[personal profile] niori_1709
A few thousand years ago, Korea was not the unified place it is today (well...sort of unified). Instead, the peninsula was ruled by three different kingdoms- the Silla kingdom, the Goguryeo kingdom, and the Baekje kingdom. This period, appropriately enough, is refereed to as the Three Kingdoms Period. While both Silla and Goguryeo are fascinating and historically important, it's going to be the Baekje kingdom we're going to be focusing on this travel guide. Why, you may ask? It all harkens back to last month's guide. If you were to take a quick glance through it, you may have seen a mention or two about the history of Olympic Park that goes past just the '88 Olympics. If you were wondering what I meant, here's your answer.

The Baekje kingdom was founded back in 18 BCE by King Onjo. It was an offshoot of the Goguryeo kingdom, because Onjo's mom, So Seo-no, was unimpressed when she found out her son wasn't going to inherit the Goguryeo kingdom from his father, the king. So she up and moved them all, and started a kingdom that would one day span Southeast Korea. You have to love the moms who want only the best for their children (especially when they end up changing the geopolitical scene by doing so). It didn't become a full fledged power house of a kingdom until 249 BCE, a powerhouse it did become. Even though Silla would eventually conquer the other two to unify Korea in 600 BCE, Baekje was still a big deal. So big, in fact, that it can easily be said that it shaped East Asian history and culture. Baekje was right on the boarder with China, so the cultural exchanges with that country were astounding- Chinese technology and culture filtered in and blended into the existing Korean culture. Buddhism was brought back from Koreans who went on diplomatic missions. Not only did it change Korean culture, but because Baekje was a pretty big sea trading power, it had lots of trade ties with Japan. Through those trade ties, the cultural exchange was able to keep moving into Japan as well. It's how Buddhism was able to extend throughout East Asia, which is a big deal. Without the Baekje kingdom, who knows how the cultures of East Asia would be different.

Now that we've gotten that bit of a history lesson out of the way, let's get back to Olympic Park, as promised in the title. At one point in time, the Baekje kingdom started their capital in southern Seoul. You don't hear much about the Baekje kingdom and its history in Seoul because it's generally overshadowed by the later Joseon dynasty. I do understand why- not only is it newer, but the relics and monuments to that dynasty can still be found everywhere in Seoul. I mean, just look at how many palaces are left to wander around. However, it's still a pity that not as many people know about the Baekje history in Seoul. You need to dig around a little more to find it, but it is still there to enjoy. One of those places, and probably the easiest to find, is Olympic Park, AKA Mongchon Fortress. While the fortress itself is pretty long gone, replaced by the park I talked about last time, there are still pieces of it to see. Remember all those walking trails I talked about last time? The ones that were up on a steepish slope actually mark the spots where the old fortress walls once stood. The whole point of a fortress is to get up high in order to see the land all around you. While it wasn't the highest I've ever been, you did get a pretty good view from there. If you were standing on a wall, you'd get an even better one. Anyone guarding them would be able to see any threats coming for quite a while off. When you look at the park from the outside, you can see why it was such a strategic position. Not only was it high, but it had a moat dug around it as well.

The trails that twist along the long forgotten wall aren't the only remains of the fortress. In fact, there are ones you can still see today. The first is a long wooden fence. It's not much to look at. It just is a bunch of brown planks together, in some parts not looking like it's going to hold up much longer. They're lopsided because they stand just near the bottom of a hill. It's nothing much, and it most certainly looks out of place. It's not often that you see wood fences like that in Seoul Korea, especially when they don't seem to be fencing in anything in particular. It may look out of place now, but it's exactly where it had to be back then. The fortress was built before massive stonework fortresses that would come later. Instead, this fortress was protected by mud ramparts and the wooden fences that protected them. This was one of the boundaries of the fortress, and that fence (granted, it's not the original- it's rare for wood artifacts to last that long) was the things keeping the dangers out. It doesn't seem like much, but the fortress stood there for quite a long time, so what do I know? Another fun fact about fortresses- they're not just about looking intimidating. In order to build a fortress to defend something, you need something to defend. In this case, there was a small but royal palace inside the fortress, built to keep the king and his family safe in case of attack. That meant it couldn't just be a military garrison. You had to be able to live (and sustain a siege) there. One of the things you need to wait out a siege is food. Thankfully, there was lots of space inside the fortress to get some farming done, and one of those places you can even talk a walk through today.

