King Sejong the Great

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


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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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).


Celestial globe, 1437


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


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.







Notes On South Korea


Guards leave Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
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.

Traditional and modern, Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul
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.

An ultra-modern building in Gangnam
New and old close to the National Folk Museum, Seoul
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.

Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square


Statue of Admiral Yi in Gwanghwamun Square
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.

Old and New City Halls, Seoul
Old and new near Gyeongbokgung Palace
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.


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.

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

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.


Korea in Other Places

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 ).

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

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.

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.



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


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


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


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


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


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


All delicately gorgeous! Master craftsmen so long ago.


A Most Unusual Museum—to Handbags


At the entrance to the building

Simone Handbag Museum, the world’s first official handbag museum

Now here’s something very different: A bag designer’s dream museum, a shrine to the everyday (and often coveted) accessory.

This museum has a vintage collection of bags from around the world (but mostly Europe) that shows the history of handbags. I was lucky enough to go to this museum with my Korean friend Jihye and her daughter Sophia.

Given Address: 17 Dosan-Daero 13 Gil (Sinsa-Dong), Gangnam-gu, Seoul


walking on Sinsadong Garosu-gil
A DIY handbag class

But, it actually seems to be on Sinsadong Garosu-gil. It’s an attractive two-lane road lined with ginkgo trees that houses stores with unique apparel and accessories from Korea’s most promising young designers. Bigger shops with multiple foreign brands also give shoppers the chance to take in fashion trends from around the world. This is a prime position in Gangnam, one of the most fashion-forward neighborhoods in Seoul, so the Simone Handbag Museum is very well-placed.

The easiest way to get to the museum is to take Subway Line 3 to Sinsa Station. Take exit 8 and walk straight for about 3 blocks, then turn left into Garosu-gil, walk a few more blocks and the museum is on the left. Total walk is about 20 minutes.

Jihye and Sophia with Bagstage across the street
Some of the “fabrics” for sale

The museum is in a sleek 10-story building, called Bagstage, resembling a handbag complete with a handle. Bagstage also has a shop selling bag materials for DIY enthusiasts, workshops where new Korean designers can work rent-free, a section where craftsmen can produce bags, a cafe and two shops. The eye-catching building also houses temporary exhibitions and international loans that will rotate through the museum’s top-floor space.

The permanent collections are on Floors 3 (Modern Gallery or 20th century and contemporary) and 4 (Historical Gallery, 1500-1900). It’s interesting to note that some of the modern bags have precedents in the historical bags, highlighting connections across time. In the Modern Gallery, each decade is represented by a custom-made mannequin that shows the location of the bag on the female body and the gesture with which the bag was held.

Jihye holds out some bag fabric for sale
More fabrics for sale
Bagstage has many levels

It’s a small museum, but fascinating because the subject is rather unusual and very limited. But, on closer thought, it’s a great topic, as fashion never goes out of fashion and throughout history women (and some men too) have always had some kind of handbag.

Handbags are a very interesting subject in both a fashion and women’s sociology context,” said Dawn Jung, senior curator at the museum. “The path of design as it changed through history tells many stories in terms of material, shape and size.” These bags were created for women to carry and safeguard small personal items. By exploring the form and decoration of each handbag it is possible to construct a history of changing fashion cycles and the shifting experiences of women’s lives. Looking at the items on the 4th floor is like taking a history lesson, as we see bags that change from decorative to more utilitarian (and less pretty) over time, and then back again. We also learn that many of the early bags were very small and materially precious, as they weren’t needed for multiple objects for a whole day. They were often made as a leisure activity at home and are exquisitely done. As such, they are presented as precious specimens. Apparently US$1.59 million was spent on securing the pieces for the collection.

Posing with one of the mannequins outside
American shoe-shaped purse ca 1890, leather, cotton, metal; behind, French bag, 1860, linen, cotton thread and cord

The museum, which opened its doors in July 2012 to great fanfare, is the special project of Kenny Park, CEO of Simone Acc. Collection Ltd., a producer of handbags for some of the world’s largest fashion houses. The collection was assembled and curated by Judith Clark, Professor of Fashion and Museology at the London College of Fashion.

The collection is composed of more than 300 items dating from the 15th century to today’s trendiest “It” bags. Most of them are European or western, including exquisitely crafted reticules and “sweetmeat” bags, gunmetal mesh purses from the late 19th century, and recent creations like a 2010 Alexander McQueen clutch printed with the Union Jack.

