Joseon tombs’ tales still relevant

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Joseon tombs’ tales still relevant


There is something unusual about Geonwonneung, the grave of Yi Seong-gye, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, located in Donggureung, Guri, Gyeonggi Province. On top of the grave grows pampas grass. It is outrageous that bush grows on a royal tomb when it should be kept tidy. But there is a reason for that. Yi wanted to hand over his throne to his youngest son but his older son, Bang-won, killed his half brother and took the throne. As an abdicated king, Yi chose Jeongneng, the royal tomb of his second wife and mother of his youngest son, to be his own grave as well. But Bang-won dug out the tomb and moved the remains of his father’s second wife, degrading her to a concubine. Jeongneung is now located in Seongbuk District, Seoul, but the place where the tomb was originally located is called Jeong-dong, which is in Jung District, central Seoul. Bang-won disobeyed his father’s wish, prepared the Geonwonneung grave and planted pampas grass there from his father’s hometown in Hamheung Province, North Korea. Even though he did not have a chance to reconcile with his father while he was alive, the son perhaps planted the grass as a token of his apology.

King Seongjong’s tomb is the most expensive among the tombs of the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. His tomb in Seolleung is located in the middle of affluent southern Seoul, on a select plot of land. In fact, his remains are not there. During Japan’s 1592 invasion of Korea, the Japanese robbed the grave and the whereabouts of the king’s remains are not known. Seolleung has only ashes of the clothes that the king had on. He completed the country’s institutions in the early period of the dynasty and made the country prosperous and stable, but his body was dishonored.

Today we can still visit and pay respects to Jangneung, the tomb of King Danjong. That is possible thanks to the loyalty of a scholar from Yeongwol, Gangwon Province, Eom Heung-do. Danjong was given poison as a death penalty from his uncle, King Sejo, and his body was thrown into the Dong River. Eom dredged up the body and buried it in his mountain where his own ancestors had been buried, even though he and his entire family could have been ruined if his act was discovered. He explains why he took the risk in these lines of a poem: “Up in the high sky the stars in my heart shine red/ On the shaky ground, year after year, red rain of tears is shed.”

Each of the royal tombs from the Joseon Dynasty has its own story. They give us a lesson about the value of filial duty, loyalty to the king and transience of power. It is unusual in this world for tombs of an entire dynasty to have been preserved almost intact.

Why don’t we visit the royal tombs this summer with our families? Entrance to all of 40 royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty is currently free in celebration of their registration as a Unesco World Heritage site.


The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yeh Young-june [yyjune@joongang.co.kr]
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