These days the inner palace farming area is little more than a big grassy field, but it's a pretty lovely one. For the most part, it's just a wide, green expanse of green. The one landmark in the whole spot is a tree that -tall enough, but so round that it gives the impression of not being that big- stands up in the middle. It is, quite frankly, quite picturesque. Should be plastered all over a postcard picturesque. Once you look past the field, however, you'll see the remains of the fortress I was talking about. There's a replica of the old fields, and it's fully functioning. There's a few different patches, but the one I got closest to was the barley field. It was fully grown when I visited, and it was fun to walk through the fully grown rows. There's a whole visitor's experience behind it, and if you come at the right time of year, you can help plant/harvest/whatever using traditional tools. Gardening has never been my thing, but it still sounds pretty interesting. I'd have probably given it a go had it been the right time of the year. One final left over from the fortress days, and for me the best. Olympic Park exists as an archaeological dig site. There are still excavations done there (one was going on while I was there). While any newer ones are blocked off to the public, that doesn't mean there isn't a site viewing to be had. On top of one of the hills, in one of the quieter parts of the park, there's a dome-like structure. I saw it from afar, and was curious. There were no signs saying what it was, but it was unlocked, so in I went. As it turns out, it was an excavation site that had been preserved for public viewing. This site, once upon a time, was the place where dugout huts used to stand. There's not much left, of course, but you can still see the foundation of the old buildings, and while there's no English on the signs explaining them, the pictures give a pretty good idea of how the homes would have been laid out.

The Baekje in Olympic Park isn't just a few more intangible places. If you're someone who's a little more curious (you're in good company, I promise), there's something a lot more concrete to round out any lingering Baekje related questions. If you still want to more (and you know you should), there's the Seoul Baekje Museum located in the very same park. The museum, built in the absolutely appropriate place, covers the history of Seoul known as the Hanseong Baekje period. It's the 500 year period where the kingdom had Seoul as their capital. The museum is divided into three different sections: the first is pre-historic Korea, which is pretty much a staple in every museum I've been to so far. It's filled with lots of dioramas of early settlements (long before Baekje) and stone/early metal tools. Lots of earthen ware as well. All interesting, but all pretty broad and stuff I'd seen before, so I will admit that I breezed a bit more quickly through that section of the museum. The main highlight, for me, was the middle section, which focused exclusively as Seoul's time as the Baekje capital. For all that it's the middle section of the museum, the exhibit itself actually starts the minute you walk into the museum.

Once you walk into the museum itself, you come into a tall, wide space, with a huge grey wall at the far side. At first it doesn't seem to be anything much, but then I noticed something at the top. There was a model of a person -a workmen dressed in rough looking clothes, arms crossed with a stern look on his face- standing at the top, looking down. Curious, I went forward a little more. The wall went down further than I thought. In fact, there were stairs leading down past it, and it was on the floor below where the exhibit area b started. Looking down, I saw that the scene continued. The man at the top was the overseer, and at the bottom, was the workers. There were workers, dressed in even shabbier clothes than the guy above them, doing everything from hauling buckets of something on their shoulders, to scrambling over wooden tools made to move large quantities of rock. These men were frozen in their work, whether it be individual or group, and each of them was to scale for the average human. It was a full scale model of the building of the fortress that the museum was technically inside. It was impressive for that reason alone, but I also really liked that it was nearly 100% focused on the workers themselves. Yes, the overseer was there, but he felt more like an afterthought. The centrepiece of the set was the people actually getting their hands dirty, which was interesting, because normally the focus of these kinds of things would lean more towards showing scenes of what the upper classes were doing. It wasn't a scene of some nobles planning, but of normal people working. It was actually a theme that repeated itself throughout the museum. While there were the models of what the Baekje elite were up to, a lot of the focus was on the everyday layperson. In a world that looks back and generally tends to only pay attention to the upper crusts of society and what they did, it's a refreshing change of pace.

