[personal profile] niori_1709
I've mentioned it before, but in case the little factoid didn't stick in your mind, Seoul has five different major palaces. The first one of them I ever got to see was Changdeokgung Palace, which I devoted two travel guides to a few months back. The second of Seoul's palaces that I was able to spend a day at was Deoksungung Palace. You'd think that, once you've seen one Korean palace, you've seen them all. You would, of course, be so very wrong. Each of the five palaces has one special thing that sets them apart, one thing that makes them different, and Deoksungung Palaces is no exception. In fact, the thing it has that's unique is something I haven't seen anywhere else in Korea.

Deoksugung began its life as Gyeongungung Palace and the residence of one Prince Wolsan, older brother of King Seongjong of the Joseon Dynasty. It wasn't until the palaces were destroyed by fire during the 1592 Japanese invasion, that Gyeongungung became an official royal palace. It was the temporary palace for King Seonjo and then a secondary palace for King Gwanghaegun after Changdeokgung Palace was finally rebuilt in 1615.

Deoksugung was the interesting scene in history, where Korean King Gojong decided to establish his own empire, the Great Han Empire, in 1897. It was Gyeongungung this self crowned emperor took as his primary residence...and it was Gyeongungung that was downgraded to a mere residence once Gojong was forced to relinquish his throne in 1907. There's more to that story of course, filled with intrigue and political manoeuvring . His forced abdication came in the wake of Gojong secretly sending a message to the Hague Peace Conference in 1907, asking the international community to help restore Korea's sovereignty (they weren't interested). When the Japanese found out, they forced Gojong to abdicate, and basically exiled him to Gyeongungung to keep him from having any influence on his son, the new king. It's at this point in time that the palace was renamed Deoksugung.

When I first visited Deoksugung, I very unexpectedly came at a wonderful time. I know it sounds funny, but I actually stumbled across Deoksugung. I was walking down the street, and then all of the sudden, there was the front gate. It was pushed back from the road, on a corner and hidden behind trees. It's not a lie to say I was legitimately surprised to see it there. It was about as understated and unobtrusive as a Korean palace complex can be. I stumbled across Deoksugung on the way to an art exhibit, and didn't have time to explore. I did, however, have time to stop and watch the changing of the guard ceremony I came across.

Changing of the guards, both re-enactments at historical sites or actual military, is a pretty common thing. Interesting, of course, but not exactly rare. While the re-enactment of the Joseon changing of the guards may not be unique in the history of the world, it is absolutely stunning. It was absolutely beautiful to watch, all because of the colours.

Bright reds. Deeps blues. Vibrant yellows. Deep purples. Midnight blacks. Neon greens. Shiny golds. Those are all the colours moving around in precise military formation. The colours were on bright banners, and mixed together into uniforms to separate soldiers into roles and ranks. The uniforms were not only made up of spectacular colours, but patterns as well. There were designs in the fabric, multi coloured rope and feathers on hats and a variety of weapons -bows, arrows, staffs, swords and these long pike-like things- all made this changing of the guards a visual feast for the eyes.

On top of the uniforms, there was the military ceremony of it. There was the banging of the ceremonial (and gigantic) drum, the music of other instruments, marching, inspection and other orders. Each member played their part perfectly, and for a moment, it was possible to believe that you had taken a step back in time.

That was the first time I came to Deoksugung. The second time, probably a month or so later, I made sure to give myself time to explore. I didn't catch the changing of the guards again, but I did get to see the rest of Deoksugung.

Like all Korean palaces, there is a main throne room, where ceremonies and other official events were held. This throne room is Junghwajeon. Tragically enough, it was this very throne room and courtyard where, after Gojong was tricked and forced to abdicate, his son was coroneted. It's the definition of adding insult to injury.

An interesting feature at Junghwajeon (and other versions scattered through the rest of the palace) is a very inconspicuous pot. It's a flat bottomed jar, not even all that decorative. It's called a deumu. It's interesting for two reasons. The first is its purpose. Its purpose was to chase away any evil fire spirit that was looking to burn the palace down. If a fire spirit was to see itself in the water, it would run scared (on a more practical matter, a big jar full of water would be very useful if a fire did break out amongst the wooden buildings).

The second interesting feature is the inscription. The inscription is Chinese, and it means 'ten thousand years'. This inscription wasn't allowed to be used by anyone but the Chinese emperor during the Joseon Dynasty. When the Great Han Empire was declared, that rule went right out the window- since the Korean king was now an emperor in his own right, he decided he was just as entitled to it.