There has been talk of Simone building another museum for Asian handbags. We’ll see.

One of my favorites was an English sweetmeat purse, ca 1580, made with silk, gold and silver thread and silver spangles. Another was a French reticule, ca 1850, made with glass beads, cotton knit and cord with an intricate flower design.

No photos are allowed (although my Korean companion did sneak a few!), but you do get a catalogue of the whole collection, with a picture of each bag and a description. In the connecting corridors are a collection of various bag handles, frames and clasps over time, and of postcards of women carrying some of these old bags, and these we could photograph.

The post card collection is very interesting

pc2Museum entrance 5,000 won per adult (a little less than US$5 at the time we were there).

The official website doesn’t have a lot of information in English, but it does have a picture of most of the bags:




Baekje Museum, Seoul

View of park and fortress from museum roof
Rod at museum entrance
Maps of the old kingdoms

Baekje Museum, Seoul

This is well worth a half-day’s visit, combined with a visit to the Monchontoseong Fortress and Olympic Park. The park has cafes and coffee shops, and the museum has a café and restaurant on the top floor (we had lunch up there).

Seoul Baekje Museum, which is dedicated to the ancient history and culture of the old capital city of the Baekje Kingdom, is a fairly new museum in Seoul. It is located inside Olympic Park, overlooking Monchontoseong Fortress, and has pretty lawns and gardens in front of it.

Baekje armor
Timeline wall

As I wrote about earlier, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom and many relics from excavations there. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

Seoul, the capital and heart of Korea today, was also for hundreds of years the capital of this ancient kingdom of Baekje. The Baekje Kingdom survived 678 years (18BC-660AD), and the capital was here for 493 years (18BC-475AD). Baekje moved its capital south to Gongju City in 475.

Neolithic milling stone
Bronze Age mirror
Baekje brick with landscape pattern

Many large settlements were already established in the Neolithic Age and their traces still can be found in the numerous areas including Poongnap Fortress, Mongchon Fortress and Seokchon-dong tomb complex. Since ancient times the Han River, running through Seoul City, has been an essential transport route and helped to create fertile farmlands along its banks. This allowed Seoul to become the industrial hub that was the stage for several wars during the Three Kingdom period (Baekje, Shilla and Goguryeo). 

In recent years, tens of thousands of Baekje-era relics were excavated from the Poongnap Fortress telling the hidden historic stories beneath them.

Baekje gilt-bronze incense burner
Baekje gilt-bronze crown
Baekje Museum—note the ramp on the right leading up to the roof garden

To systemically preserve those relics, to review the 2000-year history of Seoul, to lead research on further excavations and to act as an educational resource, the city established the Seoul Baekje Museum on a site overlooking the Mongchon Fortress in the Olympic Park. Construction started in 2004 and was completed in Oct 2010, but the museum only opened officially in April 2012. It’s an impressive museum, not only for what it showcases but also for the building itself, now a landmark in the park that has won numerous architecture awards.

Part of roof garden
Viv sits in a model of a cow-cart on the roof
Model of a Baekje boat, called a Baekjaebang

The exterior of Seoul Baekje Museum resembles the outline of Mongchon earthen fortress, partly designed in the shape of a vessel to evoke the importance of the Baekje kingdom as a maritime powerhouse. They were skilled ship builders, crafting boats with a flat bottom and one sail (although some say there may have been two sails). The slanting feature of the building on one side represents a vessel in the ocean. Baekje developed its national power mainly by trading with China and Japan through the Hangang River and Yellow Sea. It is also designed to harmonize with the surroundings, thus the brown color and the grassed slope leading up to the roof garden.

Plan of a Baekje boat
Baekje toilet bowl for men

The Seoul Baekje Museum showcases the long history of the region since the Paleolithic period, focusing on the Hanseong period of Baekje (18BC-475AD) in particular because this was the time when the area of present-day Seoul became the Baekje capital city. With its capital established along the Hangang (river) the Baekje flourished in this area, a fact that had powerful influences on neighboring countries.

There is lots of information in English alongside an engaging display of maps, models, artifacts and replicas, making the era come alive. The main point that emerges is that the Baekje culture was very advanced culturally.

