King Sejong the Great

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Rod M and Viv M in front of Sejong’s statue

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The square with Admiral Yi in foreground and Sejong just visible way back

On our recent visit to Korea we really enjoyed finding out more about one of the country’s famous early kings. Why spotlight this king? He is considered to be one of the greatest Korean kings and is especially remembered for the development of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. This is also the king who is on the face of the W10,000 bank note.

In October 2009 a new statue of Sejong the Great was unveiled in Gwanghwamun Plaza, in downtown Seoul, on the occasion of the 563rd anniversary of the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, in 1446. The statue is close to the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the key Joseon Kingdom era military commander, another well-loved historical figure.

(Note that the exact date of the completion of the alphabet is not clear as some say it was 1443, others 1446).

There is also a National Hangeul Museum, which I’ll cover later.

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Pillars with stories of King Sejong, outside the entrance to the museum
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Entrance to the Story of King Sejong

One weekend, we wandered around Gwanghwamun Plaza (near the famous palace complex), which had a special book festival on that weekend (see previous post). Below the statue of King Sejong is a very informative museum/exhibition hall on the life and times of this great king and of Admiral Yi Sun-shin and it was fun to learn more about them both (I’ll cover Admiral Yi in a later post).

King Sejong the Great is one of only two Korean kings to be called Great, and is regarded as one of the finest rulers in Korean history. King Sejong was born in 1397, and ascended the throne in 1418 at the age of 21. He was the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty (1397-1910). He died in 1450 at the age of 54 after ruling for 32 years. He ought not to have been king, as he had two older brothers. However, they were wise and realized their younger brother was the best future ruler for their country. So, they both pretended to be incompetent, and were deemed unfit to rule. The mandate to rule fell to the third brother, Sejong.

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Entering the museum

Without doubt, King Sejong was a remarkable man: a Confucian scholar, philologist, musician, poet, and a skilled swordsman. He believed a person needed to combine physical training with education and spiritual practices to become a whole person. He promoted research in the cultural, economic, and political heritage of Korea, and he sponsored many new developments in the areas of science, philosophy, music, and linguistics. To encourage young scholars to study, he established grants and other government support.

King Sejong believed that the basis of good government was a ruler with wide-ranging

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Special Korean musical instrument from that time

knowledge, virtue, and the ability to recognize and use talented men for government service. 

As an administrator, King Sejong introduced many progressive ideas and reforms to improve the life of the common people. For example, in times of drought and flood, he established relief programs and opened centers to provide food and shelter. For farmers with poor harvests, he reinstated a loan system from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) that loaned surplus grains to them from government stores, for repayment in kind with nominal interest.

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Statue with copy of one of the inventions

Very early in his reign, in 1420, King Sejong established the Chipyon-chon (Hall of Worthies), a royal research institute. He had the best scholars and writers of the time compile many valuable works on history, geography, astronomy, mathematics, military science, agriculture, and pharmacology, which included encyclopedias on Chinese medicine and Korean medicine (hanyak).

In addition, 

over the years King Sejong commissioned a large number of literary works, as he saw books as a way of spreading education among his people. One of the first works he commissioned was a history of the Goryeo Kingdom. Others included a handbook on improved farming methods to increase production, a revised and enlarged collection of model filial deeds, and an illustrated book of the duties and responsibilities in human relationships. A collection of King Sejong’s own poems praising Buddha, entitled Worin Chon-gangjigok, was also published.

Realizing that literacy was key to a powerful nation, he gathered a group of scholars to

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Inside museum

develop a phonetic writing system that would correctly represent the sounds of spoken Korean and that could be easily learned by all people. The result was the creation of the Korean Hangeul alphabet, and this scientific alphabet is his best-known achievement. The system was completed in 1443 (or 1446). This alphabet allowed the general population to become more literate, as before this they were unable to master the classical Chinese language and script that was the official written language of Korea at the time. In addition, Chinese is very different to Korean in its vocal patterns and sentence formation and so could not represent Korean sounds and structure adequately.

oldbookLike Hungarian, Turkish, Mongolian, and Finnish, Korean is classified with the Ural-Altaic language group. The Hangeul system is a simple alphabet, with 24 characters (10 vowels and 14 consonants), that is apparently easy to learn, and the shape of the characters actually instructed readers where to place their tongues, thus making it easier for uneducated people to grasp.

Initially, many scholars and government officials opposed the use of Hangeul. Despite this, King Sejong ordered popular poems, religious verses, and well-known proverbs to be translated into Hangeul to encourage its use. Hangeul was therefore also a political as well as a linguistic achievement.

