There are many figures of animals in the palaces of the Joseon Dynasty. Each of the animals have their own special personality and symbolic meaning, and what they represent can be largely divided into five categories: the king’s authority and dignity, auspicious signs, the law and justice, lucky symbols and protection from evil spirits, and the universe.
The King’s authority and dignity
The dragon is a major symbol of the king’s authority and dignity. Dragons have been part of Eastern mythology since ancient times. Along with the phoenix, the qilin, and the turtle, the dragon is one of the four mythical guardian spirits. Dragon decorations are found in many places in the palace grounds, but you can see particularly grand depictions of dragons on the ceilings of Geunjeongjeon and Junghwajeon halls, which are the main audience halls (jeongjeon) of Gyeongbokgung Palace and Deoksugung Palace respectively. There they are shown as two yellow dragons flying in the sky.
In Far Eastern tradition, in addition to north, south, east, and west, the center is also regarded as a direction, and yellow is the color that is associated with the center. A dragon flying up into the sky symbolizes the ideal that a sage man will ascend to the throne. This comes from the lines explaining the first hexagram in the Book of Changes, in which a dragon that had been hidden in the waters rises and flies up to Heaven. So it’s fitting that yellow dragons are depicted on both the ceiling and the canopy over the king’s throne, because from his central position, he rules over all the world around him with authority and dignity.
It is said when the country enjoys stability and peace because it is ruled by a man who is both sage and wise, Heaven is said to praise him by presenting astronomical phenomena or by causing divine plants and animals to appear. Such occurrences are regarded as auspicious signs. Such signs are ranked in five levels. At the top is the phoenix, which with the dragon, the turtle, and the qilin, is one of the four guardian spirits. The fabled phoenix doesn’t eat common grain, such as millet, but dines on the very rare bamboo fruit, and it builds its nest in a royal foxglove tree, also known as an empress tree.
The ceilings of Injeongjeon Hall, in Changdeokgung Palace, and Myeongjeongjeon Hall, in Changgyeonggung Palace, are decorated with wonderful depictions of the phoenix. A pair of phoenixes are shown flying between five-colored clouds with a wish-fulfilling gem, called a cintamani, in the middle. In addition to those decorations, you will also see phoenix sculptures on the dapdo (a stairway stone to honor divinities) stone stairways leading to the main audience halls of Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, and Changgyeonggun Palace and on the wall behind the wooden porch of Jibokjae Hall, the royal library in Gyeongbokgung Palace. Such decorations symbolize the king’s great virtue and deep wisdom with which he reigns over an age of peace and stability.
The law and justice
On high pedestals at each side of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace, sit statues of haechi facing south. The statues were made for the restoration of Gyeongbokgung Palace carried out by Prince Regent Heungseon, King Gojong’s father and regent near the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Haechi are mythical lionlike one-horned beasts with outstanding powers of judgment and foresight, enabling them to know a person’s true character immediately just by observing a few words and deeds. If a haechi sees two people arguing, it can tell right away who is right and who is wrong and will punish the person in the wrong by butting him with its horn. The haechi at Gwanghwamun Gate represent the Joseon rulers’ political and philosophical ideals of protecting the nation’s dignity by applying the laws strictly and justly and providing peace and stability to all the people without allowing bias or personal feelings to influence decisions.
Lucky symbols and protection from evil spirits
Many of the animal figures seen at the palaces are lucky symbols signifying long life, peace and well-being, and happiness. These include the qilin, elephants, deer, and cranes engraved on the chimneys of Changdeokgung Palace’s Huijeongdang and Daejojeon halls and Gyeongbokgung Palace’s Gyotaejeon Hall. Another lucky animal figure is the bat, shown in relief on palace gates and roof tiles. There are also animal figures that are supposed to drive away evil spirits and prevent misfortune. Among these are the cheollok seen around the Yeongjegyo Bridge in Gyeongbokgung Palace, the lion figure and demon face at the Okcheongyo Bridge in Changdeokgung Palace, and the dragon heads and other japsang (miscellaneous figurines) that line ridges of the roofs of important buildings.
Note that the role of dragon heads on roofs is to protect the building rather than to symbolize the king’s authority and dignity like the dragons seen on ceilings. The japsang figures that line the roof ridges depict characters from the Chinese Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, such as Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie, and they too play a protective role. There are also a lot of other figures on the stairways of the palaces that are said to assure peace and happiness, but the origin of many of these is unclear.
The universe is a fusion of time and space. The changes of the seasons are an example of the concept of time, while the earth and sky and the four directions fit into the concept of space. The concepts of both time and space are represented in Far Eastern tradition by a series of symbols we call the Twelve Earthly Branches, each of which has an animal associated with it. The statues of a rat, a rabbit, a snake, a horse, a sheep, and so on that you see on the banisters of Woldae at Geunjeongjeon Hall in Gyeongbokgung Palace are symbols associated with the universe. On the other hand, the figures of four other animals, which are associated with the concept of space, are on guard, facing the cardinal directions of Woldae: the Azure Dragon at the east, the White Tiger at the west, the Vermilion Bird at the south, and the Black Tortoise at the north.
This means that on Geunjeongjeon Hall’s Woldae we see a model of the universe, with the world of time and space spread out before us in the form of the animals of the Twelve Earthly Branches and the world of space in the form of the animals that represent the guardian spirits of the cardinal directions. Having a representation of the universe and the Way of Nature laid out like this around the royal audience hall is an expression of the spirit of unity between humankind and Heaven.
By paying attention to the animal figures you discover as you stroll around the Joseon palaces, you can get a sense of the way the Joseon leaders ruled as well as for the ideals and philosophy that guided them.