Today we explore perhaps one of Korea’s most famous landmarks: Gyeongbokgung Palace.
A little bit of history: according to the brochure, “Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395 as the main palace of the newly founded Joseon Dynasty. The name Gyeongbokgung means ‘The new dynasty will be greatly blessed and prosperous’… The palace was burned down during the Japanese invasion in 1592. It was left derelict for the next 273 years, and it was finally rebuilt in 1867.” Many of the rebuilt structures were inspired by the architectural principles of ancient China. The palace was then again largely tore down during the Japanese occupation and the Japanese Government-General took over ownership. More than 90% of the buildings were dismantled. “An effort to fully restore Gyeongbokgung to its former glory has been ongoing since 1990.”
Something that I began to see during this fellowship is just how much of Korea’s history has been tampered with and affected by Japanese imperialism. We no longer have many of our original buildings or sculptures or artifacts because they were either stolen or destroyed during invasions or occupations. I now begin to understand why there is still an underlying tension especially in our elders (the occupation occurred until 1945, which is within the lifetime of just two generations ago). When the palace land was taken over by the Japanese Government-General, a huge building was constructed to house him and other administrative needs right in front of Gyeongbokgung. This building was finally removed in 1996 (MY generation! Only 20 years ago).
At least today, the main entrance-Gwanghwamun Gate- has been restored and stands proudly in the heart of bustling Seoul. Gyeongbokgung is a place I wanted to explore from the beginning of this fellowship (albeit it being very well-known) because of its location and cultural significance; it is a perfect emblem of history lodged right in the middle of modernity.
View of Gwanghwamun Gate from the inside. You can see the traditional gate juxtaposed by the stocky building on the right. It was around Korean Independence Day when I visited, so they had a Korean flag displayed on the building as well which was very appropriate.
The whole palace property is enclosed by a gate and is surrounded by the busy city that we associate Seoul with today. These two sections have completely different atmospheres even though they pretty much share the same space. Especially because I came in the morning when there weren’t as many tourists, Gyeongbokgung was a peaceful glimpse into the past and really felt like I was entering a different time and space in the country.
Mountains are also sometimes in view, so the technological city, the traditional architecture, and the touch of nature are all available to experience in one place.
Processions happen throughout the day, such as when they change the royal guards. They try to make this as genuine and true to how it might have been back in the day, so it is quite a sight to see the men’s stoic faces as they march around in bright, bold dress.
Again it’s interesting to see this happen against a backdrop of blue steel skyscrapers…
I was very inspired by the patterns and architectural designs that were all over the buildings (even like on the drum in the picture above). It was ornate, intricate, and just extremely beautiful.
I am thankful I got to visit this place. In all of the time I lived in and visited Korea, I actually had never gone inside Gyeonbokgung Palace (the most was taking a picture of the gate as I passed it from the outside). And surprisingly when I asked my relatives, who had been living in Korea all their lives, some for over 40 years, whether they had visited, none of them had. I actually heard more Chinese, Vietnamese, even Japanese words floating in the crowd of visitors than Korean. I guess it is to be expected as it is a top tourist spot but it put into perspective how most often we are actually less likely to appreciate important places the closer we are to them regularly. It was a peculiar moment but a good reminder to appreciate our buildings, our culture, our heritage, as it is worth flying across lands for some people to come see.