History marches on, in 1-hour intervals
But at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the container held a flurry of activity, as 20 men tossed on their costumes and stuck fake beards and mustaches on their faces. The area outside was just as hectic: Royal guards dressed in blue picked up 3-meter (3.2-yard) flagpoles while a military band in yellow practiced its instruments and banged drums. “Watch out!” one man yelled when the wind knocked down a long flagpole.
Finally, everything seemed to be in order and the men lined up. The order to march was called out, and followed quickly by a contradictory order: “Wait!” a guard cried. “I need to go to the bathroom. I gotta do a number two.”
Sorry ― too late.
At exactly 10:25 a.m., the 60 guards marched forward to Daehanmun, the main gate of Deoksu Palace. The guard was a mix of actors hired by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and real soldiers fulfilling their mandatory military service. (The city plans to hire more actors to replace the soldiers.) Their job is to march out three times a day to perform a “changing of the guards” ceremony in front of the palace, as modeled on the event at London’s Buckingham Palace. Some of these young men will guard the main gate, the others will patrol the city, walking to Sungnyemun (better known as Namdaemun).
For the first time in 98 years, Sungnyemun was opened to the public on March 3, and the guards keep an eye on its doors.
The metropolitan government designed the event in 1996 as a way to promote tourism in Seoul, basing the dress and actions on historical records from the period of King Yeongjo (1694-1776) and King Jeongjo (1752-1800), both of whom ruled during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).
“It was one of most prosperous times in the Joseon dynasty, and that’s the period from which we have the most records on the ceremony,” said Shin Chul-min, the director of the ceremony. Although there had long been guards in the capital and at the palaces, King Yejong was the first to establish a separate unit of gatekeepers, in 1469.
Gyeongbok palace also has a changing of the guards ceremony since 2002, which has been run by the government-sponsored Foundation for the Preservation of Cultural Properties; the event is based on earlier records from the Joseon dynasty. These days, the cold weather has forced a cutback in the event, but the full-scale ceremony is planned to resume on April 23.
The lack of records, however, means that the ceremonies are rather cut-and-paste historical reenactments. “For example, historical records say the guards must ‘walk normally’,” said Ahn Hyun-joo, who originally directed the ceremonies at both palaces. “But we don’t know what was normal at the time, and quite naturally, our ancestors didn’t feel it necessary to record it. You know, nobody records how we walk normally these days. We just assumed how the walk was done by looking at paintings of the ceremony that still exists.”
Ms. Ahn earned her masters degree in traditional dress and is currently in a doctoral program on the royal ceremony. She noted that for the sake of the actors, the armor, helmets, and swords were intentionally designed lighter than is historically accurate, and the fabric was also designed putting practicality over accuracy.
Not that the tourists seem to care. Nor for that matter do the Korean onlookers.
“I saw one middle-aged woman, driving in front of Deoksu Palace, watching the ceremony so intently that she ran into another car,” said Lee Dong-hoon, who has been a palace guard for six years now.
“The guards are in good shape, look strong, and wear beautiful clothing,” said Morisita Kazue, a Japanese tourist who visited Seoul with two friends. “I’m so happy to see this today.”
Mr. Shin admitted that the Seoul Metropolitan Government hires only healthy, good-looking actors who are taller than 175 centimeters. Strength is a part of the job: The actors walk at least 4.5 kilometers (nearly 3 miles) a day, with each trip from Daehanmun to Sungnyemun taking about 30 minutes. The flags they carry weigh 10 kilograms (22 pounds), but if the wind is blowing, it feels closer to 30 kilograms. Those without flags have to play music, which isn’t easy to do while marching, said Bong Yong-seob, the head of the military band.
“Korean traditional music is usually played static except for samulnori (a four-drum circle). It’s not easy to play the bugle, trumpet shell, taepyeongso (a Korean traditional wind instrument), small cymbals and a gong while walking,” Mr. Bong said.
What’s good about the job? Well, the actors enjoy having their pictures taken with beautiful women. “A foreign woman even kissed me on the cheek after she had her photo taken with me,” Mr. lee said. “I was embarrassed, but it did feel good.”
Yoo Bong-ho, 33, has been guarding Deoksu palace for four years now, and he says it’s not always fun. “Because I stand totally still in front of the gate, sometimes people mistake me for a mannequin,” he said. Elderly women, he said, sometimes come over and pinch him, which he admits is better than the occasional kid who will try to punch him in the groin. The best defense he can offer is to clear his throat and hope onlookers know he’s not made of plastic.
Kim Hyun-seong, a guard at Gyeongbok Palace, has had similar experiences. While standing in front of the gates, many people ― mostly the elderly ― ask him for directions. He’s not allowed to talk, however, so he can’t reply. “After asking the same question several times, they get angry and sometimes shout at me, saying ‘How dare you ignore my questions,’” Mr. Kim said. “But what can I do?”
For some, simply standing still is the hardest part. Jo Hyun-wook, 22, tried being a hip-hop dancer before he signed up to guard the palace. He hoped to show off his skill at martial arts, but the martial-arts shows won’t start until later this month, so he has to take the role of guarding the door, standing straight for an hour at a time. “I’m not only doing hip hop,” Mr. Jo said. “I learned the 24 martial arts last year and I’ve done Taekkyeon (another traditional martial art) since I was in sixth grade. It might seem weird to be doing hip hop and traditional martial arts together, but I think it’s the same thing, in terms of letting people know about other cultures.”
The royal guard changing ceremony takes place at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. in front of Deoksu Palace. The patrol to Sungnyemun occurs right after the ceremony. If it rains or snows, or if the temperature drops below 5 degrees in centigrade (41 Fahrenheit) or goes up above 35 degrees in centigrade, the ceremony will be cancelled. There are no ceremonies on Mondays.
The changing of the guards ceremony in front of Gyeongbok Palace starts hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and lasts about 5 minutes. You can see the guards on duty anytime between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. There is no performance on Tuesdays or when it rains. The full-scale ceremony, including the opening and closing of the palace gate, is scheduled to resume on April 23.
The order of the historical Royal Guard Changing Ceremony (Deoksu Palace)
1. A group of relief guards that has patrolled around the palace arrives at the palace gate.
2. The chief gatekeeper, who was guarding the gate, confirms the password with the chief of gatekeepers who will replace the group. (The Ministry of War would choose a new password every day and report it to the king for approval. If the king approved the password, the institute that received the royal command would give the password to the chief gatekeeper.)
3. A drummer hits a huge drum six times. Under the supervision of a changing ceremony supervisor and the keeper of the keys to the palace, the vice chief of gatekeepers hands over the keybox to the vice chief of the new gatekeepers.
4. As the drummer hits the huge drum three times, the chiefs of both gatekeeper units finish confirming the password, and the existing chief hands over a round plate to the incoming one.
5. As the drummer hits the drum twice, the current unit and its replace ment change positions.
6. The departing unit leaves the gate and patrols around the palace before taking a break.
Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government
by Park Sung-ha