Former kings’ residences were the heart of cultureJoseon palaces were monuments that both witnessed the rise and fall of the dynasty and shared that destiny. The palaces were expanded during the dynasty (1392 to 1910) and many of them were lost with its downfall.
On Dec. 4, another chapter in the palaces’ history was officially begun as restoration started on the Gwanghwa gate ― the main gate of Gyeongbok Palace in the Jongno district, Seoul. The existing gate, made of concrete and steel, is to be torn down ― the original gate was destroyed during the Korean War ― and a new gate of granite and wood will be constructed 14.5 meters (47 feet) south and 10.9 meters west of the current location, facing Mount Gwanak. The existing gate is tilted 5.6 degrees and at a right angle to Sejong Street to face Mount Nam. The restoration project is expected to be completed in 2009. Meanwhile, a large drapery, which is the work of installation artist Yang Ju-hae, covers the site with an image of the gate as a colorful barcode on a background image of Gyeongbok Palace.
“Restoring the palace, which was modified and damaged during the Japanese occupation, will instill a sense of pride and spirit in Koreans,” the Cultural Properties Administration said in a statement. The restoration is budgeted to cost 22.4 billion won ($24 million). The gate restoration is the final step in a 20-year project (1990 to 2009) to restore Gyeongbok Palace, at a total project cost of 178.9 billion won.
All the Joseon palaces were located in the center of Seoul, which was also the middle of the Korean Peninsula. In Joseon times, Seoul, as the capital, was even more important than it is now. The palaces were the official residence of the Joseon dynasty kings, an absolute monarchy, and important policy and administrative decisions were made there.
“The palaces were the center of the Joseon dynasty and its power, which belonged to the kings,” said Lee Kang-keun, an art history professor at Gyeongju University. “The current, democratic government has less power due to the separation of powers. Thus, in Joseon, the status of the palaces was more obvious.”
In Korean, going to Seoul is often described as “going up” and leaving Seoul is “going down.” What made Seoul meaningful was that the kings lived there.
Gyeongbok Palace, the main palace, was situated on the foot of Mount Bukak, which is Korea’s guardian mountain according to feng shui, an ancient Chinese practice of placement and arrangement of space to achieve harmony with the environment. The city spreads before the palace, and Mount Nam is opposite. The Jongmyo ancestral shrine on the left of the palace, and the Sajik shrine on the right is a similar arrangement to that used in Chinese cities in ancient times.
The palaces were also the heart of high culture, especially court culture, said Mr Lee.
The palaces were also the gems of Joseon dynasty architecture and by far the largest buildings in the Joseon period. Early Korea even had provisions regulating the size of private buildings or homes according to the status and social class of their owners.
“The best builders belonged to the court and they built the palaces. The architectural value of the palaces is incomparable to other buildings of the Joseon dynasty.”
Gyeongbok Palace suffered serious damage after 1910 when Korea became a colony of Japan. Joseon’s royal families were evicted and the colonial government sold empty buildings within the walls to the public. Causing further damage to the Joseon-era palace, a Renaissance-style government building was built behind Gwanghwa gate, in 1926.
According to the Cultural Properties Administration, there were 330 buildings inside the palace when King Gojong was the reigning king, but only 10 buildings including Geunjeongjeon, the central government building, and Gyeonghoeru, a large pavilion by a pond, were saved from destruction.
“The Japanese tried to systematically destroy the Joseon dynasty palaces,” said Cho Gyu-hyeong, a researcher at the Cultural Properties Administration.
Four other palaces ― Changdeok, Deoksu, Gyeonghi and Changgyeong ― did not escape that fate. Deoksu Palace was divided and the land it stood upon was sold piece by piece. Deoksu Palace now occupies only one quarter of its original size, when it was the biggest of the Joseon palaces. Many of the buildings at Changyeong Palace were demolished to create a zoo. Gyeonghi Palace was completely destroyed by the Japanese, who built school buildings on the site. The Seoul Museum of History now stands where Gyeonghi Palace once was.
In a book titled, “The History of Our Palaces,” Professor Hong Sun-min of Myongji University wrote, “What is typical of [present] palaces is a large lawn space. Children play, people eat and couples have wedding photographs taken on the lawns. However, lawns didn’t exist in the original palaces but have since been grown where palace buildings used to be. They are the tombs of the buildings.”
“The palaces were full of buildings, walls and corridors, and between them were gates and alleys. The palaces were like small cities,” he wrote.
Not just buildings, but also historical relics and cultural objects such as furniture and paintings were lost, sold or spread around the country. Unlike palaces in other countries, the buildings are almost empty inside. Recently, the Cultural Properties Administration has begun replacing cultural objects in the buildings.
Even when the reconstruction of Gwanghwa gate and 12 buildings is completed, the buildings will still only cover 40 percent of the space previously occupied. That is still a higher ratio than at the other existing sites; 37 percent of Changdeok Palace and 20 percent of Changgyeong Palace has been restored. It is difficult to estimate the amount of restoration at Deoksu Palace.
“Realistically it is difficult to completely restore the palaces. It would be meaningless if the sites are just packed with buildings,” Mr. Cho said.
The principal buildings were rebuilt first so that the palaces could be shown to the public. There are limitations in budget and space that prohibit restoring all the buildings. It would also be difficult for tourists to see the palaces if they were crammed with buildings, and it would be very costly to maintain them.
Scholars agree that perfect restoration is impossible and also see no need for it.
“It is not necessary to restore all five palaces. There wasn’t a time that all five palaces were used simultaneously,” Mr. Lee said.
There is some difference of opinion over how the palaces have been restored, especially on whether the reconstruction followed thorough historical investigation, and which buildings should have been rebuilt.
“Restoration is not rebuilding what has been destroyed. It is recovering what was lost in the way the original was made. It is recreating value,” professor Hong Sun-min said.
“So far the restorations have been done without carefully analyzing how the original buildings were shaped and constructed,” he added.
Mr. Hong said the work was not done by those who retained traditional techniques but by architects and carpenters who did not have much experience with the traditions.
Mr. Lee agreed that the restorations have been done hastily with political and commercial motives but without much agreement on which buildings should be restored and why. “The buildings with similar functions were restored first in the palaces, such as government buildings, but rear gardens and residential areas were not,” he said.
Despite the controversy, the restoration is still meaningful, he said.
“Joseon history took place in the palaces and this is why they have value as historical spaces. They reflect Korea’s history and were the historical foundations of the Joseon dynasty,” Mr. Lee said.
Next year the northwestern end of Gyeongbok Palace will be opened to the public. Until 1996, it was used as a military base to guard the Blue House.
Chronology of Joseon dynasty palaces
1395 Gyeongbok completed
1405 Changdeok completed
1484 Changgyeong completed
1592 Gyeongbok Changdeok burned down
1615 Changdeok restored
1865 Reconstruction of Gyeongbok began
1907 Zoo built in Changgyeong
1910 Korea colonized by Japan
1917 Fire in Changdeok destroyed buildings
1918 Renaissance-style building erected in Gyeongbok
1988 Zoo removed from Changgyeong and palace restored
1990 Restoration began on Gyeongbok
1991 Restoration began on Changdeok
2004 Restoration ended on Changdeok
2009 Restoration to end on Gyeongbok
by Limb Jae-un