Hwang Hye-sung's Lifelong Mission to Bring Royal Cuisine Back to Life

Find out about the life and achievements of Hwang Hye-sung, a holder of important intangible cultural property, who maintained and passed on the tradition of Korean royal cuisine

Hwang Hye-sung (1968)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

"Royal cuisine is the essence of Korean food culture"

Hwang Hye-sung (1920-2006) is a holder of important intangible cultural property of Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine, as she researched, preserved and succeeded the royal cuisine culture throughout her life. She created Korea's first royal cuisine cookbook, documenting royal cuisine that almost disappeared and discovered that it is the essence of the idealized culture, which led to registering it as a Korean intangible heritage and promoted it all over the world. Here is a story of the life and heritages of Hwang Hye-sung whose greatest joy and life itself was to study, make, and teach Korean food. 

Hwang Hye-sung's hand making ssamKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

“The food is about sincerity, personal touch, and care.”

“Royal cuisine is not a luxurious food; it is a scientific and beautiful food. This is because it is made with the finest seasonal ingredients and with delicate fingertips.”

-Hwang Hye-sung

Hwang Hye-sung in her childhoodKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung was born in Cheonan, Chungcheongnam-do, as the only daughter of a family with a small number of children. Until the addition of a younger brother when she was 10, she grew up under the care of many mother figures, including her biological mother, grandmother, wet nurse, Upboon mother (“Nanny”), and a monk who she called “Kakka mom” (bald mom).

Baby Hye-sung, just before entering Cheonan Primary School (left in the front row), grandmother (right in the front row), mother (left in the back row), and relative (right in the back row).

Hwang Hye-sung studying abroad (1937)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung grew up as the apple of her mother’s and grandmother’s eyes, and said that she never stepped on dirt while attending school as she was always carried on a farmhand’s back. However, at the recommendation of her cousin, she went to Japan to study in her high school years. It was during this period that Hye-sung learned the principles of a new life as an independent woman.

Attending Kyoto Girls’ Vocational School, Hye-sung grew into a lively woman who got along well with friends.

Hwang Hye-sung taking a commemorative photograph after becoming a teacher (1940)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Upon graduating from Kyoto Girls’ Vocational School and returning home, Hwang Hye-sung got a job as a teacher at Daedong Girls’ High School in Daejeon. This young 20-year-old teacher was passionate, teaching cycling and gymnastics and even supervising the dormitory. In 1943, she was hired as a professor at Sookmyung Women's Vocational School to teach Joseon cuisine at the suggestion of Principal Oda, and it was the first time she learned of Changdeokgung Naksunjae royal cuisine.

Hwang Hye-sung and the last court ladiesKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Learning about royal cuisine at Changdeokgung

When Hwang Hye-sung first visited Naksunjae in Changdeokgung, Empress Sunjeong, the second empress of Emperor Sunjong, was residing with various court ladies. Hwang studied royal cuisine every night by visiting Naksunjae. It was around this time that she met court lady Han Hee-soon, her lifelong teacher. The photo taken in 1970 shows Hwang Hye-sung (first on the left), Han Hee-soon (second on the left), and various court ladies who served Empress Yoon until the end.

Empress Sunjeong and court ladiesKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Prior to an event to promote silk-farming, Empress Sunjeong (Empress Yoon) (1889-1972) took a commemorative photograph with guests and the court ladies. The last queen of the Joseon Dynasty, Empress Yoon continued the culture of the Joseon Dynasty while residing in Naksunjae after Sunjong passed away in 1926. When Hwang Hye-sung first visited Naksunjae in 1943, the court ladies who attended to Empress Yoon were carrying on the tradition of royal cuisine.

Court lady Han Hee-soon (1978)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Court lady Han Hee-soon (1889-1972) in a court dress. Han Hee-soon was the last court lady of the Joseon Dynasty and the Korean Empire, who served Gojong, followed by Sunjong and Empress Yoon. She was thoroughly acquainted with all the recipes of royal cuisine, from Surasang, the king’s daily table spread, to food served at feasts and rituals.

