[Visual History of Korea] Changdeokgung, the Plan B palace for Joseon royals


Injeongjeon Hall, the official daily office of the Joseon kings, can be seen through the gate with the granite stone-covered square at Changdeokgung in Seoul.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Injeongjeon Hall, the official daily office of the Joseon kings, can be seen through the gate with the granite stone-covered square at Changdeokgung in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

When Joseon Kings needed a backup office in case their main palace was burned down by an angry mob. When it happened in 1592, Changdeokgung was there. It has been the backup palace for the last 600 years.

Yi Bang-won, the fifth son of Joseon’s founding father and the father of King Sejong the Great, built the Changdeokgung complex in 1405 because Gyeongbokgung, the main palace that served as administrative court, royal residential court, and official audience court, was with blood stained.

The founding father of the Joseon Kingdom, Yi Seong-gye, took the radical step of establishing a new capital in Seoul and its main royal palace, Gyeongbokgung, in 1392.

Pumgyeseok in front of Injeongjeon shows the ranks of government officials. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Pumgyeseok in front of Injeongjeon shows the ranks of government officials. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The founding father King Yi Seong-gye had eight sons, the first six by his first wife and the next two by his second wife. As the saying goes, “A father with a large brood never has a moment’s rest.”

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When a half-brother of his stepmother became crown prince and heir apparent, Yi Bang-won, the 5th son of Yi Seong-gye’s first wife, killed both half-brothers in 1398.

Yi Seong-gye’s second son, Yi Bang-gwa, took over the throne as King Jeongjong of Joseon from his father, who was saddened by the death of his sons. But unable to live and work in Gyeongbokgung, he moved the kingdom’s capital back to Gaegyeong, modern-day Kaesong. There was simply too much blood spilled on the Gyeongbokgung floor.

When the bad boy Yi Bang-won, the founder’s 5th son, became the 3rd king of the Joseon Dynasty, he moved the capital back to Seoul.

With the reasons for exodus from Gyeongbokgung remaining unchanged, Yi Bang-won, now King Taejong, ordered the construction of a new palace. That was in 1405.

Colorful dancheong of Yeonghwadang in the back garden of Changdeokgung in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Colorful dancheong of Yeonghwadang in the back garden of Changdeokgung in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Nestled in a natural terrain quite pleasantly and comfortably, the backup palace was a favorite palace of the Joseon kings.

All of the following Joseon kings spent most of their time in Changdeokgung except for King Sejong the Great (1397-1450) who liked Gyeongbokgung, the grandest palace.

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Changdeokgung, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, was built on natural slopes. The palace is a retreat connected to the Baegaksan mountain range in the middle of the city, with abundant wildlife visiting the palace grounds. In the early years there were tiger sightings. Several streams flow through the castle throughout the year.

Yeonghwadang, a pavilion in Huwon, the palace’s rear garden, with its stirrup-hung doors nailed to ceiling rafters, offers stunning views of Buyongji Pond, which has natural spring water constantly flowing through it all year round.

Buyongjeong (left) and Juhapru (right) surround Buyongji Pond at Changdeok Palace. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Buyongjeong (left) and Juhapru (right) surround Buyongji Pond at Changdeok Palace. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The square Buyongji Pond is modeled after the ancient Korean belief that the sky is round and the earth is four. The island in the middle of the pond, on which pine trees grow, is round.

Designed to cascade natural spring water downstream, Buyongji has a built-in overflow for excess rainwater draining into the pond. The pond has a perfect harmony of inflow and outflow, so it never floods.

King Jeongjo the Great (1752-1800) is said to have enjoyed festivals at Yeonghwadang, where he often oversaw government service exams.

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Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762), father of King Jeongjo the Great, rode horses and trained in military martial arts in the square in front of Yeonghwadang.

The first driveway for the Royals at Changdeokgung in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The first driveway for the Royals at Changdeokgung in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The living quarters for the queens and concubines in Yeongyeongdang anchae, the inner quarters of the garden in Changgyeonggung, are devoid of dancheong, the colorful painting of the rafters and exposed wooden beams common in temple and palace buildings.

Overlooking Buyongji is Juhapru, the royal library where the future kings spent much of their early years studying.

Overall, Changdeokgung is built in an eco-friendly manner, fitting into the terrain without too many artificial architectural interventions.

Even the injeongjeon, the official daily office of the Joseon kings where the kingdom’s most important official affairs were conducted, is grand but not opulent.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean-American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — ed.

From Korea Herald ([email protected])





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