From palace to park, and back again
Most people in their 20s or younger would say palace without hesitation. But their fathers and mothers might dwell on the question a bit before offering up an answer.
The reason for the confusion revolves around a well-known and lamentable tale among Koreans: During Japanese colonization (1910-1945), foreign rulers transformed the Korean palace in Jongno, Seoul, into an entertainment area with a zoo and other attractions. They eventually began calling it a garden instead of a palace, demoting the site’s status.
After the colonization period, Koreans used it as a park until the 1980s, which is why some locals still waver between calling it Changgyeong Palace and Changgyeong Garden.
“It was crowded with people having picnics with gimbap (Korean rice rolls), kids with cotton candy and balloons, and ladies with umbrellas taking pictures,” culture columnist Lee Sang-guk recollected.
Korean palaces are divided into two categories: official and secondary. Changgyeong was the latter but still saw its share of history.
King Seongjong (1457-1494) of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) ordered the construction of the palace for his wife and mother, and it was completed in 1483. He had it built facing east, unlike other palaces of the time that face north. Historians say that the odd arrangement might have something to do with the terrain and the fact that it was a secondary palace.
About a century later, however, Changgyeong Palace was destroyed during the Imjin War (1592-1598) along with other palaces, houses and buildings.
The palace was rebuilt in 1616 and quickly developed a newfound status in Seoul. By then, Changdeok Palace had become the official residence of Joseon rulers. Because of its location adjacent to Changdeok, Changgyeong became a backdrop to important state affairs and historic incidents.
For starters, it was the residence of the kings’ women, so a number of future kings were actually born in Changgyeong, including Jeongjo (1752-1800), Sunjo (1790-1834) and Heonjong (1827-1849), among others.
Secondly, some of the most dramatic - thus famous - deaths of the time occurred at Changgyeong.
Jang Hi-bin, one of Korean history’s most notorious femme fatales and King Sukjong’s beloved concubine, resided in the palace, where she performed shamanistic rituals cursing the queen. Once Sukjong discovered what she was doing, he ordered that she be executed. In 1701, Jang died on the palace grounds.
Additionally, King Yeongjo (1694-1776) killed his son Jangjo (1735-1762) at the palace, erroneously believing that the crown prince was devising plans to topple his authority. Yeongjo locked his son in a wooden rice chest, where he died eight days later.
But perhaps the biggest tragedy occurred in 1909, when the Japanese decided to demolish parts of the palace compound to build a zoo, a botanical garden, a museum and other entertainment venues. Later in the century, rides were added, and the site became an amusement park.
Many Koreans believe that the Japanese were the first to call the palace a garden, but it was actually Sunjong (1874-1926), Joseon’s last king, that gave it the new name.
“From now on, we will call the museum, the zoo and the botanical garden Changgyeong Garden. That’s because they are all in Changgyeong Palace,” proclaimed Sunjong, according to an April 26, 1911 article in Annals of Joseon Dynasty.
According to Hwang Gi-won, an environment professor at Seoul National University, Changgyeong is a classic example of how the Japanese transformed Korea’s picnic culture.
The professor argues that before Japanese colonization, Koreans enjoyed outings in natural settings like mountains. After, however, they went on picnics in confined, artificial places like parks.
Despite its transformation, the palace site continued to etch its place in history. In 1924, for example, a group of Koreans launched the country’s first figure skating team, which practiced on the frozen ponds in Changgyeong.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the country began efforts to restore the site to its past as a palace. Officials left the greenhouse - the first Western-style one in Korea and an important example of early 20th century architecture - in tact, and in 2004 the government designated it Registered Cultural Heritage No. 83.
By Kim Hyung-eun [email@example.com]