King Sejong’s rule is remembered as an age of peace and prosperity. Besides the creation

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Singijeon (rocket-propelled arrow)

of the alphabet, his masterful way of dealing with invading Japanese pirate ships made him beloved by the Korean people. King Sejong contributed to Korean civilization and society in a number of other ways, through his great understanding of then-current technology. He made improvements in the movable metal type that had been invented in Korea around 1234. He started the development of musical notation for Korean and Chinese music, helped improve designs for various musical instruments, and encouraged the composition of orchestral music.

King Sejong also sponsored many scientific inventions, including the rain gauge, the sundial, a water clock, celestial globes, astronomical maps, and the orrery, a mechanical representation of the solar system.

Indeed, a king to be proud of. Some of these inventions are in the museum and I have photos of some of them.

The Sundial (angbu ilgu) invented in 1434. The 12 hours on the plate were also expressed as 12 animals, so illiterate citizens could tell the time (see below).

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Celestial globe, 1437

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Singijeon is a rocket-propelled arrow, 1448, and is considered the world’s first multi-launch rocket.

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Old book: called Hunmin Jeongeum, presumed published in 1446. Encouraged by King Sejong after creating Hangeul, it gives explanations and examples of correct sounds to instruct the people.

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Notes On South Korea

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Guards leave Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
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Traditional drum in Gyeongbokgung Palace

What is South Korea? How to capture its essence?

These are some of my notes and thoughts after our fist visit to Korea. I never did get to putting them on the blog, but will do so now, as the sentiments have not changed after our subsequent visits.

South Korea is a small country that would fit into Illinois. And yet, it’s a land of great contrasts, an extraordinary mix that goes into making the country what it is. The provinces outside of Seoul are very varied: with rivers and rice paddies; shrines and mountain scenery; timeless temples; mushrooming modern apartment cities; neon and bamboo; a blend of old and new, modern and traditional.

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Traditional and modern, Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul
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The Old and New City Halls, Seoul

It has a long convoluted coastline with many islands on three sides; coastal plains devoted largely to agriculture (rice, barley, ginseng, multiple vegetables in tunnels, huge cattle barns); and mountains, lots of mountains—about 70% of the country is mountainous. That doesn’t leave much land for human habitation, so high-rise cities pop up in open spaces. You’ll emerge from a tunnel on the highway and suddenly in front of you there’ll be a forest of tall apartment buildings. Many are relatively new cities, we’re told, and many are satellite cities for other mega cities, like Seoul or Busan.

It’s a mix of old and ultra-modern—small shops with curving tiles roofs just down the street from tall curving steel creations, likely the HQ of one of the mega companies that tend to have a monopoly here. Wonderful palace complexes, built hundreds of years ago, open up behind their walls right in the center of the city, and you’ll likely find old stone pagodas preserved in a more modern park. You can find colorfully decorated temples both high in remote mountain areas and right in the middle of a bustling town or city, perhaps opposite a huge new conference center.

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An ultra-modern building in Gangnam
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New and old close to the National Folk Museum, Seoul
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Tiled roofs in Bukchon Hanok Village

The public transport system in the large cities is great, and well-used, and yet the traffic jams can be horrendous, as Koreans also love their cars. Koreans are very polite people generally, but this often disappears on the roads, with pushy, impatient drivers. The highway system around the country is amazing, engineered over valleys, and through and around mountains. On some of the highways heading south there are so many tunnels that we lost count and we also marveled at how long many of them are. The Highway Service Areas can be enormous, like shopping complexes in their own right with huge varied food courts.

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Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square

 

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Statue of Admiral Yi in Gwanghwamun Square
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Traditional dancers on Gwanghwamun Square

The country is very aware of the green movement, trying to save energy, and to recycle etc. and yet the cities are awash in a sea of brightly colored, flashing neon at night.

Koreans are very patriotic and very proud of their long, complicated history, with strong influences from China and Japan. Some of the people who hosted us were able to tell stories of previous dynasties and kings, even giving dates of various battles. They tell us proudly about King Sejeong, who developed Hangul, the system for writing the Korean language, which freed them from using Chinese characters; and about Admiral Yi, who helped fend off Japanese invaders hundreds of years ago.

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Old and New City Halls, Seoul
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Old and new near Gyeongbokgung Palace
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Jongno Tower from Tapgol Park

And yet, many (most) Koreans still also have a Chinese character as part of their name—the character gives a meaning. These days, Korea has embraced the concept of learning English as a necessity in our global world, and almost all schools teach English to kids from an early age. There are also private English academies and schools and I saw signs, even in relatively small towns. Younger people are usually quite keen to practice their English but older folk are more reserved and hesitant. Many signs and directions are in English as well as Korean, especially in the cities, so it’s possible as a foreigner to get around on one’s own—notably in the Seoul subway system.