Newspaper article about Hwang Hye-sung, student of court lady Han Hee-soon (March 5, 1968)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

For 30 years from 1943, when Hwang Hye-sung first met court lady Han Hee-soon at Naksunjae until 1972 when court lady Han passed away, Hwang had knowledge of the Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine handed down to her. In a tight atmosphere in which she could not ask any questions and was not allowed to interrupt by saying, “Let me try for once,” while making food, she wrote down the entire process in a notebook and addressed court lady Han as “Your Highness Court Lady.” Through her efforts, the ingredients, decorations, seasonings, and terminology of royal cuisine remain on record.

Leejokungjungyoritongko Leejokungjungyoritongko (1957)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Korea's first royal cuisine cookbook, 'Leejokungjungyoritongko'

In 1957, when the scars of the war remained unhealed, Hwang Hye-sung compiled the records she had made and published 'Leejokungjungyoritongko'.

Leejokungjungyoritongko Inner pageKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung lost all of her research records when she evacuated during the Korean War. However, she was neither discouraged nor disheartened. After the war, she began a project of systematization to preserve and sustain royal cuisine in the national culture. Leejokungjungyoritongko was published as a result of this historical work to restore recipes, and more than 200 foods, from Surasang to janchi (feast) food, were detailed using modern metrics and cooking terms. Fourteen years of learning royal cuisine had finally come to fruition.

Josen royal cuisine re-created based on LeejokungjungyoritongkoKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Leejokungjungyoritongko has great significance in Korean food culture and history in that it revealed the secrets of royal cuisine which had been hidden deep inside the old palace.

At the time that the book came out, Korea's food culture was gradually being simplified and modernized due to rapid social change brought about by such factors as the influx of aid from the United States. In this context, Hwang Hye-sung expressed her wishes to retain Korean culture by systematically outlining royal cuisine, the very essence of traditional foods. It was also around this time when cooking began to develop into a discipline. As part of this social change, Leejokungjungyoritongko made a great contribution to the rise of cooking as a culture in itself and a field of study.
The photo shows food recreated and recorded in Leejokungjungyoritongko(2014).

Surasang for Joseon kings (2014)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Royal cuisine becomes Korean intangible cultural property

Surasang of the Joseon Dynasty (2014). The royal cuisine that Hwang Hye-sung first started recording in 1943 was designated as Korean Intangible Cultural Property No. 38 in 1971. This exhibition in 2014 was, in a sense, a return home, 70 years after Hwang first started learning about royal cuisine.

Hwang Hye-sung interviewing the last court ladies (1968)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

In 1962, the Korean government introduced a nationally designated intangible cultural property system. According to the Cultural Properties Protection Act, the government decided to preserve not only tangible heritage such as existing buildings and arts, but also intangible heritage, such as dance and music, as cultural assets. Hwang Hye-sung believed that the Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine was the essence of royal culture and Korean food culture. Thus, she began to proceed with a campaign to gain intangible cultural property designation.

Court lady Han Hee-soon, the first artisan in royal cuisineKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

However, this was not easy because of an authoritative atmosphere that saw relevant committee members looking down upon everyday culture. Many members of the Cultural Property Committee opposed designation of royal cuisine as a cultural property, saying, “What kind of cultural property is food?” and “Isn’t it true that everyone can cook?” With the help of Han Hee-soon, Hwang Hye-sung enthusiastically persuaded them by preparing a feast for the committee members. In January 1971, Han Hee-soon was finally designated as the first royal cuisine artisan, a holder of intangible cultural property.

Panorama of the Institute of Korean Royal CuisineKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Establishment of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine to carry on the essence of Korean food culture

Royal cuisine is no longer a relic of a ruined dynasty – it came back as cultural heritage of Korea! Hwang Hye-sung established the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine in 1971 to pass on, preserve, and hand down the royal cuisine that had been designated an intangible cultural property. Since this was a social responsibility, rather than personal work, the enterprise was launched as a corporation. In 1996, after a quarter of a century, the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine relocated to a small Hanok building next to Changdeokgung in Wonseo-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul. It returned to its hometown, near Naksunjae.

