A king’s perpetual motion machineTime is the great mystery. It speaks to us of invisible things, of memory and desire. It whispers to us, too, of death.
Time has preoccupied us from time immemorial. We track it in the heavens, measuring it by cycles of sun and moon: day, month, year. All civilizations have always, apparently, watched the skies, from Stonehenge, from the medicine wheels of America’s great plains, from the valley of Babylon. Almost anything ancient seems to have been a clock.
But in this regard, Korea seems to have been pre-eminent. Once Gyeongju’s Cheomseongdae was thought the world’s first celestial observatory. We now know it isn’t; but it was certainly the most elaborate and sophisticated of its time.
Korea remains a land of clocks: cuckoo clocks in countless kitchens, grandfather clocks in innumerable stairwells, big round plain-faced clocks in Buddhist temples. Various timepieces are national treasures: vast bells to ring the hours, royal observatories, sundials.
When Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit in China, arrived in Beijing, his passport into the capital was the fine European mechanical clocks that he gave as gifts to important officials. Their accuracy so impressed the Empire that the dark-robed newcomers were officially appointed royal timekeepers, replacing the Arabs formerly considered pre-eminent.
This was no minor position. To Confucius, the essence of good government was regulation on the model of heaven.
That is what accurate timekeeping is: careful regulation on the model of the heavens, remembering that we measure time by the motion of celestial bodies.
To know exactly the time is to be fully in accord with the will of heaven, with the sun, moon and stars. A government that can’t tell you the time has manifestly lost heaven’s mandate.
Korea is traditionally even more Confucian than China; and Korean shamanism before Confucianism used the seven stars of the Big Dipper and the North Pole as its central symbols. This may partly explain why, even today, Korea features timepieces on its currency.
Perhaps most impressive is the water clock of King Sejo, built in 1536, originally located in the west gate of Gyeongbok Palace.
Many imagine the water clock to be a Korean invention; it isn’t. The ancient Greeks had water clocks, of a sort. But this Korean clock was a kind of cultural apex, expressing the greatness of King Sejo’s rule. Buoyed by rising waters in twin vials, a floating turtle, as it rose, marked with its snout the hours, seasons, hour of sunrise, hour of sunset, hour of moonrise and hour of moonset. It was a mechanical marvel, an analytical engine, even a kind of microcosm, an accurate model of the cosmos itself.
Or, perhaps, even a perpetual motion machine. That, perhaps, universally and beyond specifically Confucian doctrine, is the attraction of clocks.
Time as we mortals experience it is tragically one-directional: We have our allotted time, then slowly decline and die. It seems the great limitation. In the heavens, on the contrary, time is cyclical, the same events returning forever. The sun sets; the stars fade. But unlike us, they rise again.
All our timepieces are based on this cyclical image of time, not the linear time we actually experience as our own destiny: a clock face is not a line, but a circle. It evokes a pious hope: that time might return, allow us to turn back, to the gardens of our youth.
Here, perhaps, is the deepest dream of mankind: if we could just get time exactly right, in complete accord with heaven, we too might be immortal and rise again.
Heaven knows. But still, we watch the skies.
King Sejo’s perpetual motion machine is on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace. Take subway line No. 3 to Gyeongbok Palace, enter the gates and walk to the southwest of the grounds.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at the University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.