Celebration fit for a (Joseon) king

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Celebration fit for a (Joseon) king

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It is sometimes challenging to visit a certain spot without one’s own preconceptions or memories overpowering the experience. On a normal weekend afternoon at Changgyeong Palace these days, one might see families picnicking under the hazel trees, screaming children playing and older men lying on benches resting or surreptitously sipping soju hidden in brown paper bags.
Amidst such a scene, it would take a delicate sensibility to be able to ruminate on the lives of the palace residents hundreds of years ago. The high drama, scandals and tragedy of Changgyeong Palace’s past have gone. The area where a king left his son to die is continually passed by unnoticed and the hill where top scholars of the Joseon Dynasty sat state examinations is vacant most days of the year.
However, spectators can sometimes get a small glimpse of what the palace was like long ago. Last Sunday was the second scheduled day (but the first actual day due to rain interrupting opening ceremonies on April 23) of the “Reenactment of a Joseon Dynasty Palace Performance,” to be held every Sunday at Changgyeong Palace until November 26.
The performance is a reenactment of King Yeongjo’s 50th birthday, which was originally held in 1743, the 19th year of the king’s reign. On one of the first days this year with steady sunlight throughout the day, around 1,000 visitors gathered in Myeongjeongjeon, the central chamber of the palace, to watch the performance. Many covered their faces with parasols or hats while watching the musicians and dancers on stage reenact the event.
Few watching the festivities would have been aware of the tragedies that surrounded King Yeongjo.
On a summer day in 1762 around May in the lunar calendar, possibly a day just like last Sunday, the king ordered that his son be locked in a coffin-like, wooden rice chest. According to records, the king was angry at his son’s disrespectful behavior. The prince was locked in the chest without food or water and died nine days later.
Changgyeong Palace was no stranger to scandal and drama as it was a palace where mainly the female members of the royal family lived and plots and feuds are known to have taken place among them. Many Korean dramas have borrowed from the stories, including the 2001-2002 hit “Woman World.”
The palace was built in 1483 during King Sejong’s reign, as a place for his retired father to live. In its 523-year history, the palace was wholly or partially ruined several times. In 1592, during the Japanese invasion of Korea, the palace was destroyed but it was rebuilt in 1616. Large-scale fires in 1624 and 1830 also destroyed parts of the palace.
Despite such misfortune, the palace was also the scene of many celebrations such as the birthday celebrations of kings and queens and coronations. “We wanted to create an authentic atmosphere of one of the major celebrations this palace was witness to, such as King Yeongjo’s 50th celebration,” said Kim Kwang-hee, a director at the Foundation for the Preservation of Cultural Properties Korea, which organized the event. (It was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture & Tourism and the Cultural Properties Administration.) Mr. Kim added that the organization did not want to display ancient artifacts in indoor museums but to “have a more interactive event set at the original site.”
The birthday celebration, which featured around 1,000 musicians and dancers in 1743, has been reduced to 120 staff members in 2006.
The reenactment began with three drum booms that signaled the soldiers, musicians and royal subjects to enter Myeongjeongjeon. The king then entered on a palanquin carried by eight people and took his place on the throne.
After the king was seated, incense was lit. With explanations over speakers in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese, the official celebrations began.
The first was a percussion performance called Hyangbalmu. (A hyangbal is a small brass cymbal.) Eight girls tied hyangbal to their thumbs and middle fingers and danced, providing their own music. In the original celebration, it is recorded that King Yeongjo ordered that the dance be performed only by boys younger than 12.
The second performance was Cheongseonggok, a daegeum, or Korean flute, solo.
Next was another percussion dance, Mugo, in which eight dancers wove various patterns around a mugo drum. Four dancers struck the drum with drumsticks while the other four carried flower-shaped sticks, or samjihwa.
Next, a female solo vocal performance, Gagok Urak, featured a woman singing a traditional Korean poem. The song last Sunday was an adaptation of a traditional poem about a woman who fears her husband will not return home safely because of tempestuous weather.
The final act was Pogurak, a female group dance originating from the Song Dynasty. The dance is in the form of a game in which participants are divided into two teams that compete to put their ball in a goal. Dancers on the team that scores the most goals receive a flower and those who lose have ink drawn on their faces.
This kind of performance might not have been possible if Korean history had not turned during the early 20th century. In 1907, during Japanese colonial rule, Changgyeong Palace was turned into a zoo and botanical garden with cherry blossom trees, the national flower of Japan, planted intensely in the grounds. The formal name was changed to Changgyeongwon, meaning Changgyeong Garden. In 1986, it was renamed Changgyeong Palace and restored to its original form.
Kim Tae-bong, 42, who viewed the re-enactment, said, “The performance was a good chance for me to bond with my children this weekend.”
Kim Kyeong-mee, 29, had a different take. “It would have been much more enjoyable with more interactive activities for visitors, such as experiencing traditional palace food,” she said.
Mr. Kim, of the Foundation for Preservation of Cultural Properties, hopes the “Reenactment of a Joseon Dynasty Palace Performance” will expand into a weekly event if all goes well with the program in 2006.
With so many visitors showing up for the first and second reenactment performance, “the outlook is promising,” Mr. Kim added.


by Cho Jae-eun

“2006 Reenactment of a Joseon Dynasty Palace Performance” will be held in Changgyeong Palace every Sunday until November 26 (expect during July and August).
The performance starts at 1 p.m. The entrance fee is 1,000 won ($1) for adults and 500 won for children. Changgyeong Palace is located in Waryong-dong, northern Seoul. The nearest subway station is Hyehwa station, line No. 4, exit 5 and 6.
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