 The vast Lobby has a cross-section of the Pungnap Earthen Fortress, which is three-

Fortress wall in the Lobby

floors high. A thin layer was taken from the 43-meter wide and 9-11-meter high fortress wall for this wall exhibit, and it’s displayed with a full-scale model of workers constructing an earth rampart.

Exhibition Hall 1 focuses on Prehistoric Civilization in the Seoul area and the Dawn of Baekje. This tells the story of Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and early Iron Age civilization in Seoul area, especially in the riparian area of the Hangang (river).

Baekje loom

Exhibition Hall 2: Here the history of Baekje is displayed from its founding in this area and its growth over 495 years. Besides showing the life of the people at that time, it also describes how Baekje became a bigger power and interacted with China and Japan. One interesting exhibit is on how their tombs changed, from stone mound tombs to stone chamber tombs.

Exhibition Hall 3 shows the confrontation between the Three Kingdoms—Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla—and the history of the Baekje after the fall of its capital in Hanseoung and move to Gongju.

The museum is free and open daily 9am-7pm except Mondays and January 1st. The mayor of Seoul may also decide to close it periodically for special days.

You can get a self-guided audio tour for smart phones.


Hunting Down History: The Baekje Kingdom


Viv stands on steps up onto fortress wall

promenadesignMongchontoseong Fortress, in Olympic Park in Seoul

In the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom, notably two earth-wall fortresses and many relics from excavations there.

Mongchontoseong Fortress is inside the Olympic Park, a very large green park with wilderness areas, lakes and other interesting features, the main one being the Fortress.

Take the subway to the station of the same name on Line 8 and follow signs to World Peace Gate. Once inside the park there are big boards with maps and information to guide you round.

Part of fortress wall


Walking the walls

The Korean people have lived through a history of division and then unity, followed by more division and then unity. In the past, the peninsula was divided into smaller states and then was re-united by whoever was in power.

As a very brief summary, the major kingdoms of the past were the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which were then united into the United Silla Kingdom. This was later followed by the Goryeo Dynasty, and then the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty lasted around 500 years and was the last unified kingdom before the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s.

We wandered around the park and along the fortress walls, reading the information boards, and later went into the new Seoul Baekje Museum. As we did this we began to get an idea, a picture in our minds, of what this ancient place was.


Some of the excavations in the fortress

In the Three Kingdom Period on the Korean peninsula, the Baekje Kingdom was centered around this area of the peninsula, along the Hanggang River, as it was called then. Its main city/town was known as Hangseong. Archaeological excavations and research from Samguksagi (the Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) are proving that Baekje had two capital earthen fortresses (sometimes called castles). The first, Pungnaptoseoung to the north, was built in the early Baekje Kingdom before the 3rd century, and was an important center of marine transportation. The second, Mongchontoseong a little south of the first one, is thought to have been built under the reign of King Geunchogo after the 4th century and served as a high fortress overlooking the entire area in case of a war. It was built at the end of a natural slope extending from Namhansan Mountain, and the natural landscape of the Hanggang River was used as part of the wall. So, it was here that Baekje was able to lay its foundation as a powerful kingdom.

?an old tomb stone
View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate from the fortress

We didn’t actually go to the Pungnaptpseong Fortress, but learned that this was where 30,000 troops of Goguryeo (one of the other Kingdoms) under King Jangsu attacked Hanseong, Baekje in 475. It is said that the castle surrendered after the 7-day attack and that Baekje King Gaero (reigned 455-475), who was in the southern section of the castle, tried to escape to the west, but was killed.

But, we spent quite a while rambling around what’s left of the Mongchontoseong Earthen Fortress. The place attracts many visitors, as it is a significant historical site and is pretty with fields of canola flowers, barley and grass. There are many walking paths, and we saw numerous working Koreans taking advantage of this space to walk during their lunch break.

As you walk along the top of the now-grass-covered earth walls you get a good view out over the park and to modern Seoul and huge groups of apartment buildings. In this park, too, we saw a number of squirrels and pheasants, and heard many other birds.


Gommal Bridge

The fortress/castle is a 2.3 km-long earth fortress wall (about 1.4 miles), in a roughly circular shape, the walls ranging between 6-40 m (about 20-131 feet) high. The area inside the castle walls is 216,000 square meters (about 54 acres). Songnaecheon Stream flows along the walls and serves as a moat. A pretty bridge crosses at one point. This is the Gommal Bridge (Gommal-Dari). “Gommal” means a bridge found in a dream village. “Gommal”, derived from the archaic “Ggummaul”, is an old Korean word for “Mongchon”. The information board explains that “this classical and beautiful Korean word was given to this bridge in March 1986.”