The other big scene such as this (though there are smaller ones as well, and there is some focus on the going ons of royalty there), was the full scale replica of a Baekje ship. Like I said earlier, the kingdom was hugely important when it came to sea trade. In some ways, it was their bread and butter, so it only makes sense the museum would have a room dedicated to it, with a giant example used to emphasis the point. It's not a massive ship by any means, I'd say it's about the size of one of the fishing boats we see in the harbour every day. It's not even a fancy one either, just a wooden ship (though very sharp and angular) without any fanfare around it. It wasn't a ship for show or for to make an impression. It was a ship for work, and it wasn't the glamorous kind. The sailors were dressed in simple clothes, certainly not people who were going to meet anyone important or play any history altering part in life, they were just meant to show people hard at work for their living. It was, again, a homage to the everyday people who made up, and honestly kept alive, the Baekje kingdom. It also looked really, really cool (especially the opening work scene).

There were some other highlights in the museum, specifically when it came to the iron works and pottery. The Baekje artisans and weapons makers were experts at both. There were three things that really stood out to me, though two of them are more a general quality than a specific artifact. The first was the clay tile work. I know, it seems like such a strange thing to really enjoy- it's just some small, circular tiles. They weren't anything fancy or elaborate, and they honestly weren't made to stand out in any real sense. That's actually why I liked them so much. Their designs were so simple -most of them had flower motifs, with lots of wheel-like circles and rounded, pointed lines-, and that was really appealing to me. They weren't flashy or even meant to stand out, and by doing so, were much...smoother than anything else. I would actually consider using such designs in my (hypothetical) future home, because they just worked in a very pleasing way.

The second thing that really stood out to me was something a lot more obvious, and that's because it had to do with statues. Statues of the Buddha, in fact. There are a LOT of Buddha statues in Korea. There are many different styles and looks, along with different versions, etc. A lot of them are similar when it comes to pose and such, but there was something different about the Baekje Buddha statues in the museum. The difference was in their smile. I know it sounds odd, but normally I've seen Buddhist statues where there is a pretty calm, almost blank look, carved into the face, but not here. These Buddhas were smiling, and not only smiling, but it was a smile filled with warmth. It almost reminded me of the famous Mona Lisa smile, but it's even deeper than that. Her smile is one of mystery and questioning. These smiles are ones full of inviting warmth and almost contentment. I'd even go so far to call it soulful, and that just works so well when you take into account the tenants of Buddhism in general. It shows just how much the artisans of the Baekje period got it, and how talented they were at portraying it. There are a lot of ways to create a smile that sends the wrong message, but these guys were on point.

For the last highlight, we're moving away from the arts and dipping our feet into the art of war. I'm bringing up a weapon. In this case, it's the chiljido, or seven branched sword. It is, to be frank, really weird looking. Those seven branches in the name? They're talking about the seven blades on the thing. Think of it this way- the main shaft of the sword points up straight, much like a tree trunk. The pointy side at the top is blade/branch one. On the side of the blade/trunk, are six 'branches', or smaller blades. I wouldn't even call them blades, despite what they're made of. They're curved and looked just like a curved finger, and while I'm sure they'd do a lot of damage if you got stabbed with them, it just does not seem to be a very practicable sword for battle. There is a LOT of symbolism behind the design (the branches are call backs to the crowns of the Baekje kings), and they were mostly used for ceremonial purposes (especially gifts to important people. The most famous of these swords was a gift from the Baekje king to the Emperor of Japan to show goodwill between the two kingdoms), but the fact that someone still came up with a sword that kind of resembles a tree is brilliant, and I loved it. It was so different and unique, and for all that I thought it looked strange, it was delightful. It was probably my favourite artifact there, because I do love things that are different.

There is one more room, which focused on the general political issues between the three kingdoms and the period after Baekje was chased out of Seoul. I found this was more information than anything, and while it was super interesting (at least to a history geek), if you only have a small amount of time at the museum, I'd suggest going through here with the same brevity I paid to the first part (don't skip, but maybe don't linger as much either). However, even though our museum tour is done, that doesn't mean our look at Baekje Olympic Park is. There's one more thing. I've mentioned time and time again about how much Korea loves its festivals, and historical homage ones are just as popular as the rest. If you want to have a two part festival honouring one of the three kingdoms, where's the best place to put it? If you guessed the former capital, AKA Olympic Park, then you guessed correctly. The festival itself was spread out through a good quarter of the park, starting from the Peace Gate (where it seemed the performances were taking place, and where the activity tents were thrown up) to the museum. It's pretty easy to find- the minute you step out of the subway stop at the Peace Gate, there was a pretty large wooden watch tower built, complete with a guard in costume keeping a look out. There were giant paper lanterns around the gate itself, including a really fierce and pretty terrifying looking tiger. They were scattered here and there, but there was one place where the giant lanterns were used to their full effect (though sadly it was day, so I didn't see them lit up). There's a bridge, a long wooden thing with only drawn rope for rails. Baekje flags and banners fly high on both sides, making the path you're supposed to take pretty obvious. On either side of the bridge, standing on rafts, are even more lanterns. Massive ones, detailed ones, showing various parts of old Korean life- ancestral rites, farming, you name it. I'll admit that this looked a lot more Joseon to me than Baekje, it still was a really great way to decorate the natural park for the festival.

