildings, seemed to be a lighter shade, because it just seemed...softer, for a better word. This pavilion was created to seem both intimate and feminine, and the builders succeeded with it. This place was beautiful, and I'm seriously considering adding a full scale replica if I ever get rich enough to buy and built up my own massive bit of property someday.

Geoncheonggung wasn't just a lovely place, but a place where history was made as well, for good and bad reasons. King Gojong wanted to modernize Korea, and he took one of those steps here. The first power plant was built here, powered by water from the pond. It created power to light the palace up at night. It made Korea the first East Asian country to use electricity. For better or for worse, Western modernity had come to Korea.

Geoncheonggung wasn't all beauty or invention, and it was the scene of one of the most famous assassinations in Korean history, one that's still talked about today. To set the scene: October 8th, 1895. Japan has just won the Sino-Japanese War, and that has Korea justifiably on end. Japan begins to flex its muscles, doing its best to interfere with Joseon affairs. Seeing the danger, Queen Myeongseong began to court the Western powers for help. She turned to Russia, hoping to form an alliance that could provide a buffer between Japan and Korea. The Japanese were not going to let this happen, and assassins stole into the palace late at night. They stabbed three women present in the area, and when they realized which woman truly was the Queen, they took her body to the hill and burned the remains. This didn't only lead to horror and outrage amongst Koreans, but other foreign powers as well. Anti-Japanese sentiment skyrocketed, especially when the killers were acquitted of the murder because of a lack of evidence. Not long afterwards, King Gojong and the crown prince were forced to flee the palace, being smuggled out and handed over to the Russians Queen Myeongseong had hoped to convince to help. In the end, his efforts were as fruitless as hers had been, though his outcome didn't end in assassination. On February 11, 1896, King Gojong became the last Joseon king to ever stay in Gyeongbokgung. History, dark and cruel and violent, happened in these halls. A queen killed in the dark for trying to protect her country, and a king forced to flee and take refuge with uncertain allies. It was the beginning of the end, and only fourteen years later, Korea would fall to the Japanese until 1945. Those years were not kind to Korea, and the Korean people suffered under it.

Since leaving you on that depressing note would be quite unfair to you, I've saved one final piece of Gyeongbokgung for last. Along with the pond, this is considered the other highlight. It is Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, a massive two story building located in another pond. This one was used for functions, be it formal banquets on the bottom floor (open with only pillars acting as pseudo walls) or looking out at the lovely view from the second floor. Like the main throne room, it's also elegant and lovely when lit up at night. Like the queen's garden, this is a wonderful place to relax and look out and see not only the whole of the palace, but the mountains behind it as well. I actually think of this area as what symbolizes the palace as a whole- functional, but easily used for its beauty and relaxing nature as well. There's also a story or two to go with it, and because I will always first and foremost be a historian at heart, here's a romance and a tragedy to end your tour of Gyeongbokgung. Once upon a time, King Jungjong took the throne from his half brother, and had to divorce his wife because she was of the same family. He loved her however, truly, and would go to the top of this pavilion and gaze out at her home. She loved him as well, and when she heard how the King suffered, she put a pink skirt she had worn as his wife outside her home, in a place that would get his attention. Knowing that she was there and missed him, the sight of the skirt helped his broken heart. That was the romance, now the tragedy. King Sejo deposed his nephew and took the throne. With nothing else to do, here is where the nephew handed over the royal seal. Loyal followers tried to reinstate the nephew, but it failed, and King Sejo wasn't going to let that stand. He brought those ministers, now called 'The Six Martyred Ministers', here, and slaughtered them all. The soft and the hard: two histories found throughout the world, even in Korea.

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August 2017

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