Recording the Brief History of the Korean Empire

The Korean Empire was proclaimed in 1897 and survived until 1910. The coronation of King Gojong as Emperor Gwangmu in 1897 was followed by a dramatic reform plan for a series of events designed to raise the profile of the Korean Empire among the international community.

Korean Pavilion in the Paris (1900)National Palace Museum of Korea

King Gojong renamed Joseon the Korean Empire literally, the Great Han Empire daehanjeguk in 1897. Gojong declared himself emperor with his reign name “Gwangmu”.

After declaring the Korean Empire, Korea built its own exhibition hall in the 1900 Paris Exposition and dispatched a large delegation to activate relations with the foreign countries.

Map of the Paris Exposition (1900)National Palace Museum of Korea

The Korean Pavilion is shown in section C2 of a map printed in the guide book, The Paris Exposition. Korea built the first independent pavilion in this exposition, using it as an opportunity to widely publicize the Korean Empire’s resources and industries.

Passport Issued by the Korean Empire (1904)National Palace Museum of Korea

The passports issued to the official ministers and merchant during Korean Empire time show the emergence of the Korean Empire on the world stage.

Korea and Her Neighbors By Issbella Bird Bishop (1898)National Palace Museum of Korea

Emperor Gojong made efforts to apply the successful case studies of the West to Korea’s development.

British geographer and writer Isabella Bird Bishop (1831~1904) recorded the politics, society, culture, and customs of Korea by take a written Korea and Her Neighbors. Bishop visited Korea four times from 1894 to 1897, conducting field studies over a span of 11 months.

Undiplomatic Memories (1930)National Palace Museum of Korea

Many Westerners participate in the Joseon court as advisors, missionaries, and as a formal delegation after Korea’s opening to the West in the 1880’s. Much information is recorded about this time. Undiplomatic Memories by the U.S. diplomat William F. Sands record in detail experiences in Korea.

Official Regulations of the Offices under the Department of the Royal Household (1906)National Palace Museum of Korea

As decreed in the Reforms of 1894 Gabo Gaehyeok , the palace apparatus was detached from the government body and the matters related to the palace and the royal family taken over by the Department of the Royal Household[Gungnaebu].

These books record the history and administrative rules pertinent to the Council of the Royal Household[Gungnaebu] which was in charge of various administrative affairs within the court. The restructuring of the administrative system in 1894 placed all court affairs under the Council of the Royal Household, separating them from state affairs.

Injeongjeon Hall in Changdeokgung Place with Electricity (1911)National Palace Museum of Korea

Photo illustrating Injeongjeon Hall in Changdeokgung Palace in Japan’s Joseon (1911). After introducing electricity to Gyeongbokgung Palace in 1887, Changdeokgung Palace was also equipped with it in 1894.

Official Seal of the Director of the Northwest Railway Bureau Official Seal of the Director of the Northwest Railway Bureau (1902)National Palace Museum of Korea

The increased interest in modern transportation systems also led to the establishment of the Railway Bureau which oversaw the building and management of railroads. The regulations and norms of the railway system were made to international standards.

Seal used by the director of the Northwest Railway Bureau (1900~1904) that was established within the Council of the Royal Household in 1899. Its mission was to construct railroads with independent Korean resources, amidst foreign competition for its undertaking.

Map of Postal, Telecommunication, and Traffic Networks (Around 1905)National Palace Museum of Korea

The 38 postal stations and 341 temporary stations were established nationwide by 1900.

This map demonstrates the tangible outcomes of the modernization policies fervently carried out by the Korean Empire around 1905. The map indicates the locations of early post offices and telegram offices, permanent and temporary telecommunication networks, clearing houses and so forth in the Korean Empire. It also illustrates the network of railways, telegram lines, telephone lines, and waterways.

Negative Plate of Korea's First Paper Money (1892)National Palace Museum of Korea

Monetary reforms were also implemented in 1883 to facilitate trade with foreign nations. New currency regulations put the country on the silver standard and with subsidies from Japan, a Mint Bureau moved to Incheon in 1892. Exchange bureaus were also established so that old coins could be exchanged for new ones.

Produced at the Monetary Exchange Office following King Gojong’s ordinance for a modern monetary system in 1891 this negative plate was never issued due to administrative difficulties.

Royal Protocol for the Declaration Ceremony of the Korean Empire (1897)National Palace Museum of Korea

In February 1897 when King Gojong returned to Gyeongungung Palace, he renamed Joseon the Korean Empire and chose as his reign name “Gwangmu” On October 12, he held a coronation ceremony as emperor at Hwangudan and declared this in a proclamation the following day, officially opening the era of the Korean Empire. This Royal Protocol records the various ceremonies and productions related to the declaration of the Korean Empire.

The coronation ceremony of the emperor, the investiture of the empress and the imperial crown prince, and the productions of various ceremonial accoutrements, books, and seal are recorded together with a processional chart.

Gold Seal of Empress Myeongseong, the Consort of Emperor Gojong (The first year ofGwangmu)National Palace Museum of Korea

The seal and gold investiture book were produced for the posthumous entitlement of Empress Consort Myeongseong (1851~1895) after the declaration of the Korean Empire. A dragon-shaped handle of the seal replaced the previous tortoise design to distinguish the altered status.

Gold Investiture Book of Empress Myeongseong, the Consort of Emperor Gojong (1897)National Palace Museum of Korea

The declaration of imperial status changed the material of her investiture book from jade to gold-plated metal. The seal and book were enshrined in Gyeonghyojeon Hall and then moved to Jongmyo Ancestral Shrine in 1921.