There were two highlights to the festival, in my humble opinion. The first was the market place. The market place area was a couple of paths really close to the museum, with small 'shops' set up on both sides. I say shops, but it was really so much better designed than that. The buildings were clearly temporary ones, but they looked like the kind of structures you'd see in an old market from the distant past. People selling were in costume as well, and there were more than a few places that had decorated with things like old fashioned stone ovens and traditional tools/equipment. Some were selling homemade earthen ware or food, cooked or raw ingredients. It wasn't supposed to be a mirror to an old fashioned Baekje market, but it was certainly meant to give a sense of it. The real proof of that, comes in how you were supposed to pay for everything. They didn't accept your average won, oh no. Instead, they were only taking coins...Baekje coins. When you get to the market area, there's a stand where you hand over your Korean won for replicas of old Baekje coins (small, brass, not exactly a full circle and with a hole in the middle), and those are what you pay this. It was so cool! I just loved it, because it was such a neat detail to have there. It made shopping more fun, especially because if you didn't spend all of the coins, you got a cool souvenir to take home as well. The idea was brilliant, and it was an awesome way to not only get people into the shopping, but the history as well.

One final thing, and then I promise I'm done. The second highlight of the festival was the marching of the guards parade they had just around suppertime (and just before I left- it was the last thing I stuck around to see). I've seen plenty of Korean history reenactors since I moved here, particularly at the Joseon palaces. Despite that, I'm always a big fan of both shows and period costumes, so I just had to stick around. I'm glad I did, because it was something far different than I was expecting. Now, I knew going in that Joseon and Baekje were completely different kingdoms with different cultural norms, etc, even if I did know more about the former than the latter. Despite knowing this, I was still struck by just how different the parading of the guards looked here than it did any of those other times. The guards and other players from the Joseon dynasty were flashy and bright, with colours and designs that were meant to draw the eye. They're loud and meant to stand out, which actually reflects the Joseon period fairly well. Baekje though? They were different. The colours were far more muted, with earthy tones and simple designs making them up. Greens, browns, blacks, and dull golds were the colours that passed by, ones that were not meant to stand out. There were ones that looked better for blending in, quite frankly. They were simple and far more military looking. Joseon looked, big weapons aside, far more ceremonial compared to Baekje. There was more obvious armour here, in the form of a leather breastplate and metal helmet. They didn't look like they were marching to war or anything, but they did look like they'd be ready and have a fighting chance if someone decided to jump out at them. The contrast was quite striking at first, and more interesting once I began to think about it. Joseon was a pretty established kingdom, and while not without conflict (especially wars with Japan), it was pretty secure within its own boarders. There wasn't quite as many neighbours on all sides that were constantly trying to oust them. Baekje, however, was constantly fighting with the other two kingdoms (and others, if they felt like getting in on the action). Looking more military, even in dress uniform, did make a lot more sense for a kingdom still finding its ground. Was this the actual reason for the difference, or did the fashion sensibilities just change over the years? Who knows (certainly not me)? Either way, it's an interesting thought to ponder.

The Baekje Kingdom isn't one you're going to hear about in Seoul as freely as will about certain others. In other areas of Korea sure, but not so much in Seoul. It is, however, more than worth a look through. It's interesting and different, but it also shows some of the roots that even exist today in current Korean culture, along with the rest of the culture of East Asia. Baekje deserves a lot more fanfare than it actually gets, and the best place to get a crash course if you're not getting down to the more Baekje centric areas of the country, then Olympic Park is for sure the best place to get your crash course history.



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