Gyeongbok Palace's restoration goes on and on and on
Sitting in the heart of Seoul, Gyeongbok Palace is one of Korea's most symbolic landmarks.
About 10 million people from across the globe visit the royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) every year, strolling around its vast grounds, often donned in hanbok (traditional Korean attire) to try and recreate how a member of the royal family would have felt.
What many of those tourists might not know, however, is that the 626-year-old palace is actually under restoration after being nearly demolished during the devastating 35 years of Japan’s colonization (1910-1945).
In 1990, the Korean government launched the grand-scale Gyeongbok Palace Restoration Project. Its goal was to rebuild Gyeongbok Palace to as close to its appearance during the period of Emperor Gojong’s reign (r.1863-1907), when about 500 buildings stood on the grounds of the palace. During the Japanese occupation, 93 percent of the palace was destroyed, leaving only 36 buildings in their original form, according to research conducted in 1990.
The excavation of the palace began in 1991, meaning this year marks the 30th anniversary of the project. According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, during the first phase of the project, which ended in 2010, about 89 buildings were restored. Currently, the restoration project is in its second phase, which plans to restore 80 more buildings, and is projected to be complete by 2030. The whole project is scheduled to be completed by 2045.
The National Palace Museum of Korea, which is located to the west of the palace, has organized a special exhibition to look back on the 30 years of its efforts to restore the palace grounds. The exhibit is titled “Glory of the Royal Palace” and focuses on the four major buildings that have recently been restored — Heungbokjeon, Sojubang, the bedchamber area and Geunjeongjeon. It will run until Feb. 27.
Kwak Hee-won, the curator of the exhibit, said part of her aim for the exhibit was to shed light on the researchers who were and are involved in the restoration project.
“With the restoration project still ongoing, I thought it is more important to listen to their stories, hear about their difficulties and learn about the restoration process rather than overwhelming visitors with all the information about what has already been done and what needs to be done,” Kwak said. “Their work is indispensable as restoring a royal traditional palace cannot be done with a machine.”
What the exhibit doesn’t tell you is, however, the purpose of this lengthy and costly restoration.
According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, the first phase of the restoration project cost a total of 157.2 billion won ($133.5 million). Due to a lack of budget, the scope of the second phase was scaled back and the budget was reduced from 540 billion won to about 300 billion won. Plans to restore 254 buildings were also cut back to focus on just 80 buildings.
Unlike the government's restoration project for the woldae, a wide traditional platform, that leads to the entrance of Gwanghwamun, which has faced protests over its impact on traffic in the area, the Gyeongbok Palace Restoration Project has not had to deal with any public criticism.
But that doesn't mean everyone is happy about the project.
“I don’t think there’s any difference between the current government and Heungseon Daewongun (1820-98), who forcibly collected funds from the people to restore Gyeongbok Palace in 1865,” said a Seoul citizen surnamed Lee who lives near the palace.
Lee said she thought about holding a one-man protest in front of the place but her family begged her not to. “My husband and my children were afraid some of those hardcore patriotic Koreans may approach me and harm me or something. If I find out there are more people who think like me, I will try to voice my opinion.”
Many Koreans equate the restoration of Gyeongbok Palace with regaining the country's dignity that was once downtrodden by the Japanese.
Shin Eung-soo, an architect of traditional Korean architecture who took part in the first phase of the Gyeongbok Palace restoration project said in an interview with local media after the completion that “restoring royal palaces is not merely a project of restoring cultural heritage. It is restoring our national pride and national spirit that was slaughtered by Japan and reconstructing our lost history.” Shin is also a holder of Daemokjang (traditional wooden architecture), which is a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In numerous symposiums and discussions held regarding the restoration project, the only concerns raised were related to “restoring the palace properly back to its original form.”
But what exactly is Gyeongbok Palace's original form?
The name Gyeongbokgung in Korean means “a blessed palace.” It was established in 1395, three years after King Taejo (1335-1408) founded the Joseon Dynasty. But even before the damage caused during Japan's invasion, Gyeongbok Palace had experienced many hardships.
Only four years after its establishment, Jeongjong (1357–1419), who became the second king of Joseon, moved the capital back to Gaegyeong, the capital of Goryeo (918-1392), as soon as he was crowned. Ultimately, Gyeongbok Palace was left empty. However, when King Taejong (1367-1422), ascended to the throne in 1400, he moved Joseon’s capital back to Seoul. But instead of going back to Gyeongbok Palace, the site of where he had killed his half-brothers, he established Changdeok Palace, which was completed in 1412, and resided there.
Though he lived there until his final day, he frequented Gyeongbok Palace to oversee repairs. Whenever foreign envoys made visits to the country, he brought them to Gyeongbok Palace. In 1412, to welcome Chinese envoys, King Taejong built Gyeonghoeru, the iconic two-story pavilion located on the grounds and created a pond to surround it.