Laid outside the castle wall are wooden barricades. Houses and other buildings have been

View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate

found here, along with storage pits and a pond. Thousands of pieces of earthenware, Chinese-made porcelain, bone, armor, and such, have all been unearthed here.

At one spot in the center of the fortress enclosure you find an ancient site of dug-out huts and some old tombs remaining, with stone chambers and soil mounds typical of the early Baekje period (200-475 AD). They are closed off, so you cannot actually get into them, but you can see where and how they were situated. Also found in the area was a hearth proving pre-historic habitation, as well as stone tables, fragments of stone swords and Baekje earthenware. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

Seoul Baekje Museum

The small Mongchon Museum of History on the north side has historical relics discovered during the excavation of Mongchontoseong Fortress and Pungnaptoseong Fortress. Notable are some precious golden relics of the Baekje kings, a seven-pronged sword called Chiljido (that testifies to the outstanding iron-smelting skills of the time), and many pots. The history of human settlement here goes way back. The museum is free and open daily, except Monday.

There is much more to see in the Seoul Baekje Museum, also in the Olympic Park. More on that later.



Totem Poles in Korea

Jangseung and Sotdae at National Folk Museum
Jangseung at Nagan Eupseong Folk Village

2birds2Jangseung and Sotdae

Extraordinary, striking

A really fascinating part of Korean folk art is totem poles, known as jangseung and Sotdae. We first saw some at the National Folk Museum in Seoul a number of years ago, then at the Nagan Eupseong Folk Village near Suncheon last August. There, we saw rows of jangseung at the edge of the village and single jangseung at the entrance to most of the houses within the village. This April we visited the National Folk Museum in Seoul again and sought out the jangseung. They are so striking and unusual that I wanted to find out more.

A Jangseung is usually made of wood, but sometimes can be made of stone. At the National Folk Museum, we saw many examples of stone totems in the grounds, next to the wooden ones.

Stone ones at the museum
Inside the museum
Guarding a house in the village

Although nowadays the Jangseung are mostly found at folk villages or in museums, they were traditionally placed at the edges of most villages in Korea. They had multiple functions: to greet visitors, to mark the village boundaries and frighten away demons or evil spirits that caused famines, natural disasters, epidemics or other diseases. They were also worshipped as village protective gods and villagers prayed for the health of their families, for a baby, or for a good spouse, and for good abundant crops. They believed the jangseung had their ears open to the wishes and hopes of villagers. Each year villagers would hold jangseung rituals, placing offerings of rice cakes and fruit at the foot of their honored guardian.

Jangseung often appear in male and female pairs, with their names written on their bodies, and are distinguished by their head apparel; the male hat is more elaborate, and is probably a soldier’s or government official’s hat. Quite often, the inscriptions refer to ‘generals,’ major generals’ or male and female generals.



Jangseung frquently elicit an emotional reaction. The first impression of a jangseung is that it is both scary and humorous, a dichotomy that seems o have grown out of the artists’ attempts to po2tonguertray folk gods in a more familiar and accessible manner within people’s everyday lives.

Some are painted, but many are not. Usually, there is an intentional altering of human facial features, such as coarsely-shaped bulging eyes, a fist-like nose, andprotruding canines and front teeth. Through such distortion and exaggeration, the talented jangseung craftsmen depicted a guardian god image, reminiscent of a monster or god from the underworld, while at the same time offering a kind of portrait of the common people in a friendly yet satirical way. So, we might see sagging and benevolent faces of a grandfather- and grandmother-like jangseung; or a toothless, wrinkled smile of a grandmother jangseung and the long braided whiskers of a grandfather jangseung; a character with huge ears, or a gaping mouth, or a scowling mouth.



totemhousePart of a jangseung’s allure lies in the relationship between the form of the wood and the way in which the artist has used that to carve something that fits perfectly. Look at any of them, and you’ll see that the face fits the form of the wood. Frequently, next to a jangseung you can find a sotdae, which is another kind of guardian pole with a carved bird attached to the top. Sotdae are still commonly seen in rural villages, even today, and have similar functions as the jangseung.