Opening ceremony of the Institute of Korean Royal CuisineKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

The opening ceremony for the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine brought joy and excitement to both Han Hee-soon, the first royal cuisine artisan and a holder of intangible cultural property, and Hwang Hye-sung, who served under her for 30 years and breathed life into royal cuisine, the essence of Korean food culture. The first location of the institute was a small place in a shopping mall that was built near Dongdaemun.

Leaflet of the first Royal Cuisine Presentation (May, 1971)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

The first Royal Cuisine Presentation was held in December of the first year of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine’s opening. Hwang Hye-sung began by saying, “Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine is a unique Korean art.” She has always said that food culture is the very beginning of all cultures, and is a unique art imbued with the spirit of the people.

The theme of the first presentation was the traditional luncheon, Natgeotsang, which is a recreation of the meal of the King. Visitors could not help but admire the sweet and elegant table setting of a luncheon with 16 kinds of food including white rice, red bean rice, pine nut porridge, steamed blowfish, and three kinds of kimchi, and a dessert with duteoptteok (sweet rice cake with fillings), Gaksaekdanja (assorted round shaped rice cakes), citron punch, and yakju (refined rice wine). The Royal Cuisine Presentation, which serves to restore and reproduce royal cuisine as recorded in documents and tradition, continues to this day.

Certificate of Korean intangible cultural propertyKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

In 1972, Han Hee-soon passed away and a year later Hwang Hye-sung carried on her work to promote royal cuisine as the second artisan. It has been 30 years since the 23-year-old girl who was then a professor in Sookmyung Vocational School visited Naksunjae to learn the origins of Korean food.

Hwang Hye-sung as a university professor (1960s)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung worked tirelessly at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine. She was busy with work such as royal cuisine training, regular related presentations, publication of cookbooks, and research into associated literature. Based on this literature research, she did her best to pass on and develop royal cuisine and Korean food cultural traditions, from how to write a Champumdanja(menu) to the actual making of food.

Hwang Hye-sung teaching the making of Surasang (1971)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung worked around the clock. During the day, she taught at the university, and in the evening, she devoted all her energy to passing on the skills of this intangible cultural property at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine. On the weekends, she went through ancient documents and visited elder citizens to try to identify the very essence of royal cuisine and noble family food.

Hwang Hye-sung as a university professor (1960s)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung restoring the tradition of royal cuisine by applying modern metrics in a lab coat at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine. She also took charge of field work, event planning and operation in order to promote royal cuisine.

Hwang Hye-sung giving a lecture on royal cuisineKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung was eager to introduce Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine, the peak and art of Korean food culture, to the world. Having lived through the painful days of colonial Joseon, she took the lead in promoting Korean food culture to Japanese society using her fluent Japanese that she learned while studying in Japan. In addition, she traveled to various countries, such as the United States and in Europe, to spread awareness of Korean food culture, and to tell people who knew little about Korea of the elegance of its culture through the demonstration of royal cuisine.

The Korean Cooking Encyclopedia CoverKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Although she was busy teaching and promoting royal cuisine, Hwang Hye-sung published dozens of books. In 1976, she published the Korean Cooking Encyclopedia, which covers recipes and nutritional content of royal cuisine, local food, and ancient cookbooks as well as Korean food history.

Handwritten notebook by Hwang Hye-sung on royal table setting (1985)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Gyujanggak and Jangseogak, the royal libraries of the Joseon Dynasty, were the treasure houses for Hwang Hye-sung. As a professor at Sungkyunkwan University, she said that she visited Jangseogak more frequently than she did her home. When she discovered Champumdanja, which was set up for royal events, and Chinch'an Uigwe, which recorded the specifics of royal parties on dusty scrolls that nobody paid attention to, she said that she felt a sense of fear after immense joy, due to the sheer scale of Joseon royal cuisine.

