A Happening Place: Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday
***Please note: This has a lot of pictures—very nice ones, I think!
This 555-meter-long and 34-meter-wide square is in front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and one of Seoul’s main landmarks. Behind the palace compound is the Bukhansan Mountain to the north. Statues of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (who repelled the Japanese invasions of the 1590s) and King Sejong (who created the Korean alphabet), the historical figures most respected by Koreans, are on the square.
Walking south, the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is on your left, then the Embassy of the USA and embassies of Austria, Australia and Finland. On the right, the main feature is the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
This square is often a rallying point for different demonstrations and protests, so you’ll always see a large police presence—also because of the embassies along here. It’s a perfect place for shows and expos as well, as so many people pass by here.
We spent many hours wandering around here last Saturday and were fascinated to get a sample of the kinds of events that take place here. In spite of the poor air quality (the yellow dust was rated at an emergency level) there were still many activities happening on the square.
First, at the north end, we found an exhibition for World Book Day 2016. What a fun and important thing, to encourage reading. Kids were reading in an open tent; people could borrow books from a small library; various artists were decorating or illustrating large “books”; huge mock-ups of famous titles, a book ‘tower’ and a large blue elephant illustrated the theme. A young lady invited passers-by to write on a large board, so I added to the messages—some about books and reading, many about Seoul and experiences in Seoul.
Next we saw a lovely 3-storied pagoda with lions as corner pillars and fanciful creatures at the base. It’s not marked in our guidebooks, so we wondered if it was new. It looks real enough. But, turns out it’s a paper pagoda lantern, copied from Hwaeum-sa Temple’s stone pagoda (National Treasure no 35), made on a wire frame and filled in with Korean traditional papers. It took about 4 months to manufacture the lantern using traditional methods of Korean lantern-making. It emphasizes a traditional image and colors of an ancient relic, rather than splendid colors. The 4 lions playing the role of pillar symbolize the lion’s courage in protecting Buddhist doctrines. At each of the 4 edges of the lantern are fairies playing music as an offering to Buddha. It will be here and lit up from April 20-May 15, 2016, as part of the general festivities for Buddha’s Birthday this year—on May 14, and a pubic holiday in Korea. It’s an amazing structure and we never guessed at first that it wasn’t solid!
A little beyond that is the statue of King Sejong, and we discovered that below that is an underground Exhibition Hall, half devoted to King Sejong, his life and accomplishments, and the other half to Admiral Yi. We explored both of them and they are well worth an hour or so. There’s a small café down there too.
Next we came across a lot of white tent-stalls, and discovered they are part of an Integrative Medicine and Healthy Lifestyle Fair, which was on for the Friday and Saturday. It was fun to breeze through that, looking at some of the goods and ideas on offer (what we could understand anyway!).
The statue of Admiral Yi towers above the wide metro entrance ramp to Gwanghwamun Station, Line 5. That morning as we walked towards the statue we were very lucky to happen on some traditional Korean dancing near the metro entrance. A group of women dressed in white hanboks with either green or orange trimmings were performing a Ganggang Suwollae. This is a traditional round dance, performed at the time of a full moon, and is to bring hope for a good agricultural year. Three leaders sang as the only form of musical accompaniment and also guided some of the dancers. It was wonderful to watch the group circling, dividing into lines, flowing into an “S” shape, or forming a human arch.
At the southern tip, just beyond the statue of Admiral Yi on a tall pedestal with fountain jets at its base, is the tented Gwanghwamun Family Memorial Altar to commemorate the Sewol Ferry Disaster on April 16, 2014. Tragically, 304 people died, most of them school children on a field trip. Sadly, 9 have yet to be found. This Memorial has been here a while, and many people come to pay respects or add a yellow ribbon.
Who would have thought that in such a
relatively short distance we could experience so many different things and learn so much abut Korea!