Heaven on earth in downtown SeoulEver wanted to visit heaven? You can, in downtown Seoul.
For Confucius, the order of the human world was based on the order of the sky. This is what the famous “mandate of heaven” is all about. The principle is clearly seen in the very layout of a Korean throne, throne hall and royal courtyard. The layout of a palace is a map of the heavens.
Begin at the center: the throne. Worldwide, a seat indicates power, but why? The “chairman” of a meeting was once just that: the one who sat in a chair. We also speak of the “seat of government,” and of a “seat” in parliament.
So the throne is an image of political power.
The Korean throne represents a dragon. Dragons represent energy, change, time. The king must bridle change as a skilled jockey bridles a horse, spurring him when it is best to advance, leading him at turns, reining him in as necessary.
Good government is neither reactionary nor revolutionary; changing neither too slowly, nor too quickly. It is like a well-regulated clock, or like the progression of the heavens through the hours and through the seasons. All of our measurements of time come from the heavens.
To say that government guides change is to say it mimics the heavens.
Behind the throne is a painted image: five world mountains, pine trees, twin waterfalls, foam splashing on boulders. This depicts the ordered world that good government produces. The five mountains are the five directions: north, south, east, west, and center, together representing the realm. The waterfalls are once again time, change. Two streams are balanced, expressing justice. Stone balances water, cascade balances mountain; stability balances flux or change. Pine trees are the finished product: the state as a fertile, enduring thing, resistant to hardship, as to winter’s blast.
Note two orbs in the painted sky behind, red to right, white to left: the sun and moon.
When is the sun red, not golden? And when are the sun and moon together in the sky?
At dawn and dusk. The mural shows the moment of sunrise ― remembering that Korean thrones always face south.
Dawn is a moment of balance in the heavens: darkness and light, sun and moon, day and night in symmetry.
This is the image of good government: heavenly balance.
Seven steps lead to the throne, for the seven stars that form the Big Dipper in the night sky. The Big Dipper never disappears below the horizon, even this far north; it is an image of stability. Its handle marks the solstices and equinoxes: pointing due north at winter solstice, east in spring, south in summer, west in autumn. It is an image of regularity.
And its bowl points to the pole. Here, as with the seven steps, they designate the throne as the north pole. The canopy above the throne? The night sky. This is why the king sits, not stands: why a seat is the universal image of sovereignty. As king to nation, so pole to sky: the central point around which all revolves; the ruler. As the north pole does not move, so the king, seated, does not move.
In Gyeongbok Palace, finishing the point, the 12 animals of the Korean zodiac stand attendant, representing the key points in the cycle of the year, the day and of a human life.
Councils traditionally met before the throne at dawn, when the heavens were in balance. By midday, the session would be concluded. Civil officials stood toward dawn, representing beginnings. Military officials stood toward dusk, representing endings. Together they deliberated, as incense rose from huge burners around the throne hall to summon heaven.
It may not always have made for good government. But it surely made great art.
To visit Gyeongbok Palace, take subway line No. 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station. Follow the tunnels east. You will emerge in the outer courtyard of the palace.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.