However, because Gyeongbok Palace was not King Taejong's residence, its slow decay was inevitable.
It was King Sejong who decided to move the royal residency back to Gyeongbok Palace in 1422. In 1426, he gave names to the four gates surrounding the palace, which include Gwanghwamun, which was merely called the main gate at the time.
Since then, the palace appears to have served its purpose well. However, two series of fire in 1543 and 1553, both of which began from Donggung, or the section of the palace for the Crown Prince, destroyed most of the buildings on the grounds, leaving only four buildings intact. According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, a total of 2,200 people were involved in a restoration project that began in 1554 and took just a year to complete.
Sadly, 37 years later, the palace faced more destruction during the Imjin War (1592-98) between Korea and Japan.
“The palace was totally burned down,” states the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. “So the captain of the enemies took his men to Jongmyo [the royal shrine].”
For the next 270 years, the palace remained abandoned.
The scale of reconstruction was too large to handle for the royal finances which were tight after the war. The materials saved up to reconstruct Gyeongbok Palace were instead used to establish new palaces like Changdeok and Changgyeong. It is said that Gyeongbok Palace was so neglected that it became overgrown with trees and bushes and that tigers occasionally came down from the mountain nearby.
In 1865, two years after King Gojong (1852-1919) was crowned at the age of 12, his father Heungseon Daewongun, who was ruling the country until his teenage son came of age, announced plans to rebuild the palace to solidify his and Gojong’s leadership.
Heungseon Daewongun ordered a proper study of the locations of the major buildings before the war and began reconstructing the palace. New buildings were constructed including Heungbokjeon, Sojubang and the bedchamber area.
About three years later, the construction was completed and the royal families including Empress Myeongseong moved into Gyeongbok Palace in 1868. She was later assassinated there in 1895. According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, constructions were still underway here and there even after the royals' move, but the majority of the work had been completed within four years.
The restoration was not cheap. In order to generate money for the project, Heungseon Daewongun forcibly collected funds from the people. Making matters worse, a fire broke out on the palace grounds in 1866, destroying all the wood that had been set aside for construction. To cover the costs, Heungseon Daewongun decided to issue a new type of coin known as dangbaekjeon. One dangbaekjeon was worth 100 coins. Dangbaekjeon was banned just six months after, but it had already had a serious consequence: severe inflation.
During King Gojong’s reign, several fires broke out at the palace, but every time, he was quick to rebuild — despite having no budget to do so. Ironically, even before the Japanese invasion, Gyeongbok Palace was abandoned by the king in 1896, as he sought refuge at the Russian Legation after Empress Myeongseong's assassination.
In came the Japanese government and the palace was completely demolished.
In 1910, the department of royal household, known as gungnaebu, divided the palace grounds and put the buildings up for sale to the general public on March 27. An article in the Daehan Maeil Sinbo, or the Korea Daily News, on May 1 of that same year, states that nearly all the buildings of the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace were auctioned off to individuals. Hamhwadang and Jipgyeongdang were the only two halls that managed to survive through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War (1950-53). When Korea was finally liberated from Japan and got the ownership of the palace back, it appeared that its future looked bright. But only five years later, the Korean War broke out in 1950 and the palace once again destroyed.
After the war, restoration projects were carried out here and there, but were done without much historic investigation.
“Efforts to restore Gyeongbok Palace to its original state did not begin in earnest until the 1990s and after 30 years of effort, it is finally getting closer to its original appearance,” said Kim Dong-wook, a board member of the Cultural Properties Committee.
“The goal of the first phase of the restoration project was to restore the appearance of most of the central buildings of the palace,” said Park Wang-hee, former head of the repair technology division said. “For the second phase, the goal is to restore the functions of the palace to the pre-colonial period.”
But the restoration is still creating a lot of controversy regarding “originality.”
The restored Gwanghwamun signboard began showing cracks in 2010. Then it was revealed that the colors of the signboard were inaccurate so a new version, which has gold gilded letters against a black background, was installed last year. Recently, on Dec. 1, it was revealed that the signboard for Taewonjeon also used a different font and colors from the original. The original signboard, which was presumably created after 1868, was in the possession of the National Museum of Korea but the Cultural Heritage Administration was not even aware of that fact. The administration has yet to comment on the issue.
The Cultural Heritage Administration said it has been using various historical documents such as the map of Gyeongbok Palace that was drawn up during King Gojong’s reign, a book recording the names and locations of the buildings inside different royal palaces, as well as a two-dimensional block plan of Gyeongbok Palace created around 1865. But because the block plan, which is the most precise, does not illustrate the design of the buildings, they have to crosscheck using existing photographs to figure out how they would have looked. The problem is that most of the photographs are of the palace’s major buildings and there are none that document the smaller structures.
Moreover, the administration said different documents have different records of the buildings, such as sizes and locations so that it “takes tremendous time to work out the originals.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]