Even though English is widely taught, for us as a foreigner the Korean language can be a problem, especially outside of the Seoul metropolitan area. We picked up a few words orally but the written language remains a mystery—it looks like no other western language we’ve either learned or had contact with. It looks pretty and I’m told it’s relatively easy to learn as it was scientifically developed. But sadly, so far, I haven’t found time to try and learn it.

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The Handbag Museum in Sinsa-dong

Korea has a long history of drinking green tea, and yet recently has embraced coffee in a big way, and you’ll find a coffee shop or two on virtually every block. But strangely, coffee is not usually available in restaurants.

Modern fashion is a thriving industry and most Koreans are very elegantly dressed, especially for work. And yet, for special occasions they favor the traditional clothes: we see women dressed in hanboks to visit the temple, or to dance an old traditional dance, and most of the palaces have changing of the guards ceremonies, with the guards all in the old-style costume.

We loved learning about this country and its culture. The following is just a few of the other things that we noted, in no particular order.

Metal chopsticks and a metal spoon are the standard cutlery. More hygienic I believe, but actually harder for us to use than wooden ones!

Beds, or rather roll-up mattresses, are often on the floor. Most westerners are not familiar with sleeping on the floor any more (not unless camping perhaps, when that’s often associated with discomfort!). In fact, in many Korean houses and many restaurants, people sit on the floor too, so long-legged folk like my husband can have problems. Shoes are always taken off in Korean houses and special restaurants, probably because the tradition is to sit, eat and sleep on the floor.

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Old stone pagodas in Yongsan Park at the National Museum of Korea
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Part of Deoksugung Palace

There is excellent public toilet accessibility everywhere, generally. Look for the red (female) and blue (male) signs. For women, also look for the sign for a sitting toilet, not the traditional squatting type (the sign is usually marked on the door of each stall). In some hotels and many homes they have the fancy toilets with all kinds of buttons. Even if they have symbols or an English word I still haven’t really figured them out! And if in Korean, it’s rather daunting as who knows what that button means! A few times I even had trouble finding the flush.

Water is offered almost everywhere, either in jugs on the table or in a large dispenser

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Traditional dance at N. Seoul Tower on Namsan Mt

that patrons can use. In some public places, like museums, we discovered a very interesting water system: a large water dispenser with small paper cups in a cone shape. We saw very few drinking fountains anywhere as we know them.

There are many convenience stores everywhere—-and they sure are convenient. Many are 24/7.

We noticed lots of noise, people, traffic and neon lights. I can now better understand why some of my Asian students tell me that they sometimes feel lonely here in Champaign-Urbana! They are so used to having crowds of people around them in their lives.

Lots of tourist/historic places have a sign saying “Photo Point”, for the best spot for a picture.

We hope that we can return soon, to learn more about this fascinating country.

 

Daehangno District. Part 2, Marronnier Park

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A large modern sculpture greets you at the entrance to Marronnier Park
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A pretty urban park
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Replica of Seoul National University campus that was on this site

Part 2 in Daehangno District, Seoul; Maronnier Park

Located on the former site of Seoul National University, Marronnier Park was opened in 1975 after the campus relocated to a new location in Gwanak and the area was redeveloped. I found a miniature replica of the university near the center of the park, which gives visitors an idea of what the area looked like before the university was moved.

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From one corner of the park the Daehangno Theater and Entertainment area begins
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Coffee shop and street market

Marronnier Park is named after many horse chestnut trees (marronniers) growing in the park (maronniers originated from the Mediterranean). The horse chestnut tree tradition began with three trees that were left when Seoul National University moved and most of the buildings were demolished.

This small park has become the center of Daehangno. It has pretty fountains, a large children’s playground and an open-air performance stage, used by street artists and young musicians or dancers. Every week, there are various different performances, both traditional and more modern. Many restaurants, galleries, museums and theaters cluster around the park and famous Daehangno Street starts from one corner of the park.

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A thriving shoes market
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Bikes for rent

In the park is a coffee shop (where I stopped and it was very pleasant) and along the main street you’re very likely to see impromptu street stalls—the day I visited the park area, there was a large stall selling shoes, hundreds of shoes of all kinds, and many people were trying on shoes and buying.

You can also rent bicycles here (similar concept to the Vel’ibs in Paris), but I have to admit I would be way too afraid to try and ride in this traffic!

 

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Daehangno District in Seoul: Part 1

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A street in Daehangno
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The theater district stretches out from the edge of Marronnier Park

Daehangno District in Seoul

Get there on Metro Line 4, Hyehwa Station, exit 2.

