History in shades of autumnI am tempted to pluck a flower. I want to swirl my hands in the pond, distract a gentle school of fish, shake up a tree or do anything other than just looking, to break the overwhelming orderliness surrounding Juhamnu Pavilion.
This elaborate pagoda, marked by its gabled roof and overlooking a beautiful lotus pond, is a central part of Changdeok Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the few historical sites in Korea that have been exhaustively restored.
Since 1976, when three years’ worth of extensive reconstruction was completed, palace visitors have been admitted only in groups, under the park authority’s strict supervision. Every fall, an average of 3,500 tourists come to the palace daily to see the autumnal shades. Just one of the palace gardens contains more than a hundred kinds of trees.
Two centuries ago, Juhamnu Pavilion was where scholars met to recite poetry and gossip about state affairs. It is one of the few buildings on the grounds to have retained its unique character through several major fires that destroyed most of the palace.
The building, a two-story structure with double-wing brackets on the eaves, is typical of the style of elevated pavilions built during the Joseon Dynasty. As suggested by the name Jahamnu, which translates as “cosmic accord,” the round garden within the square frame of a lotus pond symbolizes the harmony of heaven and earth. It is also a metaphor for the people and their governing officials.
For those who came here centuries ago, every footstep within the palace was a physical reminder of one’s status: a symbol of power for the emperors, and of absolute submission for followers. Experiencing this, it seems unsurprising that half the kings of the Joseon Dynasty’s five centuries went mad from the thirst for power or died early in their rule.
A long pathway leading from Jinseon Gate to the king’s main office is divided into three separate lanes, each constructed in a distinct pattern. The central lane, which belonged to the king, is slightly raised above the ground, and is made of blocks in complicated patterns that almost resemble the elaborate patchwork seen in traditional fabric embroidery. The lane on the left, which has a more linear pattern, was a road for warriors. The lane on the right was for scholars.
Seonjeongjeon, the emperor’s main office, maintains its scholarly charm. The screen on the back of the king’s throne bears an elaborate painting of sipjangsaeng, animals symbolizing elemental human desires for health, happiness and fulfillment. To the right of the emperor is a seat for the royal scrivener, who documented the discussions that took place during official meetings and state ceremonies. Scriveners were among the palace’s most respected officials, and the office was only assigned to married men from aristocratic families. They were renowned for their linguistic gifts; it is said that they had to document entire conversations in Chinese characters.
Visitors to Changdeok Palace are often perplexed by the European decor many of the royal chambers display. One explanation historians offer for this is that Japanese colonial authorities deliberately set fires in the palace in an effort to destroy Korean cultural artifacts, replacing them with Western-style furnishings. Indeed, royal documents note several mysterious fires within the palace during the Japanese occupation. Major reconstruction took place in 1917, bringing dramatic change to the palace interiors.
It’s ironic that decades later, a Japanese cultural center stands just across the street from Changdeok, and more than half of the palace visitors today are Japanese tourists. In the Korean-language tour, palace guides frankly discuss a series of conspiracy theories involving the Japanese authorities. Asked whether the same stories are told during the Japanese-language tour, a staff member laughs, shaking her head.
Hoejeondang, a council hall just across from the queen’s living quarters, was built as the king’s private quarters in 1496. It burned down in 1623, again in 1833 and yet again in 1917. The present hall was rebuilt in 1923; traces of Joseon tradition seem faint today. In the audience chamber, there are even chandeliers, originally installed in the late 18th century. In the closing years of the Joseon Dynasty, the entire decor was changed to Western style, and the hall was used to greet foreign envoys and traders.
Finally we arrive at a secret garden, or biwon, tucked behind the palace. Calling it a secret garden, in the Japanese way, instead of “huwon,” or rear garden, might get you a lengthy lecture on local history from an older passerby, but “biwon” is still the term people most commonly use.
There are about 120 kinds of trees in this garden alone, most of them centuries old, including a 400-year old apricot tree imported from Ming China during the reign of King Seongjo. The charm of the biwon lies in its earthiness ― a Korean characteristic, and not just in the area of gardening ― and in the paths between the pagodas that make the walking experience almost contemplative.
It’s hard to believe that the history of the Joseon Dynasty ended in tragedy in this elaborate palace, with the assassination of its last queen. But the beauty of Joseon comes alive here every fall.
English tours are available three times a day, at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.
Other good spots for fall colors
Trees in Seoul will soon be in their full autumn glory. Here are some of the best places in town to appreciate the colors.
1. Soweolno ― Soweolno is a walkway from the Seoul Hilton to Hannam-dong. Ginkgo trees on the sidewalk can give off an annoying odor, but they do lure restaurant owners, who stop their cars every morning to collect the nuts. This route eventually leads to Namsan Park, one of Seoul’s most popular sites for jogging.
2. Jeongdong ― One of the classic places in downtown Seoul to see the leaves with a date. A legend says couples who pass by the stone walls surrounding the palace will break up. This is no surprise: just across the street from the palace is a family court. This romantic walkway is where many divorcing couples have their last silent moment before signing the papers.
3. Samcheong-dong ― This walking course, from Sagan-dong to Samcheong Park, is shorter than the others. If you manage to walk further on, to Samcheonggak, there is a private garden with many trees.
4. Seonneung ― The royal tomb of Seongjong and his wife, this discreet park in southern Seoul has been well preserved from the bustling reconstruction of office towns.
5. Hongleung Arboretum ― Hongleung is Seoul's only arboretum. About 2,000 types of trees grow here. It takes a good three hours to take a full tour of the place.
6. Gupabal ― Behind the man-made waterfall just off the Gupabal subway station, line No. 3, is a walkway filled with chestnut trees, pine trees and Mongolian oaks. On the way is Jingwansa Temple, where there is an old teahouse.
by Park Soo-mee