Next up, we have Jeukodang, where the only (traditional) two story building in the whole of Deoksugung. That neat architectural feature is interesting, but basically bringing up Jeukjodang in a way for me to introduce an awesome historical woman. Let me introduce you to Queen Inmok. Queen Inmok was the wife of King Seonjo (14th king of Joseon), and after her stepson Gwanghaegun took the throne (after removing the brothers he thought were a political threat to him, he deposed the dowager queen and put her under house arrest in Seogeodang, the building beside Jeukhodang. Nothing says influence like being put under house arrest by someone so you can't be a political threat. Ten years of house arrest later, Inmok had the last laugh: When he was dethroned (by Prince Neungyang, who actually went to get Inmok's approval to ascend the throne), Gwanghaegun was forced to kneel before the dowager queen as he was question about his crimes...just before the royal seal was given to the new queen.

Told you she was awesome.

Now, onto what makes Deoksugung noteworthy (besides being a palace that housed royalty, was home to politicking, attempted assassinations - more on that later- and historical upsets). The particularly interesting parts are the way the modern west and the traditional Korean mixed. There are three buildings that show just how interesting that is. The first building mixes Korean and western perfectly, and that is Jeonggwanheon. It was designed by Russian architect A. I. Sabatin back in 1900. The foundation has roman-like pillars, but on top of those pillars are traditional Korean designs. It's on the veranda that Gojong enjoyed a nice cup of coffee. Which brings me to that assassination attempt.

While staying at the Russian legation (at this point Korea was attempting to open up to the world), Gojong had his first cup of coffee. Like many others before and after him, it was love at first cup. From then on, the coffee just kept coming. That love of coffee made it a perfect drink to put some poison in. Gojong's former interpreter - who was misused his power and was banished for it- cooked up his revenge plot, putting posdon in the coffee of Gojong and the crown prince. Gojong didn't swallow, but the prince did, and he suffered the effects for the rest of his life. They did, however, survive.

Jeonggwanheon is a mix of western and Korean, but there are buildings that take it a step further. Seokjojeon and the area around it are western style buildings through and through. It's a sheer symbol of a Korea that wanted to modernize. The two buildings are straight up neo-classic architecture, looking like political buildings in the US. There are huge pillars, multiple floors, massive staircases and white marble. Gojong and his wife lived here, and there was a reception and audience hall. It was a building fit for a president or prime minister, a far cry from the traditional palaces of a Korean royal couple. At the time of my visit, Seokjojeon was under repair/renovation, so I wasn't able to go inside and look around. It was a shame, but luck wasn't completely against me. While I wasn't able to go inside one modern style building, I was able to go into the other.

The other has actually been turned into the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. I'll be the first to admit that contemporary art is not my favourite. Unlike other art forms, I like them on a piece by piece basis, not as a complete movement. There were some spectacular pieces in the spacious, two story and gorgeous building, and there were some I wasn't particularly fond of. My personal enjoyment aside, it was an excellent collection, all done by various Korean artists. If you're already in Deoksugung, it's worth taking a look.

Outside, on a beautiful, grassy lawn, there is one more uniquely un-Korean feature. That feature is something as simple as a fountain. Granted, it's a well crafted, detailed and elaborate fountain, but still a fountain. Unlike traditional Korean fountains, this was an actual fountain, not a waterfall feature. Koreans believed that water, by the laws of nature, is meant to flow down. For all that water sprays up in a fountain, it falling back down isn't the same as flowing. It's also different because it's located in the front of the building, not the rear.

For the most part, that is the palace of Deoksugung, but for full disclosure, it's not technically all of it. While what I've described is located within the palace walls, there are a few remains found outside. The palace used to be bigger than it is now, extending into the current city hall and Seoul Plaza area. While there's only a few things to see outside the walls, if you have the time (I didn't), you should go check them out.

Deoksugung is an interesting place, a mix of old Korea and the modern west. It was a sign of an attempt to modernize, to open to the world at large. To me, it actually perfectly symbolizes the Korea I've come to love -an ancient country full of vibrant tradition and beauty, while still offering everything I could ever want from to world outside, from the land I still call home. It's a meeting of two different worlds, and as someone who's currently living in both, it felt quite welcoming.

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