Part 1: Introduction and Daehangno Street

Our Korean hosts at Seoul National University told us that the campus at Gwanak is relatively new and that it used to be located in Seoul city center. So, one day I decided to explore and find the original location. I did, and it turns out that this is a really interesting part of Seoul today—the center of performance culture, with a lovely park, and colorful murals.

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One of the theaters
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 ….If  you need to park your car

Daehangno Street is the center of performance culture in Seoul, with over 150 small theaters. This area is called the “Play Mecca”, “Theater Mecca”, or “Young Street” as well. This is where you an enjoy theater and impromptu performances by young artists. Daehangno area bustles with people who come to enjoy plays or musicals or just to stroll along the streets and soak up the ambience, especially on car-free weekends. Not many performances are in English, but attending one can still be an enjoyable spectacle. There are also many restaurants, bars and movie theaters.

At first this district was popular with mainly the twenty-something crowd but now it attracts diverse age groups as well. Young people still dominate the scene, but more families with children and middle-aged couples are coming, due to the variety and abundance of attractions offered.

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Replica of original Seoul National University campus here

But the area was not originally planned as a theater district. Keijo Imperial University was located here, during the first half of the 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese occupation (Keijo, or Gyeongseong in Korean, was the colonial-era name of Seoul). When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Seoul National University opened in its place. In 1975, the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and College of Law moved to its current Gwanak campus south of the Han River, and many of the school buildings were demolished.

But, the modern red brick building that had housed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was spared, plus three horse chestnut trees (marronnier) that are still reminders of the former university site. A park was created at this site, which people began to call Marronnier Park.

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Part of Marronnier Park

arkoartsMore red brick buildings were built around the park, to complement the previous university building. These include Munye Theater (current Arko Arts Theater), which opened in 1981. In the 1980s, many theater groups started moving to Daehangno. At the same time, movie theaters, live-cafes, regular cafes and pubs sprung up and the area developed into a cultural and entertainment center.

When the Seoul Metropolitan Government officially adopted the name Daehangno in 1985, it hoped to create a global cultural destination like Montmartre in Paris, once the world’s mecca of modern art; or Tokyo’s fashion hotspot Harajuku; or London’s Piccadilly Circus. Daehangno has become a theater district widely known among performing artists around the world, so maybe the city’s ambitions did come true!

Tapgol Park in Seoul

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Entrance to Tapgol Park
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Sidewalk outside the park entrance leads to busy modern buildings

Tapgol Park

This small walled park of about 5 acres, on the edge of Insadong (probably Seoul’s most popular tourist district), is a useful place to sit and relax if you’re in the area for shopping, or visiting Jogyesa Temple or Unhyeongung Palalce. It’s also very popular with retired folk, especially men, who seem to gather there to chat and perhaps play a board game while listening to music on their radios. We’ve been into this park numerous times and it’s fun to sit and people watch. In spring, the leafy greenness is made even more beautiful with beds of bright flowering azaleas.

Besides being a tranquil pretty green oasis in the midst of busy Seoul, Tapgol also has a fair bit of history attached to it, some very old and some relatively recent and certainly not peaceful.

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Old and new—Tapgol Park looking to Jongno Tower
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The protected Pagoda

Opened in 1897, Tapgol Park was Seoul’s first western-style park, designed by King Gojong’s financial advisor, an Irishman called John McLeavy Brown.

At first it was known as Pagoda Park or Tapdong Park, named after a 15th-century relic—a 1467 stone pagoda from the Wongaksa Buddhist Temple once located here. Tap in Korean means pagoda. The Temple was destroyed in 1504 on the orders of a Confucian king. The 10-tier, 12-meter-high pagoda is a treasure of Buddhist art, but it’s a little hard to see the wonderful carvings through the glass cage around it (but definitely better to preserve it).

 

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Pagoda detail

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Pavilion in the park—where the Resistance Movement started

Another monument in the park is the tortoise stele Monument of Wongaksa (see above) built in 1471 to commemorate the founding of Wongaksa Temple in 1465. On the front and back are calligraphy and inscriptions recording the story. The turtle-shaped base is granite and the body is marble. Two intricately carved intertwined dragons, rising toward the sky holding a Buddhist gem, top the monument.

The park is also a symbol of Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Historical note: Korea became a Japanese Protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910. Korea was liberated in 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese forces to the Allies. Korea never took well to Japanese colonial rule and by all accounts Japan tried hard to suppress all that was typically Korean. Hence the resistance.

