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Korean aesthetics, spirit live on at Gyeongbok Palace

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Royal guards dressed in red official attire carry out a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, in this undated photo. Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
Royal guards dressed in red official attire carry out a changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, in this undated photo. Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

Seoul's 'palace of felicitous blessing' carries on quintessential Korean spirit

By Lee Hae-rin

In the middle of a forest of skyscrapers and LED lights in the heart of central Seoul stands Gyeongbok Palace, the greatest and arguably most beautiful among the capital's five main royal palaces.

Gyeongbok Palace, its name meaning "palace greatly blessed by heaven," is one of Korea's most famous and popular travel attractions visited by millions of people every year. It serves as a filming location for K-dramas and feature films, many of which have gained international recognition.

The six-century-long Joseon Kingdom came to an end in 1910. However, the property, where royal families and court officials worked, feasted and held ancestral ceremonies and royal funerals over the centuries, houses the quintessence of Korean culture and spirit, from the nation's architectural aesthetic to the spirit of resilience.

Gyeongbok Palace / Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
Gyeongbok Palace / Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

Harmony with surrounding nature

Gyeongbok Palace is one of the world's rare architectural masterpieces that embraces the surrounding landscape into its original scenery, according to professor Yoo Hong-jun, the former director of the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA).

In his bestselling travelogue series "My Exploration of Cultural Heritage," which introduces hidden attractions of the Korean cultural legacy with in-depth historical backgrounds, Yoo explains that the key characteristic of Korean traditional architecture lies in "creating harmony with its surrounding nature."

The palace was built in 1395 to mark the establishment of Joseon three years earlier and represented the official change of the kingdom's capital from Gaeseong to Seoul, known as Hanyang at the time. The location of such a significant monument was selected carefully by the dynasty's royal architects and geomancy specialists.

The mountains behind the royal premises ― Bukhan, Bugak and Inwang ― are, in Yoo's words, "Gyeongbok Palace's gardens" and offer exceptional scenery.

British documentary filmmaker and anthropologist Howard Reid, who documented the ongoing restoration of the palace for five years between 2006 and 2010, also explained in his memoir "The Arch of Enlightenment" that the ultimate objective of Korean architecture is to build a house, temple or palace that forms a perfect balance with nature.

Korean architecture refrains from using straight lines in design to maintain a balance with the surroundings. Except for support pillars, these traditional buildings consist mainly of curves, creating harmony with the trees, mountains and hills around them, the filmmaker wrote.

Gyeonghoeru Pavilion / Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
Gyeonghoeru Pavilion / Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

Meritocracy-centered, hardworking nation

Gyeongbok Palace's banquet hall Gyeonghoeru Pavilion is the architectural centerpiece of the palace, and is also a government-designated national treasure. However, the masterpiece built during the old feudal society is, surprisingly, the work of a slave-born architectural genius named Park Ja-cheong (1357-1423).

The 931-square-meter wooden building, which once housed audiences as big as 1,200 people according to historical records, was more than a banquet venue for foreign envoys, royal families and court officials. It also staged rain-calling ceremonies in times of drought, farewell dinners for army generals before going to war and even exams for Confucian scholars.

Along with Chang Yong-sil, a scientist during the rule of King Sejong (1418-50), Park is known as one of the greatest engineers who contributed to the technological and cultural advancement of the dynasty despite their slave-born ancestry.

Joseon's historical records note that Park was a competitive man who was "heartless by nature and had little mercy and virtue." Park would probably have seemed like an "unsophisticated and uneducated man who comes from a slave background and practices the low trade of civil engineering," from the perspectives of Joseon aristocrats or "yangban" at the time, Yoo explained.

However, the first three kings of Joseon that lived in his era ― Kings Taejo, Taejong and Sejong ― admired his talents and gave him responsibilities despite jealous opposition from the elite class.

As a result, the slave-born architect became a high-ranking government official and a royal architect, eventually marking a new chapter in Korea's royal architectural history.

The architect's other works include Changdeok Palace, the royal tomb of King Taejo's wife, the fortress wall of Seoul and many more.

Tourists wearing traditional Korean dress
Tourists wearing traditional Korean dress "hanbok" take pictures at Gyeongbok Palace, Feb. 27, 2022. Korea Times photo by Wang Tae-seog

Resilience against hardship

Over 600 years of the nation's turbulent history, Gyeongbok Palace has been destroyed and fallen into ruin several times, but "came back to life like a phoenix rising from the ashes," Reid wrote in his memoir.

Since its establishment in 1395, the palace was first burned down by the Japanese invasion beginning in 1592. It was left in ruins for 273 years until an attempt to strengthen the monarchy began in 1867 that saw it renovated. But it was torn down again in the first half of the 20th century during the Japanese occupation, and the Japanese Government General building was built in its place. The palace underwent restoration once more beginning in 1990 with the removal of the Japanese building.

Amid all the hardships, some centuries-old trees have survived and still stand all around the palace garden, carrying the nation's resilient spirit, according to Yoo.

Gyeongbok Palace features over 100 types of trees and plants but not all were planned to grow on the royal premises, the professor said. Trees such as queritron, oak trees and hemiptelea are "ordinary trees that wouldn't normally be planted in imperial gardens," but because of their tenacious hold on life and the ability to survive in challenging circumstances, they grew old.

Finally, they became "as worthy as any valuable flowering plants" in the royal garden, Yoo said, resembling Gyeongbok Palace itself, which has survived the nation's history of conflict.

Lee Hae-rin

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