Gold Seal of the Consort of Crown Prince, Later Emperor Sunjong (The first year of Gwangmu)National Palace Museum of Korea

This seal was produced for the investiture of Imperial Princess Min (later Empress Sunmyeong) with the declaration of the Korean Empire. The surface of the seal reads “hwangtaejabi jibo”. At the time of her death in 1904, the seal was enshrined in Uihyojeon Hall and then moved to Jongmyo Ancestral Shrine 1928.

Seal of Posthumous Entitlements of Emperor for Kings Jangjo, Jeangjo, Sunjo, and Munjo (1899)National Palace Museum of Korea

Just as the four ascendants of King Taejo were honored when he founded the Joseon dynasty, Emperor Gojong’s four ascendants, namely Kings Jangjo, Jeongjo, Sunjo, and Munjo were duly recognized by the production of imperial seals. Made of jade, the handles are shaped like a dragon.

Official Seal of the Council for Imperial Prince Yeong Official Seal of the Council for Imperial Prince Yeong (Around 1900)National Palace Museum of Korea

Seal of the Office of Imperial Prince Yeong (1900)National Palace Museum of Korea

The titles of his two sons “Gang” and “Eun” were also elevated into “Imperial Prince Ui 1877~1955” and “Imperial Prince Yeong 1897~1970” as a way to confer the court with the proper language fit for an empire.

Official seal used by the Office of Imperial Prince Yeong that was created within the Council of the Royal Household in 1900.

Scenes of Gyeongungung Palace and Hwangudan Altar (1919)National Palace Museum of Korea

Gyeongungung Palace became the official main palace for the newly founded empire, where plans for an independent and modern nation were formulated. The palace had the geographical advantage of being surrounded by the British, German, American, and Russian embassies that could shield it from Japanese intrusion in times of emergency. Emperor Gojong launched a major reconstruction project of the palace buildings in order to convert it into the central palace of the new empire. He demolished the previous guest house for the Chinese envoys Nambyeolgung in a symbolic gesture to abolish Korea’s vassal stature vis-a-vis China, and building on its grounds Hwangudan where the foundation of the new empire was declared in 1897.

Gyeongungung Palace.

Hwanggungu Pavilion.

Hwangudan Altar.

Royal Protocols for the State Funeral of Empress Consort Myeongseong (1898)National Palace Museum of Korea

The funeral for the assassinated Queen Consort Myeongseong in 1895 was put on hold for several years by King Gojong who did not want it to be organized by the pro-Japanese internal government. With the declaration of the Korean Empire, he elevated her to ‘empress’ and held a state funeral, the preparations for which were recorded in these royal protocols produced in 1898.

Commemorative Medal of Emperor Gojong's Forty-year Rule (1902)National Palace Museum of Korea

After the declaration of the Korean Empire, Emperor Gojong sought to realize a self-reliant, prosperous nation through various reforms, adoption of modern technology, and diversification of its diplomatic relations. As a monarch of a traditional culture, he believed in the symbolic power of his position in the public mind, and held a magnificent ceremony on the 40th anniversary of his reign to widely proclaim the imperial dignity. As he turned 51 years old that year, he also held a banquet in the Elders Office and ordered a portrait of himself to be painted.

The medal commemorates Emperor Gojong’s 40-year rule and his turning 51-years-old. The front shows an engraving of the Yeongsugak Pavilion of the House of Elders and the back is engraved with commemorative writings and the imperial crown.

Emperor Gojong and Imperial Crown Prince in Military Attire (1900)National Palace Museum of Korea

At the time of the foundation of the Korean Empire, Korea was experiencing an influx of Western culture and customs by the way of foreign consulates, churches, and schools in Seoul. Western-style army uniforms were introduced in the Reforms of 1895 Eulmi Gaehyeok, and in 1900, civil officials were also ordered to dress in Western clothing.

Emperor Gojong and the Imperial Crown Prince(later Emperor Sunjong) are standing in military attire in front of a brick building. This photo illustrated in Corea e Coreani was authored by Carlo Rossetti.

Military Attire of Imperial Prince Yeong (1900)National Palace Museum of Korea

These official uniforms divided largely into daily apparel and ceremonial attire, the rank distinguished by the number and type of decorations.

The military attire worn by Imperial Prince Yeong (1897~1970) at the age of 3~4 years, circa 1900, takes the form of an executive officer’s ceremonial uniform.

Royal Vehicle of Emperor Sunjong (Early 20th century)National Palace Museum of Korea

The automobiles that became the trendy commodity of the high class in the West and Japan began to be used by the imperial family as well. Two automobiles used by the imperial family in the 1910's survive today, an American General Motors and a British Daimler.

Royal Vehicle of Empress Sunjeong (Early 20th century)National Palace Museum of Korea

The body of both cars are varnished with lacquer on wood and decorated with golden plum flower designs that distinguished them as possessions of the imperial family. These cars are rare examples of the kind; there are only three surviving in the world making them valuable materials in the history of automobiles.

Photograph Related to Imperial Prince Yeong and His Consort (1920년)National Palace Museum of Korea

The single members of the royal family were forcefully married to the Japanese nobility. The last Korean Imperial Crown Prince Yi Eun Yeongchinwang, for example, was sent to study in Japan at the age of 12 and later arranged to marry the daughter of Nashimoto Masako later Yi Bangja.

Credits: Story


Su-hee Park.

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