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This pagoda is part of Korean history
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Statue of Son Byeong-hui
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Murals telling the Resistance story

On March 1, 1919, Euiam Son Byeong-hui (leader of Donghak church, and educator) and 32 others signed and read aloud a Declaration of Independence under the 8-sided Palgakjeong Pavilion (see above). This was the first public display of resistance to the Japanese and sparked the March 1st Movement. They were all arrested and sent to the infamous Seodaemum Prison (which we visited on our last trip. More on that later). Many people throughout Korea protested against this, but the samil (March 1) movement was ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of independence fighters were killed and thousands arrested in the park. Ten bronze bas-relief murals in stone frames around one edge of the park depict the heroic, but unsuccessful, struggle. They are well done and very evocative of what happened then. I took photos of most of the panels, so you can tell they made a big impression.

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These murals tell a very graphic story
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Heroic people indeed

 

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(See more murals at end)
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Memorial at edge of entrance plaza

Every March 1st, a memorial service is held here. You can read an English copy of the Declaration on the Memorial Plaque near the entrance to the park. Just inside the entrance is a large paved plaza, with the Memorial on the right. It has the Declaration and statues of two of the heroes. Just to the side is a bronze statue of Son Byeong-hui.

Park is open daily 6am-8pm and is free. Vendors outside sell souvenirs, flags, and snacks. There are clean public restrooms in the park.

Subway: Lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno 3-ga Station and take exit 1.

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Reading the Declaration of Independence

 

Korea in Other Places

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Chicago’s Art Institute

A small sample of Korean culture in Chicago. The fame of old Korean pottery has spread around the globe. We’ve seen a wonderful history of Korean pottery in the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, but here it is in Chicago too, at the Art Institute, one of the world’s top Art Museums.

We visited the Art Institute in Chicago (mainly to see the special exhibition on Van Gogh’s Bedrooms) on our way to Korea last April. So, we decided to also look at the Art Institute’s special small exhibit on Korean Goryeo Pottery/Celadon.

It was a small exhibit, but each piece is perfect, mostly the delicate green color, very shiny and exquisitely crafted. It’s wonderful to see masterpieces from so long ago, each one a true work of art.

There were many ewers, some with floral or bamboo themes, illustrating the importance that bamboo has played in Korean culture for so long (I recently wrote about a Korean Bamboo Park, see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/damyang-bamboo-park-juknok-won/ ).

Korean pottery seems to be distinguished from other Asian pottery in that it’s green,

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Melon-shaped ewer with stylized floral scrolls. Celadon glazed stoneware with underglaze inlaid decoration with gold repair. Early 13th century

with an elegant classical style. The pieces were all made to be used by wealthy people—oil lamps, water jugs etc—to be used in the home or Temple.

Korea is very famous for pottery, so here’s a bit of background.

Quick History

(Summary taken from the information boards in the Art Institute)

Over the last 2,000 years, Korean potters have created ceramics of amazingly diverse form and technique. Probably the most distinctive are celadon-glazed stonewares that were commissioned for use by the imperial court, aristocracy, and large Buddhist monasteries during the peaceful and prosperous Goryeo dynasty (918-1392).

Initially emulating celadon imported from China, Korean potters created a soft green-glazed ware by firing iron-rich clay coated with an iron-oxide glaze in a reduction (low oxygen) kiln. By the 12th century, they had created surfaces of previously unseen luminosity by adding porcelain stone to the glaze mixture. These Korean celadons display a radiant bluish green “kingfish er” glaze. This was either left pure or enhanced with decorative motifs that were gracefully carved or pressed into a mold. Designs painted in underglaze iron oxide created bolder effects.

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Oil bottle with chrysanthemum sprays, 13th century

The Goryeo potter’s most innovative contribution to the celadon tradition was inlaid decoration (sanggam). They created this by cutting designs into the unbaked clay and filling the grooves with creamy white and brown or reddish brown inlays. The white was primarily crushed quartz, and the darker color was melted and crushed glaze materials. The surface was then scraped smooth of excess inlay and the vessel glazed and fired. Inlaid designs include pictorial scenes, dynamically twisting dragons, and, very commonly, small, symmetrically placed chrysanthemum blossoms.

Most Goryeo celadons were elegant and functional vessels—wine ewers inspired by melons or bamboo, petal-lobed cups, and stands for wine or tea, small cosmetic basins, and flattened bottles possibly used for hair oils. The potter, however, also made intricately constructed and exuberantly fanciful pieces, such as the bird-shaped ewer (No 1 below).

No 1: Bird-shaped ewer with crowned rider holding a bowl. Goryeo dynasty, 12th century. In this whimsical ewer, an official with a formed head-dress rides astride a plump, crested waterbird. The birds’ wings are extended as if in flight and its tail swoops up to form the handle. Liquids could be poured into the round vessel held by the rider and out through the bird’s smiling beak.