It was here that Memory of the World Wonhaeng Eulmyojeongri Eugye, a record of Jeongjo’s visit in 1795 with his mother Crown Princess Hong to his father's cemetery, Suwon Hyeonnung-won, was also found. The contents of these ancient documents were organized into Korean to record an aspect of culture that had almost disappeared. In the days when there were no computers, Hwang wrote these contents by hand, and this notebook is a cultural asset in itself.

Re-created table spread for the 60th birthday of Crown Princess Hong recorded in Memory of the World Wonhaeng Eulmyojeongri Eugye (1795) (2017)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung recreated not only everyday cultural elements such as the bowls and tables used in royal cuisine, but also the table-settings and arrangements, by means of the study of ancient documents in Jangseogak. This became the starting point for restoring royal culture in general.

Hwang Hye-sung in front of the present Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine (Early 1980s)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

The Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine moved to a Hanok building in Wonseo-dong, Jongno-gu, next to Changdeokgung in 1996, which marked the 25th anniversary of its founding. Hwang Hye-sung was deeply moved, as the new location was close to Naksunjae, where she first learned of royal cuisine, and Andong Byeolgung, a place of residence of Han Hee-soon. She enjoyed her years there as an educator, researcher, and writer while actively continuing with such work as holding royal cuisine-related training and exhibitions.

Hwang Hye-sung and her eldest daughter, Han Bok-ryeo, tasting the sauceKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung and after... 

“The most rewarding part of being a human being is traiingn others.”Hwang Hye-sung, a professor at Sookmyung Women's Vocational School, Hanyang University, and Sungkyunkwan University, taught numerous students at university and at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine. Just like her own teacher, Han Hee-soon, she did not overlook even a single taste of soy sauce. Her students at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine continue to maintain her spirit under the titles of the Institution of Korean Royal Cuisine, Jimijae, and Sugangjae.

Hwang Hye-sung and her three daughters (2001)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung, who greatly enjoyed cooking and teaching even after the age of 70, passed away in 2006. Now, Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine, Intangible Cultural Property No. 38, which was passed down from court lady Han Hee-soon to Hwang Hye-sung, has in turn been handed down to Hwang Hye-sung’s daughters. Han Bok-ryeo (1947- ), her eldest daughter, succeeded in becoming royal cuisine artisan as a holder of intangible cultural property, and Bok-seon and Bok-jin, her second and third daughters, work alongside Bok-ryeo as initiates.

Hwang Hye-sung (2002)Korean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

Hwang Hye-sung studied all the time. No matter the time or place, she opened her notebook and wrote in it. She once lost the notebook containing her lifelong work on royal cuisine that she recorded during her frequent visits to Naksunjae after 1943, as she left it in the house in Donam-dong when evacuating during the Korean War. Since then, however, her research notebook never left her sight.

She was a scholar who gained knowledge directly from the field. For 10 years from 1968, she went around the country from Gangwon-do, where there was no electricity, to numerous jonggajip (home of the eldest son), and an island village in the South Sea, where she had to travel 6 hours by boat for her research on local food. More than 50 books were published as a result of her 70 years of research, including Korean Traditional Food, Joseon Dynasty Royal Cuisine, and Review of Food Research.

Hwang Hye-sung making royal hot potKorean Royal Culture Cuisine Foundation

“Record everything you see with your eyes and hear with your ears, and keep going with persistence.”

“Food is respect for life.”

Hwang Hye-sung. The royal culture of the Joseon dynasty, which had once disappeared from the face of the earth, came back to life with her touch. Royal cuisine has now become Korea's great living cultural heritage for the future.

Credits: Story

Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine

Director: Han Bok-ryo
Writer: Sunny Park
Curator: Lee So-young
Photographer: Min Hui-gi, Seo Heon-kang, Im Jun-bin, Choi Dong-hyuk, Choi Min-ho, Choi Soo-yeon 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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