2stonefaceIn the southern areas of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, jangseung are also called beopsu or beoksu, meaning a male shaman.



Gwanghwamun Square on a Saturday

Gyeongbokgung Main Gate
Start of the square, looking back at Main Gate and pagoda
Top of square and World Book Day

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.

World Book Day

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!

Rod M and Viv M by King Sejong

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!).



Markt tents, looking towards gate and mountain



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.


Note the beautiful reflections in the marble wall!



Statue of Admiral Yi

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!







Great Concept, Underwhelming Execution



Kimchikan—Sadly, an underwhelming Kimchi Museum

4-6 floor, 35-4 Insadong, in the MARU Korean Cultural Space. Open 10-6,

Anguk Station Line 3, exit 6.

This museum was very hard to find. If you walk down Insadong Street from Anguk Station, after about a 10-minute stroll look out for a sign pointing down an alley on the right that says “K Food” and on the side of a building a little into the alley you’ll see a large mural of a Napa cabbage and some red peppers. Go up the metal stairs to level 4.



This small museum, previously called the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum, was founded in 1986 and used to be in the COEX area south of the Han. It moved to Insadong in April 2015 and changed its name to Kimchikan. Why?

In traditional Korean society, the place for making side dishes was called ‘Chankan’, the place for preparing the king’s meals was ‘Surakan’ and the place for keeping foodstuffs was called ‘Gotkan’. They took the suffix ‘kan’ from these words and created the name ‘Kimchikan’, hoping that visitors will be able to feel and experience diverse aspects and stories of Kimchi in this place.

A few kimchi jars and lids in the museum

Basically, the museum sings the praises of pickled, peppery cabbage and other vegetables and their wondrous benefits.

Kimchi is such an integral part of Korean cuisine and culture that a museum to explain Kimchi seems like a great idea. Many foreigners have heard of it, or even tasted it, but most don’t know the history of this dish, nor how it was made in the past and how it is made today.

Time line

It was apparently chosen by CNN in March 2015 as one of the world’s top 11 food museums, and the only one in Korea. However, I found this museum very disappointing. They advertise that they show all kinds of educational materials, but in reality there are very few. There are a few old kimchi storage pots in the first room, then a tiny “lab” with a couple of interactive screens telling about the good bacteria found in this kind of fermentation. Upstairs is a wall with a timeline of other countries and various fermented foods, which does show how old the concept is. You can watch a couple of short movies (English sub-titles) showing group kimchi-making in a rural village. On this level there is also a kitchen where you can sign up for kimchi-making classes.

Interactive wall of diets and foods around the world


Upstairs also (you need the bar code on your entrance ticket to open the door) is a small room with jars of some different kinds of kimchi. Up another flight of stairs is another small room with a fridge with a sample of the day you can taste (use your ticket bar code to open the door). In another larger room is a large illuminated wall with the names of different fermented foods in different countries and different types of healthy diets and types of cooking. Tapping on a name brings up a few photos of each. When the screen changes, it’s a collage of foods and people eating around the world (but this is really about fermentation, and not just kimchi). This was probably the highlight of the “tour” for me.

I’ve had many Korean students over the years, who’ve explained much about their culture,


including kimchi. We’ve also visited Korea before and Korean friends took us on a road trip to Andong area, where we saw an old hanok village, plus other old-style houses that still have huge kimchi jars outside—-in the past, people buried these jars of kimchi in the ground to keep them at a constant temperature over the winter.

So, I was surprised that this museum didn’t have many of these old jars, or the traditional utensils used to make kimchi, nor information about the modern kimchi fridges that many families have. There was also very little about the different kinds of kimchi, the different vegetables, the different ways of preparing them, the fact that still today many women get together in the fall to make big batches of kimchi etc. There was no mention of white kimchi, nor water kimchi.

The web site says there are historical books, paintings, and writings about the history of kimchi, but they were not very evident (not to me, anyway).

Entrance was 5,000 won, which includes a brief audio guide.

So, I’d say that if you have no prior knowledge of kimchi you might get some benefit from visiting the Kimchikan. But, otherwise not. There’s a small exhibit at the National Folk Museum that gives about the same amount of information I’d say.

Because kimchi is so important in Korea, I will cover it separately in more detail later.