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Vase (Maebyong) with stylized floral sprays. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze painting, 12th century (pic below).

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Lobed vase with stylized floral scrolls. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze painted decoration, 12th century (pic below).

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Bottle with bamboo fluting. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze carved and incised decoration, 13th century.

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Gourd-shaped ewer with twisted rope handle, lotus leaves and floral sprays. Celadon-glazed stoneware and underglaze carved decoration, 12th century.

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Ewer formed as a sprouting bamboo. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze carved and incised decoration, 12th century.

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Lobed cup and stand with chrysanthemum flower heads. Celadon-glazed stoneware with underglaze carved and incised decoration, 12th/13th century.

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All delicately gorgeous! Master craftsmen so long ago.

 

Seoul’s New City Hall

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The setting for Seoul City Hall (s)
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Seoul Plaza with old and new City Halls
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Old City Hall (with clock) and new City Hall directly behind

Our guide books on Seoul all mentioned the new City Hall in glowing words and especially mentioned the living wall. As one put it, “Seoul’s newest landmark is an eco-friendly building with the world’s largest indoor green wall.”

The Seoul Plaza in front of it is also touted as a special open space in the city, the symbolic center of the city, apparently able to handle gatherings of up to 100,000 people. One such gathering was during World Cup 2002, when thousands in Red Devil T-shirts gathered to cheer on the national team.buildingdesign

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Front of new City Hall
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The curved glass shape is very clear

After reading that, how could we not go to see this new marvel?

So, one day we did, combining it with a visit to the Deoksugung Palace complex on the opposite side of the road.

The new City Hall is a very modern-looking building from the outside, a long rectangular shape with glass walls curved upwards and out. It rises like a wave suspended above the Seoul Plaza, in this distorted shape to accommodate the stocky historic old City Hall which is directly in front of it, now rather dwarfed by the sleek newcomer.

The old City Hall was built in 1926 under Japanese rule and was the administrative center from 1945 (after Korea was liberated from Japanese rule) until 2008. It has now been converted into the Seoul Metropolitan Library. The two city halls are connected by an elevated bridge, a symbol of the link between the city’s history and its future.

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Living wall, and glass

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Rod and part of the living wall

The Seoul Plaza is pretty with green lawns, flower beds and a fountain, but didn’t seem as large as we expected. Security in the new City Hall is tight and only people with security clearance can get beyond the front lobby, except on a very organized visiting loop. Visitors can enter the lobby and go up to the 8th floor for a view down and out, accessed via a special elevator. You can do this freely, and enjoy the art exhibition(s) up there too.

The Seoul City Hall is a government building in charge of the administrative affairs of the city. Yoo Keri of iArc won the design competition for the new building. Construction took 4 years and the new building opened in August 2012. The 13-story building is almost entirely covered with glazing and the sides are really interesting with angled “leaves” interspersed with curvaceous glass bubbles. Many say that the architects wanted to project an image of “future architecture”. In addition to office space, the multi-purpose building includes a number of cultural facilities, a rooftop garden terrace and a library.

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Looking down from the gallery level
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Walking the gallery level

The lush multi-story green wall acts as an enormous air filter and is a symbol of the city’s intention to adhere to sustainable development. The living wall is indeed huge and amazing, and we enjoyed the art exhibition on the 8th and 9th floors.

We thought the new city hall was really interesting, as a sleek modern contrast to some of the old buildings nearby. However, some of my Korean students, two of whom are urban planners, tell me that many Koreans do not like the design of the new building and that there has been a lot of controversy over it. I guess that’s the way of most new things.

Anyway, it’s still worth a look, and the Green Wall is impressive.

Suseok, or Scholars’ Stones

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At Unhyeong Palace
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In Insadong
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At an entranceway in Buchon Village

All around Korea, we saw rocks, both large and small, obviously strategically placed in public gardens, small garden borders, and at entranceways. We asked about these, and it turns out that stones are a big part of Korean culture and history.

The Korean name for these shaped rocks is Suseok, also called viewing stones. Such stones are similar to Chinese scholars’ rocks and Japanese suiseki.

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Part of the gorgeous Bongeunsa Temple gardens in spring
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On the campus of Seoul National University
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At the entrance to Hoam Faculty House at Seoul National University

Suseok began as votive art over 3000 years ago, and began to be seen as worthy of scholars around a thousand years ago. Early on, important sites in the landscape were marked with shaped stones, similar to distance markers on post roads. Burial sites were also permanently marked by a large tumulus or mound, often surrounded by anthropomorphic-shaped stones, similar to those of Inuit memory markers.

This art form is usually on three scales: large installations of monumental shaped stones as ornamental gates or traditional entranceways; medium-sized shaped stones for landscape decoration within Korean gardens; and the smaller shaped stones for scholar’s tables, which was very important.

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In Tapgol Park
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At Unhyeong Palace

Suseok can be any color and a wide variety of sizes and shapes. In prehistoric times, Koreans worshipped nature, the sun, stars, water, rocks, stones, and trees. They especially believed that rocks had more power than water and other things in nature. So, the arrangement of rocks is considered one of the “essential” elements in designing a traditional Korean garden. Korean gardens are natural, informal, simple and unforced, aiming to blend with the natural world. Korean garden culture can be traced back more than 2,000 years. In recent years, 300 documents have been found, written during the Koryo (918-1392) and Choson (1392-1910) dynasties, that contain detailed records about traditional Korean gardens, many of which survive and can be visited today.

Koreans have recently rediscovered their stone garden tradition and there’s been a

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In Yongsan Park, close to the National Museum of Korea

revival of interest in rock arrangements in gardens.

We can also find smaller ceramic versions of scholar’s rocks cast in celadon, used as brush-holders; and water droppers for scholar’s calligraphy, especially in the shape of small mountains.

Enjoy these photos of examples we found on our last trip to Seoul.

 

 

 

 

Viewing Costumes at Unhyeongung Palace

settingstonesTraditional costumes at Unhyeongung Royal Residence

I wrote earlier about this lovely unofficial palace in the heart of Insadong, Seoul. It’s a delight to just wander around and note the layout and architecture. It’s also very interesting, as many of the rooms facing the different courtyards are furnished and mannequins display the dress styles of various stations of life of the times.

If you stop to look closely and read the information boards you can learn a fair bit about how the people of those times dressed, and what was considered appropriate. It all seemed to be quite formal, and each article of clothing had a special name. It was also a little confusing to me, as some of the clothes looked very similar to each other. I guess I’m not familiar with the finer points and details.

I randomly picked some to share here. Enjoy! (Pictures are below each description).

First; After King Gojong’s ascension to the throne, Sanggung (Court ladies) and Nain (Court lady attendants) were assigned to Unhyeongung Palace to manage its housekeeping. Here we see them in the kitchen.

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No 2: Sanggung (Court lady) wearing a blue-green dangui (or dangeui), a woman’s outer coat. King Gojong’s biological mother, Lady Heung-sun, is seated, wearing a pink dangui.

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No 3 is a room in Norakdang (women’s quarters). We see royal women’s wear here in a beautifully decorated room.3norak

 

No 4: Lady Heung-sun was the mother of King Gojong. When staying at the Norakdang she wore a skirt and jacket called Chima and Jeogori respectively.

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No 5: Dangui is a simple type of ceremonial dress that is put on over Jeogori and Chima. Court ladies wore dangui made of deep watermelon Jamisa, a kind of patterned silk.

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No 6: The bodyguard escorting Lord Heungsun was called Cheonhajangin. They wore Kweja and Hyupsoo. A Hyupsoo is a kind of coat with narrow sleeves, made of naturally-dyed cotton or silk.

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No 7: Policemen wore a long sleeveless vest of dark blue color, called Jeonbok, and a shirt with silk or cotton sleeves in white, called Hyupsoo.

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No 8: Military officers wore Hyupsoopo, an orange silk coat with a red neckline, and Jeonbok, a long vest of hand-woven silk, tied with a deep blue sash called Kwangdae. When out in the field, they wore a Jeonrip, a black felt hat.

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Seoul’s Unhyeongung Royal Residence

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One of the grander buildings at Unhyeongung
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Fine woodwork
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Pretty peaceful gardens in the Royal Residence

Insadong is a vibrant area in the heart of Seoul, where it’s possible to experience some of the traditional Korean culture without going out into the countryside. There are art galleries, antique dealers, craft stores, traditional tea-houses and restaurants, some on small narrow streets with traditional architecture. I’m sure every visitor to Seoul goes to Insadong, and we were no exception.

However, there’s more to this area than shops. There’s Tapgol Park, and Jogyesa Temple, both of which I’ll talk about later. And there’s Unhyeongung Royal Residence, which is well worth a visit. It’s interesting that some of the city’s great historical sights are right in the middle of the modern business districts.

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Modern Seoul is just on the other side of the palace walls
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Beautiful brickwork on the outer walls

We visited Unhyeongung the first time we came to Korea in 2009, and again on our last visit this year. “Unhyeongung”

means “Cloud Hanging Over the Valley” Palace. No-one can really tell me where that name came from, but it’s a lovely place.

Often described unofficially as Seoul’s 6th palace, its charming wooden buildings are delightful to wander around and it’s far less crowded than the other big palaces. It was officially denied the title of “palace” as it was never actually occupied by a king. But, considering its size, formality and ground plan, it is more similar to an inner palace than the house of a high-ranking official; for example, the solid wooden structures, triple-fold windows, and sunscreen eaves. It was in fact the private residence of a king-to-be and his father.

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Noandang, the men’s quarters
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One of the men’s rooms
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Brick chimney in one of the courtyards

Though not as striking or as colorful as the other five, it still gives an idea of life at that time and has a tranquil atmosphere. It’s a lovely little oasis in the city as, once you enter through the gates, the hustle and bustle of the city recedes, even though city buildings are very evident beyond the walls.

King Gojung (1852-1919), the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, was born and raised here until 1863 when he ascended the throne aged 12, with his father acting as regent. The modest and plain natural-wood design of this minor palace reflects the austere tastes of Regent Heungseon Daewongun (1820-98), King Gojong’s stern and conservative father. The Regent’s policies included massacring Korean Catholics, excluding foreigners from Korea and thereby closing the doors of the kingdom to foreigners, shutting down Confucian schools, and rebuilding Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace.

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Sleeping room—-note the bedding piled up
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Norakdang, the women’s quarters

As is common in the design of many Korean palaces, various buildings are arranged around different inter-leading courtyards, the whole enclosed by an outer wall that used to have four entrance gates. At Unhyeongung, each building has an information board in Korean, English and Chinese, so we can begin to understand what the function of each was.

In 1864 (1st year of King Gojong’s rule), Norakdang Hall and Noandang Hall were built, and in 1869 Irodang and Yeongnodang.

Noandang, the men’s quarters, was where Heungseon Daewongun discussed state affairs and received his guests.

Norakdang was the central place in Unhyeongung and larger than Noandang with nine rooms along the corridor. Here King Gojong and his wife Queen Myeongseong held their wedding ceremony in 1866 and important events like 60th birthdays took place. It was considered women’s quarters, and the calligraphy and other decorations are especially fine.

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A room in Norakdang
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Queen Myeongseoqng visited with the crown prince to celebrate the birthday of King Gojung’s mothe

Irodang Hall was also used as the inner quarters, probably of Regent Heungseon and his wife.

Many of the rooms facing the different courtyards are furnished and mannequins display the dress styles of various stations of life of the times, giving some idea of how people here used to live. As was the custom, women were hidden away in their own separate quarters on different sides of the courtyard.

When Heungseon Daewongun died, the house was inherited by his eldest son and then by his grandson. After the Korean War, a considerable part of the house was sold, so the size was much reduced. In 1993, the descendants sold it to the government and it was renovated and re-opened in 1996.

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Notice the special stone through the gate

Allow at least an hour to wander around, passing through the packed-sand courtyards linked by walkways with trees and bushes. One of the walkways has a number of special stones, all different shapes and sizes. I think they are called “Suseok”, or “viewing stones” and are similar to the Chinese “Scholars’ Stones.”

Besides the main halls, notice the patterned outer walls and the chimneys. A small section of the palace is now an exhibition hall, with items such as a scale model of the residence, writing tools, traditional wedding outfits. The visitors’ office is in a room on the outer wall, as are two small rooms used for special exhibits. A small coffee shop and restrooms are also here, plus a hanbok (traditional Korean dress) rental stand. Many people like to rent a hanbok and have their pictures taken here (and in the other palaces). I’ll post some pictures of that later.

To get to Unhyeongung:

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In the small museum

Subway Line 3 to Anguk, take exit 4.  Palace is free.

Closed on Mondays. Open 9-7 April-Oct, and 9-6 Nov-March.

Just for interest, the five main palaces are:

First, Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was the royal family’s residence during the Joseon Dynasty;

Second, Deoksugung Palace, which was first used as a palace during the reign of King Seonjo between 1552 and 1608, but has housed a number of kings since then;

Third, Gyeonghuigung Palace, which was built in the late Joseon Dynasty as a backup in case of emergency. It’s in the west of the city and is often called the West Palace;

Fourth, Changgyeonggung Palace, which was built in 1483 in the reign of King Seongjong to house the Dowager Queen Sohye. The grounds of this palace connect to Changdeokgung Palace, creating an independent palace compound.

Fifth, Changdeokgung Palace was built in 1405 as a second royal residence for King Taejong, and at times in history served as the main royal palace. This palace has the Biwon, or Secret Garden.